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Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reemerges as key player in Iraqi politics

A Shiite Muslim cleric whose militia repeatedly battled American soldiers during the U.S. war a decade ago has emerged as a key player in the Iraqi parliament. The Washington Post's Liz Sly joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Baghdad to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Violence in Iraq killed more than 1,000 people this past month, more than half of whom were civilians, according to the United Nations. This rise in casualties resulted in part from terrorist attacks in the Baghdad area carried out by the Islamic State group, or ISIS.

    At the same time, after a week of protests, Iraq's parliament has a week to confirm new members proposed to shakeup the prime minister's cabinet. A Shiite Muslim cleric whose militia repeatedly battled American soldiers during the U.S. war a decade ago has emerged as a key player in this political process. That cleric is Muqtada al-Sadr, and one of the journalists who has written about his re- emergence is "Washington Post" reporter Liz Sly, who joins me now from Baghdad via Skype.

    Liz, this is interesting. He took several years off from really the public scene, and this is a very public comeback.

  • LIZ SLY, THE WASHINGTON POST:

    Yes, that's right. He's been gone from politics basically for about eight years. His policy has been participating in elections in the government holding ministries, but he's been completely absent. And suddenly he's back.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Describe that scene. You tell it in your story. I mean, it's him and a group of aides almost storming the fortress, if you will.

  • LIZ SLY:

    Well, yes, it was a very sort of sacrificial lamb moment, if you like. He had threatened to send his supporters into the Green Zone, effectively to topple the government themselves if they did not change the government, if the prime minister did not fire the ministers. Instead when the day came, everybody was really nervous that there would be violence and bloodshed in the Green Zone.

    He announced that he, himself, would go in alone and take the burden on his shoulders. He sort of ambled into the Green Zone, went past the checkpoint which are there to keep people out. And it was really quite an extraordinary scene because the soldiers embraced him, and the commander, who is in charge of the Green Zone, a very top general, knelt on the floor and kissed his hands.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I was going to say, someone who can get a general to get down on a knee and kiss your hand, I mean, that is a tremendous symbolic gesture of power. What does that do to the politicians who are witnessing this?

  • LIZ SLY:

    Well, yes, it certainly did shake them up. It certainly shook up the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Muqtada al-Sadr set up a tent just inside the Green Zone. He moved into the tent. He announced he would stay there until the government was formed.

    He spent about five days there while everybody scrambled around, hurry, to come up with lists of new names, and when they did come up with the names, they didn't actually vote on them. He announced it was enough for him to leave and the tension abated and he did leave the Green Zone at that point.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this is somebody– we talked about him 10 years ago– Muqtada al-Sadr in the Mahdi army. What's the state of the sort of militia-like support that he has today?

  • LIZ SLY:

    Well, yes, there's hardly a politician in the country, except the prime minister, who doesn't have a private militia. Of course, one newspaper hailed him as the Gandhi of Iraq for walking into the Green Zone like this, without arms, without weapons to make this stand. But, yes, certainly, the message was if you don't change the government, I've got a private army behind me and I can really shake this up.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What's the end goal? What does Muqtada al-Sadr want in this political process?

  • LIZ SLY:

    Ostensibly on the surface, this was about stopping corruption, bringing good governments, changing corrupt ministers? But there are elections in Iraq in two years' time. Muqtada al-Sadr's group is the results of the fight against ISIS has been wrath eclipsed by some other militias, and I think in two years' time, he might have lost quite a lot of votes to some of those other militias. So, most people are putting this into the context of a bit of early election campaigning.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Liz Sly of "The Washington Post" joining via Skype from Baghdad — thanks so much.

  • LIZ SLY:

    Thank you.

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