Moqtada al-Sadr, the most prominent Shi'ite opponent of the United States' military presence in Iraq, paid an official visit to Turkey for talks with the Turkish leadership. This was al-Sadr's first public appearance since 2007.
It appears that the main reason for the Turkish government inviting Al-Sadr, was to ensure his support for Ankara's policies toward the oil rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which is mainly composed of Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs - though almost all its ethnic elements are Shi'ite.
No official statement was released from the meetings with Turkish officials. An unidentified Turkish official declared that the discussions had evolved over the security situation in Iraq and the Turkish-Iranian relationships. The Turkish media reported that Ankara had sent a private plane to Iran to take Al-Sadr to Turkey. To ensure his security, a close protection team from the National Security Agency (MIT) went to Iran to minimize the risks during his trip to Turkey. According to Turkish reports, Sadr met with Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, along with other Turkish officials.
Al-Sadr supports Turkey's position over the status of Kirkuk, arguing that it should belong to the central government. The Kurdish daily, Helwer Post conducted an in-depth analysis to explain Al-Sadr's opposition to the federal structure of Iraq, and particularly the special status of Baghdad and Kirkuk and the distribution of oil wealth. The Helwer Post suggests that because Al-Sadr's supporters are mainly concentrated in Baghdad and to some extent in Kirkuk, this limits his ability to share the wealth of oil revenues. The status of Baghdad within a loose federation restricts Al-Sadr's group accessing the oil rich regional administrations. If Iraq emerges as a viable federation, in the near future the Al-Sadr group will be economically and politically marginalized within Baghdad. Given that Al-Sadr cannot prevent an Iraqi federation, in order to access oil revenues he must keep Kirkuk within the control of Iraq's central government rather than under the Kurdish Regional Government. Thus, it is critical for Al-Sadr to receive support from Turkey.
The timing of these meetings is also significant. On May 3, the Turkish press reported that UN diplomats working on the status of Kirkuk for more than one year had finally drafted their report. They suggested delaying for five years the planned referendum to determine the status of Kirkuk. As expected, Kurdish leaders strongly opposed these recommendations. Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd himself, clearly stated that he will not negotiate on the status of Kirkuk, which is already determined through the constitution.
So both Turkey and Al-Sadr favor the idea of a strong central government for Iraq. Both share the discourse that Kirkuk should not be left under Kurdish control. Yet, the fact that Turkey, a NATO member, receives with the honors due a head of state the main opponent to the presence of American troops in Iraq, it is a rather disturbing fact. One can understand that Al-Sadr, using the strategy of abandoning the insurgency and seeking Turkey's support, intends to re-emerge as a powerful actor after the major defeat in 2007 inflicted on his Mahdi Army. But what game is Turkey playing? The answers to this rhetorical question can be found in the unfolding of events that have taken place in Turkey ever since the AKP government has seized power. Turkey is becoming less and less the secular country that aspired to join the European Union. After Erdogan’s show-off in Davos, it is clear that Turkey is inexorably shifting to the islamist field and clear-cut policies are leaving the way to Levantine practices. Al-Sadr’s visit to Turkey might reinforce French President Sarkosy’s perplexities about Turkey joining the EU.
Moqtada Al-Sadr, who is reported to have recently assumed the title of Grand Ayatollah after concluding his studies in the holy city of Qom in Iran, is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, who was murdered, along with two of his sons, by Saddam Hussein.
The picture remains unclear regarding the reasons behind Moqtada Al-Sadr's surprise appearance in Turkey to attend a conference in Istanbul called "The Al-Sadr movement and future challenges." However, the welcome that Al-Sadr received in Turkey with regards to his meeting with both the Turkish President and Prime Minister justifies questions being asked on the real motive behind the visit. Some Arab observers believe that Turkey intends to play a wider role as a regional power. This ambition is confirmed by the appointment of the new Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is the current mastermind of Turkish foreign policy, and who has aspirations for Ankara to gain regional influence. He believes that his country should participate in all issues, from Palestine to Somalia, from the issue of Iraq to the issue of the Islamist movements.