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Cleric's Militia Sees U.S. as Enemy

'The Americans were liberators at first, but now they are terrorists,' says one member of the recently formed Army of the Mahdi.

September 15, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — "Will you disarm for the Americans?" the animated preacher at the microphone asks a thousand wound-up young men seated on a city street turned outdoor assembly hall.

"No, no to America!" the listeners respond in unison, pumping their fists toward the heavens in utter rejection of such a notion. "Yes, yes to Islam!"

This was the well-choreographed inaugural gathering of the Army of the Mahdi, a volunteer militia composed of followers of a militant young Najaf-based Shiite cleric, Muqtader Sadr.

The eager volunteers had arrived by bus, car and on foot in the sprawling Shiite ghetto of Madinat al Thawra, or Revolution City, hastily built in the 1960s as a kind of urban-renewal project to house impoverished migrants from the south.

The old regime renamed it Saddam City and then proceeded to neglect it -- while brutally suppressing any political dissenters.

Young Sadr's late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, launched mosque-based social-welfare projects in this insular community and achieved revered status. But Saddam Hussein was famously wary of potential rivals. Assassins believed linked to the old regime killed the elder Sadr and two of his sons in 1999.

People now call the place Sadr City, a throbbing neighborhood said to be home to about 2 million inhabitants, 8% of the entire Iraqi population.

Its streets dispatch a steady stream of recruits to Muqtader Sadr-organized demonstrations and rallies. Likenesses of the "martyr" elder Sadr are everywhere, his snow-white beard bestowing upon him a kind of Father Christmas appearance, despite the black turban.

Sadr City is also the primary recruiting ground for the Army of the Mahdi. The force is named after a 9th century descendant of the prophet Muhammad who, Shiites believe, will return one day, Messiah-like.

The militia's ostensible purpose?

To defend holy places, clerics, Shiite neighborhoods; enforce good Islamic behavior -- and, U.S. officials suspect -- serve as a revolutionary brigade in Sadr's drive to become the preeminent figure among the nation's Shiite majority.

Commanders publicly dismiss any threat, but privately voice concern about formations of angry young men infused with a combustible mixture of religious zeal and anti-U.S. fervor.

Officially, Muqtader Sadr says, the army is an unarmed force dedicated to peacemaking. Volunteers carried no weapons during the organizational session last week. But vast stores of AK-47s and heavier arms are widely available here. And the preacher's references to disarming implied that these enthusiastic legions do not lack firepower.

"We want to protect Iraqi citizens from all threats inside and outside the country," said Laith Khazali, a 28-year-old cleric who was among the organizers.

The volunteers were divided into regiments, battalions and companies. The recruits appeared deadly serious. Most were unemployed young men itching for action. Their enemy: the foreign "occupiers" who, they say, have neglected the city's many needs -- more jobs, reliable electricity and water supplies, and security, among others.

"The Americans were liberators at first, but now they are terrorists," said Ammar Fadhil, an affable 26-year-old who said he was gladly willing to give his life in the coming fight. "We are only awaiting word from our clerics."

The Army of the Mahdi may turn out to be nothing more than another of the ultimately irrelevant sideshows of postwar Iraq. U.S. troops could certainly crush any uprising in Sadr City -- though the Army is anxious to avoid any sort of civilian bloodbath that could galvanize Shiites nationwide.

Moreover, the militants who exercise great influence upon the youth of Sadr City have proved themselves to be well-organized and influential adversaries. That was evident in the now-infamous helicopter episode.

A near-riot ensued last month after a U.S. helicopter crew deliberately knocked down a religious banner flying from a communications tower in Sadr City. A U.S. patrol responding to the disturbance was attacked and returned fire, the Army said, killing one person and injuring several others.

The U.S. commander in the zone, Lt. Col. Christopher K. Hoffman, took the unusual step of issuing a written apology for the helicopter provocation. The Army also promised to scale back patrols and flyovers. The organizers of the Army of the Mahdi clearly view what they call a capitulation as proof positive that the Goliath in their midst can be overcome.

"The Americans never apologize to anyone: They didn't apologize for the atomic bomb that killed so many people," said Abdul Hadi Darraji, who unleashes fiery sermons each Friday in Sadr City.

"But they apologized to us! ... The Americans are looking after their interests. The Army of the Mahdi will be there for our interests."

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---

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