The return to Iraq on Wednesday of Moqtada al-Sadr is being described by some as a surprise. It shouldn't have been. The young cleric had already shown enough of a taste for rough-and-tumble competition for power to make it unrealistic to think he would spend the next few years in Qom, hitting the books to be an ayatollah, much less that over the longer term he would lead a contemplative life. He is leader of a major faction of Iraq. His physical return to Iraq was a shoe waiting to drop as the post-occupation Iraqi political order takes shape.
Sadr's move and the deal-making among Shia factions that is related to it underscore the sharpness of the sectarian divide in Iraq, notwithstanding earlier encouraging signs of cross-sect political activity. The chief manifestation of such activity, Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, was outmaneuvered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has cut his most important deals with other Shiites, and especially with the Sadrists. What passes for democracy in Iraq doesn't go much beyond a simple concept of majority rule. Shiites are in the majority, and they are ruling. Having made a bargain with Maliki, notwithstanding earlier bloody confrontation between the two, Moqtada al-Sadr is a major part of that system.
Sadr's return also underscores how far away in other respects Iraq still is from anything a westerner would recognize as a stable democracy. Given the responsibility of the Sadrists for much of the sectarian bloodshed of Iraq's very recent past, the fact that their leader is back in place as an accepted political player in Iraq rather than being consigned to ignominy and exile is itself a major statement in that regard. Iraq is still a violent place, in the sense not only of daily incidents but also of how close beneath the surface of political life is the possibility and the inclination to resort to bigger bloodshed.
One other reality about Iraq that Sadr's return highlights is that Iran's influence is up and the United States's is down. Sadr cut his teeth, of course, on his choleric and violent brand of anti-Americanism. And Iran has been the principal outside broker in getting Shia factions, and especially Maliki and Sadr, to come to terms with each other.
Iraqi Sunnis are not happy, understandably, about Sadr being back in Iraq. A shopkeeper from a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad is quoted in the New York Times story on Sadr's return as predicting that Iraqi life “will be disrupted” again and that “the militias will return and dominate.” For the near term a full-scale civil war probably will not break out, and one would not be in the prime minister's interest. Over the longer term, Moqtada al-Sadr represents perhaps the most formidable challenger to strongman-in-the-making Maliki. Sadr leads a political-military organization that might acquire more of the trappings of Lebanese Hizballah. Sadr himself probably will do more of the study necessary to make ayatollah (which he can do in Najaf, in Iraq, and not just in Iran), and the religious credential will add to his clout.
This whole discouraging state of affairs is a demonstration and a reminder of what should have been unsurprising to anyone who, before the Iraq War was launched in 2003, had looked beyond the Ba'athist dictator and examined more closely the political and social fabric of Iraq. But in pursuing the neoconservative project of trying to inject democracy through the barrel of a gun, and in fervently selling the war with scary scenes of what dictators supposedly allied to terrorists could do, the makers of the war never bothered to conduct that examination.