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Iraq's Sadr uses lull to rebuild Army

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He says militiamen are spending their time carrying out good deeds like giving blood and sweeping streets to endear themselves again to the masses. The name of the Mahdi Army has, in many areas, become associated with killings, kidnappings, and extortion.

During the freeze, he says, he continues to be in contact with members of his unit but has returned to his day job as a hotel receptionist in Najaf, where he awaits instructions from his commanders. "There is just bound to be another war as long as the occupation remains. Our main enemy is America."

The Mahdi Army's next phase

In recent weeks, Sadrists – many dressed in black and donning white cloaks to symbolize martyrdom – have marched in Baghdad and the south. The largest rally took place in Najaf on Nov. 15, when tens of thousands of militiamen were bused in from all over Iraq to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the killing of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, their spiritual leader and Sadr's father.

They paraded through Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery, which was the scene of some of the worst fighting between the militia and the US in 2004. Celebrants flashed victory signs and shouted anti-American slogans. Those attending received a CD showing footage of purported roadside bombings planted by the militia against US forces and militiamen in training.

Mothers of Mahdi Army fighters killed since 2004 wept in a special section of the cemetery reserved for them. Like the Hizbullah cemeteries in Lebanon, hundreds of tombstones were festooned with artificial flowers and billboards praising the heroics of the so-called martyrs.

As for Sadr's intent, his spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, says: "We have new visions for what the Mahdi Army will do in the next phase."

Mr. Obeidi explains that most Shiite parties have embraced the political process wholeheartedly and accept the presence of US forces, while the Sadrists, who continue to oppose it, need to keep their Army as a "national resistance force."

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