Four summers ago, when militiamen loyal to hard-line Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr were battling U.S. forces in the holy city of Najaf, Mohammed Lami was among them.
"I had faith. I believed in something," Lami said of his days hoisting a gun for Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. "Now, I will never fight with them."
Lami is no fan of U.S. troops, but after fleeing Baghdad's Sadr City district with his family last month, when militiamen arrived on his street to plant a bomb, he is no fan of the Mahdi Army either. Nor are many others living in Sadr City, the 32-year-old said. Weeks of fighting between militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces, with residents caught in the middle, has chipped away at the Sadr movement's grass-roots popularity, Lami said.
More than 1,000 people have died in Sadr City since fighting erupted in late March, and hospital and police officials say most have been civilians. As the violence continues, public tolerance for the Mahdi Army, and by association the Sadr movement, seems to be shifting toward the same sort of resentment once reserved for U.S. and Iraqi forces.
"People are fed up with them because of their extremism and the problems they are causing," said Rafid Majid, a merchant in central Baghdad. Like many others interviewed across the capital, he said the good deeds the group performs no longer were enough to make up for the hardships endured by ordinary Iraqis who just want to go to work and keep their families safe.
With provincial elections scheduled for October, a public perception that Sadr loyalists were to blame for the violence could hinder the cleric's hopes of broadening his power and influence in the oil-rich south. It also could extend the violent power struggle between the Mahdi Army and the rival Badr Organization tied to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki -- a conflict that has played out from the southern city of Basra to Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods.
Lawmakers from Sadr's movement blame the United States and Iraqi forces for the bloodshed that began after the government launched an offensive against Shiite militias in Basra. Sadr representatives insist that, if anything, support has soared as people come to sympathize with the Sadr loyalists.
"Even some Iraqi people who were not sympathizing with us before have now started to feel and identify with the oppression on the Sadr people. It has become clear to them that we are being targeted," said Liqa Yaseen, a parliament member representing the Sadr movement.
But interviews with dozens of Iraqis living in Sadr City and other Shiite militia strongholds in Baghdad suggest otherwise. So do anecdotes from U.S. troops who have met with Sadr City residents and local leaders and who say there has been a shift in the things they hear.
"After March 25 was the first time I had anyone tell us, 'Go in and wipe them out,' " said Sgt. Erik Olson, who spends most of his time visiting residents of Sadr City's Jamila neighborhood gathering "atmospherics," the military's word for figuring out what locals are thinking.
It isn't surprising that people on the front lines of the standoff would lose patience with the warring sides. Their homes and streets have become battlegrounds, making it impossible at times to go to the market, the hospital or work. Military and militia snipers fire from rooftops. Militiamen launch mortar shells and rockets from residential streets. U.S. aircraft respond with devastating airstrikes that often cause casualties and damage beyond their targets.
It's a public relations problem that even some Mahdi Army members acknowledge, and a fragile truce reached by Sadr and the Iraqi government this month, which allowed Iraqi troops to deploy into Sadr City, suggested that at least privately, Sadr's political wing recognized the need to back down from the fighting.
Thousands of Iraqi security forces took up positions in Sadr City starting May 20 and faced no resistance from militiamen.
Ahmed, a 29-year-old Mahdi Army member who did not want his full name used for fear of being arrested or attacked, said the group was the only "honorable resistance" to the U.S. presence. He said people in poor neighborhoods depended on it for handouts of fuel, help with funeral costs, and food distribution. But he acknowledged that as fighting continued, support dwindled.
"Of course some people are expressing their resentment and anger against the Mahdi Army, thinking that without them, they would not be targeted and their lives would not be badly affected," he said.
Another Mahdi Army member expressed anger after Sadr in late April warned of "open war" against U.S. forces if operations targeting Sadr strongholds did not stop.
"Did he mention that the 'open war' . . . will be among the houses or residential areas?" said the man, a Mahdi Army street leader who feared having his name published. "Fight? . . . I will not join the fight."
Some members blame the violence on rogue elements who have ignored truces called by Sadr, but they acknowledge that regardless of whoever is behind the fighting, the mainstream Sadr movement is viewed as the violator. "It takes all the blame for the fight because it started it," said Abu Ali, a Sadr City resident who said he had left the Mahdi Army after becoming disillusioned with its tactics fighting U.S. forces in crowded urban areas.
"We should fight them outside the cities, not among the families," Abu Ali said.
For years, Sadr's militia has been welcomed by many people in exchange for the services the cleric provides. Most important has been the security his fighters offer: Even people who don't relish having masked gunmen on their streets have accepted them in exchange for safety.
But with the recent fighting, that security is gone.
"I don't support them now, but in the past I did," Mohammed Mousawi, a 23-year-old civil servant, said of the Mahdi Army. "They served people a lot and solved problems in the area, but now things are different."
Mousawi said he had to pay 24,000 Iraqi dinars [about $20] a month to the militia to protect a small shop he runs and his home in Hurriya, a Baghdad neighborhood known for its militia presence. When the streets were quiet, he was willing to do so. Now, he resents it.
Hassan abu Mohammed, who has an appliance repair shop in Jamila, said the violence forced him to close his business for nearly two months. Abu Mohammed estimated that he was losing $1,200 a month but said it was worth it if the militiamen could be driven out.
"They used to come and take money on a monthly basis from us," he said, speaking for himself and other local merchants. He said the militiamen would demand to know the details of their businesses, whether their customers were Sunnis, Shiites or Americans, and whom they employed.
Shopkeepers, teachers and homemakers interviewed across Baghdad told similar stories and indicated that goodwill toward the militia was evaporating.
"The people do not support [them] anymore because they are responsible for barricading some areas and preventing people from going on with their lives and jobs," said Ibrahim Ghanim, a merchant in central Baghdad.
Allegations of extortion and abductions are not new, but U.S. military officials say such complaints have picked up. They say Sadr's truce with U.S. forces in August has led to splintering in the organization. Questions about which way Sadr will go, toward sustaining the truce or halting it, have fueled more Mafia-like behavior among his followers as they jockey for power and resources in the face of an uncertain future.
"Everyone is trying to claw their way to the top," said Olson, comparing it to Robin Hood turning into Tony Soprano.
Regardless of whether the Sadr movement agrees that it may have lost some support recently, it clearly was trying to curry favor with the public as the Iraqi army moved into Sadr City.
"There's no problem with the Iraqi forces' operations today," spokesman Saleh Obeidi said, "as long as these forces are taking care of the civilians' rights there."
Times staff writer Raheem Salman and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.