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Iraqi Militias Seen as Spinning Out of Control

Growing extremism among splintering groups and recent clashes have cast doubt on paramilitary leaders' authority over fighters.

September 12, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As U.S. and Iraqi officials seek a way to disarm Shiite militias involved in the sectarian violence driving Iraq toward civil war, the paramilitary forces are splintering into more extreme groups that militia leaders say they are powerless to control.

U.S. officials had hoped that an ongoing military sweep in the capital would curtail the Sunni Arab insurgency and convince the Shiite Muslim militias -- armed partisan brigades that guard neighborhoods, mosques and political offices -- that they could leave security to the Iraqi government.

"I think when the people begin to feel more confidence in their security forces, they'll feel less need to rely on the militias," Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during a recent news conference.

But a series of devastating paramilitary strikes against Shiite neighborhoods has eroded early gains attributed to the security sweep and severely undermined U.S. arguments for disarming militias.

Recent violent clashes pitting Shiite paramilitary fighters against Iraqi and U.S. troops, and against rival Shiite forces, also have cast doubts on militia leaders' ability to rein in their fighters even if they choose to do so.

U.S. forces have been drawn into confrontations with militiamen in recent weeks. Late last month, U.S. warplanes dropped a 500-pound bomb on militia members battling Iraqi troops in the southern city of Diwaniya, further complicating efforts to negotiate with the groups.

Militia representatives say fighters often act without consulting their commanders, and in some cases flout orders to stand down. Such disobedience was evident shortly after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra allegedly orchestrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Despite public calls for calm by the national leaders of the two Shiite militias, reprisal attacks in the following weeks left dozens of Sunni mosques smoldering and hundreds of Sunni Arabs dead.

"Let us be honest and transparent: Some of these fighters are acting without orders and rebelling. We are not responsible for their acts," said Sheik Razzaq Naddawi, a representative for anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, founder of the Al Mahdi militia.

"The real Sadr followers are loyal; they listen to their leaders," said Amir Husseini, another prominent Sadr follower. "But this is a fast-growing movement, and some who have joined the Sadr movement recently are not controlled."

Though U.S. officials say that Sadr representatives have occasionally exaggerated the degree of their fighters' independence to provide political cover for the organization, most senior military officials interviewed agreed that Sadr's control over his fighters had waned over the last year.

The cleric "has a measure of control, but when you get down to the bottom of that stack, I don't think he has ultimate control of every entity that operates under his name," a military official in Baghdad said.

An Al Mahdi commander, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media, said that in Najaf, a Sadr stronghold, the cleric had attempted to take a stronger hand by dismissing or demoting several militia brigade leaders in recent weeks.

"Even when Sadr fires the brigade commanders, their soldiers follow them and not Sadr," the commander said. "Now Sadr fires commanders every month, so their fighters will not become too loyal to them. This is the same thing that Saddam [Hussein] did with his army."

U.S. commanders say they are more concerned about Sadr's Al Mahdi army than the Badr Brigade, another leading Shiite militia.

Badr Brigade commanders acknowledge that renegade squads have occasionally taken up arms in violation of orders. But U.S. officials believe that the militia, whose members include veterans of Hussein's armed forces and a decades-long resistance movement against the former regime, has retained a strong command-and-control structure.

U.S. officials are concerned, however, about Badr's strong presence in Iraq's police forces, where militiamen have been accused of operating anti-Sunni death squads.

Sadr's militia rose from Iraq's impoverished grass roots after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and includes many fighters who have never served in the military or received any formal education. And unlike Badr members, the cleric's followers have engaged in frequent attacks on U.S. and British troops and strongly oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Confronting either of the militias is a tricky proposition for the U.S. military because the groups are part of the Shiite-dominated government that the Bush administration helped install. Both militias are affiliated with parties in the leading Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance.

The Badr militia is the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which holds 30 seats in parliament and several Cabinet positions.

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