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Cracks in Sadr's army

A freeze on the Iraqi militia's activities has spurred defections and fears that Iran is recruiting members.

April 03, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Seven weeks into the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad, leaders of the Al Mahdi militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr acknowledge that their fighters are chafing under orders to freeze operations, and worry they could lose control of the sprawling organization.

Some members have defected to armed groups that have no intention of calling a cease-fire. Commanders have gone underground, leaving a leadership void as U.S. forces arrest members in raids. Some commanders have fled to Iran and others to southern Iraq. Rumors abound about the location of Sadr.

Senior leaders of Sadr's movement also worry openly that Iran has started to recruit Al Mahdi fighters to possibly confront U.S. forces in Iraq.

Sadr's movement is part of the U.S.-backed government, but now American and Iraqi officials face the danger that the Al Mahdi militia may splinter into dozens of armed groups no longer under a national command.

"If he is off the political scene, then we have a problem because you have to deal with several groups with unknown affiliations and agendas," said Laith Kubba, a senior director at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy and a onetime spokesman for former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. "There is nothing binding them but Muqtada Sadr."

The radical cleric has long been a two-edged sword for U.S. and Iraqi leaders. He commands somewhere between 10,000 and 60,000 fighters, many of whom fought U.S. forces in 2004. But he has a vast social welfare network and a broad Shiite movement that includes 30 lawmakers and six Cabinet ministers.

Looking to support Iraq's Shiite Muslim prime minister, Nouri Maliki, Sadr ordered a halt to Al Mahdi raids against Sunni Muslim areas, ceded the policing of Baghdad to Iraqi forces and counseled his militia to avoid any fights with U.S. troops.

But too many Shiites have been killed in bombings and too many members of the Al Mahdi militia are being arrested, several movement officials warn. The leaders risk losing the ability to restrain their followers when it comes to the U.S.-Iraqi security campaign, they say.

"Soon fighters might stop listening to their orders to stay quiet," said Abu Ferras Mutarri, the movement's political chief in Sadr City, the capital's Shiite slum. "If this deterioration continues, it will snowball."

From the beginning, a mix of religious figures, tribal leaders and street toughs competed to advance themselves under the Sadr banner, and the cleric struggled to impose his authority on the unruly movement.

Rifts have deepened in recent months. Beset by allegations that runaway elements were killing Sunnis indiscriminately, Sadr started to fire renegade members in October. Since then, insubordinate members have been punished and even executed, members say.

So far, however, the punitive measures have failed to instill new discipline in the ranks.

In fact, commanders now wonder how to put the brakes on reputed efforts by Iran to lure away members and manipulate the militia into confronting the United States inside Iraq. Iranians fear America may strike their country militarily because the Shiite regime in Tehran has resisted pressure to back down on its nuclear program.

One Al Mahdi commander, Abu Bakr, using a nom de guerre to protect his identity, said he was part of a delegation that visited Iran recently and met with an important official there. "I spoke very angrily with him," Abu Bakr said. "They didn't help us before, but now they want to help us. They want us to be their great friend because they are afraid of the Americans."

Although Sadr once promised to strike U.S. forces if America attacked Iran, the Al Mahdi militia's relationship with Iran has become a divisive issue.

Abu Bakr believes Iranian agents want to use the militia against Washington and fears that the Iranians have already picked up Al Mahdi fighters.

"It has happened. Iran has approached people. Iran has paid money for people to attack U.S. soldiers," Abu Bakr said, referring to a roadside bomb explosion a week ago in Baghdad. "The order didn't come from us."

Even without foreign meddling, the militia has witnessed defections. Eight Al Mahdi members, with large popular followings, have been fired for insubordination or criminal behavior, Abu Bakr said.

In November, Abu Bakr was put in charge of Sadr City's internal affairs division to crack down on rogue militia members. His group has sought to restore order by hauling rebellious members and criminals to a Sadr-run Islamic court. The court expels some fighters and the militia announces the dismissals to the public during Friday prayers, Abu Bakr said.

But others recount a far darker side to the campaign. They acknowledge that punishment for disobedience can take the form of beatings or even executions.

"They are severely punished, even whipped, if they do something wrong," said a foot soldier named Abu Haidar. "If those expelled continue their bad behavior, they are liquidated."

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