For a moment this week, it looked as if Moqtada al-Sadr - the leader of a Shiite rebellion against the US presence in Iraq - might become just another mainstream political leader.
His spokesmen were telling the press that the Mahdi Army, Mr. Sadr's militia that battled US troops in Najaf for three weeks, would transform itself into a political movement, with candidates and policies. Tribal sheikhs from Sadr's stronghold in Baghdad, the sprawling working-class neighborhood of 2.5 million called Sadr City, met with government authorities to work out the details.
But while the talks have stalled - the main sticking points are the Mahdi Army's refusal to hand over heavy weapons or to allow US military patrols in Sadr City - some analysts say that a corner has been turned for the radical Shiite movement. Militarily depleted by the Najaf standoff and yet politically energized by growing disenchantment among Shiites, the Mahdi Army has in many ways turned into a potent political force that cannot be easily defeated without substantial military cost.
"I don't think there was any doubt that Sadr was going to take part in politics," says Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan. Sadr had always been ambitious, and his followers had always aspired to lead the Shiites, and before the April uprising, most Sadr activists cooperated with US forces. "In the insurgency in Najaf, Moqtada al-Sadr learned a hard lesson that when he takes on the Americans, his guys get killed."
But while Sadr was weakened militarily by Najaf, Mr. Cole says his movement realizes that its power still comes from the gun. "It is highly unlikely if Sadr forms a party that it will disarm," says Cole. And by standing up to the US, Sadr stays popular with Shiites who feel the government of Iyad Allawi is a US puppet. "If the Mahdi Army does well in parliamentary elections (in January 2005) - and I wouldn't be surprised if it got one-third of the Shia vote - the first resolution would be to request that America leave Iraq completely," Cole says.
What average Iraqis make of all this is uncertain. A recent poll of some 3,000 Iraqis around the country, conducted before the Najaf uprising of Aug. 5, shows that many have conflicting political views but an overarching desire for stability. According to the poll, conducted by the International Republican Institute - the international arm of the US Republican Party - Iraqis gave good marks to the new interim government. Fifty-one percent said the country was headed in the right direction; 31 percent said it was going in the wrong direction. Fifty-six percent said they wanted a strong central government, while 65 percent said Mr. Allawi was an effective leader.
On religious matters, 68 percent said they favored a religious over a secular candidate. Forty-eight percent said they would prefer to vote for a religious party- the largest single response on the question. But given a choice between a "principled" candidate and a "pragmatic" one, 68 percent chose the pragmatist.
Most troubling for Sadr are attitudes toward militias. Forty-four percent said they were less willing to support a party that maintained its own militia. Just 7 percent were more willing to do so.
Yet in complex war zones, polls can show only a piece of the picture. History is replete with small armed revolutionary groups that bucked the political mainstream. In any case, it's perhaps not surprising that Sadr's militia is having trouble putting down the gun. At best a third-rate force within the Shiite fold - behind higher religious authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and better-connected secular Shiite politicians like Allawi - Sadr is more likely to play the spoiler.
In Sadr City, where Mahdi Army fighters still direct traffic by day and fight US forces by night, one hears revolutionary chants. "The land mines are shouting, 'Where are the Americans?' " goes one. "We have loaded our weapons, Son of the Sayyid," goes another, referring to Sadr's revered dead father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr.
For now, Allawi appears ready to keep military pressure on Sadr's militia, to finish it off. While the new Iraqi National Council - set up to monitor the interim government - met for the first time Wednesday, fighting has been nearly constant in Sadr City since last week's truce announcement. On Wednesday, US tanks patrolled Sadr City, and fierce fighting Tuesday temporary halted peace talks between Allawi representatives and tribal leaders from the main Shiite clans.
"We don't like to reach any agreement with any militia people," State Minister Qassim Dawood said Wednesday. Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat news agency, "The most important issue for the Al-Sadr movement is to get involved in the big political process that accommodates even the most extreme hard-line religious currents."
On Monday, this looked like an offer that Sadr couldn't refuse. But by Wednesday, Sadr officials said the deal was off. The militia was unwilling to disarm or to allow US patrols in its areas. Aides say the movement will continue to push for its political agenda. But, one official says, "Sayyid Moqtada said there will be no political involvement under occupation" by US forces. "This means the fight will continue."