BAGHDAD — Under sweltering heat Friday, the prayer leader urged the crowd of thousands to show forbearance and not to retaliate for what he called daily humiliations at the hands of the Iraqi army.
The plea has become a weekly ritual. Baghdad's Sadr City district after Friday prayers is a massive slum seething with unrest, which backers of firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr are managing to control, but only just.
The Friday sermon is the key to keeping the peace. After prayers, hundreds of young men began demonstrating Friday in front of nearby government forces. Some men began lunging at the Iraqi troops; most held them back.
"Go on! Go on! Keep walking. Head home to your families," a woman told the men, who sheepishly followed her orders.
"There is anger inside our people. There is a volcano that wants to erupt. But we are obedient to Sayed Muqtada," said Nadhil al Sudani, a Sadr City resident and the chief of security for the women's section of Friday prayers, referring to Sadr with an honorific.
"We respect the army if they respect themselves. Many don't. They push the doors and enter homes without due respect to our privacy. Through these confrontations, they try to trigger some violent reaction from the Sadrist trend."
Sadr's order not to fight fellow Iraqis, no matter what, has prevailed so far over hotheaded youths seeking revenge. But residents said they were always fighting the urge to lash out at what they describe as abusive soldiers.
"It is only Muqtada's orders that are stopping us. The Iraqi army knows that they would become hostages within hours," one worshipper told a McClatchy reporter after Friday's sermon.
At stake is not just the future of Sadr City but also security nationwide. U.S. military leaders and everyday Iraqis think that Sadr's order to his followers is a key reason for the dramatic fall in violence. The universal fear is what will happen if the freeze ends. Sadr's motives remain an enigma to many Iraqis, even his followers. The result is angst over much of Iraq, despite the improved security.
A blast wall runs down the middle of Sadr City's main street, where residents gather to hear the sermon and pray as an act of provocation. Between the speeches and prayer, people exchange tales in which they say that the Iraqi army has mistreated residents.
Such tales abound. Sudani said she'd heard of troops bursting into a woman's home and arresting her four sons, as a soldier threw the mother to the ground and put his boot on her head. Iraqi troops are said to have seized gasoline canisters from a Sadr City resident and distributed them to others, claiming they were from the government.
Ali Jassim, 30, another resident, said his cousin's phone rang at a checkpoint with a ringtone containing a chant about Sadr. When soldiers heard it, they slapped him, he said.
Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, has suffered a series of setbacks since last spring. It lost control of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and the southern city of Amara after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered his forces to retake those areas. Many charge that Maliki is waging a political war against his former allies in time for fall's provincial elections.
Unlike in other cities that now are under Iraqi army control, U.S. troops are forbidden in Sadr City. Indeed, this is the only place where Iraqi soldiers are in the lead without American soldiers anywhere nearby to oversee or track their movements. While residents don't want Americans stationed here, they also charge that the absence of U.S. troops allows the Iraqi forces to abuse them freely.
In his sermon, Sheik Mohanned al Mosawi began by reminding members of the Mahdi Army to observe Sadr's order. "We want all good believers of the Mahdi Army to be calm and stay away from problems. Be committed to the orders of your leaders," he said.
He cited examples in the Quran of how to deal with tyranny and called the government an oppressor that was constantly hurling accusations at the residents here. Thousands hung on his every word.
(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)