A Day When Mahdi Army Showed Its Other Side

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 27, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov 26 -- In the chaos, Ayad al-Fartoosi thrived.

Against a backdrop of death and panic in Sadr City last Thursday, he strode confidently through streets littered with burning cars and charred bodies. At one moment, he was guiding an ambulance carrying bomb victims through traffic. At another, he was searching cars at a checkpoint. By evening, he had helped to seize a would-be car bomber and to retrieve corpses. By nightfall, he was patrolling the streets of his neighborhood.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Fartoosi has been a militiaman with the Shiite Muslim Mahdi Army of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Last week, he also served as a relief worker, a policeman, a traffic controller and a guard.

So did thousands of his militia comrades who mobilized to assist victims of the deadliest attack on Iraqis since the invasion, highlighting the power associated with the Mahdi Army's less-publicized roles in Iraqi society.

"We do even more than what the government should do," said Fartoosi, 21, as he recalled the eight grueling hours after a barrage of car bombs, mortars and missiles killed more than 200 people in Baghdad's Shiite heartland.

For U.S. officials, dismantling the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias that have fomented sectarian strife in Iraq is a cornerstone of their calculus to stabilize Iraq and bring U.S. troops home. They view it as a crucial step toward isolating the Sunni Arab insurgency and reconciling the nation.

But the attacks Thursday illustrated the immense difficulties involved in tackling the Mahdi Army, the country's largest and most violent militia, in today 's Iraq. The militiamen were heroes that day, Sadr City residents said in interviews. They did everything that Iraq's fragile unity government did not, or could not, do. In the days since, their actions have boosted Sadr's popularity and emboldened him.

"The Mahdi Army are the people who helped us after the explosion," said Shihab Ahmed, 24, a salesman who was wounded by flying shrapnel. "They saved us."

Against this backdrop, President Bush is scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday in Amman, Jordan. U.S. officials have grown increasingly impatient with Maliki for his inability, or lack of will, to confront the Mahdi Army and other militias, who operate unchallenged. Some U.S. lawmakers on Sunday television talk shows called for Sadr's arrest and for Bush to urge Maliki to take stronger measures against the militias.

But Maliki, faced with his own domestic pressures, has opted for a softer approach, preferring political discussions over military muscle. The support of Sadr, whose party controls four ministries and 30 parliamentary seats, is vital to his remaining in power. Other powerful political blocs, capable of staging his downfall, also operate militias.

Maliki and other Shiite leaders have said they will not go after the Shiite militias as long as the Sunni insurgency remains a threat. In recent months, Maliki has publicly chastised U.S. forces for conducting raids in Sadr City, arguing that they disrupt his efforts at national reconciliation. Many Shiites view the militias as their last bastion of protection against Sunni extremists and loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

Thursday's attacks, which Maliki blamed on Sunni insurgents, has bolstered this view and ratcheted up pressure on the prime minister. The next day, Sadr politicians vowed to walk out of the government if Maliki did not back out of a meeting with Bush.

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