Rising violence swells ranks of Iraq's militias

Men with no previous affiliation are taking up arms, citing distrust of the security forces for the rush to self-defense.

November 28, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Retaliatory attacks sparked by last week's massive bomb assault on a Shiite neighborhood here are driving more Iraqis into the ranks of sectarian militias amid rising distrust of government security forces, newly recruited gunmen and residents said Monday.

Besieged Iraqis, many with no previous affiliation with established militias, are taking up arms, barricading their communities and joining new Shiite Muslim militia cells or increasingly militant Sunni Arab neighborhood-watch groups.

"We have zero trust in the Iraqi army and minus-zero trust in the police," said Ahmed Suheil Juburi, 33, a Sunni Arab who has thrown in his lot with a group of former military officers in Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime patrolling the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora.

Thousands of unsanctioned fighters have been on high alert since the car bombings Thursday in Sadr City, a poor Baghdad neighborhood that is home to the Al Mahdi militia, a Shiite force loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Since the attack, which killed at least 215 people, Sadr's fighters have struck back at Sunni neighborhoods with mortar shells, rockets and machine-gun raids from fast-moving SUVs. Sunni Arab fighters have retaliated in kind.

The bombings and subsequent attacks have killed 524 people, including 181 whose bodies were left in Baghdad's streets, and injured 653 since Thursday, according to government tallies obtained by The Times.

The mounting carnage is another sign that Iraq's civil war is gaining momentum faster than either the U.S. or Iraqi governments can respond.

In Baghdad, mortar shells have continued to pummel neighborhoods, and bands of men drive people out of their homes at gunpoint. Authorities find corpses in trash heaps and side streets on a daily basis; at least 44 were found Monday.

Residents are blocking roads with blasted cars and tree trunks. Guns and ammunition are being passed out in mosques and homes. Throughout Baghdad, men end their workdays by taking up positions on rooftops and minarets.

Fighters on both sides of Iraq's sectarian conflict say that the recent growth of militias stems from deep distrust of the intent and capability of the nation's security forces, whose reputation has been crippled by corruption and sectarian infiltration.

Sunnis have long complained that Shiite militias dominate the police force, and that members have committed thousands of death-squad slayings. Shiites say that the Iraqi army, with its many Sunni Arabs, has failed to guard their communities from attacks such as the series of car bombs Thursday.

Salam Saedi, 29, a cleaner at a downtown Baghdad hotel, said he signed up with Sadr's militia the day after the Sadr City bombings.

"I was not a part of the public committees or the Mahdi army, but after the attacks I saw the people who were killed and my feelings changed," Saedi said. "So I contacted some friends and I went and I signed up with the Mahdi army. They gave me an AK-47."

In the wake of the Sadr City bombings, members say, the Al Mahdi army has boosted the ranks of its "popular committees," a recently formed armed wing.

Each block of 1,500 homes in the neighborhood is guarded by 50 to 100 men, members said.

Across town in Dora, a mostly Sunni area, Juburi said he kept "several AK-47s, a BKC [high-caliber machine gun] and even a grenade launcher in my orchard."

He said his neighbors reactivated a group of retired Baathist officers that formed in February during similar sectarian reprisals that followed the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. The bombing and its bloody aftermath are widely viewed as the turning point that pushed Iraq into civil war.

"Right now, there are anywhere between 400 and 500 organized fighters in my area doing patrols and setting up checkpoints for defensive measures in the event that we are attacked by militias," he said.

Juburi said the total force in Dora comprised 2,000 to 2,500 men organized in companies of 50 fighters each.

The continued growth and proliferation of paramilitary forces in Iraq threatens to hamper U.S. plans for withdrawal.

Complicating any solution are the ties between many of Iraq's paramilitary forces and leading political parties.

The Sadr movement, for example, has 30 seats in government -- possibly enough to topple Prime Minister Nouri Maliki should they withdraw in protest.

Adnan Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni Arab legislator, also has a paramilitary squad deployed throughout west Baghdad, where members clashed with Shiites over the weekend.

This month, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that his field agents believed Iraq's sectarian forces were "descending into smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues and over smaller and smaller pieces of territory."

Firas Kabi, 27, whose wholesale goods shop stands near Sadr City, thought of himself as a lone wolf until Thursday's attack. Now he mans an Al Mahdi army checkpoint.

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