The Los Angeles Times runs an interesting look at the popular reaction to the Iraqi Army’s mission in Sadr City. Tina Susman and Usama Redha report that Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia has rapidly lost support from the citizens of the Baghdad slum as a result of the fighting caused by the Nouri al-Maliki government’s push to establish sovereignty in the sector. However, one has to wonder whether that really represents a change of heart or the effects of liberating the territory from terrorists:

Four summers ago, when militiamen loyal to hard-line Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr were battling U.S. forces in the holy city of Najaf, Mohammed Lami was among them.

“I had faith. I believed in something,” Lami said of his days hoisting a gun for Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. “Now, I will never fight with them.”

Lami is no fan of U.S. troops, but after fleeing Baghdad’s Sadr City district with his family last month, when militiamen arrived on his street to plant a bomb, he is no fan of the Mahdi Army either. Nor are many others living in Sadr City, the 32-year-old said. Weeks of fighting between militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces, with residents caught in the middle, has chipped away at the Sadr movement’s grass-roots popularity, Lami said.

More than 1,000 people have died in Sadr City since fighting erupted in late March, and hospital and police officials say most have been civilians. As the violence continues, public tolerance for the Mahdi Army, and by association the Sadr movement, seems to be shifting toward the same sort of resentment once reserved for U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“People are fed up with them because of their extremism and the problems they are causing,” said Rafid Majid, a merchant in central Baghdad. Like many others interviewed across the capital, he said the good deeds the group performs no longer were enough to make up for the hardships endured by ordinary Iraqis who just want to go to work and keep their families safe.

When the Mahdis first organized in Baghdad, they had some justification. They provided protection that neither the US nor the provisional Iraqi government could against Sunni terrorists and militias, including Ba’athist dead-enders and al-Qaeda in Iraq. They mobilized to defend Shi’ite neighborhoods and to inflict retribution on Sunnis as a deterrent. Their only early mistakes came in challenging the US forces in two separate campaigns, from both of which Sadr barely escaped with his forces in place.

Unfortunately, in Sadr City and Baghdad, the Mahdis began to run wild. Once they eliminated the external threat, the Mahdis transformed themselves into a hybrid of the Mafia and the Taliban. Protection rackets abounded and strict shari’a conditions were imposed — not so brutally as AQI enforcement of Islamic law in the West, perhaps, but harsh nonetheless. Sadr City and Basra residents had security, but at a high price, and that chafed as the rest of the country slowly emerged from internecine warfare and terrorism in 2007.

The LA Times now reports that the Mahdis have lost popular support because they have resisted the current operation to establish Baghdad’s authority on Sadr City. This feels like a chicken-egg argument. Even the anecdotes used by the reporters to make that argument sound more like the Mahdis lost popularity quite some time ago, but only with the Maliki push to displace the Mahdis have residents felt free to voice their dissent. The extremism didn’t start in March, for example, and neither did Mahdi interference with commerce and traffic.

What seems more likely is the dynamic we saw in Basra. No one dared to openly oppose the Mahdis while they kept a tight grip on the city, but as soon as that grip weakened, dissent flowered into defiance. People threw off the shackles of fear and oppression to welcome the Iraqi Army and began playing music and celebrating for the first time in years. As Sadr City gains confidence in Maliki’s tenacity and no longer fear retribution from the Mahdis, the people will defy them and lower-level functionaries will find better, more productive jobs.

Terrorists only get power from fear. Once that dissipates, they discover that they never had much support at all, and only the luckiest of them escape the fate of most terrorist oppressors: an abrupt end to life.