What does seem clear, though, is that his leaving has essentially untied the hands of his most militant supporters, who are now apparently calling their own shots. They did this recently, by mortaring and rocketing the Green Zone in Iraq, which I hear seriously wounded a couple of U.S. contractors.
These attacks, however, appear to be a retaliation against gradually increasing confrontations between the government and the Sadrists. It appears that the intra-Shiite conflict in Iraq has escalated, with some sort of planned operation centered on Basra against the Sadrists by the rival Badr Brigades/ Iraqi army / US forces. And whether it was the intent or not, these operations have spread the violent conflict all over Iraq, with Iraqis dying in large numbers from Sadr City to Basra. In the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, police and army checkpoints were simply abandoned and militiamen took over. There are unconfirmed reports of Sadrists seizing heavy weapons and even humvees from Iraqi troops.
The difficult part to judge in these matters isn't whether the combined power of the U.S. and Iraqi military can win any battle they happen to have with the Sadrists. The hard part is whether they can actually establish control over anything, with actual cooperation from the Iraqi people, as opposed to temporary bubbles of control. Lots of people dislike the militant sadrists, but they also fear them as well, and have to live with them, as neighbors. In addition, there is also the non-violent, charitable, community-minded side to Sadr's organization, and the political side of Sadr's organization... and really, it's hard to tell how this action will play out on those fronts, where Sadr has significant support. Military victories mean little, if it results in defeats either in the political realm, or in the court of public opinion.
In addition to the direct confrontations, there also appear to be varying degrees of "starving the other side out" going on here. On one hand, I hear the people of Basra need regular bottled water, due to the poor quality of that city's water, the high salinity levels, etc. So, this isn't promising for the Sadrists. On the other hand, I hear that Sadr's forces have effectively blocked the main road between Basra and Baghdad, blocking supplies to the opposing forces.
In response, Sadr has called for protest and non-cooperation... stay home, don't go to work. And they apparently have armed forces out in every town they're big in, enforcing this. The government, in turn, has said that Iraqis that do not cooperate will be treated as Sadrist terrorists.
Oh yeah. That'll work...
Sadr is also appealing to the Iraqi military and people for non-violence, delivering their forces symbolic gifts of korans and olive branches, and is trying to drive a big wedge between the Iraqi government and the clergy. And given that the clergy's standard reply for most every conflict that has taken place in Iraq is to stay at home and pray, you have to wonder how that differs much from Sadr's call for non-cooperation, under the circumstances.
Don't ask me how all this will wind up. I mean, the odds aren't on Sadr's side, one would think... but this guy's forces have survived how many direct confrontations now?!