At least 20,000 worshippers, about twice the usual number, gathered for weekly prayers at a mosque run by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, indicating that he may be winning sympathy from more Shiites as his militia challenges US authority in Baghdad as well as across central and southern Iraq.
Aided by hundreds of young seminary students, the 30-year-old cleric and his supporters have in recent days boasted of widening support after mass protests and fighting this week with US and other coalition troops.
"Our movement is stronger today than it was a week ago," said Ibrahim al-Janabi, a senior al-Sadr aide. "But most important of all is that God is on our side," he said Friday after prayers in Sadr City, the movement's Baghdad stronghold.
Al-Sadr, whose slain father was one of Iraq's top Shiite clerics, has over the past year mixed street politics, the lure of religion and the pent-up anger of a community oppressed for decades to build a base among mostly young and poor Shiites.
Al-Sadr and his militia have been unpopular among most of Iraq's Shiite majority, and it's difficult to gauge the number of people who may have joined his movement since the fighting with US troops began.
US troops moved with relatively little resistance into Kut, one of several cities seized by the militia, and drove the fighters out of much of it. The al-Mahdi Army uprising also has been largely quelled in the far south cities of Amarah and Basra -- and is weakening in Nasiriyah, US commanders said.
But the movement still holds the southern city of Kufa and parts of Najaf and Karbala, southwest of Baghdad.
As a sign of al-Sadr's newfound influence in Najaf, his representative delivered Friday prayers in the city's Imam Ali Shrine, Shiism's holiest site.
The US-led coalition, however, says the appeal of al-Sadr's movement is limited.
"This is not an individual the majority of Iraqis want ruling the new Iraq," coalition spokesman Dan Senor said. "He is trying to determine who will rule the new Iraq through his mob violence and through his intimidation."
But Friday's turnout at the mosque in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad was an indication that al-Sadr's anti-American rhetoric resonates with Shiite youths frustrated by what they see as US failures in Iraq and by older clerics' tolerance of the American occupation.
As thousands of worshippers squatted on rugs outside the mosque, gunmen roamed the area and examined trash for bombs. Snipers took positions on rooftops, some scouring the area with binoculars.
Children wore T-shirts bearing al-Sadr's image. Others sold his pictures.
"Bremer, Bremer you are the outlaw," worshippers chanted, alluding to the charge made this week by Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, that al-Sadr was an outlaw and a fugitive from justice.
The prayers originally were scheduled to take place at another mosque but were moved at the last minute to a site about 3km away. Without complaint, thousands of faithful packed into trucks and buses or walked to the new site -- a demonstration of their unwavering devotion to al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr's office in the district had the atmosphere of a busy, well-organized corporation.
After a long conversation on his cell phone, Amer al-Husseini, al-Sadr's representative, jotted down a note and handed it to an aide. "I want an answer in 10 minutes," he shouted to the aide, who dashed away.
The aide returned a few minutes later, a wad of cash and a checkbook in his hand. "It's done," he said.
The office was shelled by a US tank on Thursday. On Friday, the damage was repaired and the office was operational again.
Al-Sadr's movement rose to prominence after the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago, moving swiftly to claim leadership of a community smarting from years of persecution.
It won the trust of poor Shiite communities by providing free medical care and restoring power and telephone services. The movement even has its own family courts and runs small detention cells.
Many clerics in the al-Sadr movement routinely carry firearms.
But al-Sadr was later eclipsed by Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, who boosted his standing among Shiites by repeatedly challenging US administrators on plans for Iraq's political future.
Al-Sadr supporters regained initiative -- and a huge psychological boost -- with their uprising this week, sparked by the closure of their newspaper and the arrest of a senior al-Sadr aide.
"Moqtada al-Sadr represents Islam in its entirety and the whole of Iraq," Nasser al-Saadi said in his sermon at al-Sadr's mosque, drawing thunderous applause.
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