When you enter the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, your life is in the hands of one of the most formidable militias in the capital — the Mahdi army, reports CBS News correspondent Lara Logan.
"We couldn't move around Sadr City without the protection of the Mahdi army, so we have three cars of armed gunmen escorting us, one in front and two behind," Logan says. "They certainly seem to know their way around here and to be in control."
That control is obvious when CBS News passes through this Iraqi army checkpoint and the soldiers simply wave through the lead car of militiamen, all of whom are armed to the teeth.
CBS News went to meet Sheikh Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, the man who speaks for their leader, rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr.
He blamed America for trying to create civil war in Iraq.
"I tell President Bush that the freedom you want is the freedom of blood," he says.
His armed guards agreed, and although they wouldn't talk on-camera, they made it clear they want American forces to leave Iraq.
In Sadr City, the well-organized and well-armed Mahdi army militia, loyal to al-Sadr, is the law. They fought the Americans twice before and they're ready to fight them again. But for now, their political leaders are — at least publicly — calling for restraint.
"American forces leaving Iraq immediately might not make any sense, so what we want is a timetable," the Sheikh says. "Everything depends on setting a timetable for American withdrawal."
These men are adamant that they don't want to be fighting a civil war in Iraq, but a wave of sectarian killings here has been blamed on the various militias. With more tortured bodies turning up every day, the U.S. ambassador has called on Iraq's leaders to act against them.
"It's time that the government, with the help of the international community, deals with the militia issues by decommissioning, demobilizing and re-integrating them," Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad says.
Sheikh al-Daraji rejected the ambassador's call, pointing to the Kurdish militias in the north of the country who are close allies of the United States.
"If America is asking for the disbanding of militias, then they should start with the Kurds," he says. "We should be fair and treat everyone the same."
While Iraq's leaders continue to try to form a government, the Madhi army is consolidating its hold in Sadr City by doing something politicians have not — protecting the area of 2 million Shiites from outsiders and helping to provide general services that are still absent.