At a teeming rally in this holy city last Thursday, thousands of Iraqi Shiites made an election pledge.
"We are at your beck and call, Hakim," they shouted in unison to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), arguably now the country's most influential and best organized Shiite religious political party.
Mr. Hakim told the crowds stuffed inside a soccer stadium: "We call upon you to take part in the upcoming provincial council elections.... Choose competent and trustworthy candidates ... and beware of the return of Saddamists in disguise."
The rally to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the "martyrdom" of ISCI founder Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, killed in a Najaf car bombing, effectively kicked off campaigning for the party ahead of provincial elections that are supposed to take place in October.
On Monday, the Iraqi speaker of parliament, Mahmoud Mashadani, announced that the electoral law will be put to a vote on July 15. “Time is running out.... This is the last chance we have" if we want to hold local elections on time, he said. If the law is approved, it will pave the way for provincial elections in October.
If the enthusiasm of the audience on Thursday was any indication, ISCI and its affiliates are poised to do well at the polls, a development that some fear would exacerbate a bitter intra-Shiite struggle for power between ISCI and its allies and the movement of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"The Supreme Council and its allies are in the forefront now while the Sadrists are absent, but we can see signs already that the struggle among the Shiite religious parties will turn into a violent and armed one again, especially in the south," says Azer Naji, director of strategic and political studies at a research center at Basra University in southern Iraq.
"This may happen as we get close to the elections or even after the elections," he says.
Already Mr. Sadr's partisans and members of his Mahdi Army militia believe that ISCI and its affiliate party, the Badr Organization – previously known as the Badr Brigade and ISCI's armed wing – instigated the recent US-Iraqi military operations against the Mahdi Army in southern Iraq and Baghdad. They allege it was part of an ISCI/Badr plot to dismantle Sadr's organization ahead of elections.
On Friday, Sheikh Salim al-Darraji, an ISCI official based in Basra, was assassinated in a part of the city traditionally controlled by Sadrists. It comes one week after Basra's chief of military intelligence was killed in a predominantly Shiite part of eastern Baghdad.
The ultimate goal of ISCI and Badr is to consolidate their grip on southern Iraq and to create a nine-province Shiite region on par with the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north. This is a subject of great controversy among many Iraqis, including the Sadrists.
"We believe the elections are extremely important. We will run jointly with (ISCI). We both have a significant base of public support," says Hadi al-Ameri, Badr's leader and a senior member of the Iraqi parliament.
Mr. Ameri's announcement marks a stark departure from ISCI's strategy during the January and December 2005 elections when it was the pivotal player in assembling a grand Shiite coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). That bloc swept the largest number of seats in parliament and ushered into power the Shiites and Kurds, who came in second.
At that time, Mr. Hakim brought Sadr into the coalition in the second round of elections. Sadr's partisans clinched 32 seats and were instrumental in the selection of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. In the end, the Sadrists received six cabinet posts.
But acrimonious intra-Shiite disputes precipitated the UIA's unraveling last year. First, the Fadhila Party quit, then Sadrist ministers left the government in April and the UIA altogether in September.
Even though fighting between Sadr's Mahdi Army and American and Iraqi forces has largely quieted, ISCI and Badr have not relented from castigating the young cleric's movement.
"The Sadrist movement used to cover up its illegal actions with the excuse that they were engaged in a political struggle with (ISCI). They can't say this anymore," says Badr's Ameri. "At the end, it's a struggle between the government and gangs of outlaws that belong to their movement."
Ameri, who met with Sadr in Iran in March during the height of the Basra battles with the Mahdi Army, says he believes that the cleric bowed to intense pressure at the time and that his statement last month urging his militiamen to turn to more charitable activities is "effectively dissolving the Mahdi Army without losing face.
In unusually blunt language, Ameri says Sadr would bear the consequences if his militia were to be implicated in any further acts of violence, including action against US troops. "This will be a strategic mistake, and he will be responsible for all the legal and judicial consequences of the actions of these groups."
At the stadium rally, as ISCI and Badr leaders exited, throngs of men clamored over an iron fence to touch Ammar al-Hakim, Abdul-Aziz's son and the movement's next presumptive leader. Some managed to grab his hand and kiss it in a sign of extreme deference.
ISCI is projecting itself as being uncompromising on security and the one party to be trusted to fight corruption, revive the country's crumbling infrastructure, and elevate the masses, particularly in the south, out of poverty.
Badr's Ameri says the sectarian conflict, insurgents, and the Mahdi Army are to blame for why many Iraqis are disillusioned with elected officials. "If there is a lack of services it's because of security. If there is no security, how can we attract foreign investors?"
Another big selling point that ISCI and Badr are hoping to make is that they are the wisest and most prudent in protecting the achievements of the once-oppressed Shiite majority population.
Ameri says they are the only ones that can balance deep and historic ties with Iran with their relationship with the US for the benefit of Iraq as a whole and the promotion of the political process as opposed to Sadr leveraging links with Iran to fight the US presence in Iraq.
"We are trying to strike a balance between the Grand Satan and the Axis of Evil," jokes Ameri, referring to Iran's favored label of the US and President Bush's reference to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Ameri says that they, too, like the Sadrists, want to see Iraq fully sovereign and free of US troops. The difference is that ISCI and Badr favor politics and negotiations.
There also is no indication that ISCI and Badr will abandon their strategy of overtly associating themselves with Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as they did in the 2005 elections when they used his image on pamphlets and posters promoting the UIA.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim shrugged off current efforts by some members of parliament to ban the use of images of religious clerics in campaign materials.
"These symbols are part of our identity and we want the voter to know who we are. We want to campaign using the religious symbols that both we and the Iraqi people have faith in," Hakim told reporters in Najaf.
ISCI, previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, was founded in 1982 in Iran by the late Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim when he was living in exile. Iran trained its armed wing at the time, Badr, to carry out operations across the border against Saddam Hussein's regime, with which it was immersed in war at the time.
Mr. Hakim returned to Iraq after the fall of the regime in 2003 and started preaching for a more active role of Iraq's traditionally quietist religious establishment in politics.
He was killed along with 84 others on August 29, 2003, as he left Najaf's Imam Ali mausoleum and mosque, one of the world's most revered sites for Shiites. The attack was blamed on extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
[Editor's note: The original version misstated the type of elections scheduled for October. They are provincial elections. The original version also misstated the location of a meeting between Hadi al-Ameri and Moqtada al-Sadr. The two met in Iran.]