Supporters of maverick Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr controlled government, religious and security buildings in the holy city of Najaf early Tuesday evening, according to a coalition source in southern Iraq.
The source said al-Sadr's followers controlled the governor's office, police stations and the Imam Ali mosque, one of Shia Muslim's holiest shrines.
Iraqi police were negotiating to regain their stations, the source said.
The source also said al-Sadr was busing followers into Najaf from Sadr City in Baghdad and that many members of his outlawed militia, Mehdi's Army, were from surrounding provinces.
Recent polling by a consortium including the BBC suggests that most Shi'a do not support attacks on Coalition forces, which is good news for now. If Sadr were to achieve his dream of rallying and uniting all Iraqi Shi'a under his (Iranian-funded) banner, the occupation would effectively be over.
However, Sadr has proved to be an adept strategist. Moving his offices to Najaf and asserting control over the shrines gives him a pulpit for his claim to legitimacy. It also makes it much harder to separate Sadr from the broader Shi'a community - trying to apprehend him would now require a massed attack on Najaf, which unlike Sunni Falluja is the epicenter of faith along with Karbala for the Shi'a majority across Iraq.
It's unlikely that Sadr will succeed in rallying the majority to his side, but one mis-step or heavy-handed tactic (not unlike closing his newspaper) could dramatically change Sadr's image. Especially since Sadr has established a "shadow" government and his organization is providing basic services in eth absence and inability of the Occupation forces to do so.
As Juan Cole reports, Sadr's Iranian religious connections are also doing their part to buttress his credentials:
Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Ha'iri, now resident in Qom in Iran but the major clerical successor to Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada's father), warned the Americans against "these reckless actions" on Monday, referring to the crackdown on the Sadrists. He complained that seminary students had become the targets of the Occupation authorities. He said he knew from the beginning that the Americans had not come to Iraq to liberate it from darkness, and now his conviction had been proven correct. He complained that the Americans had begun "making war on this community [the Shiites], dishonoring them, imprisoning their clerics and believers, killing their children, and striking at their ancient intellectual positions. "This is all taking place in the name of freedom and democracy."
There is no word from Ayatollah Sistani yet on the occupation of the Tomb of Ali by the Mehdi Army - I think that Sistani now has more leverage with the Coalition in one respect, because he will be essential in countering Sadr's coup on religious grounds. However, te longer Sistani waits to assert his authority, the weaker it will be.