BAGHDAD — At a recent house raid in the eastern Baghdad district of Zafaraniya, Muqtada al-Sadr watched American soldiers from the corner of a room.

The Shiite cleric and militia leader was not physically present, but his picture hung on the wall. His grim face stared down at the U.S. troops as they searched for a member of his Mahdi Army militia.

Whether he went underground in Iraq or spent several months in Iran before resurfacing last month, al-Sadr has nonetheless maintained a lurking presence in Baghdad since the launch of the recent security plan. While the capital city is a patchwork of competing alliances and armies, the enemy here is the Shiite militias.

American military officials have said that militia members have infiltrated nearly every level of Iraqi governance and security forces. In Zafaraniya, increased attacks against coalition forces and local politicians have signaled an attempt by the Mahdi Army to disrupt the area in the months leading to the first official assessment of the security plan.

“They’ve started shooting at us; small-arms fire incidents have increased dramatically,” said 1st Lt. Clay Hanna, 29, of Virginia Beach, Va. Hanna is with the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colo. “There’s a sense out there that they are looking to fight.”

Though al-Sadr never endorsed the “surge,” the fiery, populist cleric at first softened his strident anti-American rhetoric and stood down the Mahdi Army after the launch of the security push in February. American intelligence reports say al-Sadr left for Iran; al-Sadr loyalists have denied that assertion.

But in late May, al-Sadr made his first public appearance in months and renewed his call for the withdrawal of American forces. He also attempted to redefine his partisan image by sounding a nationalist message and reaching out to Sunni Arabs.

Al-Sadr’s return coincides with reports of splintering in the Mahdi Army. Tensions between political and military wings of the group have led to the defection of a number of extremist members, many of whom left Iraq for training by Iran’s Quds Force.

“Up until three weeks ago, we were able to focus on economic development and infrastructure repair,” said Capt. Dave Eastburn, also of the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment. “But over the next three months, it is the goal of the militias to make us look like we failed. It is our goal to keep our foot on their throats.”

Commanders with the unit are waiting to see what al-Sadr’s return means on the street. In recent days, they’ve seen attacks on U.S. patrols and intimidation of local civilians and politicians.

“Al-Sadr is a very influential person for the entire Shiite religion,” Maj. Christopher Wendland said. “His comments or his perceived comments reverberate down to our neighborhoods.”

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