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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Neighborhood Militias Add Another Armed Layer

Fearing Shiite attacks, Sunni Arabs in Iraq are organizing fighters and storing guns in mosques. Some fear an escalation to all-out sectarian war.

April 01, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When the "black shirts" come back, the neighbors of the mosque will be ready to fight.

The Sunni Arab men of the district have posted plainclothes spies on the corners to look out for suspicious strangers. They keep their cellphones close at hand, waiting for the ring that will call them to arms. When it comes, the men will pour from the surrounding homes, guns blazing.

Faced with the growth of Shiite militias such as the black-shirted Al Mahdi army and deadly abuses by the Shiite-dominated police forces, Sunnis in mixed-sect neighborhoods and cities throughout Iraq are stashing guns in their mosques and knitting themselves into militias of their own.

"We've made an agreement with the neighbors that if we have another attack, they'll pick up their weapons and fight the invaders," said Fares Mahmoud, deputy preacher of the El Koudiri Mosque here in the middle-class neighborhood of Arasat. "We are depending on the soul of the people to protect us."

In the last week, U.S. troops have clashed with Shiite militias, and American officials have expressed concern about their growing power. On the other side of Iraq's sectarian divide, the emergence of armed bands of Sunnis, often from middle-class or secular backgrounds, presents a disturbing indication of how close Iraq is to all-out sectarian war.

The Sunni neighborhood militias add yet another armed element to the Iraqi scene, which already features Sunni insurgents -- often militant Islamists or former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling elite -- who have been battling Iraqi and U.S. security forces for three years.

Among the Sunnis, "you have the [militant Islamic] Takfiris, the old Baathists, you have the people who feel they have been marginalized, you have Arab nationalists. If each of these groups is going to have its own militia, then God help us," said Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni legislator and the temporary speaker of the new Iraqi parliament.

"Unfortunately, the last election showed one thing: In order to win, you have to have a lot of money and you have to have your own militia," he said.

Amid the rising violence, many Iraqis feel they have little choice but to arm themselves and their neighbors.

"In Baghdad, for example, there is a perception that the police are not really there to protect them," said a Western official in the capital who would not speak on the record because of the political sensitivity of the topic. But "it is not an acceptable answer to bend to the presence of a militia to guarantee a particular neighborhood."

An escalation in sectarian violence could stir neighboring Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to funnel arms or money into Iraq to support Sunnis there, some analysts fear. Sunni Arabs across the region have regarded the growing strength of Iraq's Shiites -- not to mention the swelling influence of Iran, which is already heavily involved in backing Shiite groups -- with great trepidation.

"This is a new stage -- it's not a traditional, classical civil war, but it's a sort of civil war," said Ismael Zayer, editor of the Iraqi newspaper Al Sabah Al Jadid. "At the end of the day, if nobody will protect them and the government won't intervene, then they have to protect themselves. But if you ask me, I don't like it. I don't like Sunnis or Shiites to have arms like this."

Like many Sunnis across Iraq, worshipers at the El Koudiri Mosque have absorbed a bitter lesson from the wave of killings and vandalism that convulsed the country after the recent bombing of a Shiite shrine: They can't count on anybody but themselves for protection.

One afternoon shortly after the Feb. 22 attack on the shrine in Samarra, vanloads of Shiite gunmen pulled up to the mosque gates in a rain of machine-gun fire, congregants said. They shot their way into the courtyard, a grassy nook where sparrows dart among rose bushes, and fired a rocket-propelled grenade through the mosque window. The battered mosque remains a glaring reminder of Sunni vulnerability.

"The situation is escalating to the worst," Mahmoud, the preacher, said. "That's why we're organizing ourselves."

Shiite militias are a longtime feature of Iraqi politics. Operating out of the Kurdish region in the country's north, the southern marshes and across the border in Iran, militiamen waged a low-level guerrilla war against Hussein before his Sunni-led regime was toppled in 2003. Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, the followers of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr organized themselves into a militia in the slums of Baghdad.

Under Hussein, the majority Shiites were brutally repressed whereas Sunnis were relatively privileged. These days, however, it's the Sunnis who find themselves increasingly disenfranchised and under fire as Shiite militias grow stronger -- and lay down deep roots in the Interior Ministry, where officers have been accused of forming death squads to target Sunnis.

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