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Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen slowly resurface

After two years, ex-militiamen are being seen again in Baghdad neighborhoods. Officials fear the shadowy group could take advantage of Iraq's festering political crisis and U.S. troop withdrawals.

June 28, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said in a briefing with reporters last month that American forces were closely monitoring reports of the resurrection of the Mahdi Army but were not convinced that it was an imminent threat to Iraqis or U.S. forces.

"Iraqi security forces are the legitimate force authorized by the Iraq Constitution to secure and protect the population," Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in response to an inquiry. "We agree with Prime Minister Maliki that militias operating outside the constitution would be problematic and counterproductive."

During December religious ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom of the Shiite saint Imam Hussein, Promised Day and League of the Righteous organized competing processions, alarming bystanders who watched them taunt each other.

"It's hard to distinguish which is which," Hossein said. "There is some mixture, but there is also a lot of bad blood between them."

In Baghdad neighborhoods such as Habibiya and Sadr City, as well as southern Iraqi cities that were once Mahdi Army strongholds, former militants such as Mohammad stand watch over streets.

They appear unarmed, dress in civilian clothes and trim their beards neatly, part of an image makeover Sadr movement supporters are attempting.

Occasionally, along crowded sidewalks and during Friday prayers, they distribute discs loaded with video of Promised Day and old Mahdi Army military operations against U.S. and Iraqi forces, accompanied by soundtracks of martial anthems.

Mohammad, a burly and muscular man in his 30s, recently nodded hello to Naji. There was nothing menacing in the gesture. It was just an acknowledgement that they know each other.

"Now I see him again on a regular basis, with his gang," Naji said. "They run the alleyway. Nobody from the neighborhood talks to them. There is a real fear."

daragahi@latimes.com

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