The Great Moqtada Makeover

In the West Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya, 25-year-old Saif Awad was known as "the Assassin." He didn't look like a killer. Handsome and well groomed, Awad made a show of attending prayers and Shiite religious celebrations. But, locals say, he also ran a brutal kidnapping ring linked to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and shook down newcomers to Hurriya—even other Shiites—for protection money. In recent months he'd taken to wearing flashier clothes and flaunting his two new cars. He was driving one of them to the shop last November when three men on motorcycles roared up and riddled the Toyota with bullets, killing Awad. An eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous for his own safety, says the killers were fellow members of the Mahdi Army. "Death is the punishment for those who disobey the Mahdi Army," says Bassim Abdul Zahra, a Hurriya resident close to the militia. "By killing these dissenters, the leadership sends a warning."

Gen. David Petraeus has been deservedly praised for tamping down violence in Iraq, but an unlikely character deserves some credit—Sadr. Five months ago the firebrand cleric ordered his followers to lay down their arms, and they've largely obeyed. Mahdi cadres have gone after bad seeds like the Assassin, whose thuggish tactics have disgusted ordinary Iraqis. American officers now talk about "splitting the seams" within the Shiite militia—working with moderates in the group to isolate the radicals, similar to the strategy adopted to tame the Sunni insurgency.

U.S. commanders are engaged in talks with the Shiite militants for the first time since 2003. In public statements the Americans are careful to distinguish between the "special groups" trained and funded by Iran—who are accused of the bulk of Shiite attacks on U.S. forces—and the Sadrist mainstream. "We thought that it would be important that we respect [Sadr's] decision to, fairly courageously, declare the ceasefire," Petraeus said in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. In some Baghdad neighborhoods, the Americans are even paying Mahdi fighters to help keep the peace. Officially, the Sadrists deny any dialogue with Americans; a senior cleric says talks are a "red line" the movement wouldn't cross. But Petraeus says he is in regular contact with a "senior Sadr political official." Some of his ground commanders exchange text messages with counterparts in the Mahdi Army.

Sadr's ceasefire is, at one level, a PR move. In August, as thousands of Shiites flocked to Karbala for a religious festival, some of his supporters clashed with cops loyal to a rival Shiite party. Guns were drawn, and within days more than 50 people had been killed and nearly 500 wounded. "In 1,500 years of Shiite history we've never had such a thing, this group fighting against another group," says Ayad Jamaluddin, a prominent cleric and parliamentarian. Ordinary Shiites were appalled, and many blamed the excitable, unemployed young men who fill the ranks of the Mahdi Army. To restore order, Sadr and his aides formed a review committee and set up a "Golden Division" to mete out punishment to rogue fighters. "Many fighters formed gangs and used the name of the Sadrists to hide their crimes," says Sheik Salah Obeidi, a senior Sadr aide based in Najaf. "This committee was set up to look into these issues." Militiamen in Baghdad say members of the "Golden" unit drop into neighborhoods unexpectedly to conduct spot checks, and to deal harshly with troublemakers like the Assassin.

In early December Sadr issued another decree, urging his followers to focus on prayer and religious studies. He's leading by example. Senior clerics close to Sadr, who did not want to be named speaking about their boss, confirm that he himself is studying to ascend to the rank of ayatollah, using books, CDs and even texts on the Internet. Sadr, these aides say, is particularly focused on the teachings of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric who now heads the judiciary in neighboring Iran, as well as Ayatollah Ishaq Fayadh, one of the four top clerics in Najaf. Petraeus recently started using the honorific "seyed" when referring to Sadr and has asked U.S. officers to do the same.

Clearly the Americans sense an opportunity. They're reaching out most extensively at the grass-roots level, where the Sadrists have the greatest influence. A year ago the west Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad was one of the city's bloodiest. Executions were common; on one occasion an entire family, including a 4-year-old girl, was found bound and shot in the head. Mahdi Army militants were suspected in many of the deaths, and when the First Infantry Division's First Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment—the Black Lions—arrived last March, they went after the militants hard. "We had to get the right people off the streets," says Capt. Brian Ducote, a stout 31-year-old with a shaved head and an easy smile. One Shiite commander was kept on his toes for 24 hours as U.S. forces chased him across the neighborhood.

By the summer, the aggressive raids had forced moderate Sadrists to the negotiating table; the ceasefire then gave them more latitude to work with the Americans. Ducote, an Atlanta native who once studied for the seminary, pointed out to them that if attacks on civilians ceased, he could cut back on the raids. As a good-faith measure, he released a well-known Shiite extremist shortly after his arrest. "We thought about it a lot and decided, 'We're going to do it because we really want this to work'," says Ducote. The gamble paid off. "That really, really earned us a lot of credibility." Tip-offs from locals soared. Attacks against civilians and the Coalition in Jihad have dropped to roughly one tenth of what they were when the Black Lions arrived. In October, Sunni and Shiite leaders in the neighborhood signed a peace deal.

As Ducote patrols the blocks of dun-colored houses, he waves at kids and chats with the new "guards"—former Mahdi Army fighters or, in the Sunni part of the neighborhood, former insurgents, who are paid about $300 a month by the Americans. In November he attended a ceremony honoring the death of Moqtada's father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. His Nokia cell phone rings constantly with calls from Mahdi Army reps and well-connected tribal sheiks making various demands. He often answers with the words shlone saha—Iraqi slang for "How are you?"—and can carry on a basic conversation in Arabic. One 4 a.m. call last week was to complain about a homemade grenade dumped in a Shiite family's yard. Ducote went out later that day and fired two sets of Iraqi guards who should have protected the house.

Ducote's superior, Lt. Col. Pat Frank, has tried to apply the Jihad template to other areas of southwest Baghdad under his control. In December, he brought together community leaders from neighboring Amel to sign their own ceasefire. "It was sort of like dominos," says a U.S. official familiar with the deal, who was not authorized to speak on the record. Frank likens the Mahdi Army to the once omnipotent Baath Party: Shiites who want to have influence in their communities have to become members at least nominally. "Pretty much anybody who has any power at all has done something that Americans would think is illegal or wrong," says another of Frank's subordinates, Capt. Sean Lyons, who commands U.S. forces in Amel. Like Ducote, he's used judicious prisoner releases to build good will with local leaders. "It's a chess game," he says.

The hope is that this kind of bottomup reconciliation will push senior Sadrist leaders toward moderation, too. (A senior Sadr aide, Ahmed Shaybani, was arrested by the Americans and released by Petraeus last spring. Petraeus says he is now the head of the Mahdi Army.) But things could just as well turn out badly. If Sadr achieves the rank of ayatollah, he will be a heavyweight political, as well as religious, authority—and he'll have a leaner, more loyal militia at his disposal. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has drawn comparisons between Sadr's movement and Hizbullah, which does not bode well for long-term stability.

At the end of last week a senior Sadrist cleric said there were ongoing discussions with Moqtada about whether to extend the ceasefire. In Hurriya, meanwhile, another bad seed was picked off by Mahdi gunmen last Monday. He was suspected of running an extortion racket—threatening residents for rent money—in the neighborhood.