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Iraqis losing patience with militiamen

Cleric Muqtada Sadr's group has helped and protected residents, but recent fighting has endangered their lives.

May 27, 2008|Tina Susman and Usama Redha | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Four summers ago, when militiamen loyal to hard-line Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr were battling U.S. forces in the holy city of Najaf, Mohammed Lami was among them.

"I had faith. I believed in something," Lami said of his days hoisting a gun for Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. "Now, I will never fight with them."

Lami is no fan of U.S. troops, but after fleeing Baghdad's Sadr City district with his family last month, when militiamen arrived on his street to plant a bomb, he is no fan of the Mahdi Army either. Nor are many others living in Sadr City, the 32-year-old said. Weeks of fighting between militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces, with residents caught in the middle, has chipped away at the Sadr movement's grass-roots popularity, Lami said.

More than 1,000 people have died in Sadr City since fighting erupted in late March, and hospital and police officials say most have been civilians. As the violence continues, public tolerance for the Mahdi Army, and by association the Sadr movement, seems to be shifting toward the same sort of resentment once reserved for U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"People are fed up with them because of their extremism and the problems they are causing," said Rafid Majid, a merchant in central Baghdad. Like many others interviewed across the capital, he said the good deeds the group performs no longer were enough to make up for the hardships endured by ordinary Iraqis who just want to go to work and keep their families safe.

With provincial elections scheduled for October, a public perception that Sadr loyalists were to blame for the violence could hinder the cleric's hopes of broadening his power and influence in the oil-rich south. It also could extend the violent power struggle between the Mahdi Army and the rival Badr Organization tied to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki -- a conflict that has played out from the southern city of Basra to Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods.

Lawmakers from Sadr's movement blame the United States and Iraqi forces for the bloodshed that began after the government launched an offensive against Shiite militias in Basra. Sadr representatives insist that, if anything, support has soared as people come to sympathize with the Sadr loyalists.

"Even some Iraqi people who were not sympathizing with us before have now started to feel and identify with the oppression on the Sadr people. It has become clear to them that we are being targeted," said Liqa Yaseen, a parliament member representing the Sadr movement.

But interviews with dozens of Iraqis living in Sadr City and other Shiite militia strongholds in Baghdad suggest otherwise. So do anecdotes from U.S. troops who have met with Sadr City residents and local leaders and who say there has been a shift in the things they hear.

"After March 25 was the first time I had anyone tell us, 'Go in and wipe them out,' " said Sgt. Erik Olson, who spends most of his time visiting residents of Sadr City's Jamila neighborhood gathering "atmospherics," the military's word for figuring out what locals are thinking.

It isn't surprising that people on the front lines of the standoff would lose patience with the warring sides. Their homes and streets have become battlegrounds, making it impossible at times to go to the market, the hospital or work. Military and militia snipers fire from rooftops. Militiamen launch mortar shells and rockets from residential streets. U.S. aircraft respond with devastating airstrikes that often cause casualties and damage beyond their targets.

It's a public relations problem that even some Mahdi Army members acknowledge, and a fragile truce reached by Sadr and the Iraqi government this month, which allowed Iraqi troops to deploy into Sadr City, suggested that at least privately, Sadr's political wing recognized the need to back down from the fighting.

Thousands of Iraqi security forces took up positions in Sadr City starting May 20 and faced no resistance from militiamen.

Ahmed, a 29-year-old Mahdi Army member who did not want his full name used for fear of being arrested or attacked, said the group was the only "honorable resistance" to the U.S. presence. He said people in poor neighborhoods depended on it for handouts of fuel, help with funeral costs, and food distribution. But he acknowledged that as fighting continued, support dwindled.

"Of course some people are expressing their resentment and anger against the Mahdi Army, thinking that without them, they would not be targeted and their lives would not be badly affected," he said.

Another Mahdi Army member expressed anger after Sadr in late April warned of "open war" against U.S. forces if operations targeting Sadr strongholds did not stop.

"Did he mention that the 'open war' . . . will be among the houses or residential areas?" said the man, a Mahdi Army street leader who feared having his name published. "Fight? . . . I will not join the fight."

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