Shiite Militia May Be Disintegrating
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 7:21 PM
BAGHDAD -- The violent Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, adding a potentially even more deadly element to Iraq's violent mix.
Two senior militia commanders told The Associated Press that hundreds of these fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
The breakup is an ominous development at a time when U.S. and Iraqi forces are working to defeat religious-based militias and secure Iraq under government control. While al-Sadr's forces have battled the coalition repeatedly, including pitched battles in 2004, they've mostly stayed in the background during the latest offensive.
The U.S. military has asserted in recent months that Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Quds force have been providing Shiite militias with weapons and parts for sophisticated armor-piercing bombs. The so called EFPs _ explosively formed penetrators _ are responsible for the deaths of more than 170 American and coalition soldiers since mid-2004, the military says.
In the latest such attack, four U.S. soldiers were killed March 15 by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad.
At the Pentagon, a military official confirmed there were signs the Mahdi Army was splintering. Some were breaking away to attempt a more conciliatory approach to the Americans and the Iraqi government, others moving in a more extremist direction, the official said.
However, the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the topic, was not aware of direct Iranian recruitment and financing of Mahdi Army members.
The outlines of the fracture inside the Mahdi Army were confirmed by senior Iraqi government officials with access to intelligence reports prepared for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The information indicates a disintegrating organization yet a potentially even more dangerous foe, they revealed, on condition that their names not be used.
The militia commanders and al-Maliki's reports identify the leader of the breakaway faction as Qais al-Khazaali, a young Iraqi cleric who was a close al-Sadr aide in 2003 and 2004.
He was al-Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004, when he made nearly daily appearances on Arabic satellite news channels. He has not been seen in public since late that year.
Another U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the information's sensitivity, said it was true that some gunmen had gone to Iran for training and that al-Khazaali has a following. However, the official could not confirm the number of his followers or whether Iran was financing them.