Protected by hundreds of militiamen toting assault rifles, tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims poured into Baghdad Friday to celebrate their new religious liberty. The massive but orderly display of independence also heralds a challenge to US authority in Iraq.
Laying prayer mats along three blocks of an avenue cleared of trash for the occasion, the 30,000 Shiite men who knelt at noon prayers constituted the largest such gathering in Iraq since 1999, when Saddam Hussein's security forces brutally put down a Shiite revolt.
"The last time this number of people were here we were killed in this street. This is freedom," said Hussein Ali, a mosque security official, as he surveyed the crowd filling the dusty thoroughfare outside the Hekmar mosque in Saddam City. Some locals have started renaming teeming slum Sadr City, after a prominent Shiite cleric, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. His assassination - allegedly by Saddam Hussein's security police - in February 1999 sparked major unrest among Shiites and scores of demonstrators were reported killed in Saddam City.
But this is not necessarily the kind of freedom that US officials who promised to liberate Iraq had in mind. The imam who preached to the massed ranks of worshippers said the time had now come to ban singing and dancing in Iraq and to oblige women to cover their heads.
Shiite Muslims, whose leaders have close ties to Iran, make up the majority of Iraq's population, but have for many decades suffered mightily at the hands of governments dominated by Sunni Muslims. Friday's prayer session offered signs that the well-organized Shia community might also pose a serious challenge to the new US authorities in Baghdad.
In scenes reminiscent of Beirut in the early 1980s, hundreds of men armed with AK-47's - mostly in civilian clothes - controlled the streets for several blocks around the Hekmar mosque, directing the crowds and guarding them against any attack.
"There are about 5,000 or 6,000 armed men in Sadr City, and we are taking our orders from the mosque," said Samed Elias, a young gunman wearing a military ammunition-pouch vest over his T-shirt as he manned a makeshift roadblock.
This volunteer security force is part of a much broader city administration that Shiite Muslim clerics are setting up across Baghdad to parallel and rival the US occupation forces and their Iraqi allies, who are also attempting to restore normal life to the capital.
Taking their orders from senior clerics in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, Shiite religious students have set up offices across the eastern half of Baghdad to organize neighborhood administrative committees, according to Sheikh Halim al-Fatlawi, a student at the madrassah, or religious school, in Najaf.
Sheik Fatlawi, a spokesman for Sheik Mohammed Fartoozi, the cleric sent from the Najaf madrassah to supervise the government in eastern Baghdad, says the local administrators set up shop four days ago. That gave them a head start on US efforts to get control of the city.
Coordinating with officials from the former government in their areas, the students are seeking to restore electricity, health services, and food and water supplies. They're also arranging mechanical equipment, medical supplies, security patrols, communications, and fuel supplies, Fatlawi said.
These are precisely the same problem areas the US military is trying to address in conjunction with newly arrived officials from the former opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC), which is hoping to establish an interim government in Iraq.
Fatlawi said he had "no idea about any civil administration" that the Americans might be organizing, and that his colleagues "do not intend to have any relations with them."
No US official has approached Shiite authorities, he added, nor have they approached the Americans or INC leaders.
"We have no connections to any other party," Fatlawi says. "We get our duties from the Iraqi people and we get our orders from senior religious people in Najaf. We do not want any foreigners to participate with us in the administration of Iraq."
The existence of several armed militias loyal to different religious and political leaders raises the prospect of factional fighting, but Fatlawi insists that his militia "is not intending to use weapons against other groups, even those who came from abroad claiming to administer Iraq."
Local residents say American troops are rarely seen in Sadr City. Order is kept by volunteer gunmen, mostly in civilian clothes, with a sprinkling of an impromptu uniform of grey-blue blouses and trousers that repentant looters had handed in to local mosques.
On Friday, these men guarded makeshift roadblocks, kept guard at street corners, and directed the disciplined and good-natured crowd of worshippers that streamed toward the Hekmar mosque from every direction.
"We are protecting the worshipper," says a man in a long Arabic robe cradling an AK-47 who says he had been a soldier in the Iraqi army until the fall of Baghdad last week. "There are still fedayeen and mercenaries from other Arab countries around here and they have bad intentions."