The power of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, long a thorn in the side of the U.S. military in Iraq, has been largely neutralized as a result of targeted American and Iraqi offensives, according to a recent report by Marisa Cochrane, acting historian for U.S. forces in Baghdad and a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. From Jan. 2007 to mid-2008, U.S. and Iraqi offensives successfully targeted Sadr's violent militia in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and also empowered political rivals to isolate the Sadrist movement, according to Cochrane. The militia, known as the Mahdi Army, reached the height of its strength in 2006, but as it grew, smaller, more local branches of the movement were increasingly self-financed through criminal rings and extortion networks, which turned locals against them.
Cochrane believes that Sadr's influence in the upcoming provincial elections in Iraq, being closely watched by U.S. officials, will be minimal. Sadr is currently said to be undertaking religious studies in Iran. "So, his direct role in running the organization is diminished," says Cochrane.
What's more, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been courting Sadr's traditional tribal constituency in the south of Iraq. The reputation of the Sadrists is also diminished, says Cochrane, and therefore Sadrists are not running as a block in the elections. "What they're emphasizing now is a number of statements supporting technocratic, non-sectarian candidates who will do what is best for Iraq—those that are sympathetic to Sadrists but running independent of the movement," she adds. "I don't think the Sadrists will be able to regain the stature they had alone."
She adds that if Sadr returns to Iraq, "It will be a sign the Iranians want him back in Iraq."
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