Sunday, July 27, 2008
Mahdi Army Influence Weakened By the Surge
I've been busy at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but I'm glad to see all the reports about the improvements in Iraq because of the surge.
The following story was in the New York Times and it talks about the declining influence of Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Unfortunately, these fundamentalist Shiite militiamen will alway be in the shadows because they are supported, trained and financed by their Iranian mentors.
We will eventually draw down our troop levels in Iraq (as the Iraqi government is able to assume more responsibility), but we must keep our eyes on these thugs from Sadr City and be ready to swat them like flies should they re-emerge:
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New York Times
July 27, 2008
Shiite Militia In Baghdad Sees Its Power Ebb
By Sabrina Tavernise
BAGHDAD — The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.
It is a remarkable change from years past, when the militia, led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, controlled a broad swath of Baghdad, including local governments and police forces. But its use of extortion and violence began alienating much of the Shiite population to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki struck another blow this spring, when he led a military operation against it in Baghdad and in several southern cities.
The shift, if it holds, would solidify a transfer of power from Mr. Sadr, who had lorded his once broad political support over the government, to Mr. Maliki, who is increasingly seen as a true national leader.
It is part of a general decline in violence that is resonating in American as well as Iraqi politics: Senator John McCain argues that the advances in Iraq would have been impossible without the increase in American troops known as the surge, while Senator Barack Obama, who opposed the increase, says the security improvements should allow a faster withdrawal of combat troops.
The Mahdi Army’s decline also means that the Iraqi state, all but impotent in the early years of the war, has begun to act the part, taking over delivery of some services and control of some neighborhoods.
“The Iraqi government broke their branches and took down their tree,” said Abu Amjad, a civil servant who lives in the northern Baghdad district of Sadr City, once seen as an unbreachable stronghold for the group.
The change is showing up in the lives of ordinary people. The price of cooking gas is less than a fifth of what it was when the militia controlled local gas stations, and kerosene for heating has also become much less expensive. In interviews, 17 Iraqis, including municipal officials, gas station workers and residents, described a pattern in which the militia’s control over the local economy and public services had ebbed. Merchants say they no longer have to pay protection money to militiamen. In some cases, employees with allegiances to the militia have been fired or transferred. Despite the militia’s weakened state, none of the Iraqis interviewed agreed to have their full names published for fear of retribution.
In a further sign of weakness, Shiite tribes in several neighborhoods are asking for compensation from militia members’ families for past wrongs.
The changes are not irreversible. The security gains are in the hands of unseasoned Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints spread throughout Baghdad’s neighborhoods. And local government officials have barely begun to take hold of service distribution networks, potentially leaving a window for the militia to reassert itself.
The militia’s roots are still in the ground, Abu Amjad said, and “given any chance, they will grow again.”
A Criminal Enterprise
At the peak of the militia’s control last summer, it was involved at all levels of the local economy, taking money from gas stations, private minibus services, electric switching stations, food and clothing markets, ice factories, and even collecting rent from squatters in houses whose owners had been displaced. The four main gas stations in Sadr City were handing over a total of about $13,000 a day, according to a member of the local council.
“It’s almost like the old Mafia criminal days in the United States,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, an Army engineer rebuilding Sadr City’s main market.
Um Hussein, a mother of 10 in Sadr City, the largest Shiite district in the capital and one of the poorest, said her family’s fuel bill had dropped so far that she could afford to buy one of her daughters a pair of earrings with the savings. Others interviewed listed simpler purchases that had now become possible: tomatoes, laundry detergent, gasoline.
One young man said that even though his house was right across from a distribution center that sold cooking gas, he was not allowed to buy it there at state prices, but instead was forced to wait for a militia-affiliated distributor who sold it at higher prices.
“We had to get our share of the cooking gas from Mahdi Army people,” Um Hussein said. “Now, everything is available. We are free to buy what we want.”
Before, the Mahdi Army controlled the 12 trucks that made daily deliveries of cooking gas canisters for the district, because the leader of the Sadr City district council, who was affiliated with the militia, was the one who handled the trucks’ documents.
“We had no idea when they were coming or where they were going,” the council member said, referring to the trucks.
Those who questioned the militia’s authority were dealt with harshly. A gas station worker from Kadhimiya recalled a man in his 60s being beaten badly for refusing to pay the inflated gas price last year. The Sadr City council member described his relationship with the militia by touching his hand to his face.
“I was kissing them here, here and here,” he said pointing to his right cheek, his left cheek and then his forehead.
A spokesman for the movement in Sadr City, Sayeed Jaleel al-Sarkhy, defended the Mahdi Army, saying in an interview that it was not a formal militia and denying the charges that it had taken control of local services. He said the militia had been infiltrated by criminals who used the name of the Mahdi Army as a cover.
The Mahdi Army is an army of believers,” he said. “It was established to serve the people.”
An employee in the Sadr City local government who oversees trash collectors — daily laborers whose salaries he said were controlled by the militia — said that had long stopped being true.
“I am sick all over,” he said. “I am blind. I’ve got a headache. I’ve got a toothache. My back hurts. All of this is from the Mahdi Army.”
Signs of Weakness
A month after Mr. Maliki’s military operation, strange things started to happen in Shuala, a vast expanse of concrete and sand-colored houses in northern Baghdad that was one of the Mahdi Army’s main strongholds. Militia members suddenly stopped showing up to collect money from the main gas station, a worker there said.
A member of the Shuala district council said: “They used to come and order us to give them 100 gas canisters. Now it’s, ‘Can you please give me a gas canister?’”
Then, several weeks later, 11 workers, guards and even a director, all state employees with ties to the militia, were transferred to other areas. Employees’ pictures were posted so American and Iraqi soldiers could identify impostors.
The Iraqi Army now occupies the militia’s old headquarters in Shuala. Soldiers set up 18 checkpoints around the neighborhood, including at the gas station. When the militia opened a new office, soldiers put a checkpoint there, too, said an Iraqi major from the unit based there. Iraqi soldiers recently distributed warning notices to families squatting in houses whose rent had been collected by the Mahdi Army until May.
In Sadr City, the authorities closed the militia’s radio station. The leader of the district council was arrested by the American military. Cooking gas delivery documents must now be approved by three officials, not just one, the council member said.
Another sign of weakness is the growing number of financial settlements between powerful Shiites and Mahdi Army members’ families over loved ones who were killed by the militia. In Topchi, a Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad, a handwritten list of militia members’ names was taped up in the market this month, with the warning for their families to leave town. Several of their houses were attacked.
Some militia members’ families went to the local council to ask for help. They found none. Mahdi militiamen killed four local council members over several weeks last fall.
“I told them this isn’t good, they must not be blamed,” the council member said. Even so, “if your brother has been killed, this is the time for revenge.”
Now neighborhoods are breathing more freely. A hairdresser in Ameen, a militia-controlled neighborhood in southeast Baghdad, said her clients no longer had to cover their faces when they left her house wearing makeup. Minibuses ferrying commuters in Sadr City are no longer required to play religious songs, said Abu Amjad, the civil servant, and now play songs about love, some even sung by women.
“They lost everything,” said the Sadr City government employee. “The Sadr movement has no power now. There is no militia control.”
The Mahdi Army might be weak, but it is not gone.
Majid, a Sadr City resident who works in a government ministry, said several Iraqi Army officers in his area had to move their families to other neighborhoods after Mr. Maliki’s military operation because the militia threatened them. Bombs are still wounding and killing American soldiers in the district. And early this month, one Iraqi officer’s teenage son was kidnapped and killed, his body hung in a public place as a warning, said Majid, who gave only his first name because he feared reprisals.
“People are still afraid of the Mahdi Army,” he said. “You still get punished if you talk bad about them.”
While most of the Iraqi soldiers at the new checkpoints seem loyal to the government, others have sympathies closer to the militia. A friend of Majid’s was obliged to pay a steep tribal settlement, after telling an army patrol about his neighbor, a militia member. The patrol had been infiltrated and leaked the tip to the neighbor.
“They are still trying to influence things,” General Talley said, though his overall assessment was that their control was receding.
The shift comes at a crucial moment: Iraqis will vote in provincial elections in December. The weakening of the Sadrists in national politics clears the stage for the group’s most bitter rival — a Shiite party led by another cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. One of the party’s members, Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a sheik and a member of Parliament, is arranging state aid for Sunni families willing to move back to Topchi.
The timing was not missed by the Sadr movement’s spokesman, who said the government had recently warned the group to vacate its office. He blames Mr. Hakim’s party for the attempts to marginalize his movement, whose members have also been targets of a political crackdown in southern Iraq.
“Some parties are occupying large buildings in Jadriya,” he said, referring indirectly to the headquarters of Mr. Hakim’s party. “That’s what makes us suspicious. Why only us?”
He added, “The main motive is to exclude the Sadr movement from politics.”
One indicator of whether the new gains will hold is whether local governments can truly fill the gap that the militia left and deliver services effectively and consistently.
General Talley said his unit had recently spent $34 million to help reconstruct a major market in Sadr City. But the district council has gotten bogged down in arguments over who has the right to disburse $100 million that Mr. Maliki promised Sadr City after the military operation. The district council was given 90 days to come up with projects. More than 30 days have passed and not one proposal has been submitted, council members said.
“To be honest with you, I find it very slow,” said Haidar al-Abadi, an adviser to Mr. Maliki who said that funds had been held back because militia-affiliated companies had gotten involved. “There’s a danger this slowness could backfire.”
The militia is painting its response on Sadr City walls: “We will be back, after this break.”
The Iraqi Army is painting over it.
Reporting was contributed by Mohammed Hussein, Tareq Maher, Campbell Robertson, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Alissa J. Rubin.
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Great article; surprised it was in the New York Times....
Charles M. Grist