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Militia leader's death shatters a halting truce

Though he was hated by Shiites and Sunnis alike, his assassination reignites sectarian violence in a Baghdad neighborhood.

September 23, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Mahdi Army commander Hamoudi Naji and his men paraded past the grocery stores, car repair shops and brick homes in the Ugaidat neighborhood, the one section of Washash not under his control. It was a reminder to everyone watching that even if he couldn't touch this one area, the entire district belonged to him.

It had been five months since the Shiite militia leader had hammered out the truce with Abu Yasser, a senior member of the Sunni clan that Ugaidat was named after. The tribe had been able to fend him off, and Naji, a vegetable seller and car thief with a love of violence, had finally agreed to leave the Ugaidat clan alone.

On Thursday night, Naji watched Sunni and Shiite men sipping tea by their front gates and children playing games for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that has just begun. Up the street, Abu Yasser spotted him.

Abu Yasser remembered when the two men announced the truce and celebrated with a meal in a tent in the middle of the district. The terms were: no killing, no displacement and a return to calm. He had hoped it would spread through all Washash, but it did not.

Naji continued to walk. From the date palms, gunmen watched him and opened fire. The Mahdi Army leader collapsed, mortally wounded, and with him went the truce that had prevailed in the neighborhood.

"His men thought that the fire came from us. They started shooting," Abu Yasser said. "We were astonished and ran to our houses and brought our weapons to defend ourselves."

Sectarian war had descended once more on Washash. The irony was that it had exploded over a man who was hated by Shiites and Sunnis alike.

Within the hour, small gangs from the Mahdi Army hunted down Sunnis across the district. Anywhere from five to 20 people were killed, and by Friday afternoon, at least 30 Sunni families had fled Washash.

Violence continued Saturday as a Sunni man was pulled out of a car and shot to death.

Naji, a man viewed by many as a criminal, had ignited another chapter in Iraq's civil war.

Communal resentments were so entrenched that once blood was spilled, many Sunnis decided they were better off leaving the district despite assurances from the U.S. military that it was increasing its patrols and adding Iraqi troops. Sunnis accused the Badr Organization, another Shiite militia, of assassinating Naji, and Shiites pointed the finger at Abu Yasser's tribe.

In Baghdad's war, the fighting often has less to do with communal differences than with the ruthlessness of men such as Naji, who drape themselves in the banner of a party to rule the streets.

According to interviews with Washash residents, Naji had climbed his way from being a vegetable seller to a commander in the Mahdi Army. When he joined the militia, he had a gang of 20 to 25 men; they had dabbled in kidnapping and car theft.

His gang even included some Sunnis. When he was gunned down, Naji counted at least three Sunnis in his gang. He made room for anyone who pledged loyalty to him and was willing to follow his commands. Through the militia, he evicted Sunni families from their homes so he could rent them and make some extra cash. He charged shop owners a monthly protection fee, they paid him for extra generators, and he continued to carry out kidnappings.

A Mahdi militiaman Saturday applauded his death. "We are much better off with Naji dead," the fighter said. "We feel safer. Hamoudi Naji did so many bad things."

Such sentiments mattered little for those such as Abu Yasser, who no longer felt comfortable in Washash, where he has lived for more than 50 years. On Friday, he spoke to the U.S. military and then Iraqi army officers about whether he should flee his home.

Abu Yasser said one Iraqi officer told him: "What are you still doing in the middle of this Shiite area? Why haven't you left already? You are bringing us all troubles."

He agreed and joined a caravan of cars escorted by the Iraqi army. "We left our houses. We only took the important small things and some clothes," he said. "I don't think we will ever go back to our houses, especially after what happened."

The U.S. military commander for Washash, Lt. Col. Ed Chesney, watched as the Sunnis started to flee, despite the promises of an increased military presence. "They are making a decision based on their experiences over the past few years," he said.

Some of Abu Yasser's relatives left their homes with Shiite friends who promised to look after them.

"My neighbor, who is a Shiite, is not content with what the Mahdi Army is doing in Washash," said a displaced man, Sabah Ali. "I wish I could go back home, and I know somehow that I will. One day it will get better and I'll return."

Still, speaking by phone from his new home in west Baghdad, Ali marveled at the brutality of the last few days and those Shiites in the neighborhood who fought them.

"Their hearts have no mercy anymore," he said. "A sniper killed a woman in the street who was carrying her baby. A shot in the head -- what kind of human being would do that?"

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