Muqtada al-Sadr is considering setting aside his political ambitions and restarting a full-scale fight against U.S.-led forces — a worrisome shift that may reflect Iranian influence on the young cleric and could open the way for a shadow state protected by his powerful Mahdi Army.
A possible breakaway path — described to The Associated Press by Shiite lawmakers and politicians — would represent the ultimate backlash to the Iraqi government's pressure on al-Sadr to renounce and disband his Shiite militia.
By snubbing the give-and-take of politics, al-Sadr would have a freer hand to carve out a kind of parallel state with its own militia and social services along the lines of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Shiite group founded with Iran's help in the 1980s.
It also would carry potentially disastrous security implications as the Pentagon trims its troops strength and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally shows progress on national reconciliation.
"Muqtada has shown a great deal of patience not calling for an all-out war yet with so much pressure on him," said Mohan Abedin, director of research at London's Center for the Study of Terrorism and an expert on Shiite affairs. "The Mahdi Army is by far the most powerful Iraqi faction. It can cause damage on a massive scale if it goes to war."
Next move uncertain
Al-Sadr's next move is still uncertain, but he clearly holds important cards.
The Mahdi Army is estimated to have about 60,000 fighters — with at least 5,000 thought to be highly trained commandos — and is emboldened by its strong resistance to an Iraqi-led crackdown launched last month in the southern city of Basra and elsewhere.
Al-Sadr's movement also holds sway over the densely populated Shiite parts of Baghdad and across the Shiite south by controlling vital needs such as fuel and running social services such as clinics.
A cease-fire declared last summer by al-Sadr has been credited with helping bring a steep drop violence.
But al-Sadr — who has been in the Iranian seminary city of Qom for the past year — is seriously considering tearing up the truce and disassociating himself from his political bloc in parliament, according to loyalists and Shiite politicians interviewed by the AP over the past two weeks.
Then al-Sadr would be free to unleash Mahdi attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, the political insiders said.
They include members of the 30-seat Sadrist faction in parliament and members of rival Shiite parties, including two who saw al-Sadr recently in Iran. All requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
"The emphasis is now on weapons and fighting, not politics," said one of the lawmakers in the Sadrist bloc. "(Al-Sadr) now only communicates with the Mahdi Army commanders."
Any Mahdi Army offensive could have serious repercussions. Mahdi fighters engaged in fierce battles with U.S. forces in 2004 and then were blamed for waves of roadside bombings that were once the chief killer of American troops.
Mahdi militiamen also fought Iraqi security forces to a virtual standstill last month in Basra before an Iranian-supervised truce.
It's unknown how much al-Sadr's Iranian hosts are shaping his views.
The unknown influence of Iran
Al-Sadr, who is in his mid-30s, is studying in Qom under the supervision of Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, a reclusive Iraqi cleric close to Iranian hard-liners.
Washington accuses Iran of aiding Shiite militias in Iraq, including so-called "special groups" with murky ties to the Mahdi mainstream. Iran denies the allegations.
But Iran has obvious and well known connections to the main Shiite political groups in al-Maliki's government. During the recent battles in Basra, Iran supported al-Maliki's crackdown on so-called "criminals" but did not make a clear statement on the spillover confrontation with the Mahdi Army.
Backing a Mahdi Army uprising would allow Tehran to effectively play both sides in a Shiite showdown.
A flurry of recent statements by al-Sadr has emphasized his first public role: as a firebrand militia leader after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
In a statement posted Saturday on his Web site, al-Sadr gave a "final warning" to the government to halt its crackdown or face an "open war until liberation."
Senior Mahdi Army commanders, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss strategy with media, said they have taken delivery of new Iranian weapons, including sophisticated roadside bombs, Grad rockets and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
The militia's top field commanders, they said, were senior members of the special groups.
Scores of fighters prepared to attack
One commander, who identified himself by his nickname Abu Dhara al-Sadri, said scores of militia fighters were prepared to carry out suicide bombings against U.S. forces. Suicide bombings are the signature attacks of Sunni militants in Iraq's conflict, but the tactic was introduced against Americans in Lebanon by Shiite militants in the 1980s.
Sadrist lawmakers and aides have sent compromise-seeking proposals to al-Sadr in Qom. The ideas seek to appease al-Maliki enough to forestall his threat: barring al-Sadr's followers from running in this fall's key provincial elections unless al-Sadr disbands the Mahdi Army.
But the proposals have gone unanswered, said al-Sadr's aides.
One offer, they said, would allow for creation of a new political party with no formal links to the Mahdi Army. Another would permit candidates sympathetic to the Sadrists — but with no direct links — to run as independents in the fall election.
One of the authors of the proposals, moderate cleric Riyadh al-Nouri, was gunned down April 11 in Najaf, the spiritual center for Shiites in Iraq. The reason for the slaying was not clear.
Lawmakers and politicians told the AP that al-Sadr's more belligerent tone is motivated, in part, by his wish to secure a place for himself in history as a nationalist leader and anger over the recent arrests of hundreds of supporters despite his unilateral cease-fire.
At talks this month in Qom between al-Sadr and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the young cleric vowed never to disband the Mahdi Army while U.S. and other foreign forces remain in Iraq, according to Shiite political figures familiar with the meetings.
Al-Jaafari has said he was mediating an accommodation between al-Sadr and al-Maliki's government.
Salah al-Obeidi, al-Sadr's chief spokesman in Iraq, acknowledged that al-Sadr and the Iranians were at present bound by close ties and common goals.
However, he was quick to add that while al-Sadr and the Iranians shared common interests — namely fighting the Americans in Iraq — the cleric was nobody's puppet.
Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the Iranians may want al-Sadr to stay in Qom to keep him in check for the moment.
"Muqtada is forcing everyone's hand right now when they (the Iranians) may not be wanting their hand forced," said Nasr.