BAGHDAD, Oct. 11 — In a number of Shiite neighborhoods across Baghdad, residents are beginning to turn away from the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia they once saw as their only protector against Sunni militants. Now they resent it as a band of street thugs without ideology.
The hardening Shiite feeling in Baghdad opens an opportunity for the American military, which has long struggled against the Mahdi Army, as American commanders rely increasingly on tribes and local leaders in their prosecution of the war.
The sectarian landscape has shifted, with Sunni extremists largely defeated in many Shiite neighborhoods, and the war in those places has sunk into a criminality that is often blind to sect.
In interviews, 10 Shiites from four neighborhoods in eastern and western Baghdad described a pattern in which militia members, looking for new sources of income, turned on Shiites.
The pattern appears less frequently in neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shiites are still struggling for territory. Sadr City, the largest Shiite neighborhood, where the Mahdi Army's face is more political than military, has largely escaped the wave of criminality.
Among the people killed in the neighborhood of Topchi over the past two months, residents said, were the owner of an electrical shop, a sweets seller, a rich man, three women, two local council members, and two children, ages 9 and 11.
It was a disparate group with one thing in common: All were Shiites killed by Shiites. Residents blamed the Mahdi Army, which controls the neighborhood.
"Everyone knew who the killers were," said a mother from Topchi, whose neighbor, a Shiite woman, was one of the victims. "I'm Shiite, and I pray to God that he will punish them."
The feeling was the same in other neighborhoods.
"We thought they were soldiers defending the Shiites," said Sayeed Sabah, a Shiite who runs a charity in the western neighborhood of Huriya. "But now we see they are youngster-killers, no more than that. People want to get rid of them."
While the Mahdi militia still controls most Shiite neighborhoods, early evidence that Shiites are starting to oppose some parts of the militia is surfacing on American bases. Shiite sheiks, the militia's traditional base, are beginning to contact Americans, much as Sunni tribes reached out early this year, refocusing one entire front of the war, officials said, and the number of accurate tips flowing into American bases has soared.
Shiites are "participating like they never have before," said Maj. Mark Brady, of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad Reconciliation and Engagement Cell, which works with tribes.
"Something has got to be not right if they are going to risk calling a tips hot line or approaching a J.S.S.," he said, referring to the Joint Security Stations, the American neighborhood mini-bases set up after the troop increase this year.
"Everything is changing," said Ali, a businessman in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Ur, in eastern Baghdad, who, like most of those interviewed, did not want his full name used for fear of being attacked. "Now in our area for the first time everyone say, 'To hell with Mahdi Army.'
"Not loudly on the street, but between friends, between families. Every man, every woman, say that."
The street militia of today bears little resemblance to the Mahdi Army of 2004, when Shiites following a cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, battled American soldiers in a burst of Shiite self-assertion. Then, fighters doubled as neighborhood helpers, bringing cooking gas and other necessities to needy families.
Now, three years later, many members have left violence behind, taking jobs in local and national government, while others have plunged into crime, dealing in cars and houses taken from dead or displaced victims of both sects.
Even the demographics have changed. Now, street fighters tend to be young teenagers from errant families, in part the result of American military success. Last fall, the military began an aggressive campaign of arresting senior commanders, leaving behind a power vacuum and directionless junior members.
"Now it's young guys — no religion, no red lines," said Abbas, 40, a Shiite car parts dealer in Ameen, a southern Baghdad neighborhood. Abbas's 22-year-old cousin, Ratib, was shot in the mouth this spring after insulting Mahdi militia members.
"People hate them," Abbas said. "They want them to disappear from their lives." continued