GHARAF, Iraq -- Over the loudspeakers set up in this small town in a backwater of southern Iraq, the commands came in staccato bursts. "Forward!" a man clad in black shouted to the militiamen. "March!"
Column after column followed through the dusty, windswept square. Some of the marchers wore the funeral shawls of prospective martyrs. Others were dressed in newly pressed camouflage. Together, their boots beat the pavement like a drum as they goose-stepped or double-timed in place.
Mahdi Army militiamen are well armed at a military parade in Gharaf, southern Iraq, where the Shiite group is openly showing it's strength.
(Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
Over their heads flew the Iraqi flag, banners of Shiite Muslim saints and a portrait of their leader, Moqtada Sadr -- symbols of their militia, the Mahdi Army, twice subdued by the U.S. military last year but now openly displaying its strength in parts of the south.
"At your service, Sadr! At your service, Moqtada!" the men chanted in formation. "We hear a voice calling us!"
"The tanks do not terrify us," others joined in. "We're resisting! We're resisting!"
The military parade this week lasted an hour, long enough for 700 men brandishing swords, machetes and not a few guns to pass a viewing stand of turbaned clerics and townspeople gathered in front of low-slung brick buildings.
It was also long enough for the militiamen to deliver the message that has distinguished their organization from Iraq's other Shiite groups -- implacable hostility toward the U.S. occupation. They delivered it far beyond the purview of the U.S. military, in one of the many towns and cities in southern Iraq where the Mahdi Army has emerged as kingmaker, and where the lines between authority and lawlessness are still ambiguous.
Iraq's most prominent religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, stepped between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military in Najaf last August, ending fighting that destroyed parts of Iraq's most sacred Shiite city. Since then, an uneasy truce has held there and in Karbala, another holy city, and in the vast Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.
U.S. military officials say they believe the toll they inflicted during last year's fighting sapped the young cleric's support. While still a threat, the militia is less so than when it first took up arms in April 2004, the officials say.
"We believe Moqtada's militia is generally marginalized, and there is little to be gained from taking a military role," said Lt. Col. Bob Taylor, chief intelligence officer for the 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees Baghdad. "But it could still be a threat."
Beyond Baghdad, though, Iraqis see a new boldness in the militia in cities like Nasiriyah, Basra and Amarah, all south of the capital and all patrolled by foreign forces allied with the United States.
In Basra, the Mahdi Army is widely viewed as the force that can put more armed men in the street than any other. Amarah remains its stronghold. In Nasiriyah, it has struck an alliance with the secular police chief, who views the group as a counterweight to other militias.
"The silent majority is not with him, but the majority of active people are," said Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mudarrassi, a cleric in Karbala, referring to Sadr. "If you count the ballot boxes, the balance is with the moderates. If you count those in the streets, it's the opposite."
The enduring appeal of Sadr's militia speaks to the forces still shaping Iraq: nationalism, religion and guns.