Men walk past a giant portrait of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (C) displayed on February 17, 2014 in the capital Baghdad
Men walk past a giant portrait of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (C) displayed on February 17, 2014 in the capital Baghdad. Sadr, who has bowed out of Iraqi politics, was a fierce critic of the US-led invasion. © Ali Al-Saadi - AFP
Men walk past a giant portrait of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (C) displayed on February 17, 2014 in the capital Baghdad
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W.G. Dunlop, AFP
Last updated: February 17, 2014

Sadr's political exit may be "gift" to Iraqi rivals

Powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's announced exit from politics two months before elections may be a "gift" to rivals but could also be another temporary withdrawal, experts say.

Sadr's political career began with his fierce opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, and has spanned more than a decade.

His rise, aided by the reputations of two famed relatives -- including his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr -- who were killed during Saddam Hussein's rule, eventually translated into political clout.

At the time of his weekend announcement, Sadr's movement held six cabinet posts, the deputy speakership of parliament and 40 seats in the legislature.

"I announce my non-intervention in all political affairs and that there is no bloc that represents us from now on, nor any position inside or outside the government nor parliament," Sadr said in a statement.

His exit so close to parliamentary elections in April may "benefit other (Shiite) parties," said Aziz Jabr, a political science professor at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University.

One of the main beneficiaries could be Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite whom Sadr has criticised as a "dictator," he said.

Maliki "got rid of him without making a major effort, and it is like a gift," said Jabr.

Kirk Sowell an Amman-based political risk analyst and the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, said that if Sadr's bloc loses votes in April, they may go to the Shiite Fadhila party and Maliki.

"Almost all of Sadr's gain in 2010 came at Fadhila's expense. Maliki could also benefit since their bases overlap quite a bit," Sowell said.

Sadr was the commander of the Mahdi Army, a widely-feared militia that battled US forces and played a key role in the brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in which thousands of people were killed.

He later suspended the militia's activities.

In recent years, his focus has increasingly shifted to religious studies in both Iran and Iraq that have taken him out of the country for extended periods of time.

Some commentators said there were potential downsides to his exit for Iraq, including political writer Sarmad al-Taie, who said the cleric has become a "supporter of the path of political reform, and worked to reduce sectarian tensions."

- Possibility of return -

It was not immediately clear whether Sadr's withdrawal was temporary or permanent, and he has left politics previously only to resurface later on.

Sadrist officials were unable to offer explanations for what they said was a surprise announcement, that has left some wondering if Sadr will still make a political comeback.

Sadr "usually backs out of the political limelight when he is physically threatened" or "when the Sadrist movement has to do something politically expedient that Sadr wants to disassociate from," said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Of Sadr's possible return, Knights said: "Nothing is permanent in Iraq except death."

But Sadr's decision to quit politics this time has a more final air than past announcements.

"He had a period when he was in Iran unofficially out of politics a few years ago, then last fall he had his 'self-isolation' from politics that lasted just a few weeks," Sowell said.

"All these actions have been aimed at trying to give himself a greater degree of religious authority," he said.

But Sadrist MPs announcing their resignations "makes this appear more serious" than past departures, said Sowell.

Sadr has also ordered the closure of his movement's political offices but said that others related to social welfare, media and education will remain open.

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