BAGHDAD, Iraq—From directing traffic to organizing blood drives, the militia overseen by firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr is taking control of Baghdad's largest neighborhood even as Iraqi and U.S. officials demand that the group disband.
Al Sadr's office, not the beleaguered police station, is often the first stop for Sadr City residents who want to report a crime in this teeming slum of 3 million. Militiamen compete with the U.S. military in trash cleanups.
"Who runs Sadr City? Only the Mahdi Army," said Ali Qassim, who works in an ice cream shop off one of the area's dusty boulevards.
The dominant presence of the Mahdi militia reflects the profound lack of security in Iraq. And it's a big challenge to the authority of the nascent Iraqi government, which has talked tough on security but lacks manpower. The Mahdi Army has entrenched itself despite taking heavy casualties while fighting American troops in Sadr City and in towns in southern Iraq following April's uprising.
On Tuesday morning, Iraqi police near downtown Baghdad arrested at least 500 Iraqis in a round-up targeting petty crooks and organized crime groups, but the sweep didn't extend to Sadr City. To do so would almost certainly require the Mahdi Army's cooperation.
"If there is something wrong in this city, they will fix it," said Jasem Jaber, an Iraqi policeman assigned to Sadr City. Al Sadr lives in the southern town of Kufa, but his power base is in Baghdad.
While U.S. military commanders have said they would "destroy" al Sadr's Mahdi Army, it's not only still intact, but it also has been acting as a de facto police force, according to Mahdi Army commanders and Iraqi officials.
American officials boast that gunmen no longer patrol Sadr City alleys. But unarmed militiamen are free to walk the streets and detain people for questioning.
Most residents interviewed said the Mahdi Army—named after the Shiite Muslim messiah—doesn't need to carry weapons anymore because it's in charge.
Abu Ali, a Mahdi brigade commander who goes by his nom de guerre, said his group has widespread popular support in Sadr City.
"You don't need any battle plans," he said. "Just go outside my home and shout, `They've arrested Sheik (Abu Ali),' and you will be surrounded " by Mahdi Army supporters.
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced the dissolution of Iraq's major militias during his first month in office. The notable holdout was the Mahdi Army, and Allawi promised it would be "dealt with harshly."
A murder charge is pending against al Sadr in connection with the killing of a rival cleric last year. American military commanders have said that al Sadr would be killed or captured.
There's no sign that's about to happen.
Allawi is pushing an amnesty plan for some insurgents, presumably including the Mahdi Army, and officials in the government would like the organization to join in the political system.
"Sadr City is a special case," said Sabah Khadum, the spokesman for Iraq's ministry of the interior, which oversees the nation's police forces. "The Mahdi Army is helping the people, and we cannot object until we have the ability to control Sadr City."
In any case, said Sadoun al Dulame, the head of an independent Baghdad think tank, "that city belongs to al Sadr."
The area is one of Baghdad's poorest. Originally designed to house about 300,000, it now holds about 10 times that number. At most, there are 12 hours of electricity a day—usually there's half that amount—and sewage and garbage cover many side streets, where goats and donkeys graze.
Last month, the commander of the U.S. Army division in charge of the area, the 1st Cavalry Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, said he had been concentrating on reconstruction projects—not combat mission—in Sadr City, where he's assigned a battalion of about 500 men.
"I've got a battalion in Sadr City, and there's 3 million people in Sadr City," he said. "I can't fight 3 million people with a battalion."
On Sunday, Mahdi troops walked down the road a few blocks from a group of U.S. military police attached to the 1st Cavalry, who were parked outside of a police station on the edge of Sadr City.
Members of the Mahdi Army direct traffic at most intersections of Sadr City while Iraqi police watch. At night, the streets are filled with militiamen who wear identification cards bearing al Sadr's picture. They have been carrying out raids of suspected kidnapping and drug gangs in the neighborhood, and they either detain suspects or hand them over to the police.
In addition to its patrols, the group has been conducting blood drives and trash pickups, partly to compete with 1st Cavalry projects.
The area was known as "Saddam City" during the rule of Saddam Hussein, a designation that was quickly changed in honor of Muqtada's father, who was one of the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq before he was killed by Saddam's gunmen.
Iraqi Police Col. Marof al Lami, the chief of Sadr City, confirmed that the Mahdi Army has recently brought in the leaders of two kidnapping rings and a member of a carjacking gang. In addition, Lami said, its members directed police to the site of 150 tons of sugar that had been looted from the Ministry of Trade.
Lami said he's not happy about the Mahdi Army—he agreed with militia leaders' claims that the organization has about 10,000 men in the area—but added that with current police staffing levels, there's not much he can do.
On any given day, Lami said, he has about 300 police available for patrols, site management and traffic control, and 100 of them lack weapons.
The Mahdi Army, in contrast, is divided into four divisions, made up of 10 brigades of about 250 men each that can mobilize at a moment's notice, according to leaders from within those brigades.
Residents have taken note.
Abbas Mohammed, a merchant, said that from what he's seen, "the Iraqi police are here to help the Mahdi Army."
Lami said he's considering giving badges to residents of Sadr City and essentially deputizing them to act as the ears and the eyes of his department. The badges would require the bearers to show allegiance to the police and not a militia, but Lami conceded that would be hard to enforce.
"When people in Sadr City have complaints," he said, "they go to al Sadr's office, and they send out the Mahdi Army to make arrests."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+mahdiarmy
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): usiraq+mahdiarmy