Threat of Shiite Militias Now Seen As Iraq's Most Critical Challenge

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 8, 2006

BAGHDAD, April 7 -- Shiite Muslim militias pose the greatest threat to security in many parts of Iraq, having killed more people in recent months than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, and will likely present the most daunting and critical challenge for Iraq's new government, U.S. military and diplomatic officials say.

Assassinations, many carried out by Shiite gunmen against Sunni Arabs in Baghdad and elsewhere, accounted for more than four times as many deaths in March as bombings and other mass-casualty attacks, according to military data. And most officials agree that only a small percentage of shooting deaths are ever reported.

The surge in sectarian killings, triggered by the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in late February, had slowed in recent weeks. It was uncertain if attacks on prominent Shiite mosques Thursday and Friday would signal an onset of renewed bloodletting.

While acknowledging the instability caused by Shiite armed groups, the largest of which are linked to the country's dominant political parties and operate among Iraq's police and army, U.S. and Iraqi officials here have yet to implement, or even publicly articulate, a strategy for addressing the problem.

"We know militias are an issue. We've asked both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense to work there," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, the top American officer working with Iraq's police force, in which many Shiite militiamen serve. "They recognize the problem. But there's been no decision as to what to do about it."

"There are laws and constitutional articles dealing with militias that explain how to dissolve them and integrate their members into the security forces on an individual basis," said Adnan Ali Kadhimi, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari. "But this is on the basis of theory. On the basis of practicality, the situation is still very fragile. The implementation has to be cautious and careful."

Militias last emerged as a top U.S. concern in 2004, when the American and Iraqi armies spent months putting down violent uprisings by the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Baghdad, Najaf and other cities. But the problem is far thornier now, U.S. officials say, because the militias have added thousands of foot soldiers and gained new political stature.

Two years ago, the Iraqi government was largely under American control and led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Iraq's next parliament will be dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a religious party that oversees a militia called the Badr Organization, and by followers of Sadr. Together the two groups claim nearly a quarter of the legislature's 275 seats and will likely hold several cabinet ministries.

"It's a far more serious problem now than it was then because of who is in power," said a U.S. official who worked on the militia issue with the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council two years ago and spoke on the condition that he not be named. "Until there's a commitment on the part of the government, there will be no solution."

Practically every Shiite political party in Iraq maintains a force of men with guns -- some virtual armies of several thousand or more, others what Peterson described as little more than a "neighborhood watch on steroids."

Iraq's other major factions maintain armed forces as well. Insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna are composed predominantly of Sunni Arabs and conduct frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and Shiite civilians. The pesh merga , a large militia maintained by ethnic Kurds, is formally under the command of the Iraqi army, operates mainly in the Kurdish north and poses no major security threat, U.S. officials say.

All of the militias justify their existence, to some extent, by claiming a need to protect their communities from the violence that pervades the country.

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