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Some in Iraq plan to take up arms, not lay them down

Militias are their best protection, they say, and Bush's new plan is a recipe for disaster.

January 12, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hours after President Bush announced his latest plan to shore up Iraq's beleaguered government, some Iraqis were hoarding weapons, prepared to fight additional U.S. troops alongside the militias they say protect them.

Among the militiamen in the capital on Thursday was a man who asked to be identified as Abu Karrar. Affiliated with the Al Mahdi militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, Abu Karrar refuses to lay down his weapons until militia leaders give the word.

"This can be done only when there will be some guarantees, and only when security has improved," he said.

Abu Zahraa, 35, a Shiite who works as a building foreman in Baghdad, said he was not ready to trust the government, divided as it was into powerful Sunni Arab and Shiite factions.

"If the situation would remain like this, then we will never give up our weapons, because we are skeptical that there is a ... side that is able to provide us with security," he said.

Sheik Abdul Razzaq Naddawi, an aide to Sadr, said Al Mahdi members, particularly those in the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City, had been forced to arm themselves for protection against Al Qaeda in Iraq members and other fighters.

"The Sadr City residents say that they are targeted by Al Qaeda and the like, who have announced that they are launching a war against the Shiites," Naddawi said.

He said militiamen continued to carry weapons. "If these groups are attacked, they will defend themselves," he said.

The remarks from Sadr's camp and street-level sympathizers contradicted a renewed promise Thursday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government to disarm the militias and ban them from the streets.

Iraqi government officials approached Sadr this year and asked him to disarm his militia, but he asked for guarantees that Shiites in Sadr City would be protected, Naddawi said. Then a series of coordinated car bombs rocked Sadr City on Nov. 23, killing at least 215 people. Any chance of a cease-fire evaporated with the bombings.

"Things reached a level that one could not keep silent against," Naddawi said. "The situation exploded."

Even those who oppose the militias said Bush's plan would not work.

Khalid Furajee, 31, a Sunni grocery store owner, said he lived in fear of Shiite militias, and added that U.S. troops would only anger them.

"We don't want them to increase the number of the American troops; we want the contrary," he said. "When the Americans leave, tranquillity and friendship between Sunni and Shiite will return."

Haydar Hasoon, 36, a Shiite bus driver, said Iraqi security forces, not U.S. troops, should take control of the country's borders to stop foreign fighters from entering to reinforce the militias and the insurgency.

"They are outsiders coming from Iran and Syria," he said of the militias. "I doubt the new [strategy] will succeed. There were many attempts in the past where large numbers of forces were deployed, checkpoints established, and look at the situation now -- it's getting worse. Unidentified bodies are being discovered, not to mention false checkpoints everywhere to kidnap or kill people."

Critics have accused Maliki, a Shiite, of protecting Sadr and his militia in exchange for political support. Bush's plan will require Maliki to take a different approach and allow U.S. troops to secure Sadr City and other militia strongholds.

Many people think Maliki, who began his four-year term in May and has said he will not seek reelection, does not have the courage to stand up to Sadr and his army.

"The new strategy that Bush has worked on will serve America's interests alone. It will not serve the interests of the Iraqi people," said Mohammed Diani, a Sunni member of parliament who called Maliki "weak" and unable to confront Shiite militias.

"In coming days, Iraq will witness great chaos," Diani said, warning that "many Americans will be killed, and those who are coming will also be killed."

A spokesman for Maliki said the government would crack down on militias and U.S. troops would follow the lead of the Iraqi army. But many argue that the Iraqi army has become disproportionately Shiite since the purging of Sunni officers loyal to former leader Saddam Hussein.

Bush's plan unifies Iraqi security forces under one commander and pairs them with some of the 21,500 planned U.S. troops. Together they will patrol beleaguered neighborhoods in the capital.

"The new vision now for the troops is more coordination -- more coordination for the safety of the Iraqis and the international troops," Maliki spokesman Ali Dabbagh said at a news conference in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Some Iraqis said Bush's plan sounded less like a timetable for disarming militias and more like a timetable for U.S. withdrawal that was designed to reassure a troubled American public that its military hadn't failed.

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