Why has Sadr resurfaced in Iraq?

Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr made a dramatic return today to the public stage from wherever he had been hiding. After about four months out of sight, he picked an opportune time to show his might and sound his message to a movement that seems to feed off Iraq's protracted chaos.

Sadr climbed the minbar, or pulpit, of the large Kufa mosque for Friday prayers while the city was under complete and open control of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia (traffic police were the only government forces in view). His bodyguards, in beige business suits with earphones in place, stood by and his three convoys, including BMWs with tinted glass, were on hand to provide an exit and decoys.

True to form, he took after the United States and called for an end to the American presence in Iraq. Also, Sadr said he decided to "advise" the Mahdi Army to avoid conflict with Iraqi police and the army and to use peaceful tactics, though that does not indicate any call for disarming his loyalists.

But he also sounded themes that could come into play in coming weeks. He reached out to Sunni Muslims: "I specifically refer to our brothers the Iraqi Sunnis, [and say] that the occupier made a division between us and them in order to weaken the Iraqi people."

He issued a soft threat against an Iraqi government in which his own partisans were members just weeks ago, warning it to improve services like water and electricity: "If the government does not try to provide them, we will change our position, knowing that providing the services will enhance the security situation that the government claims to be trying to achieve."

A year ago, Sadr seated six ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, apparently ready to build patronage and support doling out welfare and jobs. But as the government showed itself to be more and more ineffective, the ministers pulled out, and now Sadr's statements appear to position him as a kind of opposition figure who can voice the mass's dissatisfaction with power outages, water shortages, car bombs and corruption.

His call for Shiite-Sunni unity, also not new, comes as his leadership has been holding meetings with Sunni representatives, who consider themselves Iraqi nationalists. Sadr has also portrayed himself as a nationalist—an indigenous Shiite figure compared to Iranian-backed rivals who were in exile during Saddam Hussein's regime. Like leading Sunnis, Sadr's faction wants a strong central government and hopes for local elections this year—in which they're expected to do well in some areas. Some hope he sticks to these goals and becomes a figure for reconciliation.

An expanding vacuum at the top of Iraqi politics also makes this a ripe time for an emergence by the cleric. Prime Minister Maliki is bogged down in a sweeping security operation that has not impressed most Iraqis and is tied up on legislative battles over how to share national oil revenues and amend the Constitution. One of Sadr's primary competitors for the hearts of religious Shiites is on the sidelines. Cleric Abdul Aziz Hakim, who leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the major powers in the government, is reportedly being treated for lung cancer in Iran. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is in the United States for medical care. Sadr, said to be in his 30s, appeared energetic despite the already wilting Iraqi heat.

Sadr's forces fought—and died—in great numbers against U.S. troops in 2004 and 2005. They are widely accused of sectarian attacks since the bombing of the beloved Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006. But he is also working the political track. One of the aides who escorted Sadr into the mosque was Nassar al-Rubaie, a Sadr politician who helped gather signatures from more than half the Parliament demanding a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Crowds were emotional and large—a few thousand—but not overflowing for the cleric's reappearance in Kufa, close to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. His return had been erroneously rumored on Fridays past, and many remained skeptical this time. When he did show, the decoy convoys weren't the only mysteries Sadr cultivated. U.S. officials claim he has been in Iran since the start of the Baghdad security plan in February. Sadr's people have given conflicting accounts of where he has been, and he did not address the issue when he spoke in the mosque. Some of Sadr's forces have tried to lay low during the increased U.S. operations, and others are splintering off to continue their attacks on U.S. forces and Sunnis.

But as Iraq's turmoil continues, its political leadership falters and its people become more desperate, the biggest mystery of all remains what the cleric plans to do next with all his options.