Sadr army owns city's streets
Our reporter follows the Mahdi Army as it patrols Sadr City, home to 1 in 10 Iraqi voters.
SADR CITY, IRAQ
Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army rarely engages US forces anymore. Hundreds of his men were killed in clashes with the US in April and by June, the militant Shiite cleric had declared an informal truce that prevails to this day.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite occasional clashes, including a firefight between marines and Sadr's bodyguards on Monday outside his home in the shrine city of Najaf, senior US commanders believe their April counteroffensive decisively crushed his insurgency.
But that doesn't mean Sadr and his militia have lost influence. In recent months, the Mahdi Army has consolidated its control over Sadr City - a poor sprawl of 2.5 million on Baghdad's northeastern edge - maintained control over large portions of Najaf, forced a US-backed government council in the southern city of Amara to resign, and rearmed in anticipation of further confrontation with the US.
"We're in charge here,'' says Sheikh Amar Saadi, a preacher in Sadr City and senior Mahdi Army commander. And he goes further:
"Our mission is to clear Iraq of evil, and that's not just about defeating the Americans."
The US effort to arrest Sadr in April, which sparked uprisings in southern cities, gave the cleric a national stature that is likely to have a profound impact on Iraq's political development. For the moment, Sadr's organization is not national in scope. There are signs of poor coordination with supporters in Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south. But inside his Sadr City stronghold his support appears to run deeper than ever.
A few days spent with some of the organization's foot soldiers and lieutenants inside the city, prowling the area's warren of side-streets, where sewage seeps from dilapidated infrastructure and barefoot children play with trash, shows a vast organization with a strict hierarchy and an obsession with following orders. The area is one of Baghdad's poorest, with typhoid and other water-born diseases endemic and anger at the perceived failure of the US to improve daily life widespread.
Scarcely a street corner can be found without a Mahdi Army member, more often than not in a black shirt with a pistol tucked discreetly in his waistband. Sadr officials say the group is making the first tentative steps towards becoming a political force like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
US patrols rarely venture here and the local police tend to take orders from Sadr's men rather than the other way around. Every afternoon, large queues of supplicants form outside Sadr's main office to ask for help with medical bills, schooling, and jobs.
By running a wildly popular anti-vice campaign in cooperation with local police, Sadr's men - and not the US-installed interim government - have taken up the mantle of chief guarantors of public order in Sadr City. Mahdi Army members have killed alleged drug dealers and kidnappers, and handed more over to the police. Local cops confirm their cooperation. "They're doing a lot of our work for us,'' says one.
Though it has little money and doesn't support anything like the wide array of medical clinics, mosques, and social services that have cemented Hezbollah's popularity in parts of Lebanon, the Mahdi Army is the most potent social and political movement in Sadr City. The area holds about 10 percent of Iraq's electorate - a powerful bloc in a country divided between the Kurds and competing Shiite and Sunni factions.
Mahdi Army member Sheikh Saadi lives in a narrow apartment of rooms with his wife and infant son in what was once a single family home but has been divided into three. Most Sadr City dwellings have been subdivided to accommodate the booming population.
He rolls up a pant leg to show a gunshot wound he says he received while leading an operation against a kidnap-for-ransom gang about seven weeks ago. The alleged kidnappers? "They're no longer with us,'' he says with a smile.
"We know everyone here, the good people and the bad people, and we're dealing with them." He also cheerfully confirms that the Mahdi Army has been behind the recent fire-bombings of liquor stores and video stores they accuse of selling pornography. "We're protecting people from these things."