On Friday, the web wound tightly around the southern city of Amara, where the two largest and best-armed militias, both made up of religious Shiites, were fighting for control of the city.
But when the prime minister speaks of disarming militias — those mushrooming armies of men with guns that carry out most of the killing here — Iraqi brows begin to furrow.
‘He’s just talking,’ snapped Fadhil Sabri, a 37-year-old generator repairman in a grease-stained shop in Sadr City, a Baghdad stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.
‘Not now. Not even in 10 years. You need arms to defend yourself,’ he said.
Iraq is awash in killings, and many are blamed on the Mahdi Army, the militia commanded by a glowering Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. An indignant Mr. Sadr called his men to fight against the American military twice in 2004. It was bloodied, but survived. Since then the Mahdi Army, and a growing criminal breakaway element, have grown into one of the government’s biggest problems and are a major obstacle to the success of the American enterprise here.
Despite its new rogue fringe, Iraqi Shiites see the Mahdi militia as their most effective protector against the hostile Sunni groups that have slaughtered Shiites and driven them from their homes. Shiites say that as long as the government cannot keep them safe, they cannot support the disarming of militias.
That paradox confronts the American military as it presses the Iraqi government to contain militias like Mr. Sadr’s: how is it possible to control a militia when trust among Iraqis has vanished and the government is incapable of containing the spiraling violence?
Mr. Sadr and his Mahdi Army have emerged as one of the biggest puzzles of the war. The cleric controls a large and crucial bloc of seats in Parliament. At the same time, 92 percent of the mortar and rocket attacks in August and September on the Green Zone — the protected area in Baghdad that houses the American military and the Iraqi government — came from Sadr City.
As the recent fighting in Amara shows, the group and its rogue elements have settled deeply into the crevices of Iraqi society, filling college security offices and student unions, as well as the ranks of the police and the army. It is often at the center of spasms of sectarian killing, like the violence last weekend in Balad, and it frequently battles rival Shiite groups, as in Amara, and earlier this month in another southern city, Diwaniya.
But in a measure of just how complex Iraq has become, it is impossible to tell where loyalties to Mr. Sadr end and criminal activity begins. Rogue groups of his former followers now run underground fiefdoms of sectarian killing and kidnapping — and even a special market for victims’ cars. One of his senior aides was arrested by the American military earlier this week on suspicion of having directed the killing and torture of Sunnis. The Americans later reluctantly released him at the request of the Iraqi government.
The changes in the Mahdi Army are so profound — the American military estimates that as much as a third of it has fallen away — that it is becoming a generic term for Shiite militia. A senior American military official estimated there were 23 militias operating in Baghdad alone.
‘It’s hard to understand the amount of groups who are moving around and where they are getting their funding,’ said Col. Thomas Vail, the American commander in charge of eastern Baghdad. ‘It’s very complex right now, more than when we first came.’
The mechanisms for killing have become more sophisticated. A senior coalition intelligence official at a briefing last month detailed an example of a Mahdi Army death squad. Group leaders are issued instructions on order forms listing a target person and an address, the official said. A group can consist of special forces, intelligence units and punishment committees, complete with clerics who impose sentences. Some of the leaders may be inside the Interior Ministry, the official said. Others may work with their contacts within the ministry to obtain equipment such as cars.
The American military’s task has been vastly complicated by the sheer relentlessness of the violence. Ever larger portions of the Iraqi population have been radicalized in three years of war, chopping ground out from under the moderates. Now, even those whose job requires them to take a position against militias reluctantly back them. ‘Right now I support the presence of the Mahdi Army,’ said a senior judge on Iraq’s criminal court, who declined to be named out of concern for his safety. ‘I know this is unacceptable in law, in politics, in society, but in this unusual time we are living in, this is the reality.’
It is a broadly held view among Shiites that the American military has unfairly focused on Shiite militias and has largely forgotten the Sunni militias that they say launched the sectarian war. Groups like the Omar Brigade, formed to kill Shiites and carry out lethal suicide bombings, went unchecked, prompting a Shiite response, they say.
Just how far Shiite sentiment has shifted can be seen in the words of Qasim Dawood, the national security minister under former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi More articles about AlIyad AllawiAyad Allawi during Mr. Sadr’s fight against the Americans in 2004.
‘The support of the militias within the Shiite community comes from the failure of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the coalition forces to provide security,’ he said. ‘The creation of these militias comes as a reaction.’
But that reaction spilled over into open carnage in February, when Shiite mobs rampaged through Baghdad, dragging Sunnis out of their homes and mosques and killing them. Shiites’ patience had snapped, and they began to take systematic revenge.
As the killing spun off in strange new directions, the Mahdi Army, or those associated with it, was at the forefront.
The Mahdi Army’s victims are sad, struggling figures, often stuffed into the trunks of cars. This tactic became so widespread that Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints have been known to stop cars that are playing loud, thumping music, mistaking the sound for a person trying to get out.
In the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Ur, which is connected to Sadr City by a fast and largely empty road, a worker counted 14 victims on a particularly bad day in August, shortly after an attack on a procession of Shiite pilgrims. He said four were shot in front of him on a dirt road near a high school. The bodies of another 10 were dumped there later that day. Police cars, like hearses, later picked them up.
The killing took place openly, often silently, and without fanfare. Gunmen did not bother to hide their faces. One resident sardonically referred to Ur as gbour, which means graves in Arabic.
Iraqis began referring to the victims, often Sunnis, as sheep. Most condemn the killing, which they attribute to the Mahdi militia.
‘I know they are killing Sunnis now — none of us likes this,’ said Firas al-Saeidi, a 29-year-old Shiite resident of Sadr City, who works in the Ministry of Defense. ‘But it keeps balance in our sensitive areas. We need that.’
‘Life was not just cheap, it was free,’ said Ibrahim, a Shiite from Ur who asked that his last name not be used. Despite the carnage, Ibrahim sees the militia as providing important protection.
His sparely furnished guest room was subdued last week, after the killing of his brother and the brother’s 15-year-old son by Sunni gunmen in September. At the funeral, Mahdi members approached him and offered to kill Sunnis to avenge the deaths. He declined, but said he would draw on their intelligence to find the killers. He could not go to the police station where his brother was shot because the policemen are Sunni, he said.
‘If I find who killed my brother, I will tell Mahdi Army to kill him,’ he said.
The government, on the other hand, refused to even pick up the body of an acquaintance of his in a Sunni neighborhood recently, because the area was too hostile.
‘If a government is too scared to pick up a body, is it a government?’ Ibrahim asked.
A protector for most Shiites, the Mahdi Army can also be a persecutor. Mahdi members first approached Edrice al-Aaraji, a Shiite, shortly after he moved to a Shiite area in northern Baghdad this spring. The men acted chummy and asked if he and his brother would pitch in on overnight watch shifts on the block.
Mr. Aaraji pretended to be interested, but avoided them. He even traveled to a different neighborhood to make it look as if he was serving on guard duty somewhere else. The men become more aggressive, particularly after the killing of his uncle, apparently by Mahdi-affiliated gunmen, in August. Later Mr. Aaraji learned that the men had been eyeing the house he moved into as a weapons storage space.
“Now they are after us,” he said. “They watch our comings and goings.”
In Sadr City, in a darkened room off a sun-splashed courtyard hung with laundry, Sayeed Abdul Zahra, a member of Mr. Sadr’s social service committee, dismissed any suggestion of the Mahdi Army disarming: “Impossible.”
Besides, he said, Mr. Sadr does not own the guns. “I bought my weapons with my own money.”
A short drive north, in Ur, mourners were gathering for the funeral of a man and his 6-year-old son. A bombing on Monday in a nearby market killed them both. The family blamed a puritanical Sunni Islamic sect, the Wahhabis, whose name has become the Shiite codeword for Sunni extremists.
A boy around the age of 8 took money from his father to buy candy at a market across the street. As he walked away, his father called after him:
boy’s father “Be careful of the Wahhabis.”
When asked why he had said it, his father’s reply came fast and cold.
I want to teach him whom to hate, he said.