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A Day When Mahdi Army Showed Its Other Side

On Sunday, Maliki was met with small protests when he visited Sadr City to offer his condolences to the families of those killed in Thursday's bombings. As he drove off, several youths threw stones at his motorcade, according to local newscasts.

"Maliki, we know, is under pressure from the Americans," said Kareem Hendul, a Sadr official. "But he should realize who brought him to the chair of government. We brought him to power."

The Mahdi Army's response to the bombings suggests that diplomatic pressure alone will not be enough to dismantle the militias. As long as Iraq's security forces are ineffective and the government and its U.S. patrons are unable to provide basic services and jobs, Sadr and his army are vital to Shiites.

Sadr is widely believed to be modeling his movement after Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has both an armed and a political wing and provides social services to its followers.

"It has proved there is no need to disarm the Mahdi Army," Salim Faisal Abid, 36, a Sadr City resident, said Friday. "If they were not there yesterday, it would have been a disaster."

On Thursday afternoon, bombs in six parked cars began detonating at 15-minute intervals in three sections of Sadr City, including the crowded Jamila Market. Mahdi Army militiamen quickly spread out around the vast slum, residents said.

They helped the injured into cars and carted the dead to funeral homes, where the corpses would be cleansed according to Muslim rituals. Some donated blood and helped fire fighters douse flames. Other militiamen, some clutching AK-47 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenades, searched for the perpetrators of the bombings. They found one more car, filled with explosives, and took the driver into custody.

At Khadisiya Hospital, militiamen assisted doctors and nurses, carrying patients into emergency rooms, Abid said. With hospital supplies thin, Sadr officials sent over syringes, medicines and other equipment donated by merchants. And with only four ambulances in circulation, most of the wounded were being brought in cars.

"Most of the cars were Mahdi Army, or Mahdi Army men were inside to carry in the wounded," Abid said.

Others fanned out to protect their neighborhoods. On nearly every street, heavily armed militiamen stood guard, residents said. Concrete barriers and barbed wire were quickly erected, closing off streets to unfamiliar cars to prevent further attacks.

Entry and exit into Sadr City were controlled. When he learned of the bombings, Hendul said, he rushed to Sadr City. But the militiamen at the checkpoints refused to let him enter. He showed his Sadr identification cards, but they wouldn't budge.

"They prevented me from coming inside until they made phone calls to check who I was," Hendul recalled Friday. "Yesterday was a good example of how we can handle security. Our city can protect itself better than the government."

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