BAGHDAD The firebrand anti-American cleric whose militia battled U.S. troops for years is facing a strong challenge for leadership of Iraq's poor, urban Shiites from a small, well-organized faction with loose links to Iran, senior figures within his movement say.
The split within Muqtada al-Sadr's organization has widened as Shiite groups weigh the outcome of last month's provincial elections and prepare for a national ballot this year that will determine the leadership in Baghdad.
The dissident faction is expected to mount a campaign to become a rival force appealing to al-Sadr's base among poor Shiites, senior officials close to the cleric said in interviews this week. This would offer greater openings for Tehran's influence in Iraq and give political cover to the so-called "special groups" of former Sadrists that have continued attacks on U.S.-led forces.
For al-Sadr, the internal battle may become a critical test of his credibility and resilience after being weakened by crackdowns on his once-powerful and now disbanded militia, the Mahdi Army.
"Iraq has turned a new page after (the provincial) elections," said a statement attributed to al-Sadr read at Friday prayers in the Sadr City district, his group's stronghold in Baghdad.
"It marks a gate for liberation; a gate to serve Iraqis and not to keep occupiers to divide Iraqis," the statement said.
Results from the Jan. 31 balloting, announced Thursday, had al-Sadr's loyalists gaining a handful of seats on influential provincial councils across Iraq's Shiite south. This was seen as a sign that al-Sadr is wounded, although he is considered still capable of staging a comeback.
The splinter group within the movement wants to take on that role, however, and is angling to supplant al-Sadr amid wider political jockeying among Iraq's Shiite majority.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a more secular-oriented Shiite, saw his allies make strong showings across the oil-rich south in the provincial races, giving the government the early advantage against an expected challenge in national elections from the largest Shiite political group, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which also has close ties to Iran.
Al-Sadr's sharp rhetoric against the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and his militia's later battles with American forces catapulted him from relative obscurity to a position of significant power, particularly among the poor and powerless in Shiite neighborhoods.
But his standing began to erode after al-Sadr lost control of longtime strongholds in Basra, Baghdad and Amarah after al-Maliki launched offensives against Shiite militias last year.
At the same time, the splinter "special groups" set their own course, pushing on with attacks on U.S.-led forces even after the young cleric declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2007 and then dissolved the Mahdi Army last year.
Now the breakaway faction with ties to the armed groups is planning to field candidates in the elections for the Iraqi parliament with the apparent goal of transforming parts of Iraq into a Shiite state modeled after Iran.
Al-Sadr has lived mostly in Iran since early 2007, reportedly studying to become an ayatollah under the tutelage of an Iraqi-born cleric who has lived in Iran for decades. But al-Sadr claims to reject Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs and portrays himself as an Arab patriot against Persian influence.
Some key figures in the breakaway groups include former close aides to al-Sadr's late father a revered ayatollah who founded the Sadrist movement and was believed assassinated by Saddam Hussein's agents in 1999.
The breakaway leaders complain about what they say were al-Sadr's missteps, including dismantling the Mahdi Army, once Iraq's biggest and most feared Shiite militia.
Two senior Sadrists, interviewed separately by The Associated Press, estimated the breakaway factions represent 30 percent of the movement and say it is better organized and funded than al-Sadr's camp.
Both Sadrists spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and fears for their own safety. Each is well-known in the movement, and one said he had developed a "relationship" with the rival camp.
They said al-Sadr has made overtures to his rivals, but is afraid of confronting them and touching off a showdown.
Especially prominent among the rivals is Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite cleric who has been in U.S. custody since March 2007. The U.S. military believes that before his arrest, al-Khazali organized the "special groups," which were responsible for the Jan. 20, 2007, raid on the Karbala provincial headquarters that killed five U.S. soldiers.
After al-Khazali's arrest, command of the splinter network is believed to have shifted to another militant cleric, Akram al-Kabi, who was overall commander of the Mahdi Army until al-Sadr replaced him in May 2007.
Al-Khazali's network took the name Asaib Ahl al-Haq League of the Righteous and is one of the two major Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq, the other being Kateb Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials.
Iran's government denies having any links to Shiite extremists in Iraq. But American officials believe the two groups are controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Brigade, which trains Shiite militants from various Middle Eastern countries.
A former Mahdi Army commander backed the U.S. view. He said he had been approached by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, but turned down the recruitment offer because he considers the group too close to Iran.
The ex-commander, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because of fear for his safety, said Asaib Ahl al-Haq is quietly organizing itself across southern Iraq with the goal of taking control of the region.