BAGHDAD -- The cries began before dawn Friday and rang out around the impromptu bus stop for hours. "Karbala! Karbala! Karbala!" the drivers shouted in staccato bursts, their voices rising on the last word like a car horn. "Najaf! Najaf! I'm going to Najaf!"
In streets subdued by the Muslim sabbath, three men hurried toward a gray minibus headed south. Strangers brought together by faith and fervor, they had packed tattered prayer rugs and pocket money to cover the 75-cent fare. Still sleepy, they grabbed their seats for the 21/2-hour trip to hear a sermon by a militant Shiite Muslim cleric, Moqtada Sadr.
Mohammed Abed, 42, said he considers Moqtada Sadr, in poster at right, a hero. "We need a person who will defend our country," Abed said.
(Photos Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
"God willing, I'm going to the prayers," one of the men, Abdel-Rahman Tuama, mumbled.
So began a ritual of the new Iraq, the weekly pilgrimage of hundreds, sometimes thousands, from Sadr City, a desolate Baghdad neighborhood of 2 million renamed for Sadr's father, to the sprawling mud mosque in the sacred town of Kufa, near Najaf. There, Sadr has preached a regular Friday homily that blends devotion and activism and is shaped by his fervent opposition to the U.S. presence. His huge audiences represent one of the intangibles of the six-month occupation: the unpredictable face of Iraqi street politics.
U.S. officials and Sadr's rivals have dismissed the 30-year-old cleric as a firebrand with little religious standing and dwindling popularity, and rumors swirl of a crackdown. But for the men like Tuama who make the trip to Kufa, along roads lined with palm trees and police checkpoints, Sadr's power goes beyond his personal charisma. To them, he stands at the intersection of his father's legacy, a nationalism that chafes at occupation and, in their words, a thirst for leadership in uncertain times. Both symbolically and substantively, his followers represent a challenge not only to their U.S. overseers but also to their community's mainstream leadership.
"He is a hero," Mohammed Abed said simply from the front seat of the minivan.
With the driver, Abed fumbled through cassettes that cluttered the dashboard, settling on a tape of devotional chants to a Shiite saint. Black prayer beads swayed from the rearview mirror. In the right corner of the cracked windshield was a portrait of Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, with two of his sons -- a talisman of a sect steeped in symbolism.
The driver -- like others here, notoriously unruly -- lurched forward and set off the wrong way down a two-lane street.
"God's prayers on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad," he said. The 13 passengers dutifully repeated the blessing.
Through the open windows, a cool breeze blew over Tuama, 33, who like the other passengers lazily flicked his cigarette ashes on the carpeted floor. As is common in conversations in Baghdad, talk turned to ousted president Saddam Hussein and the authorities who succeeded him. Tuama ran his other hand over his balding head and lined face and reflected, "This is all the result of Saddam's oppression -- the torture, the prisons, the repression, the pressure."
Imprisoned for two weeks in 1997 for praying at work, Tuama said he still savored the government's fall. But he voiced the mix of unease and optimism so familiar among Baghdad's residents: that the future will be better, as long as they get through the present.
"If you hope for good things," he said, quoting a saying, "you will find them."
The legions of Sadr's followers are often young and usually unemployed. Tuama, a heavyset man with a trimmed beard, is neither. He makes a respectable $120 a month welding air-conditioner ducts. His family lives in a home with five bedrooms, shared by eight people. He is relentlessly devout.
He said he saw both good and bad in the U.S. presence. Reconstruction was one thing, and it had brought some gains. The occupation, he added with a shake of his head, was another.