In the east Baghdad strongholds of the Al Mahdi militia, U.S. efforts to weaken ties between the militant Shiite Muslim group and the Shiite population are falling short, say American soldiers assigned to carry out the plan.
The attempt to shift the loyalty of residents to the Iraqi central government is failing because the militia is far more popular than anything the Americans have to offer, many troops say.
The campaign in Baghdad’s poor Shiite neighborhoods is seen as an important part of the broader U.S. counterinsurgency campaign underway in Shiite and Sunni Arab neighborhoods across Baghdad. Although commanders say the overall strategy is bringing Baghdad increasingly under U.S. and Iraqi government control, enlisted men and noncommissioned officers say it is flawed.
“They want to have the militia here,” said one experienced noncommissioned officer who has served multiple tours in Iraq. “So, why are we here?”
The Americans see the militia as a criminal organization engaged in racketeering and execution-style slayings of Sunni Muslims, but many Iraqis believe the militants offer the only protection against attacks by Sunni insurgents and are a reliable source for scarce fuel supplies. So many residents reject the American message of peace between Shiites and Sunnis and continue to support the militia.
“These people are not going to change,” said the noncommissioned officer in east Baghdad, who, like other troops, spoke on condition of anonymity because his views differed from those of his commander. “They should stand up to the militia, but they want to have Shiite and Sunni separated.”
The flaws underscore the difficulty of crafting a strategy that can work in an environment in which few trust the ability of U.S. forces or the central government to improve their neighborhoods.
Many soldiers also say practices that worked against insurgencies in other wars or in other parts of Iraq may not apply to Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhoods.
The Al Mahdi militia is not a textbook insurgent group. To Iraqi Shiites, the militia offers a source for basic services and support for the political and religious work of popular anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr.
“The Mahdi militia provides services and protects the region,” said a 25-year-old clothing salesman in the Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad who gave his nickname as Abu Atwar. “Militiamen do some killings from time to time, but we do not care about the crimes they commit. Only God can make them pay for that because, as you know, no law is working in Iraq now.”
Even with the additional 28,500 combat and support troops sent to Iraq in the Bush administration’s buildup, there are not enough soldiers to provide the around-the-clock protection needed to erode the power of the militia.
“I don’t feel we are winning over people. They all know we are going home. Units change, but the militia is always there,” said Spc. Tyrone Richardson, 24, of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry. “For the militia, this is their home. They can walk up to any house and intimidate the people. They can get results. We can’t protect everybody all the time.”
Other soldiers say it is simply a matter of intimidation that prevents neighborhood residents from providing information to the Americans.
“They are afraid they will get in trouble from us or trouble from the militia in the neighborhood,” said Sgt. Chris Wilson, 24, a member of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry.
When it comes down to it, Iraqi residents of east Baghdad would rather get in trouble with the Americans than with the militia, many soldiers believe.
“The Iraqis think, ‘The Americans may harass me. But they aren’t going to kill me. The militia, however, they will kill me or kill my family,’ ” said the noncommissioned officer. “The people say: ‘I trust the terrorists. I trust that when the terrorist says he will kill my family, he will do it.’ But they say: ‘I don’t trust the American. He has been saying I will have water and sewer for two years.’ ”
Most insurgencies are fully opposed to the central government. But though Sadr has withdrawn his ministers from the Shiite-dominated government, his Al Mahdi militia has supporters throughout the ministries and security forces. Such support, said one senior American officer, makes fighting the militia particularly difficult, as does the likelihood that some members of the Iraqi security forces are also in Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia.
“If we are spending energy figuring out who needs to be marginalized in the [Iraqi] government, that is not classic counterinsurgency,” the officer said.
Iraqi residents tell U.S. soldiers that there would be no need for the militia if the Americans left. And militia supporters claim their attacks on the Americans are justified.
Many Iraqis who back the militia do so in part because of their continuing loyalty to Sadr’s father, a revered cleric believed to have been killed by Saddam Hussein’s forces.
“People feel completely comfortable about the Sadr militia taking care of everything in Baghdad, especially in Sadr City and the neighborhoods that ally with Muqtada Sadr,” said Abu Sajad Asari, a water and sewage contractor in east Baghdad.
Not all Americans serving in Iraq hold a pessimistic view of the counterinsurgency approach.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sauer, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, says U.S. intelligence on the militia has grown stronger. Sauer argues he can turn the residents of east Baghdad away from the militia, which the military calls Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM.
“The conditions were not there two years ago to splinter people from JAM,” he said. “The conditions are there now and that is what we are pursuing.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, said he did not believe that support for the militia was widespread. And with improvements in security, much of the support will fade, he said.
“The truth is, there is a little bit of mythology that the people support Jaish al Mahdi,” Petraeus said. “That is not our perception. Our perception is that once the Al Qaeda threat is reduced, people will reject groups like Jaish al Mahdi, that are basically criminal elements extorting money in various schemes who are jeopardizing the neighborhood by launching attacks.”
U.S. commanders have made Sunni extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq the main target of the offensive. But Petraeus alleged “extremist militia elements” were a “very serious threat to Iraq.”
A White House report last month said concerns remained about Iraqi political interference hindering U.S. and Iraqi military operations against extremists.
U.S. officials estimate that only about 5% of the Shiite militia members are hard-core fighters behind attacks on American patrols and bases, and say these “secret cells” are supplied by Iranian agents.
“These are the ones trained, armed, funded and in some cases directed by the Iranian Quds Force,” Petraeus said in a recent interview. “They represent more than just street thugs. Those are a very serious threat to Iraq to the longer term security and stability.”
U.S. officials believe that Sadr is not in control of the “secret cells” and is almost as worried about the influence of the Iranian agents as Americans are. Some military and administration officials have speculated that Sadr wants the U.S. to eliminate elements of his militia that are under Iranian influence.
“The Sadr militia is a complex organization. There are some parts you can live with and some parts you can’t,” said a senior military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing defense strategy. “The art of this is to figure out how to maximize the first and minimize the latter.”
Some U.S. soldiers in east Baghdad are unsure that even a string of arrests of militia members would do much good. One junior officer compared the fight to the drug war in the United States, saying he believed that for every “high value” militia member they detained, another one took his place.
“The only way to change their attitudes is over generations,” the officer said. “They don’t want our democracy, but we keep saying, ‘Take it, take it, take it.’ ”
Soldiers say they would like nothing better than for the militia to leave the shadows and confront them directly.
“That would be any tanker’s dream if they came out of Sadr City in tanks. For once, we could see the enemy,” said Staff Sgt. Patrick Bussell, 36, of Charlie Company.
But the soldiers know that won’t happen.
“It is like we’re fighting ghosts,” said Wilson of Alpha Company. “It’s a little unnerving.”
Times staff writers Zeena Kareem and Wail Alhafith in Baghdad contributed to this report.