Inside, we were greeted warmly. The Mahdi know how to work the media, and they know the world press generally likes the scrappy underdog — especially if they don’t actively try to kill you like the Sunni insurgents do. And to give Moqtada credit, he does try to discourage kidnappings and he’s been helpful in getting two of my friends released. There were no weapons in sight, and I don’t think — anymore — that there are any in the Shrine proper. But I did watch mortars being fired from just beneath and outside the eastern wall of the Shrine. The mortar teams were right up against the wall, allowing them quickly leave the mortar outside and dash inside to become unarmed pilgrims again.
And this is pissing off a lot of the people who live around the Shrine. The Mahdi aren’t particularly accurate in their firings, and they’re dropping live rounds in a densely populated area. Houses and cars are being blown up. People are dying, and the residents of Najaf are blaming Moqtada.
“There is no food, no water,” said Akil Ramahi, 32, in the streets before we entered the old city. “Death is better than this.”
“One man did all this,” he continued. “If Saddam had been here, he would have gotten rid of Moqtada al-Sadr in one day. I accuse Moqtada al-Sadr of destroying the market—” he was referring to a bombed-out market—”Not the Americans.”
To be fair, more common was the “pox on both houses” sentiment, but interestingly, the Mahdis are about as popular as the Americans, which is to say not very popular at all.
This blog has the most convincing reporting I've read on the shrine battles.