BAGHDAD — It was sunset, and a pair of Iraqi soldiers were sitting in a roofless house by the Iranian border, awaiting orders. Suddenly, Abu Baqr recalls, his friend let out a gasp and fell silent, a sniper's bullet in his forehead. Abu Baqr couldn't help him, couldn't move for fear of being shot. He lay beside his friend's corpse until morning.
"How would you feel after that?" Abu Baqr asked. "You come out of that, you only come out bad."
Abu Baqr, now a commander in the Mahdi Army militia of cleric Muqtada Sadr, blames Iran for what happened to his friend more than 20 years ago during Iraq's war with Iran, just as he blames Saddam Hussein for that conflict.
He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad's Green Zone without apology or regret.
"I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don't trust them," he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and "therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it's hard to say no."
He laughed: "If it came from Israel, we would use it."
Abu Baqr's attitudes illustrate the pragmatism of a movement under siege. Elements of the Mahdi Army are engaged in an intense conflict with rival Shiite Muslim parties in the Iraqi government that benefit from their own close ties to Iran and, more advantageously, the assistance of America's superior firepower.
The attitudes of commanders such as Abu Baqr would seem to confirm U.S. accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq. Although the extent of their relationship remains unclear, the commanders have embraced a hardened stance that may bode ill for the U.S. military.
These leaders confound U.S. attempts to categorize and differentiate between moderate fighters and what U.S. officers call the Iranian-funded and trained "special groups" that are believed to continue armed struggle against American forces despite a truce called by Sadr.
"It blurs out there," acknowledged a senior U.S. military commander who is not authorized to talk publicly about the various factions within the Mahdi Army, which is thought to number as many as 60,000 fighters.
Abu Baqr is a senior commander in a few neighborhoods of Baghdad's Sadr City district, responsible for at least 100 fighters. He is trusted enough by the movement that he has served as a mediator between factions in trouble spots in southern Iraq.
The price of survival
A year ago, in one of a series of interviews with The Times, his voice rose in anger when he talked of Iran's efforts to co-opt the Mahdi Army movement. He seethed about Tehran's drive to recruit fighters to bomb U.S. convoys at a time when Sadr was trying to halt such activities. He railed against militia members whom Iran had bought off.
At this time of immense pressure, however, he embraces the breakaway factions.
"Not all Jaish al Mahdi members are angels," he acknowledged, using the group's Arabic name. "Some have material interests in mind and they're greedy, and so Iran was able to hit on this particular angle and put them on its side."
But this is the price of survival. His positions shift tactically from moment to moment. He believes the militia should fight the Americans to the end, but even now he hints he is ready to strike a truce on honorable terms with the U.S. military if it agrees to halt its operations against the militia in Baghdad.
Until March, Sadr loyalists such as Abu Baqr had worked to enforce a freeze the cleric ordered last year on the militia's activities. But that month, everything fell apart when the government launched controversial military operations against Shiite militias in the port city of Basra and in Sadr City, the Shiite slum. The Sadr movement saw the operation as specifically targeting its fighters.
Abu Baqr stopped reining in fighters and once more switched to a war footing. "The balloon has burst," he said soberly.
With gray hair, a slight paunch and the nimble gait of a former athlete, Abu Baqr has played various roles in his five years with Sadr's sprawling grass-roots nationalist movement. In the fall of 2006, he helped inaugurate so-called punishment committees to get rid of militia members who defied Sadr's decrees and were perceived to be committing criminal activities.
He does not talk of what happens when men, insubordinate to Sadr, are brought to religious courts, where underlings speak of beatings and death.
Abu Baqr's stature in the Mahdi Army stems from his actions in the final years of Hussein's regime, which favored Sunni Arabs. He heeded the call of Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. The foundering war veteran was inspired by the grand ayatollah's sermons and defiance of Hussein, finding a fresh purpose in his life.