Iraqis in Favor of Mahdi Militia

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

October 20, 2006

BAGHDAD, Oct. 20 — Behind the maze of men with guns in Iraq is a very simple truth: their barrels offer protection, something Iraqis say the government has never given them.

On Friday, the web wound tightly around the southern city of Amara, where the two largest and best-armed militias, both made up of religious Shiites, were fighting it out for control of the city.

But when the prime minister speaks of disarming militias — those mushrooming armies of men with guns that are carrying out most of the killing here — Iraqi brows begin to furrow.

“He’s just talking,” snapped Fadhil Sabri, a 37-year-old generator repairman in a grease-stained shop in Sadr City, the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.

“Not now. Not even in 10 years. You need arms to defend yourself,” he said.

Iraq is awash in killings, and many are blamed on the Mahdi militia, the largest Shiite group that began under the command of a glowering Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. An indignant Mr. Sadr called it up to fight against the American military twice in 2004. It was bloodied, but survived. Since then the Mahdi Army, and a growing criminal breakaway element, have grown into one of the government’s biggest problems and a major obstacle to the success of the American enterprise here.

Despite its new rogue fringe, Iraqi Shiites see the Mahdi militia as the most effective protector against the hostile Sunni groups that have slaughtered Shiites and driven them from their homes. Shiites say that as long as the government cannot keep them safe, they cannot support disarming the militia.

The American military faces that paradox as it presses the Iraqi government to contain militias like Mr. Sadr’s: how is it possible to control a militia when trust among Iraqis has vanished and the government is incapable of containing the spiraling violence?

Mr. Sadr and his Mahdi Army have emerged as one of the biggest puzzles of the war. He controls the largest bloc of seats in Parliament. At the same time, 92 percent of the mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone — the protected area in Baghdad that houses the American military and the Iraqi government — from August to September came from Sadr City.

As the recent fighting in Amara shows, the group and its rogue elements now present a serious challenge to the Iraqi government. It has settled deeply into the crevices of Iraqi society, filling college security offices and student unions, as well as the ranks of the police and army. It is often at the center of spasms of sectarian killing, like the one last weekend in Balad, and it frequently battles rival Shiite groups, as in Amara, and earlier this month in another southern city, Diwaniya.

But in a measure of just how complex Iraq has become, it is impossible to tell where loyalties to Mr. Sadr end and the crimes begin. Rogue groups of his former followers now run underground fiefdoms of sectarian killing and kidnapping — and even a special market for victims’ cars. One of his senior aides was arrested by the American military earlier this week on suspicion of having directed the killing and torture of Sunnis.

The changes are so profound — the American military estimates that as much as a third of his army has been sliced off — that the Mahdi Army is becoming a generic term for Shiite militia. A senior American military official estimated there were 23 militias operating in Baghdad.

“It’s hard to understand the amount of groups who are moving around and where they are getting their funding,” said Col. Thomas Vail, the American commander in charge of eastern Baghdad. “It’s very complex right now, more than when we first came.”

The mechanisms for killing became sophisticated. A senior coalition intelligence official at a briefing last month detailed an example of a Mahdi Army death squad. Group leaders are issued instructions on order forms listing a target person and an address, the official said. A group can consist of 15 special-forces companies, eight intelligence companies, and several punishment committees, complete with clerics who impose sentences. Some of the leaders can be inside the Ministry of Interior, the official said. Others work with their contacts within the ministry to obtain equipment such as cars.

The military’s task has been vastly complicated by the sheer relentlessness of the violence. Ever larger portions of the Iraqi population have been radicalized in three years of war, chopping ground out from under the moderates. Now, even those whose job requires them to take a position against militias reluctantly back them.

“Right now I support the presence of the Mahdi Army,” said a senior judge on Iraq’s criminal court. “I know this is unacceptable in law, in politics, in society, but in this unusual time we are living in, this is the reality.”

It is a broadly held view among Shiites that the American military has unfairly focused on Shiite militias, such as the Mahdi Army, and largely forgotten the Sunni militias that they say invented the sectarian war. Groups like the Omar Brigade, formed to kill Shiites, were executing Shiites at fake checkpoints as early as 2004. The killing, including a stream of brutal suicide bombings, went unchecked by the government, prompting a Shiite response.

Just how far Shiite sentiment has shifted can be seen in the words of Qasim Dawood, a former interior minister of Iraq, who was the strongman for the Iraqi government under former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, during Mr. Sadr’s fight against Americans in 2004.

“The support of the militias within the Shia community comes from the failure of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the coalition forces to provide security,” he said. “The creation of these militias comes as a reaction.”

But a simple reaction spilled over into open carnage in February, when Shiite mobs rampaged in Baghdad, dragging Sunnis out of their homes and mosques and killing them. The legendary Shiite patience snapped, and Shiites began to take systematic revenge.

As the killing spun off in strange new directions, the Mahdi Army, or those associated with it, was at the forefront.

The victims are sad struggling figures, often stuffed in the trunks of cars. (This tactic became so widespread that Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints have been known to stop cars that are playing loud thumping music, mistaking the sound for a person trying to get out).

Killings peaked, often immediately after attacks by Sunnis on Shiite areas. On one particularly bad day in August, shortly after an attack on a procession of Shiites pilgrims, a worker in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Ur counted 14 victims. Four were shot in front of him on a dirt road near a high school. The bodies of another 10 were dumped there later that day. Police cars, like hearses, later picked them up.

The killing took place openly, often silently, and without fanfare. Gunmen did not bother to hide their faces. In one case, a man wearing a turban was in a car, out of whose trunk a body was taken. One resident sardonically referred to Ur as gbour, which means graves in Arabic.

“Life was not just cheap, it was free,” said Ibrahim, a Shiite from Ur.

Iraqis began referring to the victims, often Sunnis, as sheep. Most condemn the killing.

“I know they are killing Sunnis now — none of us likes this,” said Firas al-Saeidi, a 29-year-old resident of Sadr City, who works in the Ministry of Defense. “But it keeps balance in our sensitive areas. We need that.”

Despite the carnage, attributed by most in the area to the Mahdi militia — a fast and largely empty road connects Ur to Sadr City — Ibrahim still sees the militia as important protection.

His sparely furnished guest room was still somber last week, after the killing of his brother and 15-year-old son by Sunni gunmen in September. At the funeral, Mahdi members approached him and offered quietly to kill Sunnis to revenge the death. He declined, but said he would draw on their intelligence to find the killers. He could not go to the police station in the area where his brother was shot, because it is Sunni and hostile to Shiites.

“If I find who killed my brother, I will tell Mahdi Army to kill him,” he said, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

The government, on the other hand, refused to even pick up the body of an acquaintance in a Sunni neighborhood recently, because the area was too hostile.

“If a government is too scared to pick up a body, is it a government?” he asked.

A protector for most, the Mahdi Army can also be a persecutor. Mahdi members first approached Edrice al-Aaraji, a Shiite, shortly after he moved to a Shiite area in northern Baghdad this spring. The men acted chummy and asked if he and his brother would pitch in on overnight watch shifts on the block.

Mr. Aaraji pretended to be interested, but avoided them. He even traveled to a different neighborhood to make it look as if he was serving on guard duty somewhere else.

The men become more aggressive, particularly after the killing of his uncle, apparently by Mahdi-affiliated gunmen, in August. Later Mr. Aaraji learned that the men had been eyeing the house he moved into as a weapons storage space.

“Now they are after us,” he said. “They watch our comings and goings.”

In Sadr City, in a darkened room off a stone sun-splashed courtyard hung with laundry, Sayeed Abdul Zahra, a member of Mr. Sadr’s social service committee, dismissed outright any suggestion of disarming: “Impossible.”

Besides, he said, Mr. Sadr does not own the guns. “I bought my weapons with my own money.”

A short drive north, in Ur, mourners were gathering for the funeral of a man and his six-year-old son. A bombing on Monday in a nearby market killed them both. The family blamed a puritanical Sunni Islamic sect, the Wahhabis.

A boy around the age of 8 took money from his father to buy candy at a market across the street. As he walked away, his father called after him: “Be careful of the Wahhabis.”

When asked why he said it, his reply came fast and cold.

“I want to teach him whom to hate,” he said.

Qais Mizher, Hosham Hussein, Omar al-Neami and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting.