TIME: Can Iraq's Militias Be Tamed?

As the killings continue, Time meets fighters on both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide—and finds hope that all-out civil war can be avoided

As he steps onto the streets of Baghdad's Shi'ite slum Sadr City, Saed Salah chambers a round into his pistol and shoves it into the back of his pants. A mid-ranking commander in the Mahdi Army, one of the most potent of the armed militias that have carved Baghdad into fiefdoms, Saed Salah has little to fear from the authorities. The whole neighborhood knows who he is. Motorists are aware that his fighters man the makeshift checkpoints that dot the neighborhood. Even though he has attacked U.S. troops countless times, no one will touch him. If the G.I.s could find him, they would slap him straight into Abu Ghraib prison. But that's not likely to happen. The American military may occupy Iraq, Saed Salah says, and an Iraqi Prime Minister may be in power, but neither owns these streets.

He's right. Iraqi army troops set checkpoints on the main thoroughfares in and out of Sadr City, but they are powerless in the face of the Mahdi Army. "They do nothing. They can't even stop a vehicle," says a member of a separate unit of the fractious militia as he speeds past one of the checkpoints. A pickup truck overflowing with gunmen toting AK-47s roars up from behind. Their shirts are emblazoned with the name of one of the country's most formidable armed groups: mahdi army, protection committee, 2nd brigade. As they approach the army checkpoint, no one makes a move; instead of confrontation, there is acknowledgment. A militia member waves from the pickup, and a soldier sheepishly waves back. With that, the gunmen barrel through.

In Baghdad today, the militias are consolidating their power. A wave of sectarian killings since the Feb. 22 bombing of a holy Shi'ite shrine in Samarra has left hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of Shi'ites and Sunnis dead across the country, with more tortured and dismembered bodies turning up each day. The U.S. military is pinning its hopes on the Iraqi army and police to stand between the two sides and bring calm to a volatile situation, but in many parts of the capital, the U.S.-backed forces wield less authority than the forces taking their orders from men like Saed Salah and his boss, the rebel anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Many U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that hard-line Shi'ite militias are behind the daily abductions and executions of Sunnis and that they are doing as much to rile sectarian hatred as terrorists linked to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Yet there's also evidence that the mainstream of armed fighters on both sides is loath to allow the extremists to drag them into full-scale war -- for now. In more than a dozen interviews with militia leaders, insurgent commanders and clerics, Time sought out the men likely to be on the front lines of a full-blown sectarian conflict. What they have to say won't necessarily bolster hopes that Iraq can avoid all-out civil war indefinitely. But few militia members interviewed by Time believe that they are fighting one now.

Their assessments largely accord with those of U.S. military intelligence: that while rival death squads roam unchecked, for now civil war is in no one's interest but al-Zarqawi's. Militants on both sides say U.S. forces remain a bigger enemy than their countrymen. "The elements for civil war are all there," says a senior U.S. military-intelligence officer, "but this society is complex, and it still hasn't generated self-sustaining sectarian strife."

What no one denies is that the violence is becoming more brutal. U.S. officials say 25 bodies are found each day, although it's unclear how many are victims of sectarian killings. Unlike the terrorist attacks committed by al-Zarqawi, sectarian violence rarely bears a calling card. Shi'ite and Sunni militants interviewed by Time say the worst killings are carried out by small, secretive death squads that the militants conveniently describe as rogue elements. Windows into the machinations of the death squads are rare, but U.S. and Iraqi forces have gained some intelligence on them. Some operations have been uncovered in Sunni-controlled areas, like those of the radical Ansar al-Sunnah group discovered in Latifiyah more than a year ago during a U.S. sweep called Operation River Walk. Execution videos, swords and instruments of torture were found by soldiers in what were deemed to be killing rooms.

A March 26 raid on a Shi'ite militia complex -- believed to be a hub for a kidnapping and terrorist network -- has raised suspicions that a death squad may have been run out of the complex. Shi'ite leaders claim that the 16 men who died in the raid were worshipping peacefully in what turned out to be a mosque. But Iraqi commandos and U.S. military liaisons told Time that the dead perished in battle with weapons in their hands. According to U.S. military officials, more than 60 reports of kidnappings or executions have been linked to the mosque, including the slayings of three Iraqi special-forces soldiers. Shi'ite leaders continue to deny the allegations.

Such discoveries lend credence to those, like former Prime Minister and chief U.S. ally Iyad Allawi, who say Iraq is already mired in civil war. Yet despite the bloodshed on both sides, the militants on the front lines don't consider themselves in outright conflict with one another. "War might be tomorrow or one year from now; it all depends on the sparks made by those seeking to inflame it," says Abu Mohammed, a former top-ranking officer in Saddam Hussein's army and now a key Baathist insurgent strategist. Another Baathist insurgent downplays the pervasiveness of sectarian hatred: "It's true there are death squads killing Shi'ite and killing Sunni, and while they're Iraqi, they're really the instruments of foreign interests" -- referring to al-Qaeda and Iran. His Shi'ite counterparts in al-Sadr's militia agree. Two mid-ranking field commanders of the Shi'ite Mahdi Army say the violence falls short of war with the Sunnis. "Sectarian violence is made by the occupation forces. There is no civil war," says Saed Salah as members of his cell nod in agreement.

Both Shi'ite and Sunni militants insist they would rather fight to rid Iraq of U.S. forces than take up arms against each other. Abu Mohammed says there's nothing to be gained by waging a costly religious fight while the U.S. remains in the country. "The Shi'ites are an inseparable part of the resistance. We have to unite our efforts against the invaders, so we must be careful to avoid a civil war that will weaken us," he says. Contact between Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias like al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have been under way since the battle of Fallujah in 2004, with both exchanging expertise and manpower. "We have nothing against Shi'ites ... our dead are buried with theirs, as theirs are buried with ours in Fallujah," says insurgent commander Abu Saif. It's a sentiment echoed by the Sadrist leaders, who bear scars from dueling with the U.S. "We have many relationships binding us together," says Abu Zainab.

Still, few U.S. or Iraqi officials believe Iraq can ever become a stable, functioning society as long as political parties maintain their armed wings. The U.S. would prefer that the Iraqi security forces disarm the militias, but it hasn't happened. A senior military official in Baghdad says the U.S. is deliberately avoiding confrontations with the militias. But last month alone, soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad have had what the official calls 19 "encounters" with militias, including a shooting incident. The danger is that the bigger the militias get, the more likely they are to intensify their clashes over turf and authority. A U.S. military-intelligence officer says there is still some reason to believe that Iraqis will put their common interests ahead of their rivalries. "In this society, there are many ties that bind -- from tribe to clan to educational, social and political," he says. "I don't think the threads have been cut." If they ever are, it may prove impossible to put them back together.