Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hope to win back their position as a major force in this month's regional elections after a string of military and political setbacks last year.
Even modest success in the Jan. 31 vote for ruling provincial councils could position the Sadrists as coalition partners in key southern provinces, where a large number of candidates makes it unlikely any single party can win on its own.
Anything short of that could relegate the once formidable al-Sadr to political irrelevance — something unthinkable a year ago when his fearsome Mahdi Army militia wielded vast power in Shiite areas of Iraq.
"This month's elections will decide who remains in the political arena and who will go into oblivion," said senior Sadrist lawmaker Hassan al-Rubaie. "If we fail to do well, our movement could fragment, and some of its key figures could be lured away by rival blocs trying to destroy us."
Top Sadrist officials in key southern cities — Basra, Amarah and Najaf — spoke confidently about their election prospects during interviews with The Associated Press.
But they fear that authorities may step up arrests of al-Sadr's supporters and campaign workers in response to his call for attacks on U.S. forces in retaliation for Israel's offensive in Gaza.
The Sadrists also face a strong threat from the country's two largest Shiite parties — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Both are vigorously campaigning to retain their grip on the south and prevent any inroads by al-Sadr's group, which has been significantly weakened since the heady days when it held sway in Shiite areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Hundreds of key members detained
Hundreds of its key members have been detained by U.S. and Iraqi forces over the past two years — especially after the government crackdown on militias in Baghdad and Basra last spring.
Mahdi Army The Mahdi Army, which battled the Americans for years, has been riveted with divisions. The militiamen's former image as the defender of the Shiites has been tarnished among many urban Shiites who consider them gangsters.
The Sadrists' best chance for success could be in Amarah, an oil-rich area near the Iranian border that had been controlled by the cleric's followers before the crackdown last year. The Sadrists remain in control of the provincial council of Maysan, the province of which Amarah is the capital.
"The Sadrist movement will be in a bad situation if we lose Amarah," said Hassan al-Husseini, al-Sadr's chief representative in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
"But other groups are determined to oust us from Amarah," he said, squatting on the floor beneath a larger-than-life portrait of al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was gunned down by suspected Saddam Hussein agents in 1999.
As in previous elections, no candidates are running explicitly as followers of al-Sadr. They are nominally independent — but the movement makes sure that voters know which candidates it supports.
Winning about a third of the council seats in the nine southern provinces would be considered a success, said Salah al-Obeidi, al-Sadr's chief spokesman. The movement wants to prevent the other Shiite parties from winning enough seats to monopolize power, he said.
"Our ultimate goal is not to allow governors to do as they please," al-Obeidi said at his Najaf office.
Saddam's fall precipitated Sadrists rise
The Sadrists, whose movement began in the 1990s, emerged as a formidable political and social force after U.S. troops overthrew Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.
They survived a 2004 uprising against the Americans after the powerful Shiite clergy intervened to prevent al-Sadr's arrest. Al-Maliki's predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, brought Sadrists into the government, giving them several Cabinet posts.
But the Sadrists did not field a full slate of candidates in the last provincial elections four years ago, leaving the south to the Supreme Council, Dawa and regional groups.
Two years ago, it appeared that the Sadrists, who draw strength from millions of impoverished Shiites, would threaten the position of the two major Shiite parties because of complaints of bad governance in the south.
But a series of missteps cost the movement dearly.
Sadrist ministers pulled out of al-Maliki's Cabinet in 2007 to protest his cooperation with the U.S., depriving the movement much of its influence in government. The move also angered al-Maliki, who ordered U.S.-backed Iraqi forces last year into Basra, the Baghdad district of Sadr City and other areas to wrest control from al-Sadr's militia.
Al-Sadr himself moved to Iran two years ago, weakening his leadership at a time his movement needed him most.
The Sadrists' appeal to voters has been their uncompromising anti-American stand, social welfare programs for the poor and the prestige of al-Sadr's late father, who defended Shiite rights when few would speak out under Saddam.
"We are proud of our opposition to the (U.S.) occupation," said Ayed al-Mayahi, al-Sadr's representative in Basra. "Everything that has happened to us was the price we paid for that stand."