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In Iraq, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sparked fierce battles with American troops during the worst years of the war there. And attacks on troops are again on the rise, this time as Sadr and other Shiite militants try to pressure the U.S. to withdraw by the end of the year. But for Sadr, it's not just military questions that concern him these days.

As NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, Sadr's organization, like other Islamist groups in the region, is beginning to take on a political side too.

KELLY McEVERS: Here in Iraq, people are used to the angry Muqtada al-Sadr - the fist-waving, the fiery speeches, the columns of armed men marching through the streets chanting, (foreign language spoken), no, no America.

Then there's the new side of Muqtada al-Sadr's organization, which is a little bit more - well, take a listen.

Mr. ALI YOUSSEF AL-SHUKRI (Minister of Planning, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: This is a press conference by one of Sadr's recent government appointees. He's the minister of planning, and his name is Ali Youssef al-Shukri.

Mr. AL-SHUKRI: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Shukri is announcing a new mechanism for quality control of imports to Iraq.

Trained in economics and law, Shukri comes from the south, where the majority of Iraq's Shiites live and where Sadr has the most support.

Recruiting middle-class technocrats like Shukri has long been a strategy for other Islamist groups in the region, says Thanassis Cambanis, who wrote a book about Lebanon's Shiite militant group, Hezbollah.

Professor THANASSIS CAMBANIS (International and Public Affairs, Columbia University): Militants, fighters and ideologues who were leading the party would be happy to assign an obscure dentist or biochemical professor an important portfolio in parliament or in the government if that person could do a better job. This lack of ego was a big part of their success.

McEVERS: It's a success Cambanis says Sadr hopes to copy. If, say, Iraq's planning ministry can show it's combating corruption, then the people will continue voting for Sadr's party. The group now holds some 40 of 325 seats in parliament.

The son of leading Shiite dissidents under Saddam, the young Sadr first rose to prominence after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Back then, Cambanis says Sadr gave Iraqis a way to reclaim their dignity by joining a militant group and fighting the occupation.

Later, as civil war broke out, Sadr's group became more sectarian. His Shiite Mahdi Army was behind some of the most brutal killings of Sunnis during those years, and his militias enforced strict Islamic rules.

At the time, though, the saying went, God can't fix the plumbing, so, says Ahmed al-Jaf of the Iraqi Writers Union, Sadr had to come up with a new strategy.

Mr. AHMED AL-JAF (Iraqi Writers Union): War is not everything. Attack is not everything. I think they have now another way to follow.

McEVERS: Now, analysts here say Sadr's party is working to project an image that's less sectarian and more benevolent.

Another rising star in Sadr's movement is Uday Awadh Kadhim, a member of parliament who was trained as an engineer. He says he has a plan that could solve Iraq's vexing electricity shortages. He just needs it to be heard by the right people.

I ask if he'll seek a higher position one day. He says all such decisions rest with the leader, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Mr. UDAY AWAD KADHIM (Parliament Member, al-Ahrar Bloc of Iraq): (Through Translator) If he asks us to kill ourselves, do anything, yes, we will do that for the sake of Iraq.

McEVERS: Like, meaning pick up arms to defend a cause?

Mr. KADHIM: (Through Translator) Yes. If he asked me to do, I will.

McEVERS: This is the issue with Sadr's organization. Despite its new image as a political player, it still maintains a militant wing that stands ready to threaten or even fight its rivals. In the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the ostensible reason for keeping guns is to resist Israel. For Sadr, it's to resist the U.S.

But what happens when the enemy occupier leaves? Here's Thanassis Cambanis again.

Prof. CAMBANIS: If the logic of resistance is what defines you as a movement, you're going to have a lot of trouble shifting to some other footing when the enemy you resist is gone.

McEVERS: That's why following the Hezbollah model too closely might eventually be Sadr's undoing, Cambanis says. Two decades after its civil war, Lebanon remains volatile and divided, and Hezbollah, he says, is losing credibility.

In the short term, though, Cambanis says, as long as Iraq's weak and incomplete government remains unable to provide security and basic services, Muqtada al-Sadr will remain a reasonable alternative.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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