The crowd of Moqtada al-Sadr's followers stretched 10 blocks, blanketing a sprawling boulevard in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum. Loudspeakers rattled as a cleric railed against the US occupation.
Off to the side, Abbas Rubaie, Mr. Sadr's chief political tactician, looked out over the sea of the radical Shiite cleric's supporters who gathered Friday. "The Shiite alliance is the biggest party in parliament and the Sadrists are the biggest bloc in the Shiite alliance," he says. "We cannot be ignored."
When Iraq's election results are certified this week, Sadr is expected to increase his numbers in parliament by 50 percent. That rise will give significant power to the most rigid and anti-US wing of the Shiite bloc, further complicating efforts for the US to maintain influence in Iraq's emerging government.
The Sadrist lawmakers will have about 30 of the Shiite coalition's 128 seats in the new Iraqi parliament, a number equal to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), generally thought to be the most powerful Shiite party.
But a splinter Shiite group, known as the Risalyoon, or Messengers, took two additional seats, and is expected to ally with the Sadrists in coming days.
Already Sadr has pushed the Shiite coalition and other Iraqi politicians to take a more intransigent stance on key issues. Agreement to his 14-point code of honor was his precondition to join the Shiite slate. The code demands a short-term timetable for US withdrawal, recognizes the right of armed resistance should it stay, and rejects ties with Israel.
Along with his fellow Shiites, some 200 Iraqi politicians signed on to the document. This support that Sadr has attracted could erode the traditional alliance between other Shiite politicians and the US - a relationship that has helped legitimize the continued American presence in Iraq.
"Sadr is a power now that is affecting everyone, and not just the Shiites," says Aref Taifour, the Kurdish deputy speaker of the outgoing parliament. "They're going to be a big opposition force, with a large following, and others are going to have to respond."
One of Sadr's few saving graces in US eyes, say analysts, was his staunch defiance of Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics. But even that appears to be fading. Last week, he traveled to Iran where he said his Mahdi Army would defend the Islamic Republic if it was attacked.
But Sadr's rising clout could yet be a blessing for US officials, say analysts, who are pushing for a government of national unity that includes Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the backbone of the insurgency. Sadr stands closer to the Sunni Arabs on key issues such as federalism, and seems more willing than many of his fellow Shiites to make the sort of compromises necessary to bring them into the government.
"He will be very extreme, a real die-hard fundamentalist in terms of religion and state issues, and the US occupation, but at the same time when it comes to making some concessions to the Sunnis he can be a moderating force," says Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The son of a leading Ayatollah who was killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999, Sadr was virtually unknown when US troops invaded Iraq in 2003. But early into the occupation he emerged as a voice of dissent.
He formed a shadow government to rival the US-appointed interim governing council, and started an antioccupation newspaper. When US officials closed that paper, his private militia - the Mahdi Army - took up arms. The US accused him of inciting violence and of involvement in the assassination of a rival, pro-US cleric. US forces battled Sadr's men in the holy city of Najaf and elsewhere. A truce was declared in June 2004, but skirmishes continued into the fall.
Since ending his armed struggle, Sadr, whose critics say he is simply riding his late father's coattails, has kept a low profile while other Shiite factions compete for control of prestigious government posts.
The strategy has allowed him to minimize dealing with the coalition authorities and maintain his uncompromising stance toward the occupation, all the while providing much needed services to the poor Iraqi masses. Sadrists currently control the ministries of health, transportation, and civil affairs. They'll add two more portfolios to their quiver in the coming government and are thought to be eyeing the ministries of education and housing.
Therein lies the key to their success, says Hazem al-Arraji, a leading Sadrist cleric who the US released last May after nine months in prison.
"The health ministry serves half a million people a day. The transportation ministry serves 200,000 to 300,000 people," says Mr. Arraji. "But what does the foreign or interior ministry do for poor Iraqis? These ministries are under the control of the occupation; we have no use for them."
That focus on citizens' everyday needs is the key to Islamists' popularity throughout the Middle East. It helped sweep Hamas into power in last week's Palestinian elections, and transformed Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood into that country's most potent opposition force. Sadr appears to be banking on a similar approach here.
"He's playing it very cool, very low profile, but he's achieving what he's after," says Hassan al-Bazzaz, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "And still, when people talk about the Shiite coalition a lot of people don't even think about Sadr, but he's going to be the big player."
Baram, the Iraq expert in Washington, calls the Sadrists' approach brilliant grassroots politicking, and warns that four years down the road they're likely to have doubled their strength in parliament.
"In all these ministries they are planting their people on the grassroots social level," says Baram. "They'll control huge government budgets and when they spend this money they'll get all the credit, and it will be very difficult to uproot them later on."
For now, Sadr and his legions are pleased with their piece of the pie, but they clearly have loftier ambitions. "We are like Hamas," says Mr. Rubaie, the Sadrists political tactician. "We will bear arms and will not compromise our right to resistance, but we also help the people and win elections."
Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr was born August 13, 1973, the fourth son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr.
After the elder Sadr and two sons were gunned down in 1999 in Najaf by agents of Saddam Hussein, Moqtada inherited his father's legacy. Mr. Sadr derives his clerical legitimacy almost entirely from his father's large following. He lacks the formal religious education necessary to issue fatwas, or religious edicts.
In April 2004, Sadr forces seized parts of Sadr City and Najaf. In August, Sadr's Mahdi Army, estimated at 3,000 to 10,000 militants, battled US forces in Najaf, coming to a truce at the end of the month.