AFTER months of lying low, the anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has re-emerged with a shrewd two-tiered strategy that reaches out to Iraqis on the street and distances him from the increasingly unpopular government.
Al-Sadr and his political allies have largely disengaged from government, thus contributing to a political paralysis. His outsider status has enhanced al-Sadr's appeal to Iraqis, who consider politics less and less relevant to their daily lives.
Al-Sadr has been working tirelessly to build support at the grass roots, opening new shopfront offices across Baghdad and southern Iraq which dispense services not being provided by the government. In this he seems to be following the model established by Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shi'ite group, as well as Hamas in Gaza, with entwined social and military wings that serve as a parallel government.
He has also extended the reach of his Mahdi Army, which according to White House reports remains entrenched in Iraq. The militia has effectively taken over vast swathes of the capital and is fighting government troops in several southern provinces. Although the militia sometimes uses brutal tactics, including death squads, many vulnerable Shi'ites are grateful for the protection it affords.
At the same time, the Mahdi Army is not entirely under al-Sadr's control, and he publicly denounces the most notorious killers fighting in his name. That frees him to extend an olive branch to Sunni Arabs and Christians, while championing the Shi'ite identity of his political base.
The mainstream political parties in Iraq realise that al-Sadr is growing more influential, but appear to be confused over how to deal with him. They see him as unpredictable and manipulative, but too politically and militarily important to ignore.
"He's powerful," said Jaber Habeeb, an independent Shi'ite member of parliament and political science professor at Baghdad University. "This is a fact you have to accept, even if you don't like it."
Almost from the day American troops entered Iraq, the mercurial al-Sadr has confounded American and Iraqi politicians alike. He quickly rallied impoverished Shi'ites in peaceful displays of Shi'ite strength, as had his father, a prominent cleric. When the Sunni Arab insurgency gained momentum, he raised a Shi'ite insurgency in direct opposition to the American-backed Iraqi government that had excluded him.
His basic tenets are widely shared. Like most Iraqis, he opposes the American military presence and wants a timetable for departure - if only to attain some certainty that the Americans will leave eventually. He wants the country to stay unified and opposes the efforts of those Shi'ites who have had close ties to Iran to create a semi-autonomous Shi'ite region in southern Iraq.
After his Mahdi militia was defeated in a battle against American forces in Najaf in 2004, al-Sadr established himself as a political player, using the votes of loyal parliament members to give Nouri Kamal al-Maliki the margin needed to win the post of prime minister.
Now that the leadership is in poor repute, al-Sadr has shifted once again. His six ministers in the Cabinet and 30 lawmakers in parliament have been boycotting sessions. They returned last week, but it is not clear if they will stay for long.
The latest stance by the more conventional political parties is to keep him at arm's length. The two major Shi'ite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, along with the two Kurdish parties, have been negotiating to form a new moderate coalition. Al-Sadr's political leaders were told he was welcome to join, but the invitation came belatedly, after the other groups had all but completed their discussions. Al-Sadr's lieutenants announced that he had no interest in joining.
Experts in Shi'ite politics believe that efforts to isolate al-Sadr are bound to fail.
"Sadr holds the political centre in Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan. "They are nationalist, they want to hold the country together and they are the only political organisation that has popular support among the Shias. If you try to exclude him from any alliance, well, it's a nutty idea, it's unwise."
The Sadrists exhibit a quiet confidence, and are pulling ever more supporters into their ranks. "The Sadr movement cannot be marginalised; it is the popular base," said Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi, the chief spokesman and a senior strategist for al-Sadr's movement in Najaf.
The Mahdi Army's darker side is rarely discussed in Shi'ite neighbourhoods. In Amil, some fiercely reject any suggestion that the group runs death squads. Others might admit to some problems, but dismiss them as the excesses of a few bad apples.
"Of course there are some wrongdoings by renegades in the Mahdi Army who deviated from the good and honourable line of the army," said Mohammed Abu Ali, 55, a mechanical engineer who helps out in the al-Sadr office in Amil. "We do not approve these wrongdoings and we try to rid the Mahdi Army of those elements."
Al-Sadr began his most recent ascent after the bombing of the golden dome of the Samarra shrine, sacred to Shi'ites, in February 2006. It was one of a string of assaults by Sunni Arab insurgents on Shi'ites which had gone on for more than two years.
Al-Sadr's militia began to strike back, supported by Shi'ites who felt it was their only protection.
Qassim Daoud, a secular Shi'ite lawmaker, says al-Sadr has figured out the alchemy to playing the outside, but having just enough of a place in the government to have leverage.
"He is one of those people who has two legs, one inside the political process and one outside the political process," Daoud said. "So he uses both to attack the process."
The power brokers in post-Saddam Iraq
NOURI AL-MALIKI: the Iraqi Prime Minister, right, is a stalwart of the Dawa Party, the Shi'ite political group that for years led an armed underground resistance to the leadership of Saddam Hussein.
JALAL TALABANI: the Iraqi President is the first non-Arab to head an Arab state, albeit in a largely ceremonial role. He has vowed to work with all ethnic and religious factions to rebuild Iraq.
MUQTADA AL-SADR: the radical Shi'ite cleric has become an increasingly influential figure in post-Saddam Iraq. His mixture of Iraqi nationalism and Shi'ite radicalism has made him a figurehead for many of Iraq's poor Shi'ite Muslims.
GRAND AYATOLLAH ALI SISTANI: the most senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq. Seen as a moderating influence, he facilitated the end of fighting in Najaf between al-Sadr's Mehdi Army and US forces in 2004.
TARIQ AL-HASHIMI: general secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party and vice president of Iraq. The Sunni leader has called for Shi'ite militia fighters to be removed from the Iraqi security forces.