BAGHDAD — The Mahdi Army fighter gets nervous every time he passes an Iraqi army checkpoint in Sadr City. He has even shaved his beard, a sign of his piety and his fealty to the Shiite Muslim militia, so the soldiers won't recognize him.
"I am hunted. I can't stay home. The neighbors are informing on us," 28-year-old Bassem said at a recent rally for his leader, cleric Muqtada Sadr. Using a derogatory term for the Iraqi army, he added, "Four times, the dirty division has raided my house."
At the height of Iraq's civil war, the Mahdi Army was arguably the mightiest group in the country, revered as a protector of Iraq's Shiite majority and feared for its death squads and criminal activities. The militia functioned as a state within a state, its members collecting protection fees from businesses, its fighters intimidating the Iraqi security forces that were supposed to police them.
In a telling measure of the militia's power, the U.S. military credits Sadr's decision more than a year ago to call a cease-fire as one of the chief reasons for the sharp drop in violence in Iraq.
But Sadr's fortunes have also plummeted, and his followers now contemplate a world where they are on the run and their Shiite rivals have the upper hand.
The current order in Sadr City is a bitter pill for the militia, a testament to its weakened state. Iraqi soldiers march through the street outside Sadr's headquarters in the crowded Baghdad district. Nearby, an army base fills the dirt lot where people once prayed on Friday afternoons. Deprived of the traditional spot, worshipers lay their prayer mats on the street.
The movement is trying to survive hard times by restructuring, absorbing fighters into a new social organization, and by waging a political campaign against an unpopular U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. The maneuvers could resurrect Sadr's militia as a leaner, more disciplined force that could vie for power in Iraq if America draws down and no longer provides military support to Sadr's rivals. Or they could mark the beginning of the end for the populist movement.
Although fighters such as Bassem say they must honor Sadr's freeze, others in Sadr City whisper about Mahdi Army loyalists who have started to set off explosives or shoot Iraqi soldiers at close range. The U.S. military says it has no record of such assassinations; still, the rumors suggest that some Mahdi Army factions could continue to carry out attacks even if the broader movement is marginalized, raising the specter of a return of the violent days of the past.
Sadr's troubles are rooted in the fighting between his militia and Iraqi security forces that erupted in March after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki ordered the army to clear the militia's strongholds in the southern city of Basra. The clashes there ended only when Sadr commanded his militia to stand down, and then did the same in Sadr City six weeks later.
The cleric's retreat was hailed as a victory for Maliki. Former Sadr supporters expressed relief at the end of the fighting and resentment toward the Mahdi Army for endangering them.
With his armed wing formally frozen, Sadr looked to repair his movement's image. He announced in June that his fighters should form a new social and religious education organization, named Mumahidoon, which aims to teach Iraqis about Islam. Some fighters would also be tapped to join an elite armed wing that Sadr has authorized to fight the Americans, outside the cities away from civilian populations.
Sadr's top aides echoed his message that the old Mahdi Army was finished in the cities.
"The Americans may fear that the Mahdi Army will come back with weapons. We tell them no. That chapter is finished. The struggle is now in parliament and the political arena," said Sheik Hazem Araji, a senior advisor to Sadr.
Inside the Sadr headquarters, young men wait in a room with folding chairs to join Mumahidoon. Sayed Fareed Fadhili, the 28-year-old head of the group, admits things have become difficult for the movement since the government began targeting members last spring.
"Yes, we had more freedom before the Basra operation and good relations with the government. After Basra, everything changed," said Fadhili, dressed in the black turban and robes that denote a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.
Fadhili believes Mumahidoon will help sustain the movement. He plans to send representatives all over Baghdad and Iraq to instruct people about the proper teachings of Islam. He pledges that the Sadr movement will survive its current tribulations. "Any party or person cannot erase the Sadr movement," he said.
The U.S. military sees Mumahidoon as Sadr's bid to keep his militia alive.
"To avoid having his organization continually targeted, he had to do something with them, so he followed the Islamic Brotherhood and Hezbollah model," a U.S. military intelligence officer said, referring to other Islamist movements that provide charitable services and enjoy popularity in the Arab world.