BAGHDAD — Mohammad and his gang are back. There may not be a Glock semiautomatic strapped to his waist anymore, but the terrifying mystique of the Mahdi Army still shrouds the Shiite Muslim militiaman like the menacing black uniform he once wore.
Civil servant Haidar Naji remembers how Mohammad used to strut around his east Baghdad neighborhood like a mob boss, ordering him not to wear Bermuda shorts, too immodest and Western for his Islamic tastes.
Naji changed into longer pants.
He felt satisfaction in 2008 when he heard Mohammad, whose last name he never knew, and his friends had been rounded up and imprisoned, a well-deserved comeuppance after the militia’s years of kidnapping, torturing and killing Iraqis, and dread this year when he saw them back on the streets, a little more polite, but with the same righteous attitude.
“We’re seeing their mobility, their presence, in the mosques, in their gatherings, in the alleyways,” said Naji, a resident of Habibiya, a poor Shiite district next to vast, impoverished Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold.
“Maybe they are not wearing the same black uniforms as before,” he said. “But we can identify them. We are worried that they will come back and sabotage our neighborhoods.”
The return of the Mahdi Army poses a dilemma for the Obama administration. For now, at least, Washington’s goals coincide with those of the militia: Both want to hasten the departure of U.S. troops, and the group’s leader, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has publicly urged supporters to avoid taking up arms.
But with its ideological fervor intact and bolstered by a powerful 40-member parliamentary bloc, the shadowy organization could take advantage of the country’s instability as a political crisis festers and U.S. troops withdraw.
“The Mahdi Army has a wish to come back to the arena again,” said Emad Hossein, a representative of an older, moderate Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Hossein al-Sadr, who is related to Muqtada al-Sadr but politically his opposite.
“They had this golden time when they controlled the streets, neighborhoods and gas stations,” Hossein said. “Now they are just waiting for something to happen, or to receive an order. They are waiting to use the moment to climb on the shoulders of others to get what they want: power, at the expense of the people.”
Muqtada al-Sadr, scion of a famous and powerful clerical family, launched the Mahdi Army in 2003, drawing in thousands of poor, young Shiite men into what eventually became a loosely defined sectarian militia that repeatedly confronted U.S. and Iraqi forces. Al-Sadr demobilized the militia in 2008, after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a series of offensives against it in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.
Now the militia members have regrouped, say supporters and critics of the organization, and sought — not for the first time — to recast themselves as a social movement aiming to educate the young.
In interviews with al-Sadr’s supporters, they speak of computer and Quran classes, providing money for the sick and repairing broken sewage lines.
“They’re trying to create (a nongovernmental organization) to deal with cultural issues, to deal with education, to increase IT skills,” said lawmaker Mohammad Deraji, a British-educated rising star in the al-Sadr movement. “That’s why we created these new entities. Hundreds of thousands of people are involved.”
But in an ominous echo of the Mahdi Army’s early rhetoric, they also vow to protect their communities as a wave of terrorist bombings and shootings has coincided with the deadlock over forming a new government.
“The security situation has deteriorated,” said Hassan Kashef, a 25-year-old ex-militiaman now serving as a member of the Monasseroon, one of the three new branches of al-Sadr’s organization. “The security forces are loyal only to the parties, and not to the people.”
Though they insist they are unarmed, Kashef and others in the movement say they reserve the right to fight any continued U.S. presence.
“There are occupation forces,” Deraji said. “Any country that is occupied by other countries, they have the right to resist the occupation.”
Adding to the confusion and the potential for violence, observers say there are at least two major outgrowths of the Mahdi Army’s militia: the Promised Day Brigades sanctioned by al-Sadr and a splinter group called the League of the Righteous. Some describe the latter as an Iranian-controlled militia linked to Shiite militant organizations, which the U.S. called Special Groups, that were once accused of using sophisticated roadside bombs against troops.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have already had some run-ins with Promised Day. On May 28, Iraqi security forces arrested a member of the group “allegedly involved in sniper, indirect fire and improvised explosive device attacks” against American and Iraqi forces, according to a U.S. military news release.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said in a briefing with reporters last month that American forces were closely monitoring reports of the resurrection of the Mahdi Army but were not convinced that it was an imminent threat to Iraqis or U.S. forces.
“Iraqi security forces are the legitimate force authorized by the Iraq Constitution to secure and protect the population,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in response to an inquiry. “We agree with Prime Minister Maliki that militias operating outside the constitution would be problematic and counterproductive.”
During December religious ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom of the Shiite saint Imam Hussein, Promised Day and League of the Righteous organized competing processions, alarming bystanders who watched them taunt each other.
“It’s hard to distinguish which is which,” Hossein said. “There is some mixture, but there is also a lot of bad blood between them.”
In Baghdad neighborhoods such as Habibiya and Sadr City, as well as southern Iraqi cities that were once Mahdi Army strongholds, former militants such as Mohammad stand watch over streets.
They appear unarmed, dress in civilian clothes and trim their beards neatly, part of an image makeover movement supporters are attempting.
Occasionally, along crowded sidewalks and during Friday prayers, they distribute discs loaded with video of Promised Day and old Mahdi Army military operations against U.S. and Iraqi forces, accompanied by soundtracks of martial anthems.
Mohammad, a burly and muscular man in his 30s, recently nodded hello to Naji. There was nothing menacing in the gesture. It was just an acknowledgement that they know each other.
“Now I see him again on a regular basis, with his gang,” Naji said. “They run the alleyway. Nobody from the neighborhood talks to them. There is a real fear.”