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After setbacks, Sadr redirects Mahdi Army

Moqtada al-Sadr instructed his militiamen to join a new social wing of his anti-American Shiite army.

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The new social efforts will center on literacy programs and assistance to those in need, such as orphans or individuals who lost family members during Saddam Hussein's rule. It will also offer general Islamic education, not just Shiite teachings, and ethics courses to counter the culture of killing that Mr. Obeidi says Al Qaeda brought to Iraq.

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Courses and services will be available for everyone, regardless of their religious or political beliefs, say leading Sadrists.

"We want to change the views of ordinary people who are against the Sadr movement," says Sayeed Fares al-Jazari, leader of a Sadrist mosque southeast of Sadr City. "I expect it will be a successful political shift for the Sadr movement and a change from guns to culture."

However, there is concern, both in and outside the Mahdi Army, about criminal elements who reportedly falsely identify themselves as members of the Shiite group. These rogue elements have traditionally ignored direction from Sadr, but continue to act in his name.

"The problem is that these terrorist groups are not motivated by only one or two reasons," says Michael Kanner, a professor of political science at the Colorado University in Boulder who specializes in security studies. "The leadership is not always in complete control."

Many people who become involved with violent resistance groups like the Mahdi Army or even the Irish Republican Army have criminal inclinations that create problems when the group tries to move into the mainstream, says Professor Kanner.

"There are groups that say they are from the Mahdi Army, but they are not and they've destroyed what Mahdi Army has built," says Sheikh Shawkat al-Rubbai, a Sadrist and leader of Al-Zihara Mosque in Sadr City.

Sadrists say that they will work to rein in these groups, reporting them to the authorities if necessary. They are in the process of starting a community policing program modeled after the Sons of Iraq, but will use a different name.

"If [Sadr] can't control the special groups, how can [he] expect to disarm them? His call to disarm them will disappear with the wind," says Mohmedawi, who speculates that fighting could emerge between Sadrists and the breakaway groups or that the Mahdi Army is abstaining from violence only until after the Iraqi elections this fall.

The US military, which was engaged in intense combat with the Mahdi Army until a cease-fire agreement in late May, shares in Mohmedawi's reservations.

"We welcome this announcement that appears to be an effort to help the Iraqi people," said a spokesman for the Multi-National Force – Iraq, the US-led military coalition, in an e-mail. "The proof is always in the actions and not just the words."