MOSUL, Iraq -- Real power on Iraq's streets often lies in the hands of men like Sadi Ahmed Pire.
Iraqi police fled in the face of the insurgent offensive in Mosul that began last week, and only a handful of Iraqi Army troops stayed behind when their colleagues went to assist the US-led attack on Fallujah.
That's where Pire and his fighting force came in.
In name, Pire is a politician, head of the Mosul bureau of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In theory, the Kurdish peshmerga militia has been fully absorbed into the Iraqi National Guard.
In practice, however, in a society whose increasingly inadequate national institutions are dissolving under the pressure of a sustained insurgency, the Kurdish political parties and their peshmerga fighters have maintained tight discipline -- as well as loyalty to the American presence.
That makes Pire and his soldiers in Mosul an undeniable fact on the ground, part of the patchwork of locally powerful groups across Iraq that exercises control and provides security.
It is not the police or the governor appointed by Baghdad who really runs Mosul, but rather, a constellation of groups -- insurgents and Arab nationalists on the west bank of the Tigris River, Kurdish political parties and militia on the east bank, and Turkomen in pockets throughout the city.
This week, nearly 2,000 Kurdish reinforcements streamed down the mountain to Mosul from the Kurdish city of Erbil, some in Iraqi National Guard uniforms, some wearing the gray-wool baggy pants and vests of the peshmerga, and some in civilian clothes. Half of them fall under Pire's command, the rest under his counterpart from the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In a lesson on the way many things get done in Iraq, Pire was among those making the trip from his base in Erbil to Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and its number-two trouble spot after Fallujah.
Part party boss, part spymaster, part militiaman, Pire lorded over a waiting room about seven hours, ordering tea, issuing military commands, meeting with informants, interrogating a prisoner.
In the past few months, Pire has survived three assassination attempts. He employs 25 guards and two heavily armored vehicles, including a gun truck, for the one-hour dash to Mosul.
Along the route, dozens of peshmerga materialize at every intersection to clear traffic out of his convoy's path.
His PUK party headquarters in Mosul can resemble a small military garrison. About 500 fighters are based at the party office, and another 500 at sub-offices fall under Pire's command.
Pire, 54, approaches his job with vigor and good humor as he works to protect minority Kurds in Mosul, to gather intelligence on the insurgency, and to represent the PUK in the ever-present competition with the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party.
"Let me show you what my peshmerga found!" he crowed to a salon full of visitors, brandishing a rusty, blood-spattered blade that his fighters discovered in a car after a firefight with insurgents.
Then he got down to business.
An informer from the Ba'athist wing of the insurgency held a whispered conference with Pire in his office. A Kurdish resident reported the threatening activities of Arab gunmen in his neighborhood. Local commanders came for their orders and updated Pire on the military operations underway to sweep insurgents from their strongholds across the river.
He scheduled a meeting with the provincial governor for a group of visiting reporters. "He's waiting for you. He'll be in his office," Pire said. Just then, insurgents opened fire on the compound and unleashed a series of mortars. "Unfortunately, I don't think there's a safe way for you to get there," he said.
Just before lunch, one of his branch offices was attacked. "Bring the wounded here!" he shouted into one of the four telephones on his desk.
"Let's eat!" he ordered his companions, in the same tone.
After a feast of lamb, chicken, and stuffed cabbage leaves at a house next door, Pire returned to his office to resume his meetings, breaking briefly to interrogate a wounded insurgent arrested after the firefight at the branch office.
"Terrorist!" he spit, before pulling out his digital camera to snap a picture of the man lying on the floor of a makeshift cell in a puddle of blood.
Back at his desk, Pire held forth to another informant, while showing a second visitor glossy prints of corpses from a shoot-out Friday at the Mosul headquarters.
Dozens of men packed his outer waiting room until sunset, remaining patiently through bursts of gunfire, mortar attacks, and the evening call to prayer.
Pire would not predict how long the fighting would last in Mosul, or whether the Kurds would be forced to call upon thousands of peshmerga reserves in the city -- a move that could escalate ethnic clashes between Arabs and Kurds. US forces continued to move through insurgent strongholds yesterday, reportedly meeting little resistance.
For now, Pire wants to use his power to keep Mosul's Kurds safe without provoking the ire of the national government in Baghdad, whose authority has been absent from the city's streets.
His men call him "the general," for reasons evident Friday, when he picked up a machine gun and joined his fighters at the compound wall during a previous attack on the PUK headquarters.
When darkness fell, Pire ordered his entourage to drive back to Erbil through the rain. One guard waved toward the city, where bursts of machine-gun fire from insurgents echoed through the gathering darkness, and made the motion of a knife passing over his neck. His message was clear: Mosul's fighters want to kill anyone who would try to stop them.
"I'm sure we'll make it back home alive," Pire said with a smile.