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An Old U.S. Foe Rises Again in Iraq

A billboard-size painting of Sadr's father stands at the entrance to the police station, protected by rows of sand-filled barricades. On the wall of the reception room, in a glass case, was a copy of Saadi's sermon in Kufa, a call to gather for a Sadr-led protest in Baghdad this coming Saturday and a leaflet from the Sadr office titled, "The First Letter from Sayyid Moqtada Sadr to the Iraqi Police."

"You are from the people, and the people are from you as long as you detest the occupier and refuse the oppressor," it read.

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)

Hajami says he is steadfastly pro-American but that survival is survival. His 5,500-man force is 2,500 short of what he said he needed to guarantee security. He suspects just 30 percent are loyal to him; the rest answer to the city's handful of Islamic parties. So, in a city where alliances are necessary, the Mahdi Army is his ally, he said.

"The Sadr trend has the biggest popular influence in the streets," Hajami said. "The relations are good, and there is cooperation. We keep in touch. Any problem that happens, I call them and see if they need help, or they call me."

Unyielding Message

Hajami was invited to the military parade this week in Gharaf, about 12 miles north of Nasiriyah. He didn't attend, but four of his police cars provided a high-speed escort, with sirens and loudspeakers, for Khafaji and other Sadr leaders. A few militiamen with bandoliers and heavy machine guns rode in the back, clad in the trademark black of the Mahdi Army.

At the parade, the Mahdi Army provided security. About 30 men in new uniforms, ammunition belts and assault rifles were posted on roofs and in the street. Another militiaman toted a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the background.

In white turban and clerical robes, Khafaji took the podium.

In private, he can be measured and militant. In one sentence, he will denounce the U.S. presence, warning of calamity if American troops fail to depart. In another, he strikes a more mainstream, nationalist tone -- outreach to Sunnis, cooperation with police, even holding out the prospect of formal participation in the political process once the Americans leave.

At Gharaf, he spoke to the militia assembled before him but addressed his words to the Americans.

"There is no place in the land of Mahdi except for the people of Mahdi," he shouted. "There is no place for you on this ground. Our people exist to force you out by means that are peaceful and then by means that are military.

"We are able to do that," he said, "God willing."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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