BAGHDAD, Iraq—After the past two days of fighting in southern and central Iraq, the difference between firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi couldn't be any more clear: Al Sadr has an army, and Allawi does not.
In Iraq, security is politics. When Allawi took office, the self-styled strongman lost little time before declaring that his government wouldn't tolerate the insurgency that's swept the country.
But as in previous battles, when al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia began to overrun Najaf and several neighborhoods from Baghdad to Basra, the Iraqi police force and national guard fought for a little while, then ran.
And as in previous battles, Iraq's Achilles' heel was revealed: To defend their country, Allawi and the interim government must go to the American military, an institution that's widely reviled by many Iraqis as an occupational force run amok.
Allawi's Cabinet has approved an emergency provision that would allow for something like a state of emergency to be declared, and he's expected to announce at least a partial state of emergency at a news briefing scheduled for Saturday.
But even if such a measure were imposed, it's not clear that Iraqi forces have the training or equipment to enforce it outside Baghdad, a capital that's looking increasingly besieged.
As Marine Col. Anthony Haslam put it Friday in Najaf: "We are trying to train them and equip them as best we can, but they just have AK-47s and they need some heavy machine guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), because that's what's out on the street."
Al Sadr's men certainly didn't seem worried about the Iraqi government or its security apparatus Friday.
Speaking at the Imam al Khadim shrine and mosque in one of Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhoods, al Sadr cleric Hazim al Arajie took the Iraqi interior minister to task for saying that those who were battling American forces in Najaf and elsewhere were gangsters who would be run out of Iraq.
"We're warning you that if you're going to say these words again, we'll take you from your house and send you to hell," al Arajie said in remarks directed toward the minister, Falah Hassan al Naqib.
Many in Iraq take al Sadr's popularity as a sign of the U.S. failure to provide an alternative. The militia, it seems, may not be as much a coordinated fighting force as an expression of Iraqi rage at the American presence.
"The Iraqis are frustrated by the heat, the lack of water and the lack of electricity," said Sadoun al Dulame, the head of an independent research center in Baghdad. "All that we have gotten is talk and promises, but nothing has actually been done."
In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, there are long gas lines, a near-epidemic of typhoid and hepatitis due to poor-quality water, and an electrical grid that provides only six hours of power daily for many residents.
Adel Hamid, a vegetable merchant in Sadr City, which was named for al Sadr's late father, said that over the course of about 15 months of suffering through a lack of basic services, he'd come to see the Americans as the enemy.
"The fight will continue and (Allah willing) we will be victorious," Hamid said. "I will sacrifice my three boys for the Sadr movement; they are in the Mahdi Army now to protect the city."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Dogen Hannah contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.