Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr is surrounded by bodyguards as he arrives… (Qassem Zein, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Najaf, Iraq — His beard now flecked with gray, Muqtada Sadr studied the thousands of faithful who pushed and jostled one another Saturday, craning their necks for a glimpse of the mysterious cleric they hadn't seen in person in nearly four years.
In his first appearance in this holy city since returning to Iraq three days before, the firebrand Shiite Muslim preacher faced a defining moment: how to harness his followers, whose wild energy he had ridden until his organization spiraled out of control during Iraq's civil war.
If his old speeches had been warlike, urging rebellion against the Americans, his tone Saturday was measured and controlled, acknowledging the harshness of Iraq's war in the streets and the suffering of all Iraqis.
"Whatever struggle happened between brothers, let us forget about it and turn the page forever and live united," he said from a newly erected podium outside the villa that once was the home of his father, the grand ayatollah who sacrificed his life defying Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime.
Sadr once more sounded the call of war against U.S. forces, and was answered back with a hearty, "Down, down, America!" But if before he encouraged violence, many would say recklessly, now he weighed his every word, emphasizing the need for discipline.
"Resistance, yes, resistance, but not everyone will carry weapons," he told the crowd. "Only those qualified will carry weapons."
Weeks after his political bloc served as a kingmaker in the negotiations that kept onetime foe Nouri Maliki in the prime minister's office, at times Saturday, Sadr sounded like a bread-and-butter politician.
"If it serves the people, providing security, safety and services, then we are with this government, not opposed to it," Sadr counseled his followers.
His faction aims to be a credible partner, if not a future alternative, to Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, which has been seen as a more respectable vehicle for the country's Shiite merchant and professional classes.
The cleric's return should add weight to his followers' quest to become the leading party for Iraq's Shiite majority. Even in Maliki's circle, at least one confidant has acknowledged that the government expects trouble with Sadr's bloc.
In the crowd Saturday, occasional fistfights flared as supporters impatiently waited to see their reclusive hero after his years of religious study in Iran. Sadr's aides said he intended to stay in Iraq, but no one really knows.
So much remains unanswered, from Sadr's recent whereabouts to the movement's future. Had Sadr's supporters really given up their belief in violence that propelled them forward after the U.S.-led invasion almost eight years ago?
Even Sadr's initial rise was stained by blood; supporters are believed to have killed the son of another late grand ayatollah in the first weeks after Hussein's fall. Sadr has struggled to balance the desires of brutish foot soldiers who battled in the streets for him with the aspirations of his middle-class supporters.
"All of us are servants of Sayed Muqtada!" they wailed Saturday, surging forward in wave after violent wave, thrusting up Iraqi pennants and pictures of their hero, who has inspired a fervor and passion witnessed for few public figures in the new Iraq.
Sadr's organization and its Mahdi Army militia emerged in 2003 as a champion of the Shiite poor from Baghdad to Basra, and he waged two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 that even armed Sunni Muslim groups embraced.
But by the time he disappeared from view at the start of 2007, his followers had been implicated in death squad killings and other criminal activities. Large segments of the population he had sworn to protect lost faith in his movement. Some saw him as a shadow of his late father.
Two years ago, the movement suffered its biggest defeat when Maliki's government ordered a crackdown on militias associated with Sadr.
During the height of the war, Sadr publicly denounced those supporters who committed criminal acts, but either he was too weak or unwilling to bring a definitive end to the bloodshed. Now his movement has been painstakingly rebuilt, with most of his armed wing converted into civic religious organizations.
Just one small wing, known as the Promised Day Brigade, is authorized for military operation and only against U.S. forces. His movement has won 40 seats in the parliament and is presenting itself as a deliverer of good governance.
At times, a double game is suspected. Some Iraqi army officers accuse the Promised Day Brigade of assassinating their soldiers. A low-level gang war is also believed to have broken out between Sadr's militia and a splinter group.
Sadr himself remains a work in progress.
One religious cleric who studied with his father believes Sadr has used the last four years to remake himself in Iran. No longer is he an irritable man, prone to fits and coarse language, but the mature head of a spiritual and political movement, this cleric asserted.
On Saturday, Sadr beseeched his followers not to embarrass him with unruly behavior.
"If you want me close to you, I don't want anyone's complaints about you, neither from the Iraqi people nor from outside the Iraqi people," he said.
As he spoke, his bodyguards worked furiously to stop the surging crowd from bursting through the barricades.
"Yes, yes, Muqtada!" the faithful roared, and the guards linked arms and held them back.
Fakhrildeen and Salman are Times staff writers.