BAGHDAD, Iraq—The day seemed tranquil at Muqtada al-Sadr's headquarters for western Baghdad. Pigeons flew overhead, swooping down to perch on palm trees that dotted the courtyard. Uniformed Iraqi policemen and soldiers sipped tea with rugged militiamen or exchanged customary kisses with black-turbaned clerics. Women came to plead for assistance.
But calm is always fleeting in Baghdad. At midday, about 50 gunmen stormed the courtyard and ordered everyone inside to stay put and to stay silent.
Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen responded immediately, drawing automatic rifles and pistols from under their winter coats and gathering in a cluster to face the unidentified gunmen. The assailants closed ranks, brandishing shiny revolvers and battered machine guns.
The groups walked toward each other as if in a high-noon duel. A voice from the crowd called for blessings in the name of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Sadr's soldiers began to shout age-old prayers for the prophet and his descendants, then added the Sadr camp's innovation: "Bring salvation soon, and damn their enemies!"
With the air filled with the clicking sound of weapons being prepared, visiting McClatchy journalists fled.
The sudden intrusion of the gunmen into one of Sadr's most secure strongholds exposed a paradox that dogs the Sadr movement and contributes to the daily bloodletting here: The Mahdi Army is growing larger and more sophisticated, with politicians in the government and a vast social services network that serves thousands of poor Shiites, but the anarchy of the streets makes it hard for the militia's commanders to rein in their men, much less prevent attacks from rival factions.
Even as Sadr presses for more land and power, his grasp over Baghdad remains tenuous.
Just moments before, Hazem al Araji, 37, a senior Sadr aide and head of the office, had extolled the transformation of Sadr's movement. Now, gunmen of unknown provenance were threatening his office.
Araji came to the office in the summer of 2003, when he was fresh from exile in Canada. The one-story stucco building in Kadhemiya was a Shiite seminary where baby-faced clerics-in-training dashed out between philosophy classes for falafel sandwiches.
On warm summer days, students in white robes sat under the palm trees in the serene courtyard. They idly flipped through the pages of their Qurans or sat frozen in thought as their fingers worked prayer beads. Sadr's supporters struggled to recruit members to the fledgling Mahdi Army, posting leaflets on the seminary walls. Visitors came and went as they pleased.
These days, the safest route to Sadr's west Baghdad office runs through an obstacle course of both legal and dubious checkpoints in an area known for kidnappings and car bombings.
On Tuesday, there were eight: The first was an imposing roadblock manned by Iraqi army soldiers in camouflage. The next four were guarded by Iraqi police in mismatched uniforms. Then came a couple of apparent militiamen standing in the street with guns, and next, a vehicle search by more plainclothes sentries. Finally, another batch of unidentified guards stopped pedestrians at a coil of razor wire to peer into women's bags and pat down men for weapons.
Gone are the peaceful seminary days. In their place, men in long overcoats hover, casting steely glares on anyone who enters the compound. The courtyard brims with new faces and dialects. Some were distraught Iraqis seeking financial or security help; others were militiamen or workers from Sadr's social programs.
A large poster hung on the wall showing Sadr, the firebrand cleric-turned-commander, alongside fellow Shiite Muslim leader Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's Hezbollah. Sadr stood on an American flag; Nasrallah on an Israeli one. The caption read: "Their arrogance is under your feet."
An elderly blue-eyed woman shuffled in and beseeched Sadr's representatives for medical assistance for her three sons. Two of them had been shot by U.S. troops, she said, and the third had fallen off a motorcycle while fighting Sunni gunmen.
"Are they in the imam's army?" a tall, stern man asked.
"Yes, they all are," the woman replied.
"OK, just give me their names and papers and we'll sponsor them," he said.
Araji's story illustrates the history of the Sadr movement. A devotee of Sadr's father, a prominent Iraqi ayatollah, Araji fled Iraq in 1999 after Sadr's father was killed. He returned after Saddam Hussein was deposed, but was detained twice by U.S. forces after the Mahdi Army fought two bitter uprisings against the Americans in 2004. He was out of prison last year, and his wife and four children have joined him from Canada.
During the summer's Israeli-Hezbollah war, it was Araji who led Sadr's solidarity demonstrations in Baghdad, which turned out tens of thousands. He praised Hezbollah's response to its constituents and drew comparisons with the Mahdi Army's recent activities.
"If we talk about the word militia, the Mahdi Army doesn't fit the description. We are a group of people with a belief," said Araji, now national director of Sadr's social programs and a local militia commander. "We call it an army, but it's not just an army of gunmen. We protect our neighborhoods and provide services for our people."
Araji said he'd visited Lebanon and Iran recently to check on the welfare of Iraqis in prisons and refugee camps. When asked whether he'd met with Hezbollah chief Nasrallah in Lebanon, he smiled, shook his head and steered the conversation back to his two trips to Iran. On those jaunts, he evaluated the needs of 90,000 Iraqis in exile.
At home, he said, his time is consumed with the displacement of tens of thousands of Iraqis in what he called "one of the biggest crises in modern history."
When told that Sunni Web sites accused him of fielding death squads, Araji scoffed.
"Let them bring proof," he said. "We still have many Sunni families in Kadhemiya. No one has been displaced here, but in the hot spots of Karkh, of course, there are problems. It's the same for Sunnis and Shiites." Karkh is how residents of Baghdad refer to the largely Sunni side of the city that lies west of the Tigris River.
Araji said the government had failed so miserably in providing basic services that his office petitioned the local council six months ago to take over the distribution of cooking gas and other supplies. Now, he said with pride, the Mahdi Army delivers gas and kerosene to families throughout Kadhemiya and other heavily Shiite districts.
Funding for the projects, he said, comes mainly from 2,000 donation boxes throughout Iraq that are stuffed with cash every week after Friday prayers.
"It's a weak government," he said. "They're supposed to do this, but we do it."
Araji said the Mahdi Army doesn't seek to replace the Iraqi government, but that it's obligated to step in until elected officials show results.
He searched for an answer to why Sunnis and Shiites are now at odds. He was reminded that in 2004, Sunni fighters from Fallujah were welcomed into the Mahdi Army and Sadr-allied clerics met frequently with their militant Sunni counterparts in the Muslim Scholars Association. So what happened?
"I ask myself this same question," Araji said with a sigh. "We still have some connections with them, but it's not like before." He blamed the United States and neighboring countries for sowing sectarianism.
"Sectarianism has grown so much in Iraq that we've started to lose trust between the groups," he said.
An aide ducked into the room with urgency. He kneeled before Araji and whispered something in his ear. Araji's eyes widened, he apologetically cut short the interview and ushered his guests back into the courtyard.
Five minutes later, the gunmen arrived. Araji's black turban was lost in a tangle of uniformed and plainclothes gunmen, the swish of black robes as women ran for cover, and the glint of sunshine on weapons.
In a phone call later that night, he dismissed the showdown as "a tribal matter" and emphasized that no one was injured. Kadhemiya was still safe.
"It was a private matter," he said, and offered no further explanation.
An audio feed of the confrontation at the Sadr office is available at http://www.realcities.com/multimedia/nationalchannel/news/121206(underscore)iraq/index.htm
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.