In August 2004 Muqtada al-Sadr looked finished. Four months earlier, his Mahdi Army had risen up against U.S. and Iraqi forces, but in the end his militia was smashed. Al-Sadr, who is thought to be in his mid-30s, was forced to call off the revolt and join the U.S.-driven political process that he had fiercely denounced.
Today he is back with a vengeance. Al-Sadr proved a quick study, devising a new approach to his goal of becoming the leader of Iraq's Shi'ite community. His militiamen switched from confronting U.S. forces to filling the vacuum in the large swaths of southern Iraq where few (or no) U.S. troops were present. He developed a social-services network that could provide the average Iraqi with the protection, medicine, supplies, assistance and even money and jobs that they so desperately needed.
The result is that Iraqis are flocking to his banners. He has parlayed this popularity into real political power. His followers won 30 of 275 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. It has largely been al-Sadr's recalcitrance that has produced the months of stalemate in forming a government. He doesn't yet have the power to choose the country's leaders, but he does have the clout to block those he doesn't like, and if Iraq's low-level civil war continues to build, his power seems only likely to rise with it, riding the wave of Shi'ite frustration that he has nurtured from the very beginning.
Pollack is a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center