BAGHDAD — Fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr seems set to shift from outlaw to influential politician as the US-led coalition transfers sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.
Mr. Sadr enjoys a massive following among the poorer elements of Iraq's Shiite community and stands to gain considerable leverage if he operates within Iraq's political order, analysts say. Lately, he has signaled his intent to establish a party that would submit candidates to national elections scheduled for January.
Ghazi al-Yawar, Iraq's interim president, offered Sadr an olive branch Tuesday, which, if accepted, could turn the minor cleric into a powerful political presence in post-occupation Iraq.
Sadr's cautious overtures and the Iraqi government's warm response suggest that both sides are primed for a compromise that could see charges against the Shiite cleric dropped and his movement emerge into the political mainstream, albeit as a vocal opposition.
"His Shiite followers are all poor, young, and nationalists unlike many other political groups, which have the patronage of Iran and other countries. That is a powerful combination," says Abdel-Jaber al-Qubaysi, editor of the Baghdad-based Nida al-Watan newspaper.
The cleric's alternatives to joining mainstream politics appear bleak. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has been classified as "illegal" and Sadr faces a trial, accused of ordering the killing of Ayatollah Abdel-Majid Khoei, a moderate Shiite cleric, in April last year.
Welcoming Sadr's decision to launch a political party, Mr. Yawar says, "I think this is a very smart move of him.
"I kept on saying consistently that if I were in his shoes I would try to go to the political arena instead of raising arms. He has supporters, he has constituents, he should go through the political process and I commend this smart move on his side," he says.
President Bush said Tuesday that the US would not oppose a political role for Sadr. "The interim Iraqi government will deal with al-Sadr in the way they see fit. They're sovereign," Bush said.
On Sunday, Qais al-Khazaali, an aide to Sadr, said that discussions were under way to create a political party.
"We are planning on founding a party to express the views of the people because they have placed their confidence in us," he says. "If we found this party, it will participate in elections and it will be built on our popular base."
The announcement came two days after Sadr reversed his initial rejection of the interim government, stating that he would recognize it as long as it gave a clear timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq.
Last week, Iraq's new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, released details of a plan to disband nine militias and integrate some of the fighters into the fledgling Iraqi security forces. Militiamen that do not participate in the scheme are banned from political office for three years. Sadr's militia was excluded from the deal, suggesting that the cleric is barred from a political role.
But Yawar says that like other former militia leaders, Sadr could join the political process if he dismantled the Mahdi Army.
The first step, Yawar says, was for Sadr to clear his name of Ayatollah Khoei's murder.
"This is step No. 1. This is for his own sake," he says. "Most of the new leadership in Iraq were ex-militia leaders but they are disbanding their militias. They are becoming Iraqi leaders and he can do the same. It is never too late for anybody in Iraq."
Battling an ever-worsening insurgency with minimal resources, the interim government is in no position to force a confrontation with Sadr. But the young cleric also can ill afford to continue using violence to challenge the authorities in Baghdad.
Sadr has signaled that he will not seek political office but will be represented by candidates he nominates.
"Those surrounding him are pushing him to become a member of a future government. But Sadr thinks he's bigger than a government post," says Mr. Qubaysi, the newspaper editor.
Still, if Sadr strikes a compromise with the Iraqi government, it would help curtail one element of instability in the troubled country. He launched an insurrection in early April after the coalition closed his newspaper, arrested a key aide, and vowed to "capture or kill" the cleric.
Street battles were fought in Sadr's strongholds in the southern shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa, as well as the slum quarter of Sadr City in Baghdad.
Despite the cleric's apparent moves toward accommodation with the Iraqi government, coalition forces are still squeezing him, arresting on Monday night one of his aides, Ahmad al-Hassani, in Karbala.
After June 30, the coalition forces - renamed as the Multinational Force - Iraq - are supposed to coordinate national security measures with the government, which could see the military pressure on Sadr being eased.
Putting a cap on Shiite unrest would allow the Iraqi government to concentrate on quelling the worsening Sunni-driven insurgency.
Attacks have diversified and increased in recent days. So far this month, there have been 17 car-bomb attacks, the latest on Monday killing 13 people, including six foreigners.