Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Al-Sadr's militia antsy to fight
Leaders of al-Sadr's group said Iran is recruiting Mahdi militia soldiers.
BAGHDAD, Iraq Seven weeks into the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad, leaders of the Mahdi militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr acknowledged their fighters are chafing under orders to freeze operations and worry that they could lose control of the organization.
Some members have defected to armed groups that have no intention of calling a cease-fire. Commanders have gone underground, leaving a leadership void as U.S. forces arrest members in raids. Some commanders have fled to Iran and others to southern Iraq. Rumors abound about the location of al-Sadr.
Senior leaders of al-Sadr's movement also worry openly that Iran has started to recruit Mahdi militia soldiers to possibly confront U.S. forces.
Al-Sadr's movement is part of the U.S.-backed government, but U.S. and Iraqi officials face the danger that the Mahdi army will splinter into dozens of armed groups no longer under a national command.
"If he is off the political scene, then we have a problem because you have to deal with several groups with unknown affiliations and agendas," said Laith Kubba, director of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy and an ex-spokesman to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. "There is nothing binding them but Muqtada Sadr."
Looking to support Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, al-Sadr ordered a halt to Mahdi army raids against Sunni areas, ceded the policing of Baghdad to Iraqi forces and counseled his militia to avoid fights with U.S. troops.
But too many Shiites have been killed in bombings and too many Mahdi army members are still being arrested, several movement officials warned. The leaders risked losing the ability to restrain their followers when it comes to the U.S.-Iraqi security campaign.
"Soon fighters might stop listening to their orders to stay quiet," said Abu Ferras Mutarri, the movement's political chief in the capital's Shiite slum of Sadr City. "If this deterioration continues, it will snowball."
Al-Sadr commands somewhere between 10,000 and 60,000 fighters, many of whom fought U.S. forces in 2004. But he has a vast social welfare network and a broad Shiite movement that includes 30 parliament members and six Cabinet ministers.
From the beginning, a mix of religious clerics, tribal leaders and street toughs competed to advance themselves beneath the al-Sadr banner, and the cleric himself struggled to impose his authority on the movement.
What's been happening
Rifts have deepened in recent months. Dogged by allegations that runaway elements were killing Sunnis indiscriminately, al-Sadr started to fire renegade members in October. Since then, insubordinate members have been punished and even executed, members say.
And commanders now wonder how to put the brakes on reputed efforts by Iran to lure members and manipulate the militia into confronting the United States. Iran fears the Americans might strike militarily because the Islamic regime has resisted pressure to back down on its nuclear program.
One commander, Abu Bakr, using a nom de guerre to protect his identity, said he was part of a delegation that visited Iran recently and met with an important official there. "I spoke very angrily with him," Abu Bakr said. "They didn't help us before, but now they want to help us. They want us to be their great friend because they are afraid of the Americans."