Jews Can Return to Iraq Under New Leadership, Shiite Cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr Says

Iraq's new leader, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has said he would welcome back Jews who were expelled from his country decades ago.

Asked by one of his followers if Jews, who were forced out of the country due to the discriminatory policies of past regimes, could now return under his leadership, al-Sadr responded in the affirmative. "If their loyalty was to Iraq, they are welcome," he said, adding that Jews who wanted to return to the country could receive full citizenship rights.

The Shiite cleric is sometimes viewed as an ally of Iran, a country whose leadership has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction. But al-Sadr's comments demonstrate that he is willing to show some independence from his country's neighbor.

What's more, analysts pointed out that al-Sadr has demonstrated a commitment to religious diversity in Iraq in his past statements, and that his political block distinguishes between criticism of Israel's policies and Jews who are from Iraq and elsewhere. Instead, he is viewed as a nationalist who has also repeatedly called for an end to sectarianism and religious and ethnic divisions in Iraq.

Many Jews left Iraq for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s—before that, they had made up around 2 percent of the country's population. Iraq's constitution currently does not recognize Judaism as one of the official religions, but recent reports suggest that some Jews are considering a return to the country following the defeat of the Islamic State and a decrease in overall violence.

The Shiite cleric's comments come amid political turmoil in Iraq, however. Al-Sadr's political bloc, the Sairoon Alliance, won the largest number of parliamentary seats in elections in mid-May, but members of the political opposition have alleged that the vote was rigged and are calling for a new election to be held. Parliament has ordered a manual recount of all of the votes. After a ballot box storage facility caught on fire in Baghdad, al-Sadr urged all Iraqis to unite and avoid a civil war. Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi affirmed Tuesday that he does not want the vote repeated.

The Shiite cleric will not be named prime minister, because he did not run in the recent elections. But his block's victory will likely ensure that he has a significant role in shaping policies going forward. He rose to prominence after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, during which time he was known for opposing both Washington and then-Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.