SADR CITY, Iraq - As the muezzin calls the faithful to evening prayer and shadows lengthen against the mosque walls, dozens of young men line up patiently at a table, clutching pieces of paper scrawled with their details.
The men are answering a call from a controversial young firebrand cleric to form an Islamic Shia army in defense of their religion and country, but also, many say, eventually to take on the occupiers from the United States and drive them from Iraq.
Thousands have responded to the call by Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, most of them from this fetid slum known as Sadr City, where unemployment is high and crime is rife, a breeding ground for discontent and disenchantment against their American "liberators."
Mohammed Abbas, 27, who signed up two weeks ago at the office of the Arasul mosque, said: "God willing, this army will get rid of the Americans, the Israelis and the infidels."
Shi'ite Muslim protesters hold up a picture of Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and chant slogans in support of Sadr in front of a line of U.S. troops during a demonstration in Najaf, around 150 km south of Baghdad July 20, 2003. More than 10,000 angry Shi'ites marched on the local offices of Iraq's U.S.-led administration in the sacred city of Najaf to protest against alleged U.S. harassment of a prominent Shi'ite leader. REUTERS/Oleg Popov
He is one of many in the neighborhood aligned with Mr. al-Sadr. He returned yesterday with a group whom he had urged to join. "All Shias should do this because we must be ready to defend ourselves against our enemies."
Three weeks ago Mr. al-Sadr issued the call from his pulpit in Najaf for volunteers for a "Mehdi army" -- named after the prophet Mehdi, the "awaited one" who Shias believe will return one day as a Messiah.
The 30-year-old cleric enjoys a huge following among Shias, largely built on the reputation of his father, a revered ayatollah murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Since the fall of the regime, he has been seeking to establish himself as the unassailable leader of the Shia opposition, of which his call to arms is just the latest ploy.
He proved something of his pulling power last month when he managed to rally 10,000 demonstrators against the Americans in Najaf, mostly bussed in from Sadr City, after claiming that troops were coming to arrest him.
Clerics claim that since his army appeal, more than a million volunteers have joined. The estimate may be far-fetched, but ask around on the streets of Sadr City, home to three million Shias, and almost every young man will tell you he has already signed up. What is less clear is the army's exact purpose.
Hojatoleslam al-Sadr himself has stopped short of an explicit call for holy war against the Americans, but most volunteers said that their recruiters had left them in little doubt of what they were signing up for. "They said we will call you when you are needed to fight the looters and the Americans," Bassim al-Hussein, 26, said after handing in his details. "They said this is what the army is for."
Clerics involved in the recruitment tended to be cagey, talking of protecting their people and their values and defending against "bad elements and enemies." But Hojatoleslam al-Sadr has made clear who he sees as the greatest threat to religious society in Iraq, accusing American forces from his pulpit of spreading what he calls "Western decadent ideas and prostitution".
And clerics are adamant that the army's purpose is military. "We need this army because the national army is not a patriotic one, it is run by the Americans and does not represent our interests," Sheikh Hassan al-Zargan, the chief imam at the Arasul mosque, said. "Ours will be a proper army, like a national army, but it will be an army that has faith."
He laughed at the suggestion that any such force might require military training, like the recruits to the new Iraqi National Army. "Saddam has managed to teach all Iraqis to use weapons, we don't need to train them," he said, "and every Iraqi has his own weapons at home, we don't need to give them out."
All this talk of weapons and of driving the Americans out makes some uneasy. "This talk of jihad has rallied young people around him (Hojatoleslam al-Sadr), but I think it is dangerous," Wamid Duraid, 28, a fine art graduate who runs a drinks stall opposite the mosque, said. "This army is not legal, it's a militia, so they risk being confronted by the Americans, which will bring trouble for us all. They should not be considering war, they should only consider religious things."
Most of his friends had joined up, he admitted, despite his protestations. "I argue with them, but then I have to stop because they cannot see reason and I don't want to lose them," Mr. Duraid said. "Sadr has taken over their minds."
But even those who are opposed to the Mehdi army conceded that it could have some constructive purpose. "We are grateful to the Americans for what they did, but they have caused us many problems, too, and we need them to help us," Ahmed Adnan, a customer at the stall, said. "Maybe this army will make them sit up and listen and hear our problems. Until then, more and more people will join."
Copyright 2003 Times/UK