Abu Mohammed is a policeman by day, patrolling the Shiite Muslim district of Sadr City. Come sundown, however, Abu Mohammed commands a platoon of Jaish al Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia associated with radical cleric Muqtada Sadr that is widely accused of sectarian killings.
Abu Mohammed is not alone in this double life. By his account and those of U.S. military and Iraqi sources, Mahdi militia members have infiltrated much of the country’s security apparatus, including the army, where they reportedly intimidate and bribe troops and commanders to look the other way as militants execute their brutal sectarian “cleansing” agenda.
“There is a Mahdi Army member in every family and in every home across Iraq and the military is not exempt,” said Abu Mohammed, leaning nonchalantly in a Sadr City alley, as children played in the street. “The army wouldn’t go after the Mahdi Army because many elements in the army are Mahdi Army. Here in Sadr City for example, there is one company and 35 of them are Mahdi Army.”
Abu Mohammed, who insisted on identifying himself only by his battle name, represents one of the challenges U.S. strategists face in Iraq. While U.S. forces search out militia fighters and try to build a nonsectarian police force and army, men such as Abu Mohammed are surreptitiously undoing their work.
In addition to infiltrating Baghdad army units in Shiite neighborhoods, the Mahdi Army has been able to bring political pressure on commanders, and on at least one occasion, to create its own army units packed with its fighters.
The Sadr movement has used Iraqi soldiers and national police officers to push deeper into predominantly Sunni Arab districts in west Baghdad, U.S. Army officers said. It also swayed the leadership of an Iraqi army battalion in the spring to mount strikes in Fadil, a Sunni district in east Baghdad, the U.S. officers said.
The nexus has included soldiers carrying out killings or turning a blind eye as Sadr fighters slip through checkpoints. In late March, in the early phase of the U.S. military buildup, a Mahdi fighter who gave his name as Abu Haidar bragged to The Times that Iraqi army officers had provided vehicles to his group to carry out executions. “We have a deal with the Iraqi army and police,” he said.
In one of the more troubling examples of the relationship between the militia and Iraqi government, the Defense Ministry in January authorized lawmaker Baha Araji, a Sadr loyalist, to form a plainclothes army unit to patrol the Shiite district of Kadhimiya, U.S. army officers and a Shiite politician told The Times.
“The Baha Araji company was a 300-man element of plainclothes Jaish al Mahdi operatives . . . that have subsequently been put in Iraqi army uniforms,” said Lt. Col. Steven Miska of the 1st Infantry Division. “Nobody in the Iraqi army chain of command wanted those guys in uniform. It was a political decision.”
Sadrist member of parliament Falah Hassan defended the company’s creation. “This battalion was protecting Kadhimiya,” he said. The district houses a key Shiite shrine.
The Defense Ministry disbanded the unit in May. The commander became the head of a new battalion that included many of his former troops. The other Araji soldiers were placed in Kadhimiya’s Bravo Company. The U.S. Army arrested three Bravo members last week after finding them meeting with Mahdi fighters. The battalion’s intelligence officer was arrested for shooting at U.S. soldiers April 29 outside a Sadrist mosque.
“We’ve slowed them down, but they are still slowly expanding their reach. Jaish al Mahdi expansion is taking place,” a U.S. Army military intelligence officer in west Baghdad said on condition of anonymity. “Like water, they are going to find a crack and move through the weakest area.”
Senior U.S. military officers involved in training Iraqis acknowledge that militia influence in the army has been a problem, but said they believed the challenge is small compared with the danger in the police force.
They believe the militia has been able to woo and intimidate soldiers who live in areas under the group’s control.
“In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised some of the people involved may have succumbed to these types of militia pressures,” said Brig. Stephen Gledhill, deputy head of the U.S.-led army and police training efforts.
U.S. officers said the Defense Ministry was dealing with the challenge.
“They are building more and more capacity to identify the problems . . . and then go after them,” U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Williams said.
The use of sympathetic or infiltrated Iraqi army battalions to drive out Sunnis has been most evident in the western neighborhoods of Hurriya and Ghazaliya.
In November 2006, Iraqi soldiers watched as Shiite militiamen forced thousands of Sunni families out of Hurriya after a bombing in Sadr City, U.S. and Iraqi officers said.
A month later, an Iraqi commander and four staff officers responsible for the Hurriya district were arrested on suspicion of murder, extortion and links with the Mahdi Army. The judge released them after seven days when no evidence was presented. The day they were released, an Iraqi lieutenant colonel who had filed a statement against the five was killed at a checkpoint.
In the northern part of Ghazaliya, Iraqi soldiers helped the Mahdi Army take back territory from Al Qaeda in Iraq militants. But the army also allowed the militia to lay claim to three additional streets inhabited by Sunnis, U.S. officers and Sunni residents said.
In June, the Iraqi army warned the area’s battalion commander, a Sadr sympathizer, against any further misconduct and moved him to Amiriya to fight insurgents.
An air of suspicion now pervades the northern Ghazaliya battalion. At least two of its commanders are suspected of working with the Mahdi Army.
“The militia is looking for guys who are working in the army and living in the area. They make them sources,” said an Iraqi officer, one of the few in the battalion whom the Americans trust. He asked that his name not be used because he was afraid for his life.
The officer said that if he acted aggressively against the Mahdi Army, the group could pull strings in the parliament and government to harass officers. Last week, when the officer insisted that civilians be searched at a Ghazaliya checkpoint, the militia threatened him, saying it would call his division commander and have him removed.
The officer said he was soon brought in for questioning by military intelligence; Sadrists had accused him of helping Al Qaeda.
“If anyone doesn’t like me, they can complain” to the Ministry of Defense, he said. “Maybe the division commander will listen to them and not to me.”
Seeking to offset the Mahdi Army pressure, the U.S. Army has organized a citizen watch group of Sunni Arabs called the Ghazaliya Guardians. The men stand at Iraqi checkpoints, dressed in khaki work clothes and baseball caps, to monitor Iraqi soldiers with cameras to see whether Mahdi Army members are let through.
In Hurriya, the militia reportedly intimidated an Iraqi army unit that was brought up from southern Iraq. Bombs have targeted U.S. convoys just a few hundred yards from Iraqi army posts in that city, U.S. Army Capt. Andrew Lee said.
The militia also has started to flex its muscles in adjoining neighborhoods, including Mansour’s Washash and Iskan areas. A Mahdi leader “frequently makes phone calls to the Iraqi army in that area . . . with offers of money and threats of intimidation, all the standard mob-style tactics of corruption and leverage in order to gain power and control,” Miska said.
Recently, the Mahdi Army pulled off a coup: hijacking the leadership of a highly lauded Iraqi battalion in east Baghdad, using it to mount strikes in Fadil, a bastion of Sunni insurgents. The 2-26 battalion, led by Col. Talib Abdul Razzaq, was one of several rated strong enough to operate independently.
In April, the government arrested Col. Abdul Razzaq and 11 of his staff members. They were accused of being involved with executions of Sunnis that led to a car bombing in a Shiite market that killed 141 people.
“Talib was playing both sides of the fence,” one officer said.