When US and Iraqi forces swept into Baghdad's Sadr City slum last week, they were chasing, but didn't catch, one of the most dangerous men in the city -- a rogue and murderous Shiite militiaman who is a hero to his men and a feared killer among the capital's Sunni population.
Two of the wanted man's neighbors said the Mahdi Army militia commander, known as Abu Diraa, Arabic for Father of the Shield, is actually Ismail al-Lami, the father of at least a dozen children from two marriages.
It was believed to have been the second raid in the tumbledown district of 2.5 million to target al-Lami. The first, in August, prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to condemn the operation.
Ten militia fighters were killed in the Wednesday raid, about which al-Maliki issued a bitter protest as well.
Major General William Caldwell, the military spokesman in Iraq, said 10 people were captured after the Iraqi and US forces struck swiftly in a pre-dawn raid.
Two of the militiaman's neighbors -- Kadhim al-Mohammedawi, 38, and Jaafar al-Moussawi, 37 -- agreed to speak on the record, praising the outlaw and his brutal behavior.
Al-Mohammedawi said his militant neighbor fought with the Mahdi Army when it staged a series of revolts against US forces that lasted for much of 2004.
Some of the heaviest fighting took place in Sadr City.
"I don't care what they say about him," al-Mohammedawi said. "It is enough for me that he killed Americans in defense of Sadr City. Everyone loves him."
To the other neighbor, al Moussawi, Abu Diraa is "the shield of the city. He goes nowhere without a weapon."
Baghdad, where most sectarian killings take place, has been awash with tales about Abu Diraa's brutality, gory details of his vicious torture and deep hatred of Sunni Arabs.
One story claims he slaughtered a group of captured Sunni men in front of mourners gathered for the funeral of a Shiite victim of sectarian violence.
Another claims he used the bodies of Sunni men he killed to fill a crater made by a suicide bombing blamed on Sunni militants.
While grim, these anecdotes match the reality of the sectarian killings.
Thousands of victims' bodies have turned up in canals, rivers or garbage dumps since the Samarra bombing.
The victims have consistently shown signs of torture -- holes drilled in their bodies with electric drills and decapitation.
With Abu Diraa's humor comes a reputation as a protector of the faith, avenging decades of oppression by minority Sunni Arabs and thousands of deadly attacks against the Shiite population since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, also a Sunni.
Abu Diraa cannot read or write and once earned a living as a fishmonger. Like many of his fellow Sadr City residents, the leader hails from the southern province of Maysan.
"If he had some education, he would have made a good leader," said Amer al-Husseini, a Shiite cleric and a senior Baghdad aide of al-Sadr.
"He is brave and serious," al-Husseini added.