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Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks to his followers in November 2006 in Kufa.
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
After staying out of sight for six months, Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr finally appeared in public Friday in an attempt to rein in his followers and instill order to an organization in turmoil.
Sadr last appeared at his home base of Kufa, south of Baghdad, in November; American officials said he fled to Iran in January just before the start of the new Baghdad security plan.
Sadr remains one of the most popular and powerful figures in Iraq. But what his followers do and what Sadr says are often in stark contrast, whether by design or by a failure of leadership.
Thousands turned up at the Kufa mosque after rumors swirled that Sadr was back home. The burly 33-year-old cleric appeared, accompanied by bodyguards and top aides.
His sermon started with his usual impassioned opposition to the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. His chants "no no to tyranny" and "no no to the devil" were picked up by the crowds.
But perhaps more important: Sadr took his followers to task for not obeying orders.
During the sermon, Sadr demanded his followers stop fighting with Iraqi security forces — saying continued clashes only give U.S. forces a reason to stay.
Sadr said nothing about his long absence. A senior aide, Abdul Mehdi al-Meteri, would only say he was out of sight for security reasons.
"We have to preserve his life," Meteri saud.
Sadr may have returned at this time to consolidate power over his militia, which is reported to be splintering. He may also want to consolidate his political position. He deftly used his clout to put Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in power but Sadr is now distancing himself from the increasingly unpopular government.
There are rumors that Sadr is in negotiations with other disaffected political leaders who may form a new alliance.
But Sadr continues to have a problem. While he has cast himself as nationalist —- someone who can bind communities — his credibility as a unifier of Iraqis suffered after his militiamen engaged in widespread revenge killings of Sunnis following the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra.
"Many commanders in the field, not the top ones, didn't understand the Sadr trend in a clear manner," Meteri said. "And this lack of understanding led them to do bad things."
Sheik Salah al-Obaydi, head of Sadr's media committee, says they have dealt with the rogue elements.
"They have been fired," Obaydi said.
Obaydi, a tall and gaunt cleric, was held by the United States for five months before he was released in February. U.S. officials set him free because they now view him as a moderate who might help neutralize radicals in the Sadr movement.
While Obaydi said he opposes the U.S. occupation, he says he is not anti-American. He says he looks forward to American companies helping Iraq develop. He says Sadr's Mehdi Army has been unfairly blamed for attacks on Sunnis as well as on coalition forces.
"There are unannounced Shiite groups who are responsible for this," Obaydi said. "The problem is that we are held responsible for everything."
But despite Obaydi's claims to the contrary, militias working in the name of Sadr continue to use strong-arm tactics. They go through neighborhoods demanding protection money. The price has gone up in some areas to $100 a month per family because, as one Sadr commander said, the United States has destroyed a lot of computers and weapons.
And there has been a disturbing upswing in sectarian killings. Immediately after the troop surge began in February, Sadr's militiamen were noticeably absent from the streets on his orders. But the number of Sunni bodies arriving at the morgue is rising again.
Abu Sejad, 22, is a member of Sadr's Mehdi Army based out of the Shuala neighborhood. He gets paid a salary through the local Sadr mosque.
He says his unit will not sit by as Sunnis continue to bombs Shiites.
"We have to fight," Sejad said. "We are at war. Moqtada has been far away. We listen to our commanders. When an explosion kills Shiites, we will reply in kind. An eye for an eye."
This is hardly the line Sadr is now taking publicly. On Friday, he called on his followers to protect Sunnis and Christians.
Recently his aides met with Sunni Arab tribal leaders who have turned on al-Qaida. But Dr. Saleem Abdullah, a Sunni member of parliament, is skeptical.
"We hear his calls for uniting with the Sunnis, but we need proof of Sadr's desire to make peace," Abdullah said.
Some Sadr supporters are also involved in delicate negotiations with American officials to avoid a head-on confrontation in the sprawling slum of Sadr City. Some have welcomed Americans if they come with aid. But some of the moderates willing to engage the Americans have been killed.
The American military says it understands the movement's popular roots, especially in Sadr City where many of the two million residents are loyal to Sadr. Residents like Assad, who has a small welding shop, warn that if the U.S. troops move in en force, they will be opposed.
"We will not allow the Americans here," Assad said.
The problem of Sadr City is so sensitive that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, personally approves all the targets for raids inside this huge Baghdad district.
Petraeus recently said that Sadr's militia is not a coherent organization. Sadr has fired some of the worst participants and tried to restructure the chain of command, but a struggle for power between what Petraeus calls "the pragmatists" and "the throat slitters" will continue, he said.