Iraq’s Sadrists Project New Confidence

It was fewer than seven lines of hand-written Arabic on a small piece of paper, bearing his stamp. But with it, Moktada al-Sadr, son of a revered ayatollah and scourge of the American occupation, made clear on Thursday that he was in charge again of a group that has begun shaping Iraq as the United States withdraws. “The lack of discipline of some of you as I performed my religious rituals bothered me and hurt me,” he said, scolding his followers for the rapturous welcome the day before. “Please exercise discipline and refrain from excessive chants and pushing which harms me, others, you, your reputation and the reputation of the Sadr family.”

Or, translated more loosely, this is not yesterday’s movement. In scene after scene on Thursday, a day after Mr. Sadr returned from more than three years of exile in Iran, signs abounded of the new face his movement is projecting, with him in charge. Not least was a security detail outfitted in gray suits or khaki that looked borrowed from a mercenary outfit.

On dirt packed by the feet of pilgrims, under imperious flags of piety, his supporters spoke with a new confidence, even arrogance, about a future they claim. And at the end of town, near the softly lighted shrine of Imam Ali, detractors — and they are many — said they had yet to forgive, whatever he might promise.

“This man,” said Mohammed Ali Jaafar, a merchant there, “he is nothing.” In that, it was a familiar scene in a country rarely quiet since the United States invaded in 2003. At the center of events, once again, was Mr. Sadr, the rare figure in Iraq who carries both religious mystique and political authority, heeded by a grass-roots movement with a canny sense of the street and a remarkable ability to fashion itself as the opposition, even when it plays the role of kingmakers, as it is now.

Ryan C. Crocker, the former ambassador to Iraq, once suggested that the followers of Mr. Sadr “could revolutioniz