BAGHDAD -- Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led several Shiite uprisings against American forces in Iraq before going into exile in neighboring Iran almost four years ago, has returned to Iraq, officials said Wednesday.
Al-Sadr's return caps another dramatic rise to prominence for him and his followers after being routed by Iraqi and U.S. forces and appearing to fade from power just a few years ago. The strong showing by his bloc in last year's parliamentary elections and his key support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki paved the way for Wednesday's return.
It was not immediately clear how long al-Sadr would stay in Iraq or whether the return marked a permanent decision to remain in the country, where his presence would mark a seismic shift in Iraqi politics.
A Sadrist official in Baghdad, Mohammed al-Kaabi, said al-Sadr was in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad at his family home and that he was on his way to visit the 36-year-old cleric.
An official with al-Maliki's office confirmed a plane carrying al-Sadr flew into the southern city earlier Wednesday afternoon. He did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Hundreds of al-Sadr's followers were gathering at his house. Others flocked to the holy shrine of Imam Ali, revered among the country's Shiite majority, amid reports that al-Sadr had traveled to the shrine and visited his father's grave before going home.
Al-Sadr has not been seen publicly in Iraq since 2007, and at one point an arrest warrant even hung over al-Sadr's head for his alleged role in assassinating a fellow Shiite cleric seen as a rival shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
He has been living in Iran, studying Islam in Qom, the seat of Shiite education, and rarely makes public visits abroad. Last fall, he traveled to Syria for a meeting with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who was challenging al-Maliki for the premiership.
His militia, called the Mahdi Army, once led bloody uprisings against American forces, and al-Sadr has made opposition to any continued American military presence in Iraq a cornerstone of his ideology. The feared Mahdi Army was blamed by Sunnis for some of the worst sectarian violence in 2006-2007.
Al-Maliki in 2008 launched an offensive against al-Sadr's followers in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and the southern city of Basra. The show of force infuriated many of his Shiite allies but also demonstrated al-Maliki's willingness to go after all militias, even those representing his own sect.
Hundreds of al-Sadr's followers were jailed during those operations.
Enmity between al-Sadr and al-Maliki runs deep, but after months of vowing to never allow al-Maliki to return for a second term, al-Sadr and his followers eventually backed him.
The decision is believed to have been taken after intense pressure from neighboring Iran, which would like to solidify Shiite control of Iraq. But questions have also been raised about what al-Sadr and his followers received for their support. Iraqi officials have said that hundreds of his followers have been released from jail -- a key Sadrist demand.
Iraqis in many southern provinces and parts of eastern Baghdad where the Sadrists dominate have reported intimidation by Sadrist members who are feeling more powerful in light of their alliance with their one-time enemy and their triumphant return to Iraqi politics.
Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo told The Associated Press that the return of the man reviled by American forces also underscores the U.S.'s waning political influence in Iraq as American forces prepare to leave the country entirely by the end of this year.
"Now, the anti-U.S. political figures, whether Shiite or Sunnis, are feeling that they are more confident now and their role in shaping Iraq's future is expanding. The Iraqi government is ready more than ever to accept and include figures known for their anti-U.S. stances," he said. "The Sadrists now are politically stronger than ever and they are aware of their importance in Iraq's political life."
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.