YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Loyalty makes Iraqi foe hard to beat

U.S. troops in Baghdad say they have no way to persuade poor Shiites to break their ties to Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

August 23, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In the east Baghdad strongholds of the Al Mahdi militia, U.S. efforts to weaken ties between the militant Shiite Muslim group and the Shiite population are falling short, say American soldiers assigned to carry out the plan.

The attempt to shift the loyalty of residents to the Iraqi central government is failing because the militia is far more popular than anything the Americans have to offer, many troops say.

The campaign in Baghdad's poor Shiite neighborhoods is seen as an important part of the broader U.S. counterinsurgency campaign underway in Shiite and Sunni Arab neighborhoods across Baghdad. Although commanders say the overall strategy is bringing Baghdad increasingly under U.S. and Iraqi government control, enlisted men and noncommissioned officers say it is flawed.

"They want to have the militia here," said one experienced noncommissioned officer who has served multiple tours in Iraq. "So, why are we here?"

The Americans see the militia as a criminal organization engaged in racketeering and execution-style slayings of Sunni Muslims, but many Iraqis believe the militants offer the only protection against attacks by Sunni insurgents and are a reliable source for scarce fuel supplies. So many residents reject the American message of peace between Shiites and Sunnis and continue to support the militia.

"These people are not going to change," said the noncommissioned officer in east Baghdad, who, like other troops, spoke on condition of anonymity because his views differed from those of his commander. "They should stand up to the militia, but they want to have Shiite and Sunni separated."

The flaws underscore the difficulty of crafting a strategy that can work in an environment in which few trust the ability of U.S. forces or the central government to improve their neighborhoods.

Many soldiers also say practices that worked against insurgencies in other wars or in other parts of Iraq may not apply to Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods.

The Al Mahdi militia is not a textbook insurgent group. To Iraqi Shiites, the militia offers a source for basic services and support for the political and religious work of popular anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr.

"The Mahdi militia provides services and protects the region," said a 25-year-old clothing salesman in the Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad who gave his nickname as Abu Atwar. "Militiamen do some killings from time to time, but we do not care about the crimes they commit. Only God can make them pay for that because, as you know, no law is working in Iraq now."

Even with the additional 28,500 combat and support troops sent to Iraq in the Bush administration's buildup, there are not enough soldiers to provide the around-the-clock protection needed to erode the power of the militia.

"I don't feel we are winning over people. They all know we are going home. Units change, but the militia is always there," said Spc. Tyrone Richardson, 24, of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry. "For the militia, this is their home. They can walk up to any house and intimidate the people. They can get results. We can't protect everybody all the time."

Other soldiers say it is simply a matter of intimidation that prevents neighborhood residents from providing information to the Americans.

"They are afraid they will get in trouble from us or trouble from the militia in the neighborhood," said Sgt. Chris Wilson, 24, a member of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry.

When it comes down to it, Iraqi residents of east Baghdad would rather get in trouble with the Americans than with the militia, many soldiers believe.

"The Iraqis think, 'The Americans may harass me. But they aren't going to kill me. The militia, however, they will kill me or kill my family,' " said the noncommissioned officer. "The people say: 'I trust the terrorists. I trust that when the terrorist says he will kill my family, he will do it.' But they say: 'I don't trust the American. He has been saying I will have water and sewer for two years.' "

Most insurgencies are fully opposed to the central government. But though Sadr has withdrawn his ministers from the Shiite-dominated government, his Al Mahdi militia has supporters throughout the ministries and security forces. Such support, said one senior American officer, makes fighting the militia particularly difficult, as does the likelihood that some members of the Iraqi security forces are also in Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

"If we are spending energy figuring out who needs to be marginalized in the [Iraqi] government, that is not classic counterinsurgency," the officer said.

Iraqi residents tell U.S. soldiers that there would be no need for the militia if the Americans left. And militia supporters claim their attacks on the Americans are justified.

Many Iraqis who back the militia do so in part because of their continuing loyalty to Sadr's father, a revered cleric believed to have been killed by Saddam Hussein's forces.

Los Angeles Times Articles