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Sadr army owns city's streets

Our reporter follows the Mahdi Army as it patrols Sadr City, home to 1 in 10 Iraqi voters.

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Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army rarely engages US forces anymore. Hundreds of his men were killed in clashes with the US in April and by June, the militant Shiite cleric had declared an informal truce that prevails to this day.

Despite occasional clashes, including a firefight between marines and Sadr's bodyguards on Monday outside his home in the shrine city of Najaf, senior US commanders believe their April counteroffensive decisively crushed his insurgency.

But that doesn't mean Sadr and his militia have lost influence. In recent months, the Mahdi Army has consolidated its control over Sadr City - a poor sprawl of 2.5 million on Baghdad's northeastern edge - maintained control over large portions of Najaf, forced a US-backed government council in the southern city of Amara to resign, and rearmed in anticipation of further confrontation with the US.

"We're in charge here,'' says Sheikh Amar Saadi, a preacher in Sadr City and senior Mahdi Army commander. And he goes further:

"Our mission is to clear Iraq of evil, and that's not just about defeating the Americans."

The US effort to arrest Sadr in April, which sparked uprisings in southern cities, gave the cleric a national stature that is likely to have a profound impact on Iraq's political development. For the moment, Sadr's organization is not national in scope. There are signs of poor coordination with supporters in Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south. But inside his Sadr City stronghold his support appears to run deeper than ever.

A few days spent with some of the organization's foot soldiers and lieutenants inside the city, prowling the area's warren of side-streets, where sewage seeps from dilapidated infrastructure and barefoot children play with trash, shows a vast organization with a strict hierarchy and an obsession with following orders. The area is one of Baghdad's poorest, with typhoid and other water-born diseases endemic and anger at the perceived failure of the US to improve daily life widespread.

A gunman on every corner
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