In his latest statement last week, Sadr said: "I tell the evil Bush, leave our land, we do not need you or your armies.… I tell the occupiers … you have your democracy and we have our Islam; get out of our land."
And using language that could have been torn right out of the fiery speeches of Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he urged the Mahdi Army to continue to abide by his freeze order for now.
The cleric warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against extending the mandate of US-led multinational forces. He blasted Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party and its allies, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr Organization, for targeting Sadrists. And he chided Iraqi security forces, many of them beholden to ISCI and Badr, for taking part in those anti-Sadrist operations.
The early history of Hizbullah, too, involved bloody internal fighting with a rival Shiite group and training by Iran before it became a skilled guerrilla group.
"Iran is definitely interested in having its own proxy political and military force in Iraq, just like Lebanon. Iran may try to wait a bit now to see who will emerge as the more dominant force," says Riad al-Kahwaji, a Dubai-based military expert on Iran. "All the indications so far are that [Iran] has invested a great deal in the Mahdi Army."
But, he adds, "it has been a bumpy start. The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah."
Shiite rivals do battle
The Mahdi Army freeze grew out of fierce battles in late August between ISCI and its affiliate, Badr, both headed by Sadr's archnemesis Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, in Karbala. In two days of fighting, more than 50 people were killed at the city's shrines during an important pilgrimage. The outside wall of the revered Imam Hussein mausoleum still bears the scars of the fighting.