BAGHDAD — Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's return to Iraq has sharply divided opinion in Baghdad, with some residents saying it will bring increased stability, and others predicting conflict and violence.
The fiery, controversial cleric gained wide popularity among Shiites in the months after the 2003 US-led invasion, and his Mahdi Army militia later battled American and Iraqi government forces in several bloody confrontations.
But in August 2008, Sadr suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, in the wake of major US and Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq in the spring.
According to a source in his movement, Sadr left Iraq at the end of 2006. He has reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom, but returned to his home city of Najaf on Wednesday.
"I think that with his return, there will be more security and the situation will get better, because people here respect him and his presence," said Umm Salah, a 50-year-old woman who sells vegetables in Karrada in central Baghdad.
Abu Zahra, 42, who spoke to AFP in a shop in Karrada, agreed.
"God willing, his return will be a good beginning for stability and peace," he said. "He is able to control his followers and his words are respected."
Abu Ahmed, 42, who works as a street vendor in Karrada, also said Sadr's return would contribute to stability in the country.
Sadr's return "will be positive because it will help to bring back stability and security, because there will be more agreement between the Sadrists" and other factions, he said.
"I'm very happy today for his return," said Amr Zayed, 38, a resident of one of the cleric's strongholds, Sadr City, which is named after Sadr's father, a revered cleric who was killed by gunmen in 1999.
"I think the situation will be stable after that, and will be much better than before, because even the Sadrist group will calm down and will not dare to participate in any violence," Zayed said.
However, other Baghdad residents said they were staunchly against the cleric's return, and thought it would bring increased violence.
"I am against his return and I am against the government in general -- all of them, including Moqtada al-Sadr are stealing the country," said Khaled Abdul Rizak, 22, who lives in Al-Ghadir in central Baghdad.
Sadr "says to his people 'leave the weapons, leave violence,' while in reality he supports using weapons and violence," Rizak said.
Zakareya Yahya, a 25-year-old from Zayuna, another central Baghdad area, accused Sadr of sectarianism and said his return would mean more violence.
"His presence will increase the violence. As long as there is sectarianism, there will be violence," he said.
"Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers are trying to attract as many people as they can because they want to control the country."
But Yahya added that he would rather discuss other subjects.
"It is better to ask me about Elissa or Kathem al-Saher," he said, referring to two popular singers.
Raad Issam, a 20-year-old student, said he feared a resurgence of Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"I believe that with his return, the security situation will get worse, because the Mahdi Army will be reactivated and provided with guns," he said.
Another student, Issam's friend Ali Ahmed, 22, was ambivalent.
Sadr's "return will have a positive impact because he is a religious man, and we need religious men. But it will have a negative impact on the political process, because he is not a politician," he said.
Sadr's bloc has six cabinet posts, 39 seats in Iraq's parliament, and one of the two positions of deputy speaker of parliament.
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