BAGHDAD - After Friday prayers in Sadr City, 300 women in black shuffled slowly, quietly down a narrow street toward a billboard-sized photo of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery leader of their Shiite Muslim movement.

Holding banners and flags, the women protested the U.S. presence in Iraq and the detentions of hundreds of the radical cleric's followers.

"Anything that comes from Sayed Muqtada is good for us," said Hannah al-Rubaye, using the honorific title for descendants of the prophet Muhammad. "After this step, we expect other orders from Sayed Muqtada. Patience has limits."

Sadr issued a heated anti-U.S. statement last week but instructed his restless followers not to act.

Their demonstration was organized without his orders, and their silence quickly gave way to agitated shouts.

Sadr himself has remained mostly silent in public since his 60,000-member Mahdi Army militia began a cease-fire three months ago.

Sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. forces have dropped as a result, buttressing the case for the withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Iraq and encouraging some to believe that Iraq has had enough of killing.

Now Iraqis and Americans alike are awaiting Sadr's next move, which could alter both his hold on his followers and his relations with rival Iraqi leaders. Above all it will help to determine whether Iraq is seeing the ebbing of a violent storm or is merely in the eye of it.

With the United States recruiting and arming opposing Sunni volunteer groups, Sadr's passivity risks alienating his followers - the poor and underserved Shiites whose loyalty he inherited from his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr.

Nevertheless, said Hazem al-Araji, an aide to Sadr, the Mahdi Army cease-fire is likely to extend beyond the planned six months.

While this would please U.S. commanders and many Iraqis, it would bolster Sadr only if his followers agree that they are likely to gain more by keeping their weapons in their closets than they are by pulling them out again.

"What he did was basically pull the rug out - 'You can continue acting as the mafia, as the mob, but not in my name,' " said Peter Harling, a Sadr expert at the International Crisis Group.

"It worked remarkably well," Harling added, "but I don't know how sustainable this can be. [His followers] appear extremely frustrated, willing to comply with Muqtada's decision, but not for very long."

The International Crisis Group is a worldwide nongovernmental organization that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts.

A breakdown of the cease-fire, either on Sadr's orders or by rebellious commanders, would likely bring a return to sectarian warfare and make it harder for the United States to reverse the surge of additional troops to Iraq, especially if it were accompanied by renewed attacks on U.S. forces.

For now, Sadr is railing against the United States but advocating no action beyond praying in a mosque for two hours after sunset.

"Get out of our land," he wrote on Friday. "We don't need you or your armies, the armies of darkness; not your airplanes, tanks, policies, meddling, democracy, fake freedom."

Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said he hoped Sadr would "go on like this, not fighting, but trying to use political means against Americans or against the government."