Sadr army owns city's streets
Our reporter follows the Mahdi Army as it patrols Sadr City, home to 1 in 10 Iraqi voters.
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They also get credit for most of the good in the area - whether they're responsible or not. The US military has just embarked on a multimillion dollar effort to improve Sadr City's sewage and water supply, but most residents, when asked who's responsible for the earthworks on many streets, say it's being done by the Mahdi Army.Skip to next paragraph
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The modest lifestyle of the Mahdi Army's leaders - as well as their past and present involvement in operations against Saddam Hussein, US forces, and criminals - gives them enormous street credibility in this tough neighborhood.
"The Sadr family has lived with the people and suffered with us,'' says Salam Abeid Kassim, a policeman lounging in a Sadr City tea shop. "All of these exiles who the Americans put in charge - we can't respect them. The Mahdi Army are the only ones working for us."
Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, was assassinated in 1999 along with two of his sons for speaking out against Saddam Hussein. His uncle, Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, was killed by the regime in 1980. To supporters, that legacy gives the family's most prominent descendant the moral right to speak and to lead over former exiles like the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister who left Iraq in 1975.
To be sure, it's hard to know if all the glowing reviews given to the Mahdi Army from dozens of people in Sadr City are genuine, since the organization's members are rarely out of earshot. Inside the Mahdi Army, members are kept strictly on message by regular communiqués from Sadr's office that stresses the chain of command and warns them off taking any action unless officially authorized to do so.
Nevertheless, the veneration and support for the group seems genuine, nowhere more so than at the Waiting for the Mahdi Mosque, where 40 boys between the ages of 10 and 12 are undergoing religious instruction from a Mahdi Army member.
They eagerly raise their hands when asked questions about basic Shiite religious practices, but get really worked up when their teacher says they can reenact the Mahdi Army's first clash with American forces. That was in August last year, when US soldiers in a helicopter tried to remove a Mahdi flag from a communications tower, prompting an outburst by Sadr supporters. US forces, taking fire from a crowd, shot back and 13-year-old Wael Ayman was killed.
Apologies are made for the lack of costumes - and weapons.
"Those aren't toys, you know," says Nasir Khudayer, their teacher, nodding at pictures of a past performance that used real AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades as props. "If we need them, these boys are ready to fight."
For today, imaginations will have to make do. Two boys stand in as US soldiers as another boy solemnly holds a green Mahdi Army flag. In English, one shouts out: "Excuse me please, what is that?" When his "American" companion says it's the standard of the Mahdi Army, they rush over shouting "No Mahdi, No" and rip and trample the flag.
A firefight then ensues, and the piece ends with one of the boys weeping over the boy playing the martyred Wael, who is then draped in an Iraqi flag and carried off on a plank to his funeral while the boys chant "Our blood and souls for you, Moqtada."
"The Mahdi Army is important to save Islam and to save Iraq,'' says Abid Ali Mussa Jabar, 12, fingering a combat knife. "We have to remember them."
Sheikh Saadi, the Mahdi commander, says that while the movement's stature has been mostly built up in relation to the Americans, its mission extends far beyond the day when US troops leave the country. "We're fighting a war to cleanse the world of evil, it starts here but will spread everywhere,'' he says. "It's going to last until the Mahdi returns to earth."
The Mahdi is a mythical figure revered in some Islamic traditions which closely mirrors some Christian beliefs about the end of the world. The Mahdi, the story goes, will one day return to Earth in the midst of violence and moral crises, bring about the full triumph of Islam, and usher in a long period of peace - to be followed by the end of the world.
Many of the group's leaders believe the time of the Mahdi is near. "Saddam's fall was a sign, the US occupation was a sign, our job is to prepare the way for the Mahdi's return,'' says Sheikh Uday al-Maliki, a Mahdi commander who calls himself a parapsychologist. "One way to think of the Mahdi Army is as a Mukhabarat for souls,'' he says, referring to Saddam Hussein's feared domestic intelligence service.