BAGHDAD — When Ali Ateya was killed last month at the age of 23_ a victim of an American airstrike on a block of concrete tenements in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, according to his family — there was no money for his burial.
Within days, two officials from Sadr City's main humanitarian organization showed up at the family home. Unsolicited, they offered to pay for Ateya's Shiite Muslim burial service and provide food for three days of ritual mourning.
Then they handed the parents an envelope. It was stuffed with 500,000 Iraqi dinars — about $400 — and on it was printed: "A gift from Sayyid Muqtada al Sadr."
Sadr, the fiery anti-American Shiite cleric, has again emerged as the U.S. military's No. 1 problem in Iraq, as his followers wage an increasingly bloody struggle with American soldiers for control of impoverished, militia-infested Sadr City.
But for the slum's 2.5 million predominantly Shiite residents, Sadr plays a different role, one of humanitarian-in-chief — gifting money to families of the dead and injured, resettling displaced families free of charge and, every month, helping to feed tens of thousands of Sadr City's most impoverished people. Sadr offers the funds for any victim of American weapons in Sadr City.
Evoking comparisons with Hezbollah — the far better established militant Shiite group in Lebanon that's often called a state within a state — Sadr's movement "has established itself as the main service provider in the country," concluded a recent report by Refugees International, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Analysts point out that Hezbollah's military wing is much more disciplined than Sadr's younger and more fractured movement. But Sadr's charity work helps to maintain popular support for his movement even as its confrontations with U.S. and Iraqi forces plunge places such as Sadr City deeper into chaos.
"It's a reflection of the existing vacuum and the extremely poor capacity of the state to step in and provide these services," said Peter Harling, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank.
International aid workers and ordinary Iraqis say that the U.S.-backed Iraqi government is sitting on billions of dollars meant for humanitarian projects. Shiite and Sunni militias have stepped in to fill the gap, assuming control of basic services in neighborhoods they control.
"We would be glad if the government could really provide services," said Ibrahim al Jabri, who oversees the Sadr organization's humanitarian projects in eastern Baghdad, including Sadr City.
"But until now there is nothing provided by the government. It's not possible just to leave people waiting."
Iraqi government efforts to help war victims, by contrast, are a bureaucratic morass. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has established a committee to help Iraq's war widows, who are eligible to receive monthly assistance payments of $40 to $80. But advocates say that cases take months or years to wind through the system, and very few applicants end up receiving help.
"The committee has thousands of cases to read and decide," said Salma Jabow, who heads the independent Center for the Rehabilitation of Widows, in Baghdad. "It takes a lot of time for such a small amount of money."
Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Sadr issued a directive to his then-fledgling movement to assist victims of the conflict. What had been a small social outreach organization based in Sadr's home in the Shiite holy city of Najaf was expanded to meet the massive humanitarian needs of Shiites in Baghdad.
Where Sadr's funding comes from is unclear. The U.S. military says that the Shiite government in Iran is a major backer of Sadr's movement, a charge that Iran has denied. Sadr aides say their support comes primarily from donations by wealthy Iraqi Shiites.
The organization provides 250,000 Iraqi dinars — about $200 — to family members of people wounded in the fighting and double that amount if the victim is killed.
Sadr is also one of the main providers of emergency food assistance in Iraq. Every month, the organization distributes rations of rice, cooking oil, sugar, tea and other staples — much of it provided by the nonprofit Iraqi Red Crescent Society — to 10,000 of Sadr City's poorest families.
Sadr representatives also visit injured people in hospitals and send high-ranking delegates, such as parliament members, to funerals — as they did for Ateya, who died in a U.S. airstrike on April 29.
According to relatives, Ateya was at home on that afternoon when a deafening explosion rocked his neighborhood in Sadr City's hard-hit Sector 10. A few doors away, an American missile had leveled a single-story home and trapped nine members of a family, including four children, under a pile of collapsing concrete.
Ateya and several other neighbors ran to pull the family from the rubble. Ten minutes later, residents said, a U.S. military helicopter appeared and fired another rocket at the site. The strike killed six more people, including Ateya.
U.S. military officials had no information about such an attack and said that they don't target civilians. The family's account, however, was supported by three residents.
After Ateya was buried, his parents moved to a house in a safer neighborhood outside the slum, family members said. It wouldn't have been possible without the gift from Sadr.
"The help from Sayyid Muqtada is spiritual help," said Ateya's cousin, Bashir al Hamidaud, 32, using the Muslim honorific that identifies Sadr as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
"It's not about the money. It's about the feeling that someone is beside you in a time of sadness and difficulty."
The Iraqi government has pledged $100 million to the damaged slum, which has sustained more than six weeks of intense fighting, but U.S. and Iraqi officials say none of that has been spent. The U.S. military has spent $2 million in aid projects, including medical supplies, food and other humanitarian aid.
Fourteen days ago the Iraqi government opened the Iraqi Assistance Center where Iraqis can make claims for damages and deaths. Since the doors opened at least 405 people have visited, 83 people's claims were approved and 10 have been paid. At least 15 more are scheduled to paid.
Lt. Col. Frank Curtis of the 432 Civil Affairs Battalion in Sadr City is trying to jumpstart reconstruction efforts and help Iraqi officials spend the allocated money for the area. Now they get about 70 people a day at the center.
He acknowledged that the Mahdi Army may pay money to families but said that people are tired of its intimidation campaigns.
"Maybe they pay that money, but what the populace tells us and the sheiks tell us is that basically what they do is they steal their money and restrict where they're allowed to go," he said. "Everybody out there has to pay for the right to live in their home."
Sadr aides like to boast that Iraqi charity groups rely on Sadr's extensive network of humanitarian agents — including more than 300 in Sadr City — to distribute food and other aid. On a recent afternoon, Jabri juggled several phone calls from aid groups and a meeting with a top official from Mercy Hands, a leading Iraqi charity.
"We know everything about the Shiite areas," Jabri said. "We know in which sector people need things. The other agencies say, 'We'll provide you with everything.' They depend on us."
(Leila Fadel and special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)