Image: An Iraqi soldier and civilian drink water
Karim Kadim  /  AP file
An Iraqi soldier and a civilian drink water from a tank decorated with a poster showing radical anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad.
updated 8/12/2008 5:33:37 PM ET 2008-08-12T21:33:37

Abu Ali has had enough of war. Nothing, he insists, can change his mind.

Four years ago, the father of five swapped his clerical robes for the black pants and shirts of Muqtada al-Sadr's feared Mahdi Army. Now at 37 and eager to get on with his life, Abu Ali is headed back to the holy city of Najaf to resume his clerical studies.

"I have paid my dues," he said in an interview last week at a hiding place in Baghdad's Sadr City. "It is time to start looking after myself and my family."

On Friday, al-Sadr effectively disbanded the militia he founded in 2003, turning it into a social welfare movement — the army of "Momahidoun," or "those who pave the way." He said he would retain special guerrilla cells that his spokesman explained would attack U.S. troops only if the Americans don't accept a timetable to leave Iraq.

But Abu Ali doesn't expect to be part of the cells. He's tired of war. If there are many like him, al-Sadr's military option may be waning after losing strongholds in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.

In a series of interviews with The Associated Press since March, Abu Ali, who gave his nickname because of fears for his family's safety, offered insights into the life of a senior Mahdi Army commander.

Life of a cleric
A chain-smoking man of medium height and a muscular build, the bearded Abu Ali looks like a boxer but without the swagger. This time, dressed in a blue polo shirt and gray jeans, he spoke of his personal ambitions and the "decay" and "corruption" that he says are driving him away from the militia.

His faith in al-Sadr's leadership remains unshakable, he says. But he believes theology and the life of a cleric, not a guerrilla commander, are his true calling.

"My departure and seclusion in Najaf is my response to all the mistakes we have made in the Mahdi Army," said Abu Ali.

"We fought for 50 days and in the end Iraqi soldiers came and violated the sanctity of our homes," he said of the battles last spring in Sadr City, which had been the militia's largest stronghold. "I will not join those cells even if I am personally asked to do so."

Abu Ali was reluctant to speak openly about alleged mistakes committed by the Mahdi Army, although he alluded to other militia commanders who used their power for personal gain or moved too close to Iran.

"My quarrel is not with Muqtada," he said, "It is with commanders and Sadrist politicians."

The Mahdi Army began as a nationalistic group, rapidly acquiring a reputation for protecting Shiites and fighting the Americans — especially during two 2004 uprisings in which Abu Ali said he participated.

But many units turned to extortion and racketeering, preying on poor Shiites they once defended and alienating large sections of the Shiite community.

Abu Ali's transformation from committed warrior to disillusioned seminarian charts the fortunes of a loosely structured militia that once appeared to be among the most powerful forces in Iraq's murky politics, with an estimated 25,000-40,000 active fighters.

'Soul' in Najaf
Like the vast majority of al-Sadr's followers, Abu Ali is poor. His family, like most Sadr City residents, migrated from the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq to Baghdad in search of jobs.

For Abu Ali and many others in the movement, the Sadrists were pursuing a struggle not only against the Americans but against a rigid class system among Iraq's Shiites that favors the wealthy merchant class and its clerical allies at the expense of the disenfranchised poor.

In March, Abu Ali told the AP that he was one of 12 senior commanders who oversaw Mahdi Army operations.

The following month, Abu Ali exuded confidence during major fighting between the Mahdi Army and U.S. and Iraqi forces in Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shiites.

As fighting raged, he visited the family of a fallen comrade, shaking hands with scores of mourners inside a funeral tent as U.S. drones flew overhead and explosions rumbled in the distance.

His men treated him with reverence. He received news of the death or injury of his men with perfect calm.

"My soul is still in Najaf," Abu Ali said at the time. "But Najaf can wait. To fight the occupier with the Imam Mahdi Army is holy work too."

Feeling victorious, fragile
Fighting ended May 11 with a cease-fire that left Iraqi troops in control of Sadr City. Many al-Sadr fighters felt betrayed by the truce. Abu Ali and other commanders fled to Iran.

Speaking by telephone last June from Iran's holy city of Qom, Abu Ali broke down in tears as he talked of how much he missed his friends and his men.

"My life here is difficult," he said at the time.

Abu Ali returned to Sadr City from Iran this month but found himself on the government's wanted list. His brother said Iraqi troops had stormed the family home twice since June looking for him.

Nowadays, he hides out at the home of an old friend, sleeping on the floor of his living room with his clothes stuffed in a plastic bag. He keeps a pistol tucked in the back of his trousers.

His wife and children are staying with relatives. He has no money to rent a home for them.

"I will have to make do with very little in Najaf, but that's OK," Abu Ali, who appears to have gained weight in Iran, said last week at the friend's house. "But I must find a way to provide for my family."

He is hoping to evade authorities in Najaf, where a turban and clerical robes could conceal his identity. He says the authorities have his name but do not know what he looks like.

Still, Abu Ali refuses to acknowledge the militia's defeat in Sadr City. No army, he said, can prevail over opponents who risk their lives out of loyalty and for their faith.

"I feel 100 percent victorious," he said. "These (Iraqi) soldiers you see on Sadr City streets will beat a fast retreat if al-Sadr orders us to fight them," he boasted. "They will desert if they miss a single paycheck. Their victory is fragile."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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