In the chaos, Ayad al-Fartoosi thrived.
Against a backdrop of death and panic in Sadr City last Thursday, he strode confidently through streets littered with burning cars and charred bodies. At one moment, he was guiding an ambulance carrying bomb victims through traffic. At another, he was searching cars at a checkpoint. By evening, he had helped to seize a would-be car bomber and to retrieve corpses. By nightfall, he was patrolling the streets of his neighborhood.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Fartoosi has been a militiaman with the Shiite Muslim Mahdi Army of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Last week, he also served as a relief worker, a policeman, a traffic controller and a guard.
So did thousands of his militia comrades who mobilized to assist victims of the deadliest attack on Iraqis since the invasion, highlighting the power associated with the Mahdi Army's less-publicized roles in Iraqi society.
"We do even more than what the government should do," said Fartoosi, 21, as he recalled the eight grueling hours after a barrage of car bombs, mortars and missiles killed more than 200 people in Baghdad's Shiite heartland.
'They saved us'
For U.S. officials, dismantling the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias that have fomented sectarian strife in Iraq is a cornerstone of their calculus to stabilize Iraq and bring U.S. troops home. They view it as a crucial step toward isolating the Sunni Arab insurgency and reconciling the nation.
But the attacks Thursday illustrated the immense difficulties involved in tackling the Mahdi Army, the country's largest and most violent militia, in today 's Iraq. The militiamen were heroes that day, Sadr City residents said in interviews. They did everything that Iraq's fragile unity government did not, or could not, do. In the days since, their actions have boosted Sadr's popularity and emboldened him.
"The Mahdi Army are the people who helped us after the explosion," said Shihab Ahmed, 24, a salesman who was wounded by flying shrapnel. "They saved us."
Against this backdrop, President Bush is scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday in Amman, Jordan. U.S. officials have grown increasingly impatient with Maliki for his inability, or lack of will, to confront the Mahdi Army and other militias, who operate unchallenged. Some U.S. lawmakers on Sunday television talk shows called for Sadr's arrest and for Bush to urge Maliki to take stronger measures against the militias.
But Maliki, faced with his own domestic pressures, has opted for a softer approach, preferring political discussions over military muscle. The support of Sadr, whose party controls four ministries and 30 parliamentary seats, is vital to his remaining in power. Other powerful political blocs, capable of staging his downfall, also operate militias.
Maliki and other Shiite leaders have said they will not go after the Shiite militias as long as the Sunni insurgency remains a threat. In recent months, Maliki has publicly chastised U.S. forces for conducting raids in Sadr City, arguing that they disrupt his efforts at national reconciliation. Many Shiites view the militias as their last bastion of protection against Sunni extremists and loyalists of Saddam Hussein.
Attacks bolster al-Sadr's position
Thursday's attacks, which Maliki blamed on Sunni insurgents, has bolstered this view and ratcheted up pressure on the prime minister. The next day, Sadr politicians vowed to walk out of the government if Maliki did not back out of a meeting with Bush.
On Sunday, Maliki was met with small protests when he visited Sadr City to offer his condolences to the families of those killed in Thursday's bombings. As he drove off, several youths threw stones at his motorcade, according to local newscasts.
"Maliki, we know, is under pressure from the Americans," said Kareem Hendul, a Sadr official. "But he should realize who brought him to the chair of government. We brought him to power."
The Mahdi Army's response to the bombings suggests that diplomatic pressure alone will not be enough to dismantle the militias. As long as Iraq's security forces are ineffective and the government and its U.S. patrons are unable to provide basic services and jobs, Sadr and his army are vital to Shiites.
Sadr is widely believed to be modeling his movement after Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has both an armed and a political wing and provides social services to its followers.
"It has proved there is no need to disarm the Mahdi Army," Salim Faisal Abid, 36, a Sadr City resident, said Friday. "If they were not there yesterday, it would have been a disaster."
Militiamen aid the injured, provide security
On Thursday afternoon, bombs in six parked cars began detonating at 15-minute intervals in three sections of Sadr City, including the crowded Jamila Market. Mahdi Army militiamen quickly spread out around the vast slum, residents said.
They helped the injured into cars and carted the dead to funeral homes, where the corpses would be cleansed according to Muslim rituals. Some donated blood and helped fire fighters douse flames. Other militiamen, some clutching AK-47 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenades, searched for the perpetrators of the bombings. They found one more car, filled with explosives, and took the driver into custody.
At Khadisiya Hospital, militiamen assisted doctors and nurses, carrying patients into emergency rooms, Abid said. With hospital supplies thin, Sadr officials sent over syringes, medicines and other equipment donated by merchants. And with only four ambulances in circulation, most of the wounded were being brought in cars.
"Most of the cars were Mahdi Army, or Mahdi Army men were inside to carry in the wounded," Abid said.
Others fanned out to protect their neighborhoods. On nearly every street, heavily armed militiamen stood guard, residents said. Concrete barriers and barbed wire were quickly erected, closing off streets to unfamiliar cars to prevent further attacks.
Entry and exit into Sadr City were controlled. When he learned of the bombings, Hendul said, he rushed to Sadr City. But the militiamen at the checkpoints refused to let him enter. He showed his Sadr identification cards, but they wouldn't budge.
"They prevented me from coming inside until they made phone calls to check who I was," Hendul recalled Friday. "Yesterday was a good example of how we can handle security. Our city can protect itself better than the government."
In interviews, residents said they did not see Iraqi army units entering Sadr City after the bombings. Nor were there any American soldiers, they said. Members of Iraq's majority Shiite police force were working hand in hand with the militiamen, residents said. "Eighty percent of them are the people who fight the Americans when they come," Abid said. "I haven't seen any Iraqi troops. I heard Iraqi troops were in other areas, but only setting up checkpoints and not helping move the wounded and the dead."
Massive funeral procession organized, paid for
On Friday morning, Mahdi Army and Sadr officials arranged a massive funeral procession to the southern holy city of Najaf, the burial ground for Shiites. The militiamen secured the highway from Baghdad to Najaf, a road on which criminal gangs often prey on travelers. Most of the funeral expenses were paid by Sadr's office.
The Mahdi Army "had a very respectful position, and they were with us throughout the whole thing," said Ali Abu Karar, who came to Najaf to bury his 16-year-old cousin, Ammar. "We arrived here, and we found every thing ready and the graves already dug."
More than 100 people helped dig graves, said one of the volunteers, Abu Mustafa, adding that Sadr had given the order. "Now the coffins are arriving, and whatever the people need we have orders to provide it to them," he said.
Over the weekend, groups of Sadr officials and Mahdi Army militiamen visited the relatives of victims in large funeral tents erected in front of their houses, a tradition across Iraq. They brought food and envelopes of money, Fartoosi said.
They promised the families of the dead and wounded that Sadr's office would give them financial support, food and clothing in the coming months. "And because of the bad conditions of the hospitals in the city, the Sadr office will be providing medicines, medical equipment like needles, syringes, to those who cannot afford it," Fartoosi said. "We give them respect so they feel someone is taking care of them."
Now, like many militiamen, Fartoosi is certain the Mahdi Army cannot be dismantled.
"It is not possible to disarm the Mahdi Army because these weapons we are using are to defend the innocent people and not to kill the innocent, to help the persecuted people against the persecutors," he said. "I would not hand over my gun to Maliki, or to that damned Bush, even if they ask me to."
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.