When U.S. and Iraqi forces swept into Baghdad's Sadr City slum this week, they were unsuccessfully chasing one of the most dangerous men in the city — a rogue Shiite militiaman who is a hero to his fighters and a feared killer to the capital's Sunni population.
Two of the wanted man's neighbors said the Mahdi Army militia commander, known as Abu Diraa, Arabic for Father of the Shield, is actually Ismail al-Lami, the father of at least a dozen children from two marriages. One of his children, a teenager called Haidar, was wounded in the pre-dawn raid Wednesday.
Short, muscular, bearded and with a darker skin than most Iraqis, Abu Diraa cannot read or write and once earned a living as a fishmonger. Like many fellow Sadr City residents, the death squad leader hails from the southern province of Maysan.
"If he had some education, he would have made a good leader. He is brave and serious," said Amer al-Husseini, a Shiite cleric and a senior Baghdad aide of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Mahdi Army.
It was believed to have been the second raid in the tumbledown district of 2.5 million to target Abu Diraa. The first, in August, prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to condemn the operation.
Al-Maliki also issued a bitter protest about Wednesday's raid, in which Iraqi and U.S. forces killed 10 militia fighters and captured 10 others. The Iraqi leader relies heavily on al-Sadr's political support.
U.S. wants rival militias wiped out
The Bush administration and the U.S. military are exerting heavy pressure on al-Maliki to crush both the Mahdi Army and its rival, the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is also a key part of the prime minister's ruling coalition.
The two militias are thought to have been consumed in a revenge killing spree against Sunni Muslims since the February bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
Shiite death squads have roamed Baghdad and nearby cities and towns torturing and killing Sunnis by the thousands. Sunni insurgent fighters have fought back viciously, as violence in the center of the country has taken on the look of civil war.
While al-Maliki has issued repeated statements against illegal armed groups, he is not known to have taken any concerted action and is increasingly at odds with the United States over his seeming unwillingness to crack down against the armed wings of his major political supporters.
Since Wednesday's raid, Mahdi Army militiamen have shared with The Associated Press some of their firsthand knowledge of Abu Diraa, but spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
Two of the militiaman's neighbors — Kadhim al-Mohammedawi, 38, and Jaafar al-Moussawi, 37 — agreed to speak on the record, praising the outlaw and his brutal behavior.
Al-Mohammedawi said his militant neighbor fought in the Mahdi Army when it staged a series of revolts against American forces that lasted for much of 2004. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in Sadr City.
"I don't care what they say about him," al-Mohammedawi said. "It is enough for me that he killed Americans in defense of Sadr City. Everyone loves him."
'The shield of the city'
To the other neighbor, al-Moussawi, Abu Diraa is "the shield of the city. He goes nowhere without a weapon."
Baghdad, where most sectarian killings take place, has been awash with tales about Abu Diraa's brutality, gory details of his vicious torture and deep hatred of Sunni Arabs.
One story claims he slaughtered a group of captured Sunni men in front of mourners gathered for the funeral of a Shiite victim of sectarian violence. Another claims he used the bodies of Sunni men he killed to fill a crater made by a suicide bombing blamed on Sunni militants.
While gruesome, the anecdotes match the reality of the sectarian killings.
Thousands of victims' bodies have turned up in canals, rivers or garbage dumps since the Samarra bombing. The victims have consistently shown signs of torture — holes bored in their bodies with electric drills and decapitation.
A clownish 15-second video clip shot by a cell phone camera and purportedly showing Abu Diraa is making the rounds among Baghdad's mobile phone users, particularly in Sadr City. The grainy video shows a man in a sky blue track suit and white running shoes. He is holding a large soft drink bottle and smiling broadly while pouring its contents into the mouth of a camel.
"Look how this devil is drinking it all so quickly," the man is heard to say to a second man in the video sequence. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.
A brutal and popular leader
With Abu Diraa's humor comes a reputation in Sadr City as a protector of the faith, avenging decades of oppression by minority Sunni Arabs and thousands of deadly attacks against the Shiite population since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, also a Sunni.
Abu Diraa until recently appeared to go everywhere with a machine gun that he rested on his legs when sitting down, his fellow militiamen and neighbors said. But lately, they claimed, he jettisoned the heavy weapon for a pistol to avoid attention. He travels with 12 or more heavily armed militiamen.
His brutality and his popularity among militants indicates the depth of the animosity between many in the Shiite and Sunni communities, which combined make up nearly 80 percent of Iraq's 28 million people.
At the root of that resentment is the Sunnis' loss of their domination over Iraq with Saddam's ouster, a status that passed to the Shiites, who are 60 percent of the population.
Residents of Sadr City say support for Abu Diraa is restricted to the underprivileged majority of the district's youths. They say he would not have nearly so much support if the Samarra shrine had not been bombed and unleashed a tidal wave of anger against Sunni Arabs.
"It is natural that any criminal like Abu Diraa strikes fear in the heart of people," said Raid Abdul-Salam, a 45-year-old clerk from Azamiyah, Baghdad's Sunni stronghold. "But we know that his supporters are mainly the ignorant and stupid among the Shiites."