Sadr army owns city's streets
Our reporter follows the Mahdi Army as it patrols Sadr City, home to 1 in 10 Iraqi voters.
(Page 3 of 3)
While many top officials engage in philosophizing, the activities of the Mahdi rank and file are more prosaic. After midnight on a recent evening, Hisham and his small group of Mahdi Army members go out for their nightly security duties, setting up on a street corner where they share cigarettes, chant songs in praise of Moqtada, and stop the occasional car.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
One carries a rifle. Another flashes homemade explosives packed tightly into an empty can of beans. "Just in case,'' he says.
The thickly muscled and calm Hisham is typical of many of the army's lower ranking leaders whose commitment to the cause was hardened by their time as political prisoners under the old regime.
Now, he says, he's driven by a desire to make sure Sadr City is never subject to an outside power again, one of the reasons he's so opposed to the US presence here. Despite a day job as a security guard elsewhere in Baghdad, he spends six nights a week on the streets of Sadr City with his friends.
"We don't hate American people, we just hate the policies of the US government, which wants to control Iraq," he says. "We're dealing with the criminals here, people's safety. The Americans have done nothing."
Tonight's patrol is low-key, with a brief visit to a local police station, where a few officers sit in the darkness behind coils of razor wire and concrete. "The Mahdi Army is great for us - they handed in two criminals earlier this evening,'' says one officer. "We don't have to go out as much thanks to them."
During the April uprising, most of Sadr City's police stations were overrun and their weapons taken by Mahdi Army members. Since then, the two have developed informal working relationships, with police often controlling traffic on one corner, and Mahdi Army members the next.
"We don't want to fight, but we have too,'' says Sheikh Saadi. "There is still so much evil here."
NAJAF, IRAQ - In April and May, when US units engaged in bloody clashes here with militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, this Shiite holy city was a ghost town.
But today, mention Mr. Sadr in the back streets of Najaf, and few people are willing to say anything negative about the young firebrand whose uprising hurt local business and left hundreds of Iraqis dead.
"Moqtada wants to protect Najaf city and stop the explosions and keep strangers from entering in," says day laborer Munzer Ahmed, stopping with his son outside a shop selling biscuits and chocolate. "Thank God the Americans got rid of Saddam, but it's not good they're fighting [Sadr's] Mahdi Army," he says, running a string of brown prayer beads through his hands..
Recent national polls show a dramatic increase in Sadr's popularity. In one US-sponsored survey published in June of more than 1,000 Iraqis in major cities, 81 percent said their opinion of Sadr was "better" or "much better" than three months earlier.
Some Najaf residents indicated they were afraid to criticize Sadr. Still, many blamed the recent violence as much on the US-led coalition as on Sadr, whose militia maintains control over two large "exclusionary zones" in Najaf and nearby Kufa. Only one person openly disagreed with Sadr in interviews conducted with a dozen people while traveling with US forces through Najaf.
"Moqtada has a lot of supporters," says an unshaven chicken-seller, as he wrings a bird's neck and begins plucking off the feathers. "We like him because he's 100 percent Iraqi."
While condemning the violence, he says US officials incited it by capturing a Sadr assistant and shutting down his newspaper, Al Hawza, which recently reopened. "We like the fact that [the US] overthrew Saddam, but not when they kill our people," he says. "When we see our people killed, we stand beside them."
Sadr reemerged in Kufa July 23 to give his first Friday sermon in two months, condemning the US "occupiers" and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
"What he says is right ... the militia is protecting Najaf," says Aamer Harez Ali, a barber sniping away with his sheers. Still, he admits, if more young men had work they would be less likely to enlist in the Mahdi Army. "We need jobs," he says.
- Ann Scott Tyson, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor