To a rapturous welcome that conflated the religious and political, the populist Iraqi cleric Moktada al-Sadr delivered his support on Saturday for an Iraqi government that he had once derided as a traitorous tool of the United States and that his followers had battled in the streets of Iraq’s most important cities only a few years before.
The brief speech to thousands of followers was his first since returning last week after more than three years of voluntary exile in Iran, and was watched across the country for signs of a movement that portrays itself today as a far more disciplined, mature heir to the group that surged on the scene after the American invasion in 2003. The earlier incarnation, backed by its Mahdi Army militia, raucously articulated the voice of the urban poor, fighting the American military and then engaging in some of the worst sectarian carnage of the civil war.
Mr. Sadr’s challenge now is to reshape a powerful street movement into a political one, and to reconcile its self-image as the permanent face of opposition even as its ministers and deputies fill the ranks of the government.
In his 28-minute address, delivered in a warren of streets near his home in this sacred city, Mr. Sadr again sought to have it both ways, calling for the expulsion of American troops but allowing time for a withdrawal and offering support for a new government conditional on its effectiveness.
“We are with it, not against it,” he said, speaking forcefully and deliberately, with a confidence he once lacked. “The government is new, and we have to open the way for it to prove it will serve Iraq’s people.”
The crowd, rowdy and at times ecstatic, answered Mr. Sadr with chants of fealty. Some cried uncontrollably. Others, dangling from electricity pylons, thrust their fists into the air.
“Yes, yes, to His Excellency, the leader!” they shouted.
The scion of one of Iraq’s most prominent religious families, who inherited a grass-roots movement founded by his revered father in the 1990s, Mr. Sadr, now grayer, is perhaps the sole national figure who can compete with the prominence of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. So far, their relationship has proved tumultuous, from allies to enemies to allies again, and Mr. Sadr’s speech outlined the pivots on which their relationship might turn.
He insisted that no American troops could remain in Iraq after 2011, a condition the United States has agreed to, and urged his followers to continue to resist the troops’ presence by any means. More cautiously, he suggested that he could withdraw support for Mr. Maliki if the government failed to address the most basic complaints of daily life here, particularly for the disenfranchised he claims to represent — shoddy roads, dirty water, leaking sewage and that persistent motif of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, electrical blackouts.
But Mr. Sadr urged patience from his followers, and at the very least, his words seemed to mean that Mr. Maliki’s new government would have a grace period to act.
“We haven’t put a deadline on the government,” said Hazem al-Araji, a prominent lieutenant of Mr. Sadr’s. “We’re watching how it progresses, and after that we’ll decide.”
Another Sadr aide, Salah al-Obeidi, added, “The government needs a chance.”
The occasion itself was street theater, with an audience stretching down the street to the turquoise-domed mosque of Kamil bin Zayid. On stage was the essence of a movement many believe could transform Iraqi politics, blending the centuries-old symbolism of Shiite sacrifice and martyrdom with a martial culture fostered by the American invasion and occupation.
Since reaching its nadir in 2008, after Mr. Maliki sent the Iraqi Army against its militia in Baghdad and southernmost Basra, with decisive help from the American military, the movement has returned to prominence, essentially by staking its claim to Iraqi politics. It made a strong showing in local elections in 2009. The next year, Mr. Sadr, who had long hedged his support for elections, called on his supporters to fully participate in the vote last March. They did, and in a feat of logistics and planning, the movement won 40 seats, emerging as a savvy player in the eight months of negotiations that followed. Its eventual support for Mr. Maliki was the key to his return for a second term.
At the speech on Saturday, the movement sought to convey a certain respectability, from sharply dressed security guards in gray suits to the punctuality of Mr. Sadr himself, who began talking precisely at 10 a.m., as scheduled. Cadres passed out Iraqi flags, soon overwhelming the crowd’s banners of pious slogans and portraits of Mr. Sadr. In fact, it was hard not to draw at least superficial comparisons to another Arab Shiite movement, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of whom navigate political, social and military identities and have built personality cults around their leaders.
There were even echoes of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, though Mr. Nasrallah remains far more dynamic and eloquent than Mr. Sadr. It was there in the mannerisms, the way each held a white handkerchief or excused himself to drink a glass of water. Each related to his audience the same way, too — speaking in a stentorian formal Arabic, only to lapse into slang when offering a joke or a casual aside.
“What’s up? Are you scared of the Americans?” Mr. Sadr asked the crowd from a 25-foot-high pulpit, draped in black, before leading them in a chant of “No, no to America.”
The crowd answered defiantly, raising their voices.
“You’re getting better,” he complimented them, with the wriest of smiles.
Most comparisons to Hezbollah go only so far, though, and many Sadrist officials point out the obvious: Just as Hezbollah was impossible without Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, so is Mr. Sadr’s movement without the assassination of his father on Mr. Hussein’s orders in 1999 and the American invasion and occupation four years later.
“We are a movement, we are not simply a party,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a Sadrist lawmaker who beat charges of murder, kidnapping and corruption from his time as an official in the Ministry of Health and who joined other Sadr officials at the event.
With that ambiguity, Mr. Zamili captured the challenge of an oppositional movement joining the mainstream, without surrendering the legions of supporters from hardscrabble neighborhoods, so zealous that some tried to stampede the stage.
Mr. Sadr’s speech offered few clues as to how he would cross that divide, going little beyond the reflexive nationalism and millenarian theology that has long served as the movement’s rallying cries. Nor did his lieutenants, some of whom volunteered a contradictory notion of being inside the government looking out, and from there looking back in at its performance.
“We’ll be watching them,” said Nassar al-Rubaie, the minister of labor and social affairs. “We’ll monitor the performance of this government.”