Where is Moqtada al-Sadr?

On March 3 a Kuwaiti news article translated by MEMRI claimed that the notorious Iraqi militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr was in an Iranian hospital, comatose from "food poisoning."

The rumor capped one of the most bizarre political absences in recent recent Iraq history. Sadr was a powerful politician who led the Madhi Army militia in Iraq. His forces had fought the U.S. Marines in Najaf; challenged the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for the leadership of Shi'ism in Iraq; built extensive alliances with the Ayatollahs in Teheran and aspired to create a force the equal of Lebanon's Hezbollah. The Nation's Naomi Klein even called him "the single greatest threat to U.S. military and economic control of Iraq."

Suddenly, having declared a ceasefire with U.S. forces in Iraq, Sadr vanished from the scene, having left for Iran. His ostensible purpose: to study theology. Amir Taheri described the life of what was certainly Qom's most unusual theological student in early February, 2008.

As the "student" arrives in a bulletproof limousine with heavily armed guards, his teachers, ignoring that he's two hours late, greet him deferentially.

The scene takes place at the Shiite seminary in Qom, Iran's holy city. The 35-year-old "student": Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, a militia often deemed one of Iran's chief assets in Iraq.

Sadr has spent much of the last 10 months in Iran, living in a 14-bedroom villa in Tehran's posh Farmanieh neighborhood. From there, he travels 90 minutes to Qom twice a week, for a crash course designed to transform him first into a Hojat al-Islam (Proof of Islam) and then a full-fledged ayatollah (Sign of God).

The object of Sadr's sanctification was to upgrade him from a militia leader into a respectable political figure, something Taheri calls the "Iranian project." In order to do that, Sadr needed to burnish the theological and intellectual credentials he sorely lacks until he is ready to mount a challenge for the moral paramountcy of Shiism in Iraq.

To win control of Iraq after the Americans leave, Iran needs to control Najaf. But none of the senior clerics there now is prepared to accept the authority of Iranian "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei (himself the product of a similar political project for manufacturing an ayatollah). So Muqtada's makeover is of vital importance to Iran's strategy in Iraq.

Following reports he was in a coma, on March 8 Sadr issued a written statement confirming that he was suffering from physical weakness and undergoing a period of meditation and study. Liz Sly of the Chicago Tribune reported:

In a written response to a query from a group of followers asking why he hadn't been seen in public for so long, Sadr said he had decided to devote himself to a period of study, reflection and prayer after failing in his core mission to rid Iraq of the U.S. occupation or to turn it into an Islamic society.

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"So far I did not succeed either to liberate Iraq or make it an Islamic society -- whether because of my own inability or the inability of society, only God knows. The continued presence of the occupiers, on the one hand, and the disobedience of many on the other, pushed me to isolate myself in protest. I gave society a big proportion of my life. Even my body became weaker, I got more sicknesses."

Sadr's chief spokesman, Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, disputed suggestions that the letter's doleful tone suggested Sadr is contemplating a prolonged absence from politics. "He remains actively involved in the political field and will return when the time is right," al-Obeidi said, citing the fact that most members of the Mahdi Army have obeyed the cease-fire order as evidence that Sadr commands their loyalty.

It was as near as he could go to throwing in the towel while still remaining an active political figure. As if to underscore the extent of Sadr's self-confessed failure, negotiations for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq began even as he sadly told his followers: "many persons who are close to me have split for materialistic reasons or for wanting to be independent, and this was one of the reasons behind my absence. Yet I still have many people loyal and faithful to me and I advise them to direct society toward education and teaching."

Sadr's admission was devastating to analysts who claimed Sadr's ceasefire was really responsible for the decline in violence accompanying the Surge. As late as February 22 2008, the Huffington Post rejoiced that Moqtada al Sadr would extend the ceasefire "responsible for Surge success." At the about the same time Bill Roggio noted that Sadr really had little choice but to extend the ceasefire between the Mahdi Army and Coalition Forces in order to conceal the extent of his weakness. Under the pressure of the Surge, many of Sadr's political allies were clamoring to rejoin the government, while the remnants of his militia were being cannibalized by more aggressive commanders and the Iranian Qods.

At the same time, the Iraqi military began targeting Mahdi Army in the southern cities of Samawah, Al Kut, Diwaniyah, and Basrah. ... The U.S. and Iraqi security forces have demonstrated a willingness to strike at Sadr's Mahdi Army, even in his purported stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad.

In addition, Sadrist Movement politicians have been renegotiating a return to Maliki's government ... and Sadrist legislators had been lobbying for recently passed legislation that hastens provincial elections, believing they can challenge their Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rivals in southern Iraq through democratic means. Both of these political developments contradict and would be imperiled by any return to hostilities.

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Iran has co-opted elements of the Mahdi Army to form the Special Groups.

The blog Backtalk suggests from casualty analysis that Sadr's fortunes plummeted rapidly with the success of the Surge because the Mahdi Army's popularity among Shi'ites rested largely upon its perceived ability to fight Sunni-affiliated terror squads.

But when the Sunni Awakening turned against al-Qaeda that function was successfully taken over by Coalition forces -- and Sadr lost his major selling point.

With Sadr marginalized for the present in Iraq, his best bet may be to wait out events in Qom, in the hopes of returning untainted in four or five years carrying out "the Iranian project." But as Taheri points out, "that plan faces other problems," not the least of which is the danger Sadr would be eclipsed by other leaders in the meantime and the difficulty of keeping his men in payroll from exile.

Muqtada faces a tough choice. Should he continue with the Iranian project, in hopes of winning big in four or five years -- at the risk that others will fill the vacuum in his absence? Or interrupt the Iranian project and return to Iraq to reactivate his armed gangs -- possibly exposing himself to the Americans' full fire -- which, with Sunni pressure almost gone, could crush him?

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But does Sadr even have the freedom to decide his future? He might be a virtual prisoner, along with his new Persian bride, in that villa facing the snow-capped Towchall mountains.

He may very well be planning yet another surprise return to his political base in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr may be down for the present, but it is all not at all clear that he's out.

Richard Fernandez writes at the Belmont Club.