By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 19, 2006
BAGHDAD -- The young Shiite men, some wearing black masks, glided from house to house in search of Sunni Muslim men. They arrived at the two-story dwelling of Mohammed Hussein clutching a bomb, neighbors said. As his mother stood at the front gate, they detonated it. Shrapnel and glass flew, sending her to the hospital. A wall fell on a neighbor, sending him to his grave.
Hussein, who is Sunni, arrived home an hour later and immediately blamed a man called Aziz Dinar. Residents in this western Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah -- in Arabic, it means freedom -- said Dinar heads the local office of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and elements of his militia, the Mahdi Army.
"We know he is behind all the incidents taking place in Hurriyah," Hussein, 29, a civil servant, said with confidence. "He is the one who destroyed our house."
But in an interview, a leader in Sadr's movement in western Baghdad denied knowing Dinar. "This Aziz Dinar does not represent us in Hurriyah. There are other representatives," said Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi. "I have never heard of him."
In the void forged by the sectarian tensions gripping Baghdad, militias are further splintering into smaller, more radicalized cells, signifying a new and potentially more volatile phase in the struggle for the capital.
Iraqis and U.S. officials blame militias for mass kidnappings and slayings, for setting up unauthorized checkpoints and for causing much of the recent carnage.
Senior U.S. military and intelligence officials say they have identified at least 23 militias -- some are Sunni, but most are Shiite. Some are paramilitary offshoots of the Mahdi Army or have broken away entirely from Sadr's command structure. Others seem inspired by Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah guerrilla movement.
"In some ways it makes it easier for me because I have digestible doses I can deal with that might not be reinforcing one another," a senior U.S. military official said at a recent briefing with reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But at the same time, it creates problems for me because it is harder to find them when they are splintered, to identify who they are."
The new breed of militias embody the changed texture of violence in the fourth year of war -- from attacks against Baathists and loyalists of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, to attacks on average Iraqis purely because of their sect or their wealth. They appear more localized and more ruthless than their predecessors. They deploy death squads and explode bombs to destroy houses. They have carved neighborhoods into fiefdoms, governing through fear and intimidation.
The fragmentation poses new obstacles to U.S. and Iraqi forces trying to quell the sectarian strife that U.S. commanders fear could plunge the nation into civil war. Militias have already replaced the Sunni Arab insurgency as the biggest challenge to U.S. efforts to bring stability to Iraq. Senior U.S. military officials privately acknowledge they do not have the manpower to conduct urban sweeps in every neighborhood or prevent areas they have cleared from again becoming havens of lawlessness and killing.
Nowadays, in some parts of Baghdad, it is not uncommon to hear residents blame small militias, criminal gangs, rogue death squads or assassins for their woes -- instead of Iraq's two major militias, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades, an arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite religious party.
In the mostly Shiite neighborhood of al-Amil, the Haider Hamida gang rules. It has about 50 Shiite members, mostly young, jobless men from poor sections of the neighborhood, residents said. They orbit around shops, street corners and checkpoints. Many have ties to the Mahdi Army or are still members, residents said.
The gang is named after the pseudonym of its chief executioner, a short, skinny man in his early 20s with black hair and a thin moustache. Some residents said he was a member of a police commando unit. Both U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed concern over the infiltration of Iraqi police units by militias and death squads. Hamida is said to have killed at least 100 people in recent months.
"We started hearing about his gang after Samarra. They became active after this incident," said Majid Abu Sara, 43, a Sunni resident of al-Amil, who asked that his full name not be used because he feared for his safety. He was referring to the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, that triggered cycles of sect-based revenge killings. Most of the other splinter groups also emerged after the attack.
The Haider Hamida gang arrived at Abu Sara's parents' doorstep three months ago, he recalled. They placed an improvised bomb at the front door, near their car. Within seconds, the house and the car were engulfed in flames. Abu Sara's 90-year-old father, his 70-year-old mother and 10 other relatives fled out the back.
"They displaced them just because they are Sunni," said Abu Sara, describing the motive for the attack. "My parents have not gone back."
At a recent briefing with reporters, another senior U.S. military official carried a list of the 23 militias. He began to rattle off names -- "Iraqiya Hezbollah, Khadimiya Brigades" -- but an aide stopped him, noting that he was revealing vital intelligence.
In August, U.S. and Iraqi troops conducted house-to-house sweeps in the western neighborhood of Ghazaliya, part of its Operation Together Forward to bring security to the capital. At the time, U.S. officials asserted that there was progress in pushing out militias and insurgents, and bringing down violence.
But by September, after the sweeps, "we saw death squads at least come in," a senior coalition intelligence official said at a recent briefing with reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The death squads had links to groups inside Iraqi government ministries, he said.
One reason for the militia splintering is that differences have emerged within Sadr's movement over his decision to join Iraq's political process. The senior coalition intelligence official said he knew of at least "six major players" who have left Sadr's movement because they no longer find him radical enough and see him as "too accommodating to the coalition."
Yet many of the new groups, described as rogue elements, continue to link themselves with the Mahdi Army.
"They will execute operations and obtain funding under the guise of Jaish al-Mahdi," said the senior coalition intelligence official, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army. "But they are effectively beyond his control," he said, referring to Sadr.
These groups represent a threat to Sadr's image and political aspirations at a time when he controls four government ministries and 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament.
"There are definitely lots of terrorists who have used the Sadr office to achieve their goals to ruin the reputation of this army which has struggled for the service of the people," said Mohammadawi. "The Sadr office is trying very hard to capture any terrorist elements which could harm the security of society and Iraq in general."
When gunmen in police cars and police uniforms raided the offices of an Iraqi satellite television channel, killing at least eight people, suspicion immediately fell on the Mahdi Army. Hours after the slayings, Sadr released a strongly worded statement warning that he would release the names and excommunicate any Mahdi Army militiamen who were conducting attacks against Iraqis.
The senior coalition intelligence official said he believed that Sadr was honestly trying to take control of his forces.
In neighborhoods such as al-Amil, the attacks have become bolder. Haider Hamida walks the streets without wearing a mask, said residents. Two months ago, he and some members of his gang stopped a car at a checkpoint and targeted a man who sold milk in the neighborhood, recalled Ahmed Abu Abdallah, another resident.
"Haider pulled him out of the car and they started hitting him with pistols on his head," said Abu Abdallah. "They put him in their truck and drove off." Later that day, the man's relatives found his body dumped less than a mile from the checkpoint.
U.S. officials are concerned that the Shiite splinter groups could reach out to the Shiite rulers in neighboring Iran for support. They share the same ideology, and Iran is eager to provide funding, said the senior coalition intelligence official.
"As time goes on, you're going to continue to see elements break off the organization and become sort of these semi-independent or independent players, but none of them remain independent for long," said the official. "They all find a sponsor."
In Hurriyah, Aziz Dinar acts as if he has strong backers. Residents said he has become wealthy through kidnapping for ransom and looting local stores. Poor youths from the neighborhood continue to sign up for his militia.
"He killed a couple of his own neighbors from his own street," said Hussein. "The whole area was surrounded by his men. They carried rocket-propelled grenades. The Iraqi army was in the neighborhood, but they did nothing.
"That day, he told people, 'I do whatever I like.' "