Standoff bolstered Sadr's support
Interviews with Iraqi Shiite clerics reveal that moderates are increasingly supporting Sadr's anti-US campaign.
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"The next few weeks are crucial," adds Mr. Atiyyah. "Now it's time for more wisdom and less muscle."Skip to next paragraph
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But as of Saturday that muscle appeared to be prevailing. In Sadr City, a congested Baghdad neighborhood of 2.5 million Shiites, battles between the US and the Mahdi Army raged all Saturday afternoon and again after midnight Sunday morning. In 12 hours, 6 people were killed and 86 were wounded, according to Health Ministry figures.
Sunday afternoon the streets took on a tentative air of normalcy. Fruit vendors sold watermelons and peaches, dress shops enticed the fashion minded, and donkey carts carried in blocks of ice that grew ever smaller in the 110-degree heat.
Armed Mahdi Army fighters, once seen directing traffic or manning checkpoints, have returned to their homes. But they are far from disarmed. They are just obeying orders, the fighters say, avoiding any provocation and honoring the terms of Friday's cease-fire.
"We have been told not to attack the Americans, even if they attempt to enter the city," says Sheikh Ammar al-Saadi, a Mahdi Army local commander and Shiite cleric. "Only if the Americans bust into our houses and try to capture us are we allowed to fight."
But not all Mahdi Army commanders are happy with this truce, and some say they will fight the Americans, even without permission of Sadr.
"Now we don't listen to Moqtada al-Sadr for our orders," says Sheikh Sattar al-Kaabi, a top lieutenant of Sadr. "Even if Sayid Moqtada came to ask us personally to give up our weapons, we would refuse." Chastised by another militia member in the room, Mr. Kaabi changes his tone. "We are not rebellious against Moqtada, but we are keeping his promises so that the last Americans will leave this country," he says.
But as Mahdi Army fighters say they have become even more energized by the siege of Najaf - and they claim to have signed up 3,000 suicide bombers for training - the citizens around them appear to be growing tired of war.
Yet this growing dissatisfaction with the Mahdi Army is nowhere near an active backlash. Those Iraqi Shiites who are most likely to reject Sadr also reject involvement in Iraqi politics. They follow the lead of Ayatollah Sistani, who says that religious and political matters must be kept separate. Experts say that this position can only cement Sadr's position on the political scene.
At Sadr Central Hospital in Sadr City, Dr. Kamel is making the rounds on a very busy day. In the female ward alone, there are five families with more than a dozen wounded children. Most are injured by mortars and other bombs, says Dr. Kamel, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. He blames most of those injuries on the Mahdi Army.
"Ninety-nine percent of the injuries are caused by Mahdi Army fighters," he says, speaking in English to avoid being overheard by Mahdi Army officials, who now administer the hospital. "Every morning and night I see families coming in - father, mother, children, all injured by mortars. These are not simple injuries, but two or three injuries per person. It's terrible."
Across town at the Kadhimiya Shrine - burial place of a revered Shiite leader, the Caliph Kadhim - Munthir al-Abbassly says that most Shiites admire the Mahdi Army for their bravery. But he says, most Shiites also worry that the Mahdi Army has taken things too far.
"All Shiites - no, all Iraqis - have the same reaction to the Mahdi Army," says Mr. Abbassly, business manager of the Kadhimiya Shrine. "These people are very brave, but they are too young and too passionate, and sometimes they do things without thinking rationally."