Shiites grow disillusioned with militia in Baghdad

Posted in Iraq | 12-Oct-07 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: International Herald Tribune

Mahdi Army members operating checkpoints in Baghdad in January. Today, many Shiites regard the militia as a band of thugs.

BAGHDAD: In a number of Shiite neighborhoods across Baghdad, residents are beginning to turn away from the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia they once saw as their only protector against Sunni militants. Now they resent it as a band of street thugs without ideology.

The hardening Shiite feeling in Baghdad opens an opportunity for the American military, which has long struggled against the Mahdi Army, as American commanders rely increasingly on tribes and local leaders in their prosecution of the war.

The sectarian landscape has shifted, with Sunni extremists largely defeated in many Shiite neighborhoods, and the war in those places has sunk into a criminality that is often blind to sect.

In interviews, 10 Shiites from four neighborhoods in eastern and western Baghdad described a pattern in which militia members, looking for new sources of income, turned on Shiites.

The pattern appears less frequently in neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shiites are still struggling for territory. Sadr City, the largest Shiite neighborhood, where the Mahdi Army's face is more political than military, has largely escaped the wave of criminality.

Among the people killed in the neighborhood of Topchi over the past two months, residents said, were the owner of an electrical shop, a sweets seller, a rich man, three women, two local council members, and two children, ages 9 and 11.

It was a disparate group with one thing in common: All were Shiites killed by Shiites. Residents blamed the Mahdi Army, which controls the neighborhood.

"Everyone knew who the killers were," said a mother from Topchi, whose neighbor, a Shiite woman, was one of the victims. "I'm Shiite, and I pray to God that he will punish them."

The feeling was the same in other neighborhoods.

"We thought they were soldiers defending the Shiites," said Sayeed Sabah, a Shiite who runs a charity in the western neighborhood of Huriya. "But now we see they are youngster-killers, no more than that. People want to get rid of them."

While the Mahdi militia still controls most Shiite neighborhoods, early evidence that Shiites are starting to oppose some parts of the militia is surfacing on American bases. Shiite sheiks, the militia's traditional base, are beginning to contact Americans, much as Sunni tribes reached out early this year, refocusing one entire front of the war, officials said, and the number of accurate tips flowing into American bases has soared.

Shiites are "participating like they never have before," said Major Mark Brady, of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad Reconciliation and Engagement Cell, which works with tribes.

"Something has got to be not right if they are going to risk calling a tips hot line or approaching a JSS," he said, referring to the Joint Security Stations, the American neighborhood mini-bases set up after the troop increase this year.

"Everything is changing," said Ali, a businessman in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Ur, in eastern Baghdad, who, like most of those interviewed, did not want his full name used for fear of being attacked. "Now in our area for the first time everyone say, 'To hell with Mahdi Army.'

"Not loudly on the street, but between friends, between families. Every man, every woman, say that."

The street militia of today bears little resemblance to the Mahdi Army of 2004, when Shiites following a cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, battled American soldiers in a burst of Shiite self-assertion. Then, fighters doubled as neighborhood helpers, bringing cooking gas and other necessities to needy families.

Now, three years later, many members have left violence behind, taking jobs in local and national government, while others have plunged into crime, dealing in cars and houses taken from dead or displaced victims of both sects.

Even the demographics have changed. Now, street fighters tend to be young teenagers from errant families, in part the result of American military success. Last fall, the military began an aggressive campaign of arresting senior commanders, leaving behind a power vacuum and directionless junior members.

"Now it's young guys — no religion, no red lines," said Abbas, 40, a Shiite car parts dealer in Ameen, a southern Baghdad neighborhood. Abbas's 22-year-old cousin, Ratib, was shot in the mouth this spring after insulting Mahdi militia members.

"People hate them," Abbas said. "They want them to disappear from their lives."

One of the most notorious killers in Topchi, who residents say was a Mahdi Army fighter, Haidar Rahim, was born in 1989. On a hot August afternoon, he and two accomplices shot and killed a woman named Eman, a divorced mother, in front of her house, residents said. The fighters said she was a prostitute, but shortly after her death they brought tenants to rent her house.

"They are kids with guns, who have cars and money," said Eman's neighbor, referring to the fighters. "Being kids, they are tempted by all of this."

Residents' fear was so great that Eman's body lay untouched in a pool of blood for more than an hour, until the Iraqi authorities took it away, said the neighbor. She watched Eman's 8-year-old son crying next to his mother's body.

"They are bloodthirsty," said a man whose father, a neighborhood council member from Topchi, was killed on Sept. 26. "They can kill an entire family for a $10 mobile phone scratch card."

Rahim was killed a month later. His young face is emblazoned on a memorial sign, planted near a giant wheel of rotisserie chicken in Topchi. Some said Americans killed him. Others said Iraqis.

A spokesman for the Sadr office in Shuala, the large Shiite neighborhood north of Topchi, said that he had no information on the killings, but that any illegal actions were the work of criminals who merely called themselves Mahdi Army members.

"The claims of membership in the Mahdi Army are huge at this time," said the spokesman, who goes by Abu Jafar. "The Sadr office is not responsible for anyone who terrorizes the people, Sunnis or Shiites."

Patterns of violence are different in the Shiite south, where competing Shiite militias with political ties are vying for power.

The militia in Baghdad, always loosely organized, swelled with recruits after a bombing of a Shiite shrine in February 2006, disrupting the organization and injecting angry young men, some with criminal pasts, who were thirsty for revenge.

Criminals began to give the organization a bad name. The price for used cars plummeted as militiamen sold vehicles that had belonged to their dead victims. A Sadr City sheik issued a religious edict permitting the confiscation of the property of Sunni militants who see Shiites as heretics. But many took it as a blank check to seize property, as long as the victim was Sunni.

A 36-year-old Mahdi Army leader from western Baghdad described a system in which victims' cars were shipped to northern Iraq in convoys of Kurdish soldiers returning from military leave. New documents were drawn up there.

For Yasir, 35, a former member of the militia who had witnessed its breakdown firsthand, a final blow came when his cousin, a wealthy businessman, was kidnapped by young Mahdi members from the neighborhood. He was later killed.

"Don't call it the Mahdi Army," Yasir said. "It was the Mahdi Army when people in it had a conscience."

In a last-ditch effort to re-establish control and respect, Sadr issued an order halting all Mahdi Army activity in August.

Abu Jafar, the spokesman, said that "the goal of this statement is to uncover the bad people that claim membership in the Mahdi Army and to let the security forces deal with them."

While the turbulence continued in Topchi, a frontier neighborhood where local militia members are poorer, much of the activity stopped in Sadr City, the base for the most senior leaders, who have grown wealthy and are established politically, residents said.

"At first, we couldn't drive our cars, we couldn't walk because they have weapons, AK, pistols on the street," said Ali, the Ur businessman. "Now they disappeared. There is nothing. You can't see anything from these people."

Like many Shiites, Abbas, the car parts dealer, attributes part of the drop-off to a new precision in American arrests, fed by tips from Shiite residents. Abbas said he and his friends had a name for the Americans, the Janet Brothers, a tongue-in-cheek term of tribal respect that plays off an American name. Another name, Madonna Brothers, refers to the American pop star.

American commanders like Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, of the Second Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose area includes Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, have seized on that cooperation. In the past month and a half, he said, Shiite leaders have begun to make contact with the Americans. The brigade is now working with 25 sheiks in the Shiite neighborhoods of Shaab and Ur and is interviewing up to 1,200 candidates for semiofficial neighborhood guard positions..

The lieutenant colonel compares the shift among the Shiites to the one in Sunni neighborhoods that began to turn against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence agencies say is foreign led.

In some cases, residents seem more willing to stand up to the Mahdi Army. In Topchi, several businessmen refused to pay protection money to Mahdi Army members this month. The news spread through the neighborhood. Four months ago, a truck driver was killed in Oclander's sector, after the driver's boss refused to pay protection money. Such retribution is much rarer now, he said.

Ali, the Ur businessman, said he expected the Mahdi Army to be much smaller in the future. People simply do not believe its leaders anymore. "There is no ideology among them anymore," he said.

As proof, he told a story from his neighborhood that involved a religious man and a car acquisition.

"He was a poor man, but now he has a Mercedes-Benz," Ali said. "The Prophet Muhammad, he didn't even have a horse."