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Sadr loyalty grows, even as Sistani returns

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It's a hot summer morning, as Doctor Hassan heads out on his rounds to see the wounded. His patients are all in their homes scattered throughout Sadr City. They are fighters for the Mahdi Army, who are staying out of hospitals to avoid being arrested by US forces.

Doctor Hassan, who did not want to give his last name, is a member of the Mahdi Army, and this mobile medical unit is another indication that the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr is more than a street gang or personality cult.

Even as the standoff between the Mahdi Army and US forces appears to be subsiding - with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani scheduled to begin talks Friday in Najaf for a Mahdi withdrawal from the shrine - Mr. Sadr's organization, already battered from weeks of battling with the US, continues to be resilient.

Almost unknown to the world before its violent uprising last April against US forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Mahdi Army is emerging as a well-organized parallel government that aspires to govern Shiites according to its religious principles. Its models are the violent militant organizations (designated as terrorists groups by the US) with social programs like Lebanon's Hizbullah and Hamas in Gaza, and its goals are at least as ambitious.

In most cities where the Mahdi Army is present, there are Mahdi Army religious courts for resolving disputes and punishing criminals; Mahdi Army police patrols; and even Mahdi Army town councils for planning social programs.

All of these services pay political dividends, earning the admiration of many Shiites who don't necessarily support Sadr or his militia. And while Sadr's militia has suffered major losses in Najaf, by standing up to the US and Iraqi forces for weeks, Sadr has also raised his stature in the eyes of many Iraqis.

Until the arrival of Ayatollah Sistani's in Basra Wednesday afternoon, Sadr's Mahdi Army appeared to be facing an almost certain military defeat in the streets around the Shrine of Imam Ali. Now, there is a strong possibility of a negotiated withdrawal for Sadr and his forces, which will keep Sadr on the political scene for sometime, and also allow Sistani another chance to prove his skills as a mediator. A negotiated withdrawal may also be a relief to the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, since any assault on the shrine could inflame Iraq's Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of the population.

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