Although it has been formally disbanded by the Sadr movement's leader, militia that once battled against the US enjoys popular support.
Mahdi Army - a force that can't be ignored
BAGHDAD // Just past the official entrance into al Ameen, after the Iraqi army checkpoint, a mechanic apparently changing the oil of a dirty car outside his workshop on the main road called us over. "Who are you? Where are you going?" he asked and when I told him my name he said he needed to see my identity card. He wasn't a soldier, or police officer, or anything else related to government security forces. The mechanic was a member of the Sadr movement's security enforcers, the Mahdi Army, the unofficial law in this part of eastern Baghdad.
I had made prior arrangements, clearing my entry into the district via some well-connected people. It's difficult to say what exactly would have happened to me if I had not done that - it wasn't an experiment I wanted to conduct - but I almost certainly would not have been made welcome. The Mahdi Army is, of course, officially disbanded and on the surface at least has been consigned to Iraq's recent bloody past. The only caveat is that in Baghdad the recent bloody past can often seem indistinct from the uneasy, violent present and, beyond that, from a possible bloody future.
Once feared, reviled or admired in Iraq, depending on exactly where you were born, who your parents are and how you lived, the Mahdi Army is no longer the major power it once was. It is not the same force that was so heavily involved in the civil war that tore this country apart in 2006 and 2007, and before that, fought large set piece battles against the US military. With the changing political landscape the militia, often ill controlled, ill disciplined and linked to sectarian murders and organised crime, became something of a liability for the Sadr movement and its leader, Muqtada al Sadr. After a series of ceasefires and some heavy fighting with government forces that began in Basra, the young Shiite cleric finally announced in 2008 that the Mahdi Army, as a fighting unit, was no more.
Mr al Sadr had little choice in the matter, with the militia heavily diminished by the war and election rules barring any party with its own private army from running. But in al Ameen, it has not really ceased, just disappeared from view and changed its face. People pointedly still use the name Mahdi Army, and many residents say they still rely on the militia to provide them with security. In the face of a continued threat from Sunni extremists who have styled themselves after al Qa'eda, the army people here say they trust is the Mahdi Army, not the Iraqi force. The same was true before the sectarian war really ignited; the Mahdi Army was widely seen in Shiite neighbourhoods as a defensive shield against the brutal tactics of al Qa'eda in Iraq.
"We don't look to the American military for protection," said Abu Mortadatha, a grocery shop owner. "We trust in the Mahdi Army. I don't like to see the Americans hunting them down, arresting them and generally harassing our boys. They need to accept that the Mahdi Army are the reason we have stability here." Pasted to the walls around the 54-year-old's store were pictures of Mr al Sadr. Iraqi government forces, supported by the US army, periodically take down the posters or plaster alternative images and messages over the top.
In turn, the Sadr loyalists make a point of trying to replace the images of their leader as soon as possible - a kind of poster war. The shooting war, while markedly diminished, has still not stopped entirely. Spend a night or two in al Ameen and there is a good chance you will hear gunfire or explosions. US helicopter gunships are still sometimes called into action. With its undercover agents checking who comes and goes in the neighbourhood, the Mahdi Army appears to be a better-run, more tightly knit unit than was previously the case. Not so long ago any Shiite man with a gun and a grudge would claim to be a Mahdi Army fighter when, in fact, he was at most obliquely associated with the group. In today's al Ameen, when Iraqi government troops show up, the Mahdi forces fade away.
It is difficult to gauge how strong the new Mahdi Army is here. What is not in any doubt is that Mr al Sadr, the man who leads the political movement the militia is synonymous with, remains immensely popular, regardless of the deeds that have been committed in his name. "Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army are the noble face of the Iraqi resistance and they have stood against the American occupation and its agents here," said Abu Jaafar, a local bus driver with a collection of images of Mr al Sadr stuck to his vehicle. "For that I can say that I will always love and feel gratitude to the Mahdi Army."
A woman with perhaps more reason to be critical of the Mahdi Army's methods and its leader is Umm Ali, a 60-year-old mother of five who lives in al Ameen. "I have given all of my sons to the Mahdi Army and to Muqtada al Sadr," she said. "I lost my children and now I live alone in my house and I am sad, but I also live with joy and pride knowing that my children have been following the way of God."
Her two youngest sons were killed fighting the US military in the summer of 2003. Another two have disappeared, and are currently wanted by Iraqi government and US forces. Umm Ali said she has not seen them in more than a year. The other, Ali, is in prison for fighting US troops. "I was afraid because I knew they were mujahideen," she says. "But I was also happy because they were fighting against the forces of occupation. We know that those who join the ranks of the mujahideen are held in high regard by God."