Militia commander Abu Maha had studied his quarry carefully, watching as the man acquired fancy suits, gold watches and the street name “Master.” Now, heavily armed and dressed in an Adidas track suit, Abu Maha told his followers it was time to act against one of their comrades.
A dozen of them gripped their assault rifles and headed out. The Master, accused of sliding into immoral behavior after stoutly defending Shiite Muslims in Iraq’s sectarian violence, was about to learn that justice in the Mahdi Army could be very rough.
Fighters such as Abu Maha have taken on a new role in recent months in the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Instead of battling Sunni insurgents and U.S. troops, they are now weeding out what they consider to be black sheep within their ranks.
Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has as many as 60,000 members, has been trying to make his movement a viable political factor, and more appealing to his hundreds of thousands of followers. In late August, he declared a six-month freeze in hostilities to rein in lawless elements after deadly clashes with a rival Shiite militia.
If Sadr succeeds, it could lead to a much more stable Iraq -- at least in the short term. U.S. commanders say they are optimistic so far. But it is not yet clear whether Sadr can control even the men such as Abu Maha on whom he is depending to establish order.
“What we want to do during this period is to establish a new order, to collect the people who are professional, educated and have good information, who are good, faithful in our social works and are helping the people,” said Sadr’s chief spokesman Sheik Salah Ubaidi.
Some local military leaders are following Sadr’s orders, but several Mahdi Army members acknowledge that others are striking out on their own, continuing to commit acts of sectarian violence and sometimes attacking U.S. forces.
Sadr’s movement emerged in 2003 as a counterweight to exiled politicians arriving in Baghdad with the Americans. His Mahdi Army began to provide an array of social services to the urban poor and courted the Sunni Arab minority with a nationalist message of resistance to U.S. forces.
Then as sectarian violence erupted into civil war by early 2006, his fighters reportedly began torturing and killing Sunni civilians in the name of fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the movement blamed for the car bombs used to devastating effect against Shiites.
The cleric has at various times reined in his militia leaders, including a cease-fire announced in January that unraveled. Many members continued their attacks, and Sadr’s loyal followers hesitated to confront them.
But late this summer, faced with a major public relations problem, Sadr changed strategy again. His forces were widely blamed for a clash with the rival Badr Organization during a festival in the Shiite holy city of Karbala that left at least 50 people dead. He blamed the violence on rogue elements and vowed to eliminate them.
Now, all across Baghdad, militiamen loyal to Sadr’s main office in the shrine city of Najaf are on the hunt for the purported renegades -- men such as the Master.
Abu Maha, a pious but violent man who brags about killing Sunnis, was assigned to police the Ghazaliya neighborhood.
The Master had arrived in the mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood in 2006 to defend Shiites. Abu Maha acknowledged that he had once praised his efforts.
But Ghazaliya had become segregated between the Shiite north and Sunni south, and the Master no longer was doing anything for the community. Instead, he had taken to fancy clothes, prostitutes and kidnapping for profit.
Abu Maha’s men gathered intelligence on his moral lapses, and in early November they made their move.
When they arrived at the Master’s house, Abu Maha said, two prostitutes and a couple of thugs were sitting in his living room. They told his men that the Master was out back, about to kill his cousin.
The men went outside, seized the Master and took him to a nearby mosque, where they interrogated and tortured him for two days.
Abu Maha said they beat the Master with their rifles, burned his scalp with cigarettes and broke his arms and legs. He told the Master that he was being expelled from the Mahdi Army and warned him that he would kill him if he ever returned to Ghazaliya.
Then, he said, they threw the Master into the trunk of a car and deposited him at his home in another neighborhood. They haven’t heard any more of him since.
In west Baghdad, Sadr’s local offices regularly send out such enforcers. But across the river, the militia’s punishment committee relies on a special force, the Golden Battalion, to discipline the worst offenders, who are taken to Najaf for punishment.
“They tell him he is fired, lecture him, make him confess to his wrongs. If he is stubborn and impolite, yeah, he gets it,” said Abu Atwan, an official in Sadr’s New Baghdad office.
Abu Atwan alleged that Iranian-backed insurgents were provoking some Mahdi factions to attack U.S. forces. Sadr’s spokesman Ubaidi also said that others were meddling in the Mahdi Army, and that some fighters in the predominantly Shiite cities of Basra, Diwaniya and Nasiriya had started to abandon the movement rather than honor Sadr’s pledge.
“There are foreign agencies trying to create a split with those people,” Ubaidi said.
In east Baghdad, U.S. Army Col. Don Farris said last month that the use of armor-piercing bombs, commonly associated with alleged Iranian-backed Sadr splinter factions, had risen in October.
The Mahdi Army recently detained three Iranians and an Iraqi fighter who had fired mortar rounds at a nearby U.S. military base, Atwan said. When asked what happened to them, he spit out the term sikha -- a slang term for shooting a man.
“The organization had to be cleansed at some point,” he said.
Overall, senior U.S. commanders are optimistic about the reform process within the Sadr movement, which they see as moderates overtaking the hard-liners.
“We are seeing more than we ever had this internal struggle going on. I think the moderate Shia want to move forward. . . . They don’t want to be under the thumb of a group that intimidates and extorts and does all those other things to people that makes their lives miserable,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. “What we are seeing here is a split in the Sadrist movement.”
U.S. officials say the split has produced fledgling contacts between Americans and moderate Sadr loyalists, often tribal leaders or local officials trying to rebuild their communities. Sadr’s movement, however, denies this.
“They want to talk about the future. They want to talk about security. They want to discuss how we can improve services in their areas,” Odierno said.
The west Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad is an example of this nascent relationship, U.S. officials say.
Moderate Mahdi Army figures have cut deals through local officials and tribal leaders to seek reconciliation with Sunnis and stop fighting the Americans. And they are culling their black sheep.
The local U.S. commander, Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, has praised the Mahdi Army’s moderate elements for seeking stability in the Jihad neighborhood.
Last month, a gang that no longer answered to Sadr marched through Jihad brandishing heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, so the Sadr office sent a delegation to ask them to drop their weapons, but they refused.
“So the good Mahdi Army started chasing them. They arrested four of the bad Mahdi Army and turned them over to the Iraqi army with their weapons,” said Jihad’s local council chief, Malhan Abu Jalal.
“Now everybody believes that there is no benefit from fighting and they should support the political process. There is cooperation between the Sadr office, Iraqi forces and U.S. forces.”
Times staff writers and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.