Under a porcelain blue sky, as Koranic recitation wafted over barefoot boys playing soccer, the young men of Baghdad's largest slum trudged down streets awash in sewage. They bundled prayer rugs under their arms and grasped strings of prayer beads in their hands. They passed rusted carcasses of cars and a line at a gas station that stretched more than a mile.
The sounds of Friday rose from the sidewalk: gravel kicked by the shuffle of thousands of feet and the clang of shops being shuttered for the Muslim sabbath. Along the way, boys hawked the newspaper published by Moqtada Sadr, the militant Shiite Muslim cleric and godfather of the neighborhood. Other boys competed for business with posters, emblazoned with a portrait of the young, bearded cleric, whose forces are now in a fragile truce with U.S. troops.
Beneath his picture ran a slogan: "He dwells at the Friday prayers." Since the occupation began, the mass prayers on Friday in Sadr City have become a ritual in a capital that teeters before a Hobbesian abyss. The words of the prayer leader and the thousands to whom he ministers give voice to the sentiments of a city as dispirited as at any time since Saddam Hussein fell in 2003.
There is fatigue, an unrelenting weariness that has left even a place as resilient as Iraq hopeless. There is revulsion over car bombings and beheadings by Sunni Muslim insurgents, carnage that seems to have curbed the anger of many Shiites over the U.S. attack on Sunni rebels in Fallujah. And there is a new style of politics that competes for legitimacy with elections backed by the United States and its Iraqi allies.
"We are the Sadrists, forthright," the prayer leader Abdel-Zahra Suwaidi declared.
Suwaidi spoke Friday from an outdoor podium decked in a red-and-white cloth, embroidered in gold. Before him was a portrait of Sadr's father, an immensely popular ayatollah assassinated by Hussein's agents in 1999. Unarmed men, in black pants and white shirts, encircled Suwaidi, bearing badges that pictured both the father and son. Loudspeakers carried his stentorian voice, which cracked at times, prompting an assistant sitting behind him to provide a glass of water.
On this day, his sermon was stern and impassioned, beginning with the fighting in Fallujah and the shooting by a Marine of an unarmed prisoner that was taped by an American cameraman and broadcast worldwide.
"God has exposed the aggressors once again when he revealed the crime of killing the wounded," he said.
The crowd answered in unison, fists in the air.
"No, no, no to the devil!" they shouted. "No, no, no to falsehoods!"
"They violated the dignity of the blessed month of Ramadan with their aggression," Suwaidi went on. Ramadan is Islam's most sacred month, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. "They violated the mosques in Fallujah."
The crowd answered, again in unison.
"No, no, no to arrogance!" they shouted.
Friday sermons -- both for Shiites, the majority in Iraq, and Sunnis, the minority that long ruled the country -- rival Arab satellite channels such as al-Jazeera in their influence over Iraqi opinion. In American terms, they might be akin to a mix of stern evangelical sermons, combustible talk radio and self-help lectures. They hurtle seamlessly from Islam's founding in the 7th century to the latest headlines.
In Baghdad's Sunni mosques, talk revolves around the feats of the resistance and the mendacity of the Americans. Fighting in towns like Fallujah and Samarra is compared to the battles of the prophet Muhammad, whose outnumbered forces defeated the infidels in Mecca.
To Shiites in Sadr City, past and present meet in the example of Hussein, the prophet's grandson and the Shiites' most beloved saint, who was killed in a battle in the Iraqi town of Karbala in 680. He stands as a symbol of sacrifice, a model to emulate.
The past: "The blood of Hussein that was shed in Karbala was shed for the sake of everyone -- the poor, the meek and the nation," Suwaidi said. The present, with the Americans as the modern aggressor: "The people of our nation, from the north to the south, have been exposed to so many difficulties because of their arrogance," he said.
Those difficulties have become so common in Baghdad that even billboards around the city seem to mock its inhabitants. Against a blue backdrop, one intones, "Together under the wing of peace." In Antar Square, a yellow billboard, more relevant, offers rewards of up to $50,000 to anyone who gives information on insurgents devising attacks or the locations of planned car bombings.
"The city is like a corpse," Hassan Kadhim, a 36-year-old Sadr City resident, said as he listened to Suwaidi's sermon. "Whatever you do to make it beautiful, the body is still dead."
Since Sadr's movement emerged in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall, it has played to that disenchantment, seeking to mobilize Iraq's poorest and most disenfranchised Shiites, the largely migrant constituency that populates Sadr City. Twice, it led uprisings against U.S. forces -- in April and again in the summer, before a truce ended the fighting in October and the Americans promised $330 million to renovate Sadr City's long-neglected water, electricity and sewage lines. Now there is speculation over whether the cease-fire will hold and, if it does, whether Sadr's movement will take part in elections scheduled for the end of January.
Unlike other Shiite groups, Sadr's movement has reached out to Sunnis and preaches sectarian harmony. Its uprisings against U.S. troops gave it credibility among those most opposed to the occupation. It portrays itself as representative of the religious Shiite leadership, even if some of that leadership disagrees.
Sadr's lieutenants have taken an ambiguous position on the elections. They are less important, Suwaidi said in his sermon, than speaking on behalf of the downtrodden.
"Some of our religious leaders are isolated, withdrawn, unable to exploit the freedom given to them and the immunity they enjoy or to cultivate their popularity to support the victims and deter the aggressors," he said. "We ask that they declare very frankly that it is the right of all people to resist occupation and seek freedom and independence, instead of busying themselves with elections."
Since Hussein's fall, Iraqis have often hoped for a turning point. At the beginning of the occupation, many expected prosperity. After the appointment of the interim government in June, many thought stability might finally arrive. Now there are the elections, which some hope will bring a credible government.
"God willing, I'll vote," said Jalil Ibrahim, a 48-year-old standing along the curb during the prayers. "I want a national government, a government that serves the country. Maybe the next government will be elected and legitimate."
More commonly, Iraqis expressed ambivalence, insisting that the elections must be free and fair while suspecting they won't be.
"I won't vote for anyone," said 50-year-old Mohammed Ali. "Fifty years in this country and until now I have nothing. Just killing, terrorism and stealing. When are we going to have peace?"
Ali said he welcomed the truce in Sadr City and hoped that the U.S. attack on Fallujah would end the carnage inflicted by insurgents. The fighting there, he said, "is the punishment of God. The Israelis are better than the people of Fallujah. A dog is more loyal than them."
The lack of outrage here over the U.S. attack in Fallujah reflects a dramatic shift in popular sentiment. When Marines besieged the city in April, reports of civilian casualties roiled Baghdad. Sadr's followers sent food, medicine and, it was rumored, fighters. This time, sentiments seem far more subdued, reflecting a backlash against the brutal killings that many in Sadr City blame on foreign fighters.
"This is forbidden by religion. This is not Islam," said Abdel-Hussein Daffar, standing at the edge of the prayers.
Precisely an hour after he started, Suwaidi concluded his sermon. The flag of Iraq -- emblazoned with the slogan "God is greatest" -- fluttered overhead, sharing space with green, white and black religious banners. To Suwaidi's side was a poster with Sadr's portrait that read, "I consider Shiites and Sunnis as one. We are Islam, and we are one."
"Make the days to come days of rapprochement," Suwaidi said. "We shall have weeks of brotherhood and cooperation."
Prayers followed, silent but for the invocations. Then the assembly ended. Within minutes, the crowd was gone. The worshipers melted back into the city and the mundane rituals of survival resumed. The walls along the road were exposed again, revealing a faded slogan, written in black, that had gone up the day after Hussein fell.
"Long live Sadr."