Wednesday, May 16, 2007


U.S. troops take advantage of splits in Mahdi Army

Politics, Security
(AP) - An apparent split emerging in the Mahdi Army, led by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is where the U.S. military hopes to make its gains. They are aided by Mahdi members seeking to purge rivals they describe as "criminal elements." Those willing to cooperate with the Americans are part of a larger group that calls itself the "noble Mahdi Army" and accuses others in the Mahdi Army of going too far by killing innocent Sunni civilians and embezzling militia funds. The informants also target fighters they claim were trained and armed by Iranians, but offer no further proof or details.
"The true Mahdi Army believes in loyalty to Iraq, but there are thieves and gangsters among them now," said a 54-year-old Shiite in Hurriyah, a northwest Baghdad neighborhood where militiamen drove out thousands of Sunnis last year. He refused to give his name out of fear for his life.
Serious divisions within the Mahdi Army could unleash a bloody power struggle among its tens of thousands of followers. Its leader, al-Sadr, has not been seen publicly for months and has issued statements through intermediaries. U.S. officials claim he has taken refuge in neighboring Iran, raising questions about his hold over the militia, named for a messiah-like figure of Shiite Islam.
Informants have handed over lists of key Mahdi Army figures, along with sworn statements against them. That's the legal ammunition American commanders need to conduct raids against a militia that has ties to powerful Shiite politicians. In Hurriyah, tips from Mahdi Army moderates and other community members have allowed the U.S. to capture several top militiamen since January, U.S. officials said.
"The guys we talk to call themselves `noble JAM,'" said Maj. Michael Shaw, using an acronym for the Mahdi Army's Arabic name. He added: "They're more business-minded and realistic about the future."
The Mahdi rifts began earlier this year. The prime minister, a Shiite, persuaded al-Sadr to withdraw his armed militiamen from Baghdad streets to avoid a showdown with the Americans during the security crackdown. But Mahdi Army members have told The Associated Press that some factions in the militia want to step up the fight against U.S. forces. Several thousand members have received training and weapons from Iran, the members said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are unsure of the degree of control al-Sadr still exerts over his militia, which he founded in 2003 after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's rule. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group estimated the Mahdi strength at up to 60,000 nationwide, but figures vary greatly depending on whether it includes hard-core loyalists or extended to include sympathizers.
Last year, al-Sadr himself had complained publicly about "deviant" groups that were using the Mahdi Army as a cover for murder, extortion and smuggling. "If Muqtada al-Sadr goes on TV now and asks JAM to lay down their weapons, do you think that all the fighters would obey? Of course not. Maybe 70 percent would," said Col. Abed al-Raadhi, the National Police commander in Hurriyah.
"For some of these people, it's become a purely criminal enterprise," al-Raadhi said. About a month ago, an elite Mahdi Army unit was dispatched from Najaf, purportedly under orders from al-Sadr himself, to weed out criminal elements, U.S. and Iraq officials said. Nicknamed the "Golden Mahdi Army," the Najaf unit is trying to hunt down and eliminate rogue militiamen before the Americans can capture and interrogate them, the officials said on condition of anonymity because the information is considered highly sensitive.

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