BAGHDAD — Muqtada al-Sadr is considering setting aside his political ambitions and restarting a full-scale fight against U.S.-led forces — a worrisome shift that may reflect Iranian influence on the young cleric and that could open the way for a shadow state protected by his powerful Mahdi Army.
A possible breakaway path — described to the Associated Press by Shiite lawmakers and politicians — would be a backlash to the Iraqi government's pressure on Sadr to renounce and disband his Shiite militia.
By snubbing the give-and-take of politics, Sadr would have a freer hand to carve out a kind of parallel state with its own militia and social services along the lines of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Shiite group founded with Iran's help in the 1980s.
It also would carry potentially disastrous security implications as the Pentagon trims its troop strength and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows progress on national reconciliation.
"Muqtada has shown a great deal of patience not calling for an all-out war yet with so much pressure on him," said Mohan Abedin, director of research at London's Center for the Study of Terrorism and an expert on Shiite affairs. "The Mahdi Army is by far the most powerful Iraqi faction. It can cause damage on a massive scale if it goes to war."
The Mahdi Army is estimated to have about 60,000 fighters — with at least 5,000 thought to be highly trained commandos — and is emboldened by its strong resistance to an Iraqi-led crackdown launched last month in Basra and elsewhere.
Sadr's movement also holds sway over the densely populated Shiite parts of Baghdad and across the Shiite south by controlling vital needs such as fuel and services such as clinics.
A cease-fire declared last summer by Sadr has been credited with helping bring a steep drop violence.
But Sadr — who has been in the Iranian seminary city of Qom for the past year — is seriously considering tearing up the truce and disassociating himself from his political bloc in Parliament, according to loyalists and Shiite politicians.
Any Mahdi Army offensive could have serious repercussions. Mahdi fighters engaged in fierce battles with U.S. forces in 2004 and then were blamed for waves of roadside bombings that were once the chief killer of American troops.