BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Abu Deraa sits at home in Baghdad’s Sadr City, ringed by images of 7th century Shi’ite Muslim Imams Ali and Hussein. A hero to Shi’ite militiamen during Iraq’s civil war, he no longer fights but still stirs the hearts of men now battling Islamic State.
Nearly a decade after Iraq’s worst sectarian bloodletting, the country faces a new period of darkness: Sunni jihadists have captured swathes of territory in the north and west, and efforts to roll back those gains have exacerbated tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite communities.
Abu Deraa, whose nom de guerre means father of the shield, is defiantly proud of his past, which includes brutal raids on Sunni areas whose residents still tremble at his name. He now sees himself as an anchor in a new war against evil forces.
On any given day, young men flock to his house to pay tribute and acolytes join the fight against Islamic State under the banner of various armed factions.
“How would you feel if your family was slaughtered? How would you act and where would you go? Those who have killed and committed crimes should be punished,” Abu Deraa told Reuters in an interview.
“If you aren’t capable of doing it yourself, we are here for you. We will give you back your rights.”
Islamic State insurgents have killed thousands of Iraqis and displaced many more in recent months. They often booby trap areas under their control before leaving, complicating return.
Shi’ite militias, organized under the government-run Popular Mobilization Committee, have also been accused of killing and destruction when retaking land from the jihadists.
Some in these razed areas whisper that Abu Deraa was there, such is the dread he still inspires.
The famed paramilitary leader defended his own actions in the 2006-2007 civil war when his men detained and killed suspected terrorists
“If we found them innocent, even if they had a takfiri (extremist) mentality, but had no blood on their hands, we freed them,” Abu Deraa said. “We only tried and punished those with blood on their hands.”
His comments echo those of militiamen today who profess confidence in the intelligence they use to determine who is a Sunni extremist.
Abu Deraa, who at 57 speaks in a hoarse voice and lumbers when he walks, makes appearances around Iraq, praying at the Shi’ite shrine of Samarra in the north or touring the Shi’ite southern heartland.
Clad in black and surrounded by fighters, he joined a procession through Sadr City last summer, inspecting militiamen carrying automatic weapons.
But the man born as Ismail Hafidh al-Lami is still waiting for his call to arms from Moqtada al-Sadr, the religious cleric to whom he pledges loyalty. He says Sadr is holding him in reserve in case Islamic State mounts a major assault on Baghdad.
Such an attack looked likely last year after Mosul, Ramadi and Falluja fell to the jihadists in short order, but a brutal counter-offensive by Shi’ite militias and Iraqi security forces in the belt of farmlands around the capital has kept the threat at bay.
“If (Sadr) wants us to stand up and rise, we will. If he says stand down, we will. We’ll do whatever he says,” Abu Deraa said.
Sadr, who gained political influence a decade ago as a militant leader in the southern holy city of Najaf during the U.S. occupation, holds sway over tens of thousands of fighters.
Abu Deraa, who cried when speaking of his allegiance to Shi’ite Islam’s first two imams, Ali and Hussein, spoke of a centuries old struggle for Shi’ite survival.
“For 1,400 years we have been living under injustice, since the death of the prophet. And now the Shi’ites rule - we must exhibit justice and honesty.”
When strangers in Sadr City ask his whereabouts, residents say Abu Deraa no longer lives here, seeking to protect the man who became a symbol of Iraq’s sectarian strife.
In 2006, his brutal raids on Sunni neighborhoods earned him the title “the Shi’ite answer to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”, a reference to the Sunni militant leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who beheaded hostages and sent suicide bombers against Shi’ite targets.
Abu Deraa once posted a video threatening to behead former Sunni vice president Tareq al-Hashimi - footage he is proud of even now.
When the U.S. military doubled its numbers in 2007, Abu Deraa no longer felt safe in Iraq. He disappeared at the height of his notoriety, spending several years in Iran before finally returning home after U.S. forces left.
Editing by Stephen Kalin and Dominic Evans