Learning to Live With the Mahdi Army

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

BAGHDAD -- No, there have been no problems, the police commander was telling the armor-laden American soldiers squeezed into his office in the vast Shiite enclave of Sadr City. Except, he said, for the text-messaged death threats he often received from militia members.

Suddenly the meeting was interrupted by a loud mortar blast, followed by another explosion. A third, thunderous boom rattled the room, sending ripples through the yellow curtains and bringing the U.S. soldiers to their feet.

The soldiers later learned the target was a nearby outpost they had recently established with Iraqi security forces on the edge of Sadr City. The third explosion was a car bomb that upended a blast barrier and punched three neat holes through a concrete wall 50 yards away. The holes, the soldiers said, were telling: The bomb was one of the potent projectile-emitting weapons that the U.S. military says Iran provides to Shiite militias in Iraq.

And in Sadr City, militia means one thing: Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's formidable Mahdi Army.

As part of a nearly eight-week-old plan to temper violence in Baghdad, U.S. forces last month set up a permanent base and resumed security sweeps in the enclave for the first time in three years. Sadr's black-clad fighters -- who battled U.S. forces in the past -- have appeared to stand down, even as Sadr publicly condemns the U.S. presence.

But soldiers with a U.S. military police unit that has provided police training and patrols in Sadr City for most of the past 10 months said the Mahdi Army disrupts their efforts every day. Most of the Iraqi police they train are either affiliated with the militia or intimidated by it, the soldiers said. At worst, they said, militia infiltration in the police might be behind attacks on Americans, even though Iraqi officials offered assurances that the Mahdi Army was lying low.

"I don't really think there is an end or a beginning. I think it's all intermingled," Staff Sgt. Toby Hansen, 30, said about the Mahdi Army's relationship to the police trained by his unit. "Eventually, when we leave, they're going to police their own city. They're going to do it their way."

Soldiers of the 118th Military Police Company, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., had worked in Sadr City from last summer until November, when the security situation was deemed too precarious. The unit has returned to train police officers and back up their checkpoints, patrols and neighborhood outreach efforts. It is a fragile cooperation, but U.S. soldiers said they stay motivated because they know some policemen are good.

The soldiers also help police collaborate with the rest of the Iraqi security forces. That is one idea behind the new so-called joint security station on the edge of Sadr City, one of several that have opened across Baghdad in the past two months.

"I think they've got the concept down. The trick is going to be to get them to continue after we leave," said 1st Lt. Mike Mixon, 32, the platoon's leader. "I'm just trying to make them see that they can all live with each other without killing each other."

Many soldiers said that since the troop buildup in Sadr City, residents seemed happier to see them -- and more willing to deal with Iraqi police.

Still, as the American Humvees patrol dusty streets bearing posters and billboards of a scowling Sadr, their gunners often carry rocks, to defend against the stones they know will be thrown at their vehicles along the way.

Hints of the Mahdi Army

The convoy pulled up to al-Thawra police station, a beige building in a walled-off complex that houses three Sadr City police stations responsible for different districts. Trash littered the dirt lot.

In the office of the station commander, Col. Saad Abbas Hussein, the soldiers sipped tea from tiny glasses. Above them were new whiteboards listing patrols and the station's chain of command, the results of some of the Americans' training.

As he sprayed air freshener in the room, a distracted Hussein told Mixon he had had no problems with the militia. Col. Salim Muhsin, the station's liaison to the Interior Ministry, piped up from the corner, saying Sadr had ordered his fighters to avoid the Americans.

"We received that information," Mixon said. "But we are still seeing some lower-level activity, possibly rogue or outside, that might be Mahdi militia, still affecting the coalition forces."

No, Muhsin continued, the only problem is that Sunni insurgents slaughter families every day -- in other neighborhoods.

"They all say that," Mixon said after the meeting.

The soldiers said they do not know which police officers are involved with the Mahdi Army. Their Iraqi interpreters, who also serve as cultural barometers, tell the soldiers that all the police officers are.

"That's why they're still alive," said interpreter "Adam" Abdul Kareem, 29, who uses a false first name and covers his face to conceal his identity while working.

Outside, the U.S. soldiers asked some policemen to accompany them on a patrol. The Iraqis initially refused, saying they would be kidnapped by the Mahdi Army if seen with the Americans. Mixon insisted. So they tagged along in a beat-up SUV -- placed second in the convoy, Hansen explained, so they could not lead the Americans into a trap.

On a quiet residential street, a flock of giddy children swarmed as the Americans and Iraqis passed out T-shirts and Iraqi flags. "Sadr, no," one said in English, pointing off in the distance. "Iran."

"This area good," said an old man with a white beard. "All area with the government."

Later, after the blasts interrupted their second meeting, the squad checked out a possible mortar launch site identified by U.S. soldiers. The site was well inside Sadr City.

Hansen's Humvee turned down narrow streets lined with staring people. Mixon's voice crackled over the radio: "We're getting a lot of 'You're-not-going-to-catch-us' smiles." Finding nothing, the convoy headed toward the joint station, passing a poster of Sadr.

Frustration and Fear

Inside the two-story building covered in peeling blue paint, Iraqi soldiers and police and U.S. soldiers gathered in separate clusters.

No one had been injured in the earlier attack on the outpost. But the soldiers at the station -- many of them infantrymen from the 2nd Brigade, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Bragg -- were clearly shaken. All the building's front windows had shattered.

"We need to bring a bunch of troops into Sadr and [expletive] this place up," said Spec. Josh Saykally, 25, of Minocqua, Wis., meaning soldiers should be living in the center of the district, not just on the edge.

Staff Sgt. Jesse Benskin, 24, fumed. The car bomb, he said, was the work of Mahdi militiamen fed information by Iraqis at the station. Benskin said they all made phone calls right after the blast, which he read as a sign they were reporting results to the attackers. "In my opinion, they're not really holding back," Benskin said of the Mahdi Army.

"I see a whole lot of money and a whole lot of American lives on the line," he said. "Two weeks after we leave, it's going to go back to the way it was."

In a nearby conference room, the joint station's newfound collaboration was on display: whiteboards showing who was on patrol and where, a mission statement in Arabic and English. As Mixon and others looked on, Col. Shaker Wadi Hamoud al-Maliki, the officer in charge, approached a map. The mortars were launched from here, he said, pointing to a Sunni neighborhood outside Sadr City.

His launch sites were completely different from those U.S. soldiers had identified. Mixon shrugged.

"There are no militias in Sadr City now," the colonel said.

The next morning, two more mortars hit near the joint station. Again, the U.S. soldiers' analysis determined they were launched inside Sadr City.

U.S. soldiers marveled at the damage done by the previous day's car bomb. The hot projectiles had traveled at least 200 yards, past the overturned blast barriers and through two concrete walls.

Later, the convoy headed to the police station complex to meet with another commander, Maj. Mohammed Lefta Flaih -- a man Sgt. Dennis Gurney, 38, the squad's jovial leader, deemed a "good cat."

After a conversation about training, emergency response and Flaih's need for whiteboards, Gurney jokingly asked whether Flaih would host a going-away party for the unit at his house, with whiskey and beer. Flaih did not laugh.

"I'd love to, but you know what the consequences would be," Flaih said. Making a stabbing motion, he whispered: "Militia."

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