Moqtada Sadr, anti-US cleric, returns to Iraq from Iran

Video released by Moqtada Sadr's office is said to show him back in Iraq

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The anti-US Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr is back in Iraq after years of self-imposed exile, officials have said.

After spending more than three years in Iran, the radical cleric returned to Najaf, his stronghold south of Baghdad.

The militia he founded, the Mehdi Army, clashed several times with US and Iraqi forces after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Last month, his political movement secured a deal to be part of the new government, with 39 parliamentary seats and seven ministries.

Meanwhile, the new Iranian acting Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has become the first senior official from Tehran to visit Baghdad since the formation of the new Iraqi government in December.

Mr Salehi held talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, as well as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both sides stressed the need to develop good relations.

The visit comes as the US prepares to withdraw its 50,000 military personnel still in the country by the end of the year.

'Uprisings'

The BBC's Jim Muir, in Baghdad, says that hundreds of supporters of Moqtada Sadr - who has not been seen publicly in Iraq since 2007 - gathered at his house to greet him.

Analysis

Jim Muir

Residents of Najaf say the city was thrown into turmoil by the sudden return of Moqtada Sadr to his birthplace and stronghold.

It also houses the shrine of the Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, and visiting it, and his own father's grave, were the first things on the returning cleric's agenda.

Thousands of people flooded the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive young leader. His movements shrouded in mystery, he disappeared to Iran over three years ago.

His arrival in Najaf is another sign of normalisation - though it's not yet clear whether he's home to stay, or just visiting.

Moqtada Sadr is believed to have spent the past few years in the Iranian city of Qom taking religious studies.

Born into a religious Shia family, he galvanised anti-US sentiment after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

His followers clashed repeatedly with US forces, whose withdrawal he has consistently demanded. Some time during 2006 or 2007, after a warrant for his arrest was issued, he fled.

In 2008, his Mehdi Army militia collided with the Iraqi army, commanded by Prime Minister Maliki. Many were arrested, and Mr Sadr announced it was laying down arms and disbanding.

After a long breach with Mr Maliki, Moqtada Sadr announced in October that he was backing him for a second term of office, and his Sadrist movement has seven ministers in the new Iraqi cabinet.

But the movement is still regarded with suspicion by the US military and many Sunni Arabs.

Iraq's governments since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 - including the new one - are dominated by the Shia, a majority in Iraq, but a minority in the wider Arab world, our correspondent says.

How that new Iraq will ultimately fit into its complex regional environment is still far from clear, our correspondent says.

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