MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
After being out of sight for six months, Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr reappeared in public today. He spoke in his home base of Kufa, south of Baghdad, attempting to reign in his followers and bring order to his militia.
Sadr last appeared in Kufa in November. The U.S. said he fled to Iran in January just before the start of the new Baghdad security plan. Despite his absence, Sadr remains one of the most popular and powerful figures in Iraq. But as NPR's Anne Garrels reports, what his followers do and what Sadr says are often in stark contrast, whether by design or by a failure of leadership.
Mr. MOQTADA al-SADR (Iraqi Shiite Cleric): (Arab spoken)
ANNE GARRELS: The burly 33-year-old cleric was accompanied by bodyguards and top aides. Thousands turned up at the Kufa mosque after rumors swirled he was back home.
Mr. al-SADR: (Arab spoken)
GARRELS: His sermon started with his usual impassioned opposition to the continued presence of U.S. troops.
(Soundbite of Iraqi chanting)
GARRELS: His chants - no no to tyranny, 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.
Mr. al-SADR: (Arab spoken)
GARRELS: He demanded they stop fighting with Iraqi security forces - saying continued clashes only give U.S. forces a reason for staying. Sadr said nothing about his long absence. A senior aide, Abdul Mahdi al-Mutairy, would only say Sadr was out of sight for security reasons.
Mr. ABDUL MAHDI al-MUTAIRY (Sadr's Political Adviser): (Through translator) We have to preserve his life.
GARRELS: Sadr may have reappeared now 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 Prime Minister Maliki in power, but he is now distancing himself from the increasingly unpopular government.
Mr. al-SADR: (Through translator) The Iraqi people are deprived of many important services, like water, power, and security. If the government can't provide such things, we shall have another say.
GARRELS: There are rumors Sadr is in negotiations with other disaffected political leaders who may be forming a new alliance. But Sadr continues to have a problem. While he has cast himself as a 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. Abdul Mahdi al-Mutairy says the sectarian killings were never Sadr policy.
Mr. MUTAIRY: (Through translator) Many commanders in the field, not the top ones, didn't understand the Sadr trend in a clear manner. And this lack of understanding led them to do bad things.
GARRELS: Sheik Salah al-Obaydi, head of Sadr's media committee, says these rogue elements are being dealt with.
Mr. SHEIK SALAH AL-OBAYDI (Head, Sadr's Media Committee): (Through translator) They have been fired.
GARRELS: Sheik Obaydi, a tall and gaunt cleric, was held by the U.S. 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 says he opposes the U.S. occupation, he says he is not anti-American. He says he looks forward to American companies helping to develop Iraq. He says Sadr's Mahdi Army has been unfairly blamed for attacks on Sunnis as well as on coalition forces.
Mr. OBAYDI: (Through translator) These are unannounced Shiite groups who are responsible for this. The problem is that we are held responsible for everything.
GARRELS: 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 per family a month because, as one Sadr commander put it, the U.S. has destroyed a lot of our computers and weapons during the surge.
And there's been a disturbing upswing in sectarian killings. Immediately after the 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 now going up again.
A 22-year-old militiaman with a nom de guerre, Abu Sejad, fingers his worry beads. He's a member of Sadr's Mahdi 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 bomb Shiites.
Mr. ABU SEJAD (Member, Sadr's Mahdi Army): (Through translator) We have to fight. 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.
GARRELS: This is hardly the line Sadr is now taking publicly. Today, 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.
Dr. SALEEM ABDULLAH (Sunni Member of Parliament): (Through translator) We hear his calls for uniting with the Sunnis, but we need proof of Sadr's desire to make peace.
GARRELS: He says talks have yet to produce anything. Some Sadr supporters are also involved in delicate negotiations with American officials to avoid a head-on confrontation in the sprawling Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Some have welcomed the 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 here in Sadr City where many of the two million residents are loyal to Sadr and his father, a revered cleric. Residents like Assad, who has a small welding shop, warn that if the American troops move in en force, they will be opposed.
ASSAD (Resident, Kufa, Iraq): (Through translator) We will not allow the Americans here.
GARRELS: The problem of Sadr City is so sensitive, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, personally approves all the targets for raids inside this vast Baghdad district. Petraeus recently said that Sadr's militia is not a coherent organization. He says Sadr has fired some of the worst and tried to restructure the chain of command, but Petraeus says he sees a continued struggle for power between what he calls the pragmatists and the throat slitters.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.