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An Old U.S. Foe Rises Again in Iraq

A 30-year-old from Kut with seven years in the Shiite seminary, he fought in both battles last year in Najaf. He was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle; his wife helped cook rice and lentils for his fighters posted along a famous street that leads to Najaf's gold-domed Imam Ali shrine. To his men, he was simply Sayyid Najah, an honorific bestowed on clerics descended from the prophet Muhammad.

"Clerics are themselves fighters," said Musawi, a gaunt man with a wispy beard. "We defend our doctrine and our principles."


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)

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Najaf still bears the scars of last year's fighting. Along main roads, rubble occasionally spills into the streets. With time, it has faded into the ramshackle brick construction of many of Najaf's houses. Some walls are still charred, and bullet holes puncture the facades of buildings and the colonnade in the street where Musawi and his men fought.

Stories of the fighting and death they encountered have become celebrated among the militiamen, another chapter in what they fashion as a legitimate uprising against the Americans. Musawi recalled how they faced tanks with their Kalashnikovs, how they recited the Koran over gunfire, how they fought on four hours' sleep, and how his six brothers served with him, one of them with shrapnel in his right leg.

"In those last days, 10 fighters would share one bottle of water," he recalled.

These days, Musawi said, he commands 500 fresh recruits in Nasiriyah. He heads one of 18 Sadr offices in the city, all of which have their own militia units. There are no ranks, he said, only platoon and company commanders. As in Amarah and Basra, rumors are rife of the militia gathering more arms and men.

"We stood up to the Americans for 21 days, day and night, and the spirit of resistance is still there," he said. "If we get an order to resist the occupation, we'll do it -- with more determination, more numbers, more experience and more skills."

Making Local Allies

Sheik Aws Khafaji is Sadr's representative in Nasiriyah and Musawi's boss. Khafaji, 32, joined the seminary in 1996, then spent more than two years in prison. Gen. Mohammed Hajami is the provincial police chief. At 47, he is a father of eight. He served 24 years in the Iraqi military, reaching the rank of colonel. He considers himself insistently secular.

On Feb. 10, their paths began to converge. Before long, the Mahdi Army and the Nasiriyah police would be staunch allies.

That night in February, Hajami said, 70 men attacked his office with machine guns, small arms and grenades. The gunmen belonged to the Badr Brigades, a militia loyal to one of Iraq's biggest Shiite parties and a rival of the Mahdi Army; the gunmen were angry that the government had dismissed their leader and appointed Hajami. More than 30 of his policemen took part in what he called an attempted hit.

The next day, Khafaji denounced the attack in his Friday sermon. He said the gunmen weren't Badr Brigades, they were ghadr -- Arabic for betrayal.

Those words were the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"It's a matter of balance," Hajami explained.

"Without the presence of the Sadr current, the Badr forces would seize every government building in the province. From my point of view, their presence is useful to us," he said. "We heard the Badr forces would like to do it again, so the Sadr people warned them, 'If you try it another time, we're going to throw your bodies into the streets.' "


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