The leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite militia movement has quietly resumed seminary studies toward attaining the title of ayatollah — a goal that could make firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army an even more formidable power broker in Iraq.
Al-Sadr's objectives — described to The Associated Press by close aides — are part of increasingly bitter Shiite-on-Shiite battles for control of Iraq's southern oil fields, the lucrative pilgrim trade to Shiite holy cities and the nation's strategic Persian Gulf outlet.
The endgame among Iraq's majority Shiites also means long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs as the Pentagon and its allies look to scale down their military presence in the coming year.
Al-Sadr's backers remain main players in the showdowns across the region, where fears of even more bloodshed are rising following Wednesday's triple car bombing in one of the area's main urban hubs. At least 25 people were killed and scores wounded.
But al-Sadr, who was last seen publicly in May, is also confronting the most serious challenges to his influence, which includes sway over a bloc in parliament and a militia force that numbers as many as 60,000 by some estimates.
Becoming an ayatollah — one of the highest Shiite clerical positions — would give the 33-year-old al-Sadr an important new voice and aura.
It also would give him fresh clout to challenge his top rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its highest religious authority and has its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which have been largely absorbed into Iraqi security forces.
His views and fatwas
Al-Sadr often stresses his Iraqi and Arab roots and rejects suggestions that he is beholden to Persian Iran, the world's Shiite heavyweight and the benefactor of many Shiite politicians.
As an ayatollah, his views and fatwas, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority as the battles heat up for sway over Iraq's Shiite heartland.
Comparisons are often drawn between al-Sadr's strategy — a mix of militia strength, well-tuned street politics and social outreach — and the hallmarks of Hezbollah, which has been influenced by Lebanon's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, as well Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's 1979 Islam Revolution.
"If ... Muqtada becomes a religious authority, the entire movement will grow stronger," said one of the aides who described al-Sadr's seminary studies to the AP.
The three al-Sadr associates spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to share the information with the media. Their accounts, made in separate interviews, were in broad agreement.
Al-Sadr currently has the relatively low title of hojat al-Islam, which leaves his supporters no choice but to seek religious guidance from top establishment clerics, many of whom al-Sadr sees as out of touch with common Iraqis and accuses of acquiescing to Washington's demands.
The aides said al-Sadr was currently on a path to achieve ayatollah rank possibly by 2010 or earlier. His studies were under the supervision of senior clerics in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fought grinding urban battles with U.S. forces in 2004.
In 2000, al-Sadr enrolled in "outside research," which was roughly the equivalent of a doctoral program. Afghan-born Grand Ayatollah Ahmed Issaq al-Fayadh, one of Najaf's four top clerics, supervised him when he joined, but al-Sadr's attendance has been spotty since 2003.
An ayatollah's qualifications
Successful candidates qualify for ayatollah upon completion of the rigorous Islamic studies. But it's also necessary to have a family pedigree in Islamic scholarship and a following among seminary students and laymen.
Al-Sadr should have no problem. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, is the namesake for the teeming Shiite district in Baghdad known as Sadr City, which was called Saddam City before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Saddam Hussein's agents killed al-Sadr's father and two brothers in 1999.
Significantly, the aides said, the main focus of al-Sadr's studies has been the Shiite doctrine known in Arabic as "wilayet al-faqeeh," which supports the right of clerical rule. The concept was adopted Iran's Khomeini, but carries little support among Iraq's Shiite religious hierarchy.
Al-Sadr has not been seen in public since May but is believed to travel frequently between Iran and Najaf. His whereabouts are never revealed by his aides and he rarely gives media interviews.
Al-Sadr also is seeking to give the Mahdi Army a more religious bloodline, the aides said.
Some militiamen are taking seminary lessons for three hours a day, five days a week in private homes and out-of-the-way mosques to escape the detection of the U.S. military.
The aides said only those who pass seminary exams will remain in the militia, which has been splintered by defections from factions favoring closer ties with Iran and opposing an order in August to put down weapons for six months.
The move was seen as an attempt by al-Sadr to reclaim control of the militia and weed out mutineers. It has been credited for a noticeable reduction in violence, but appears to have emboldened the U.S. military to step up a crackdown against Mahdi leaders.
The cleric's absence from the public eye has raised some questions about his control of the movement, although his aides said he has been in regular contact with key lieutenants. His loyalists hold 30 of parliament's 275 seats, the largest share by a single party.
"The movement's strength and cohesion don't revolve around al-Sadr alone," said Saad al-Hadeithi, a political science lecture at Baghdad university. "Al-Sadr is leading a movement that's largely held together by the historical legacy of the family."
It's also fueled by the intense rivalry with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who also carries a bloody family narrative.
The group's founder, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was assassinated in August 2003 in a bombing blamed on Sunni militants.
The younger al-Hakim holds the same hojat al-Islam rank as al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr pulled out his ministers from the Shiite-dominated government in April and later pulled out from the umbrella Shiite alliance in parliament.
Tensions in southern Iraq have risen sharply in recent weeks as the United States and Britain prepare to scale down their presence, leaving behind a potentially dangerous power vacuum.
Next week, Britain plans to hand over control of Basra province, the most important in the south. The Pentagon has diverted much of its attention to battles in central and northern Iraq against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq.
In his latest statement, however, al-Sadr counseled his followers to be patient in the face of "predicament" and commended them on their adherence to his order to stand down. But the aides said al-Sadr's own patience may be running thin and a showdown with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council may be imminent.
"If this continues for much longer, the Sadrist movement will strike back," warned one of the aides. "This could have grave consequences for everyone."