Battling With Sadr for Iraqi Soldiers' Hearts
Saturday, January 13, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi soldiers broke into chants to commemorate the 86th anniversary of the creation of their army.
"Muhammad, Haider, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn!" shouted a group of dancing soldiers, bellowing the names of the prophet and other long-dead Islamic icons revered by Shiite Muslims.
A second later, the name of a living Shiite figure came out of the din. "Moqtada! Moqtada!" one soldier exclaimed, invoking the name of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric and leader of the Mahdi Army militia that American officials blame for many of the worst acts of violence in Baghdad.
Standing quietly in the crowd were four U.S. Army officers, there to represent the team of American soldiers advising the Iraqis. "Sounds like the Mahdi militia is in the tent," said their interpreter, Mohammed Noshi.
Moments before the chanting began, at a rally last Saturday morning at the soldiers' shared base in eastern Baghdad, a brigade commander in the Iraqi army's 6th Division had called the troops the "hope of this country."
"Some people are trying to create sectarian violence to divide this country," said the colonel, who asked that his name not be published out of fear for his life. "It is our job to keep this country in one piece."
At best, said several U.S. soldiers interviewed at the base this month, some of the Iraqi troops they advise are sympathetic to Sadr and his army. At worst, they said, some are members of the militia, also known as Jaish al-Mahdi. Despite the uneasiness of the alliance, 100 U.S. troops and 500 Iraqi soldiers have conducted joint raids and shared a base on the eastern side of the Tigris River, once a mixed area that is becoming predominantly Shiite.
Training Iraq's police and army to the point where they can operate on their own is key to any reduction of U.S. forces, American commanders have said. Five thousand U.S. troops are already embedded with Iraqi units as advisers.
U.S. military officers say that the Iraqi police force is deeply infiltrated by militiamen and predict that the army will be quicker to operate independently. But a four-day visit to the base known as Old MOD, for the former Ministry of Defense complex, showed that the army is not immune to the militias' influence. According to the Americans, most of the Iraqi soldiers are Shiites, and some come from Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum that is a Mahdi Army stronghold. Some carry pictures of Sadr.
"Does it mean that they're Jaish al-Mahdi? No," said Lt. Col. Edward Taylor, head of the U.S. military transition team, which is attached to the 2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, based at Fort Carson, Colo.
The U.S. military would not let a reporter interview the Iraqi soldiers. But during a meeting with Taylor, the Iraqi brigade commander responded to a question about the presence of militias in his unit. "It's just rumor," he said.
Taylor said that despite sectarianism in the army, many of the soldiers are making progress. They no longer show up in mismatched uniforms or turn to the Americans to make every decision, he said. Now they plan their own missions.