NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's security detail has a disciplined quality far removed from his old Mehdi Army militia, hinting at his evolution toward the mainstream that could help stabilize Iraq.
Sadr, who led two uprisings against the U.S. military and demands its withdrawal, seems eager to shed the image of a firebrand and appear a statesman as his movement assumes a new, powerful role in Baghdad's coalition government, analysts say.
Bearded men in black shirts and grey suits with pistols strapped to their belts, and others dressed like professional mercenaries, have knitted a tight circle around him since his return Thursday after years of voluntary exile in Iran.
Their sophistication is a far cry from the AK-47-wielding young Shi'ite fighters who made up Sadr's Mehdi Army, which was behind much of the sectarian violence unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and battled U.S. troops.
"When Sadr was an untamed rabble-rouser, he lived in Najaf with unsophisticated, informal networks protecting him," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College, University of London. "The fact that he's (now) got this highly visible, highly trained and disciplined security network is both an indication of his maturity and growing sophistication."
Sadr's movement has shifted to embracing the political process, winning 39 seats in Iraq's parliament and seven ministries in the new government, while his militia, although still regarded with suspicion, has said it has put down arms.
Since his homecoming to Najaf, Sadr has hunkered down in his family house, making only brief visits to the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites, and his father's grave.
HOPE FOR MORE STABILITY
His return has set Iraq aflutter, wondering whether he will help solidify its fragile stability or cause a descent back into broader sectarian chaos. But many in both the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim camps look to him to be a force for stability.
The scion of a revered clerical family fled Iraq more than three years ago, with an old arrest warrant hovering over his head for the murder of another Shi'ite cleric.
Sadr was expected to address his followers Saturday.
In the meantime, one of the most visible aspects of his presence are the bodyguards swarming through his neighborhood.
"We are taking into consideration that Sayyed Moqtada is a target for terrorist groups or parties or Americans. We have put in place a very detailed, tight security plan," one of Sadr's bodyguards, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
"We have many guards, more than you can imagine."
Around Sadr's family house in Najaf, four security zones have been set up. Guards wearing long-sleeved blue shirts, beige pants and baseball caps man the outer perimeter, while the inner circles are monitored by men in grey suits. A few of the bodyguards wear sunglasses.
The sophistication of Sadr's security has raised questions about where they were trained, especially given the time that Sadr spent under the patronage of neighboring Shi'ite Iran.
"We are all sure that his bodyguards received training in Iran. I noticed that when I saw his convoy. They work professionally and don't allow any vehicle to come near them," said Muhammad Massoud, 38, a Najaf taxi driver.
The support of the Sadrists, thought to have been brokered at least in part by Iran, was crucial in securing a second term for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and ending a 9-month deadlock over the formation of a government in Iraq.
However, Sadr's bodyguard said the security teams had received high-level training in Iraq.
Dodge said all the signs were that Sadr wanted to project a more mature image, away from his more militant past.
"It's sending a clear signal (that), 'I'm a proper politician now, I'm not a man of the street. I am organized, I am as vulnerable and as protected as any other Green Zone politician'," Dodge said, referring to Baghdad's heavily fortified area of government offices and embassies.