Monday, August 13, 2007


Shiite militia tightens its grip as rogue elements become bolder

(AP) -- A Muslim imam dropped his cloak to the sidewalk. It was a signal for the gunmen to move. They surrounded the top Iraqi security official in a north Baghdad district. Iraqi military vehicles - commandeered by other Shiite militiamen - screeched into a cordon, blocking his exit. A gun was put to his head. Brig. Gen. Falah Hassan Kanbar, a fellow Shiite, managed to escape when his bodyguards pulled him into a vehicle that sped down an alley.
Details of the Aug. 5 ambush emerged this week in interviews with Kanbar, U.S. military and intelligence officials. It remains unclear whether the thugs sought to kill Kanbar or simply intimidate him, but suspicions over the source of the brazen assault pointed in just one direction: the powerful Shiite armed faction known as the Mahdi Army and its increasingly unpredictable trajectory.
The vast Mahdi network - ranging from hardcore fighting units to community aid groups - is emerging as perhaps the biggest wild card as Iraq's U.S.-backed government stumbles and the Pentagon struggles to build a credible Iraqi security force to allow an eventual U.S. withdrawal. Just a few months ago, the Mahdi Army and its leader, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were seen as reluctant - but critical - partners with Iraq's leadership. Al-Sadr agreed to government appeals to lessen his anti-American fervor and not directly challenge the waves of U.S. soldiers trying to regain control of Baghdad and surrounding areas. But now, the once-cohesive ranks of the Mahdi Army are splintering into rival factions with widely varying priorities.
Some breakaway guerrillas are accused by Washington of strengthening ties with Iranian patrons supplying parts for powerful roadside bombs - which accounted for nearly three-quarters of U.S. military deaths and injuries last month. The devices suggest that Shiite militias could replace Sunni insurgents as the top threat to American troops.
Other Mahdi loyalists are seeking to expand their footholds in the Iraqi military and police, frustrating U.S. attempts to bring more Sunni Muslims into the forces as part of national reconciliation goals. And in many Shiite strongholds across Iraq, Mahdi crews are trying to shore up their power and influence. The pace has picked up with the sense that the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government could be irrevocably damaged after political mutinies by Sunni and Shiite Cabinet ministers.
The Mahdi Army, meanwhile, appears to be going through its own leadership crisis. Al-Sadr has been unable to rein in the renegade Mahdi factions. On Friday, a U.S. military commander said al-Sadr had returned to Iran, where he spent several months earlier this year. Al-Sadr's top aides called the claim baseless. But there is no dispute that Mahdi Army operatives are busy planning for the future.
The militia is working behind-the-scenes to solidify control of rent markets, fuel distribution and other services in Shiite neighborhoods - taking a page from other influential groups across the region, such as Hezbollah, that have mixed militia muscle and social outreach. For the U.S. military, the gun-wielding attack on the Iraqi brigadier general in Kazimiyah - a main Shiite enclave in northern Baghdad - highlights just how far the Mahdi bosses are willing to go against anyone they cannot control.
"(He) is the cleanest guy you can find in Kazimiyah, and he works with us. That's why they want him dead," said Capt. Nick Kron, 28, a Richmond, Va., native with the Army's 1st Infantry Division. Kazimiyah - home to Baghdad's holiest Shiite shrine - puts the Mahdi Army's strength on full display. U.S. officials believe the head of the Kazimiyah faction is Hazim al-Araji, a Shiite imam and brother of Bahaa al-Araji, a Sadrist member of parliament. Through the al-Araji brothers, the Kazimiyah group has close ties to Iraqi politicians in the Green Zone, as well as to clerics in the holy city of Najaf, home to al-Sadr as well as Iraq's top Shiite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
"With that political cover, these guys can get away with anything," said Lt. Col. Steve Miska, head of the 1st Infantry Division's Task Force Justice and the top U.S. officer in Kazimiyah. Each day, militiamen in civilian clothes patrol in the tight cluster of winding streets surrounding the Imam al-Kadhim shrine. U.S. forces keep their distance. They fear an all-out insurrection if they crack down on the Mahdi Army, often called by the Arabic acronym JAM. Also, they acknowledge that the Mahdi presence helps keep Sunni insurgents away.
"We could go downtown and have direct confrontation with JAM, and it'd be a tactical victory for us, but the political backlash would make it not worth it," said Miska, of Greenport, N.Y. The neighboring Shiite enclave of Shula is the base for the Mahdi Army's hit men, who kidnap and kill Sunnis - and increasingly, fellow Shiites - after trying them in impromptu Islamic courts, U.S. officials said.
The surge in Mahdi Army activity in Kazimiyah has also meant increased attacks on U.S. forces. In the past four months, more than a dozen powerful, armor-piercing bombs were found in Kazimiyah. The so-called EFPs - explosively-formed penetrators - are the type the U.S. believes are funneled to the Mahdi Army by Iranian agents. In May, an American soldier was killed by an EFP planted near the gates of a U.S. base in Kazimiyah.
Although U.S. forces have so far avoided full-scale confrontation with the Mahdi Army, strategic strikes appear to be increasing. Last week, American soldiers arrested an Iraqi Army company commander accused of involvement in planting roadside bombs to target U.S. forces. A known Mahdi Army operative, Maj. Ali Farhan, is also suspected of funneling weapons to militiamen and allowing them to pass freely through Iraqi checkpoints. He remains in U.S. custody.
On Tuesday, U.S. aircraft and soldiers attacked a suspected Shiite militia cell accused of importing the bombs and sending members to Iran for training. The U.S. military said 32 suspected militants were killed and 12 captured in raids that coincided with a visit to Tehran by Iraqi prime minister. For now, the Iraqi army officer Kanbar is in hiding. He is the only Iraqi official with a free pass to go unchecked through security at the U.S. military base in Kazimiyah. "He is a rare breed in Iraq ... He's serving his country as best he can in a very, very difficult political situation," Miska said.

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