For the militia, the axis on which those forces spin is the messianic cult of personality the movement has built around Sadr. The movement maintains a presence in the U.S.-backed political process -- about two dozen sympathizers serve in Iraq's new parliament. But it fosters the militia as insurance, a political calculation based on a much older notion of Iraqi politics: Arms and the men who wield them convey power and ensure survival.
Time and again, after battles that left hundreds of Sadr's followers dead, the movement has managed to rewrite the notion of winning and losing: The very act of fighting is a victory. There is no defeat.
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)
"We still have the weapons, we still have the army, and we still have the leader," said Sahib Amari, a spokesman for Sadr in Kufa, where the movement came of age in the weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Prayers and Politics
The Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque, the shrine a few miles from Najaf where Sadr's father preached in the 1990s and where his son built his movement after the U.S. invasion, are akin to street theater. Religion is less pronounced than politics, and politics helps to rally the thousands of men who gather each week in the open-air courtyard.
"Long live Sadr!" the men chant as they file through the arched brick entrance. "Moqtada is the bridge to heaven!"
The prayers led by members of Sadr's movement have long drawn some of the largest crowds in post-invasion Iraq -- in Baghdad and Kufa. The numbers seem to have dwindled little, if at all, over the past year.
Just as constant is the message of protest, delivered in the sermon by Nasser Saadi, a rousing, swaggering cleric built like a wrestler. The enemies of the Shiites are not their Sunni brothers, he insisted. The adversaries of Iraq are not fellow Arab countries.
"I am addressing my call to the honest Iraqi people who stand against the occupation, who reject the occupation and who demand freedom," he shouted, dressed as others in a funeral shawl. "The enemy is one enemy, and that enemy is the occupier."
The crowd erupted, fists in the air: "No to the occupier! No to terrorism! No to the devil!"
"Wherever America is present, then there is terrorism," Saadi said. "When they ask the terrorists why they're here, they say we came to fight America. If America leaves, there would be no terrorism. Terrorism would leave with it."
In the mosque, and the markets that spring up around it each Friday, what has changed during the past year is the emphasis of the appeal the movement makes to the poor and young. Gone is the celebration of Sadr's father, a revered cleric assassinated in 1999. In its stead is the cult built around his son and a glorification of arms.
In posters spread out on plastic mats, Moqtada Sadr's image hovered over portraits of Mahdi Army militiamen waving rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.
"Victorious by force and faith, God willing," one read.
Najah Musawi is the Mahdi Army's version of a fighting priest.