Iran, enemy of his enemy

Times Staff Writer

It was sunset, and a pair of Iraqi soldiers were sitting in a roofless house by the Iranian border, awaiting orders. Suddenly, Abu Baqr recalls, his friend let out a gasp and fell silent, a sniper's bullet in his forehead. Abu Baqr couldn't help him, couldn't move for fear of being shot. He lay beside his friend's corpse until morning.

"How would you feel after that?" Abu Baqr asked. "You come out of that, you only come out bad."

Abu Baqr, now a commander in the Mahdi Army militia of cleric Muqtada Sadr, blames Iran for what happened to his friend more than 20 years ago during Iraq's war with Iran, just as he blames Saddam Hussein for that conflict.

He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad's Green Zone without apology or regret.

"I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don't trust them," he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and "therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it's hard to say no."

He laughed: "If it came from Israel, we would use it."

Abu Baqr's attitudes illustrate the pragmatism of a movement under siege. Elements of the Mahdi Army are engaged in an intense conflict with rival Shiite Muslim parties in the Iraqi government that benefit from their own close ties to Iran and, more advantageously, the assistance of America's superior firepower.

The attitudes of commanders such as Abu Baqr would seem to confirm U.S. accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq. Although the extent of their relationship remains unclear, the commanders have embraced a hardened stance that may bode ill for the U.S. military.

These leaders confound U.S. attempts to categorize and differentiate between moderate fighters and what U.S. officers call the Iranian-funded and trained "special groups" that are believed to continue armed struggle against American forces despite a truce called by Sadr.

"It blurs out there," acknowledged a senior U.S. military commander who is not authorized to talk publicly about the various factions within the Mahdi Army, which is thought to number as many as 60,000 fighters.

Abu Baqr is a senior commander in a few neighborhoods of Baghdad's Sadr City district, responsible for at least 100 fighters. He is trusted enough by the movement that he has served as a mediator between factions in trouble spots in southern Iraq.

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The price of survival

A year ago, in one of a series of interviews with The Times, his voice rose in anger when he talked of Iran's efforts to co-opt the Mahdi Army movement. He seethed about Tehran's drive to recruit fighters to bomb U.S. convoys at a time when Sadr was trying to halt such activities. He railed against militia members whom Iran had bought off.

At this time of immense pressure, however, he embraces the breakaway factions.

"Not all Jaish al Mahdi members are angels," he acknowledged, using the group's Arabic name. "Some have material interests in mind and they're greedy, and so Iran was able to hit on this particular angle and put them on its side."

But this is the price of survival. His positions shift tactically from moment to moment. He believes the militia should fight the Americans to the end, but even now he hints he is ready to strike a truce on honorable terms with the U.S. military if it agrees to halt its operations against the militia in Baghdad.

Until March, Sadr loyalists such as Abu Baqr had worked to enforce a freeze the cleric ordered last year on the militia's activities. But that month, everything fell apart when the government launched controversial military operations against Shiite militias in the port city of Basra and in Sadr City, the Shiite slum. The Sadr movement saw the operation as specifically targeting its fighters.

Abu Baqr stopped reining in fighters and once more switched to a war footing. "The balloon has burst," he said soberly.

With gray hair, a slight paunch and the nimble gait of a former athlete, Abu Baqr has played various roles in his five years with Sadr's sprawling grass-roots nationalist movement. In the fall of 2006, he helped inaugurate so-called punishment committees to get rid of militia members who defied Sadr's decrees and were perceived to be committing criminal activities.

He does not talk of what happens when men, insubordinate to Sadr, are brought to religious courts, where underlings speak of beatings and death.

Abu Baqr's stature in the Mahdi Army stems from his actions in the final years of Hussein's regime, which favored Sunni Arabs. He heeded the call of Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. The foundering war veteran was inspired by the grand ayatollah's sermons and defiance of Hussein, finding a fresh purpose in his life.

"We started thinking more about and worshiping God, trying to get rid of the injustice on our people," he said.

When Sadr's father and two brothers were killed by unknown gunmen in 1999, Abu Baqr dedicated himself to battling Hussein and joined a secret cell that he says killed some Baath Party officials, with the approval of some clerics. "All of the things we do, we seek to please God, to approach God," he said, describing the violence at that time.

Abu Baqr says he had actually welcomed the Americans five years ago when they toppled Hussein. He handed out flowers to U.S. soldiers early in 2003 and played soccer with them in the street. But he said their behavior convinced him early on that they were not leaving and were intent on antagonizing Sadr. By April 2004, Abu Baqr had joined in the first of the revolts against the Americans.

It has been a long road since then. One of his sons was gunned down firing a rocket-propelled grenade toward a tank in May 2004.

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An enduring fight

On some nights, he helps oversee battles, operating from buildings, coordinating with fighters by cellphone, radio and courier.

He claims the Mahdi Army has men everywhere inside the heart of the Iraqi police and army.

"It is our right to place elements within the Iraqi army and police," he said. "We are even close to the operations command, and they give us information in real time."

He brags about the ambushes they have set for the U.S. and Iraqi troops -- lining alleys with bombs for armored vehicles. He boasts about the militia's knowledge of the Green Zone and the layout of the U.S. Embassy and houses and offices of prominent Iraqis.

"We know the Green Zone inch by inch," he said. "We are working 24/7 gathering information."

Like his late son, he claims, he is ready to die fighting the Americans and has no doubts about sacrificing himself for the Sadr movement.

"We believe in God. God is with us," he said. "The first and foremost agenda is to kick out the American occupation. The Iranians are right next door. The Americans come from far away."

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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