Abbas seems friendly enough and laughs easily. As his car breezes through Iraqi army checkpoints at the entrance to Baghdad's notorious and sprawling Sadr City slum, he talks about killing Sunnis. "We caught Takfiris [members of a fundamentalist Sunni Islamist sect] who were [working] with the Americans. We didn't want to kill them, but the government was too weak to do anything at the time. So we killed them all and put them in a big grave."
A loyal Mahdi Army fighter since the Shi'ite militia was established in 2003, Abbas is now wanted by the Iraqi government. But his story echoes those of many of Iraq's young fighters; it's one not of cold-blooded murderers but of avengers. "Al-Qaeda killed my brother. They kidnapped him from a street near his home in 2006. They wrapped his head in plastic until he suffocated to death," he says. "He was 23, and his wife was five months pregnant. Those people [who killed him] were his neighbors his friends." (Abbas later caught and killed them too.)
But Abbas hasn't been killing any fellow Iraqis lately or even Americans, his group's primary target. In fact, the vast militia of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been relatively well-behaved since al-Sadr called on his followers to stand down and allow Iraqi government forces to enter Sadr City peacefully in May. Some U.S. and Iraqi military commanders in Baghdad say al-Sadr's call for his men to remain peaceful in order to prevent "more bloodshed" served a tactical purpose, as he began to see a losing battle in the face of an empowered Iraqi security force. Indeed, many officials allied with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government say the cleric's militia and Sadrist political movement have been substantially weakened through military crackdowns on their strongholds in Sadr City and the southern cities of Amara and Basra over the past four months. "We don't think they will try to fight again, because they are too weak now," says an Interior Ministry official. "If they start, it will be their end." Says Ali Saadi, a medical professor in the Hay al-Banook district, where the Shi'ite militia has been popular and which lies adjacent to Sadr City: "The Mahdi Army was hit hard [by the military operation]. They are very weak these days, and a lot of them escaped to other areas."
But in Sadr City, Abbas and his comrades insist they haven't gone anywhere. "We're resting," he says with a smile. As if to ominously confirm Abbas' analysis, graffiti spotted around Baghdad in the past few months has warned, "We'll be back." But when? And if they're only resting, then does that mean the government has less control over the restless opposition hotbed than it has claimed? "The government is in full control of Sadr City," says the Interior Ministry official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press. "There are still a few [Mahdi Army fighters], but they have no influence and they cannot act because we are fully in control of them."
The Sadrists in parliament maintain their distance when speaking about the militia in public. "Of course the government is controlling Sadr City," says Sadrist MP Nasir al-Saadi. But when asked whether that means the Mahdi Army has been wiped out, he says, "The Army of the Imam [a name used interchangeably with Mahdi Army] is not only in Sadr City; it is in all of Iraq. And if [government officials] think they are few in numbers, they are dreaming."
Hundreds of Shi'ites loyal to al-Sadr gathered outdoors [on July 25, 2008] for Friday noon prayer and a heated sermon by an imam in al-Sadr's movement. He blasted the American occupiers and the security deal being negotiated between the U.S. and al-Maliki's government. Worshippers laughed when asked, rhetorically, who controls the neighborhood, which is home to some 3 million of Baghdad's poor. "This area is controlled by the Sadrist movement. The Iraqi army only watches over Friday noon prayer no more and no less," says worshipper Ali Kate'a, 31, as soldiers with rifles peered at the crowd from nearby rooftops. Says Abbas: "Of course they're nervous. They're not comfortable here."
Indeed, Kate'a may be right, or the Iraqi army's resources were too focused on the sermon and subsequent political demonstration to pay much mind to the rest of the neighborhood. But police and army checkpoints become noticeably fewer and farther between as one moves from the outskirts to the center of Sadr City. And in the heart of the slum, Mahdi Army fighters in yellow shirts operate checkpoints alongside Iraqi soldiers. "But it's not cooperation," laughs Mohanid, a Mahdi Army fighter. Most of the Iraqi soldiers have their faces covered to conceal their identities. At another intersection, a dozen young militia members attempt to direct a snarl of traffic in the late afternoon heat as a single uniformed policeman fumbles aimlessly in their midst seeming to have given up.
"Look how you got in here today, as a foreign journalist. Did you get permission from the Iraqi National Guard?" Abbas asks. "No. If anything, that's evidence they don't control this place." As he speaks, a car riddled with bullet holes, carrying four young men, pulls up next to him at a street corner. Above it, a billboard on the median depicts four young martyrs all killed fighting the Americans, according to Mohanid. One holds a gun and is draped in ammunition, and like most other martyr billboards around the neighborhood, al-Sadr's picture floats next to them. Unlike in Basra, where his portrait has been torn down from many street corners, the cleric's picture in Sadr City remains ubiquitous, and graffiti on the walls reads: "Long live al-Sadr" and "Saulat al-Sadr" Charge of al-Sadr the Mahdi Army's answer to Maliki's Basra offensive, which was called Saulat al-Forsan, or Charge of the Knights.
Along one block, about 35 displaced Iraqi Shi'ite families from other neighborhoods occupy makeshift homes built with monetary help from the Sadr office. Most of them fled predominantly Sunni neighborhoods in and around Baghdad like al-Dora and Abu Ghraib when a rash of sectarian killings broke out in 2006. "This house was built by the Sadr office, not by the government," says Mohanid proudly.
At the demonstration that followed Friday's prayer, a crowd of men rallied as they often do with Iraqi flags and portraits of al-Sadr raised above their heads, chanting, "No to America! No to the agreement! No to the occupation!" Saadi, the MP, says the Mahdi Army will never turn violent in Sadr City again. But he says it could carry out more demonstrations "if the government pushes the people and doesn't fulfill its promises." The Interior Ministry official is more wary, saying, "People want services like electricity, water and medical care ... They are fed up with the military in the streets. And don't forget that Sadr City is a very big district and [the residents] are almost under siege. They have very few ways to get in and out, and that could cause pressure and drive some of them to fire on a military convoy."
Abbas, too, complains about Sadrist-targeting in raids. "It is very clear they are targeting the movement ... All the jails are full of Sadrists," he says. "At some point, this pressure could end in an explosion. The Army of the Imam will never stop making its demands and asking for its legal rights."
Leaving Sadr City that afternoon, Mohanid gets a call on his mobile phone. "The American base is on fire!" he exclaims with a grin. True enough, it is. On the southeast edge of Sadr City, residents watch as flames sputter from the broken windows of a multistory building on a joint American-Iraqi base. A helicopter hovers through the thick black smoke above, airlifting Iraqi police who have been trapped on the roof, as powerful hoses blast the flames with water from below. But this was no product of the Mahdi Army, which has kept to its official "resting" stance. Lieut. Colonel Steven Stover, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, later said that although the cause for the flames was unknown, "it definitely wasn't enemy fire."
But if al-Sadr's dormant militia does decide to stir should frustration over a lack of services, perceived discrimination or an American threat provoke them once more the question remains of just how real the semblance of an Iraqi military grip on the city is. "The state is weak," says Abbas. "If Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr wanted to call on the Mahdi Army to fight again, this city would collapse in a single day."
With reporting by Mazin Ezzat / Baghdad