Iraq Panel Concerned Over Al-Sadr's Army

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By KATHERINE SHRADER
The Associated Press
Thursday, December 7, 2006; 7:24 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Iraq Study Group's grim report embraces the most worrisome estimates about Muqtada al-Sadr's private army: He has up to 60,000 fighters, and his followers are planted throughout the security forces protecting the Health Ministry and other Iraqi government institutions.

Making matters worse, the high-level panel believes the cleric himself may not be able to manage the diverse and growing parts of his network known as the Mahdi army.

"As the Mahdi army has grown in size and influence, some elements have moved beyond Sadr's control," the report concludes.

Al-Sadr's independent force is one of many factions bedeviling U.S. efforts to help Iraq's fledgling democracy gain control. It's part of a tableau of trouble detailed in the 160-page report, whose authors had broad access to U.S. intelligence data.

The commission, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, also found fault with the intelligence agencies who were advising it.

The agencies undercounted the number of violent attacks in Iraq and failed to hire enough qualified analysts to study the insurgency, the report said. "Clearly, U.S. intelligence agencies can and must do better," it said.

Once a minor figure in Iraq, al-Sadr gained prominence through the reputation of his murdered father, a revered Shiite leader and dissident during Saddam Hussein's rule. The son's strength has grown rapidly in recent months.

In 2005, al-Sadr had fewer than 10,000 fighters, but the new report puts that figure now at as many as 60,000 _ or three fighters loyal to al-Sadr for every seven U.S. soldiers in the country. The latest estimate is believed to include a dedicated core as well as part-time fighters.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and an adviser to the study group, said al-Sadr's numbers are less significant than his organizational prowess, which is bolstered by cell phones, Internet bulletin boards and other technology. "Their ability to mobilize people and get them in the streets is enormous," Hoffman said Thursday.

Showing al-Sadr's deep infiltration into the government, the report found that Iraqis loyal to him dominate the 145,000-strong Facilities Protection Service, which guards the ministries of Health, Agriculture and Transportation _ all controlled by al-Sadr's political allies. While providing jobs and money for the Mahdi army, the protective service has questionable loyalty to the civilian government, the report said.

"One senior U.S. official described the Facilities Protection Service as 'incompetent, dysfunctional or subversive.' Several Iraqis simply referred to them as militias," the report noted.

The Mahdi army is only one of the problems facing the U.S. in Iraq.


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© 2006 The Associated Press

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