• Ten Months Later: At a busy intersection in Sadr City, a sprawling, predominantly Shiite section of Baghdad, men wearing civilian clothes but carrying weapons enthusiastically directed the chaotic traffic. Drivers paid attention.
It's just one snapshot that had reporter Howard LaFranchi comparing forays into Sadr City last November to his visits there over recent weeks.
"I don't recall any such civic volunteers 11 months ago," says Howard, noting the men were from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. "But these days, none of Baghdad's new police force is anywhere in sight, and the few US soldiers I do see are manning tanks on the slum's outer fringes."
The Mahdi patrol was not the only sign of Mr. Sadr's growing influence. "Everywhere I went, there was at least one toddling Moqtada," Howard says. "I asked one young father if there wasn't also a fresh batch of little Bushes in the neighborhood, but after a good laugh he said he didn't know of any."
Other changes struck Howard as well. Two US tanks guard the gates of the district council, set up to usher in ideals of democracy such as local governance, transparency, and constituency access. Before, residents applied for jobs at the front gates; today, a redirection of traffic away from the street that passes in front makes the site seem remote.
One scene particularly saddened Howard. Two young men were cutting a neat round hole in the pavement. "They're preparing a hole to later lay a bomb," a Mahdi fighter told Howard, insisting such acts were defensive. Howard recalled that on another Sadr City street last November, he had come upon a large gathering watching US soldiers defuse an improvised explosive device, a major killer of US troops. "Several adolescent boys had proudly told me they had informed the Americans about the suspicious object, and military officials had confirmed their story. But on this occasion, people were walking by or looking on with indifference."
Deputy world editor