Reporting from Baghdad — Mohammad and his gang are back. There may not be a Glock semiautomatic strapped to his waist anymore, but the terrifying mystique of the Mahdi Army still shrouds the Shiite Muslim militiaman like the menacing black uniform he once wore.
Civil servant Haidar Naji remembers how Mohammad used to strut around his east Baghdad neighborhood like a mob boss, ordering him not to wear Bermuda shorts, too immodest and Western for his Islamic tastes.
Naji changed into longer pants.
He felt satisfaction in 2008 when he heard Mohammad, whose last name he never knew, and his friends had been rounded up and imprisoned, a well-deserved comeuppance after the militia's years of kidnapping, torturing and killing Iraqis, and dread this year when he saw them back on the streets, a little more polite, but with the same righteous attitude.
"We're seeing their mobility, their presence, in the mosques, in their gatherings, in the alleyways," said Naji, a resident of Habibiya, a poor Shiite district next to vast, impoverished Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold.
"Maybe they are not wearing the same black uniforms as before," he said. "But we can identify them. We are worried that they will come back and sabotage our neighborhoods."
The return of the Mahdi Army poses a dilemma for the Obama administration. For now, at least, Washington's goals coincide with those of the militia: Both want to hasten the departure of U.S. troops, and the group's leader, cleric Muqtada Sadr, has publicly urged supporters to avoid taking up arms.
But with its ideological fervor intact and bolstered by a powerful 40-member parliamentary bloc, the shadowy organization could take advantage of the country's instability as a political crisis festers and U.S. troops withdraw.
"The Mahdi Army has a wish to come back to the arena again," said Emad Hossein, a representative of an older, moderate Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Sadr, who is related to Muqtada Sadr but politically his opposite.
"They had this golden time when they controlled the streets, neighborhoods and gas stations," Hossein said. "Now they are just waiting for something to happen, or to receive an order. They are waiting to use the moment to climb on the shoulders of others to get what they want: power, at the expense of the people."
Muqtada Sadr, scion of a famous and powerful clerical family, launched the Mahdi Army in 2003, drawing in thousands of poor, young Shiite men into what eventually became a loosely defined sectarian militia that repeatedly confronted U.S. and Iraqi forces. Sadr demobilized the militia in 2008, after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki launched a series of offensives against it in Baghdad and Basra.
Now the militia members have regrouped, say supporters and critics of the organization, and sought — not for the first time — to recast themselves as a social movement aiming to educate the young.
In interviews with Sadr supporters, they speak of computer and Koran classes, providing money for the sick and repairing broken sewage lines.
"They're trying to create [a nongovernmental organization] to deal with cultural issues, to deal with education, to increase IT skills," said lawmaker Mohammad Deraji, a British-educated rising star in the Sadr movement. "That's why we created these new entities. Hundreds of thousands of people are involved."
But in an ominous echo of the Mahdi Army's early rhetoric, they also vow to protect their communities as a wave of terrorist bombings and shootings has coincided with the deadlock over forming a new government.
"The security situation has deteriorated," said Hassan Kashef, a 25-year-old ex-militiaman now serving as a member of the Monasseroon, one of the three new branches of Sadr's organization. "The security forces are loyal only to the parties, and not to the people."
Though they insist they are unarmed, Kashef and others in the Sadr movement say they reserve the right to fight any continued U.S. presence.
"There are occupation forces," Deraji said. "Any country that is occupied by other countries, they have the right to resist the occupation."
Adding to the confusion and the potential for violence, observers say there are at least two major outgrowths of the Mahdi Army's militia: the Promised Day Brigades sanctioned by Sadr and a splinter group called the League of the Righteous. Some describe the latter as an Iranian-controlled militia linked to Shiite militant organizations, which the U.S. called Special Groups, that were once accused of using sophisticated roadside bombs against troops.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have already had some run-ins with Promised Day. On May 28, Iraqi security forces arrested a member of the group "allegedly involved in sniper, indirect fire and improvised explosive device attacks" against American and Iraqi forces, according to a U.S. military news release.