Sadr loyalty grows, even as Sistani returns

It's a hot summer morning, as Doctor Hassan heads out on his rounds to see the wounded. His patients are all in their homes scattered throughout Sadr City. They are fighters for the Mahdi Army, who are staying out of hospitals to avoid being arrested by US forces.

Doctor Hassan, who did not want to give his last name, is a member of the Mahdi Army, and this mobile medical unit is another indication that the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr is more than a street gang or personality cult.

Even as the standoff between the Mahdi Army and US forces appears to be subsiding - with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani scheduled to begin talks Friday in Najaf for a Mahdi withdrawal from the shrine - Mr. Sadr's organization, already battered from weeks of battling with the US, continues to be resilient.

Almost unknown to the world before its violent uprising last April against US forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Mahdi Army is emerging as a well-organized parallel government that aspires to govern Shiites according to its religious principles. Its models are the violent militant organizations (designated as terrorists groups by the US) with social programs like Lebanon's Hizbullah and Hamas in Gaza, and its goals are at least as ambitious.

In most cities where the Mahdi Army is present, there are Mahdi Army religious courts for resolving disputes and punishing criminals; Mahdi Army police patrols; and even Mahdi Army town councils for planning social programs.

All of these services pay political dividends, earning the admiration of many Shiites who don't necessarily support Sadr or his militia. And while Sadr's militia has suffered major losses in Najaf, by standing up to the US and Iraqi forces for weeks, Sadr has also raised his stature in the eyes of many Iraqis.

Until the arrival of Ayatollah Sistani's in Basra Wednesday afternoon, Sadr's Mahdi Army appeared to be facing an almost certain military defeat in the streets around the Shrine of Imam Ali. Now, there is a strong possibility of a negotiated withdrawal for Sadr and his forces, which will keep Sadr on the political scene for sometime, and also allow Sistani another chance to prove his skills as a mediator. A negotiated withdrawal may also be a relief to the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, since any assault on the shrine could inflame Iraq's Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of the population.

Through a spokesman, Sistani called on all Shiite clerics to travel to Najaf to take part in the negotiations, and for the transfer of the Shrine's keys to Sistani and a grand Shiite council, the Marjayee.

"We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf," Sistani said in a statement read by his aide Hayder al-Safi. "I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends."

At press time, several of Sadr's top aides were reported to be arrested by Iraqi police, including Sheikh Ali Smeisim.

Yet, in Sadr City, the news from Najaf seemed quite distant. For Mahdi Army fighters here, the war is just beginning. And even for those who have been severely wounded say they are preparing for the next battle.

Abu Hassan, one of Hassan's patients, says the fighters in Najaf will stay and fight to the last man. "This is their home territory, and their own families will encourage them to fight and die, and then they will go to heaven," he says.

Hassan says he just registered with the Mahdi Army's main office in Sadr City to become a suicide fighter, with the potential of driving a truck full of bombs to kill US soldiers. "If they ask me to do it now, even though I am weak, I am ready," he says.

A few blocks away, Doctor Hassan visits Raad Rishad, who received shrapnel wounds in his abdomen, X-rays showed the shrapnel near his heart. But when doctors took the second set of X-rays, before surgery, the shrapnel disappeared.

Mr. Rishad says it was a miracle by the Mahdi, or Messiah, himself. "I had a dream, in which I saw two men, one dressed in black, and one dressed in white," he says. "The man in white told me that I would be all right, the shrapnel is already gone, because he had already removed it from me. Later, the doctor checked the wound he said there was nothing there. I'm sure the operation in the dream was real."

"This is the reason we are fighting," Rishad adds, "to prepare the way of the Mahdi. This is not just for our freedom or the protection of our homes."

Doctor Hassan admits that Rishad has made a remarkable recovery, but he worries that Rishad may be a bit too eager to return to battle. Already, just 10 days after being wounded in the first battle, Rishad showed up at another fight with American forces. Doctor Hassan, himself fighting with a Kalashnikov, told him to go home.

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