Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army rarely engages US forces anymore. Hundreds of his men were killed in clashes with the US in April and by June, the militant Shiite cleric had declared an informal truce that prevails to this day.
Despite occasional clashes, including a firefight between marines and Sadr's bodyguards on Monday outside his home in the shrine city of Najaf, senior US commanders believe their April counteroffensive decisively crushed his insurgency.
But that doesn't mean Sadr and his militia have lost influence. In recent months, the Mahdi Army has consolidated its control over Sadr City - a poor sprawl of 2.5 million on Baghdad's northeastern edge - maintained control over large portions of Najaf, forced a US-backed government council in the southern city of Amara to resign, and rearmed in anticipation of further confrontation with the US.
"We're in charge here,'' says Sheikh Amar Saadi, a preacher in Sadr City and senior Mahdi Army commander. And he goes further:
"Our mission is to clear Iraq of evil, and that's not just about defeating the Americans."
The US effort to arrest Sadr in April, which sparked uprisings in southern cities, gave the cleric a national stature that is likely to have a profound impact on Iraq's political development. For the moment, Sadr's organization is not national in scope. There are signs of poor coordination with supporters in Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south. But inside his Sadr City stronghold his support appears to run deeper than ever.
A few days spent with some of the organization's foot soldiers and lieutenants inside the city, prowling the area's warren of side-streets, where sewage seeps from dilapidated infrastructure and barefoot children play with trash, shows a vast organization with a strict hierarchy and an obsession with following orders. The area is one of Baghdad's poorest, with typhoid and other water-born diseases endemic and anger at the perceived failure of the US to improve daily life widespread.
Scarcely a street corner can be found without a Mahdi Army member, more often than not in a black shirt with a pistol tucked discreetly in his waistband. Sadr officials say the group is making the first tentative steps towards becoming a political force like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
US patrols rarely venture here and the local police tend to take orders from Sadr's men rather than the other way around. Every afternoon, large queues of supplicants form outside Sadr's main office to ask for help with medical bills, schooling, and jobs.
By running a wildly popular anti-vice campaign in cooperation with local police, Sadr's men - and not the US-installed interim government - have taken up the mantle of chief guarantors of public order in Sadr City. Mahdi Army members have killed alleged drug dealers and kidnappers, and handed more over to the police. Local cops confirm their cooperation. "They're doing a lot of our work for us,'' says one.
Though it has little money and doesn't support anything like the wide array of medical clinics, mosques, and social services that have cemented Hezbollah's popularity in parts of Lebanon, the Mahdi Army is the most potent social and political movement in Sadr City. The area holds about 10 percent of Iraq's electorate - a powerful bloc in a country divided between the Kurds and competing Shiite and Sunni factions.
Mahdi Army member Sheikh Saadi lives in a narrow apartment of rooms with his wife and infant son in what was once a single family home but has been divided into three. Most Sadr City dwellings have been subdivided to accommodate the booming population.
He rolls up a pant leg to show a gunshot wound he says he received while leading an operation against a kidnap-for-ransom gang about seven weeks ago. The alleged kidnappers? "They're no longer with us,'' he says with a smile.
"We know everyone here, the good people and the bad people, and we're dealing with them." He also cheerfully confirms that the Mahdi Army has been behind the recent fire-bombings of liquor stores and video stores they accuse of selling pornography. "We're protecting people from these things."
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.
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.
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.
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