Page 4 of 4   <      

Iraq's Sadr Overhauls His Tactics

Their differences, though, are numerous. Some Sunnis fear that a premature U.S. withdrawal could endanger their community. Sunnis and Sadrists disagree over allowing thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government jobs.

"If national reconciliation is at the expense of the return of the assassin Baathists, then we will reject such reconciliation," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, a Sadr legislator and chairman of the parliament's de-Baathification committee.

Sadr's Shiite rivals inside Maliki's coalition say it is unlikely the Sadrists will unite with the Sunnis. "Now, it is very difficult," said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a senior legislator with the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, the party formerly known as SCIRI and the largest within Maliki's ruling coalition. "Between them, there's a gap made of blood. After Samarra, there is no possibility for reconciliation."

Sunnis Distrustful

This month, Mahdi Army militiamen in the Hurriyah area of Baghdad chased several Sunni families from their homes. Sadr, who wants to protect his militia's image as a guardian of Shiites, acted swiftly.

A committee based in Najaf created to deal with rogue elements dismissed 30 militiamen in the area, said Haider Salaam, a senior Mahdi Army commander in Hurriyah.

Across Baghdad, at least 600 fighters have been forced out of the militia over the past three months, Sadr officials said. Their misdeeds included murder and using Sadr's name to gain undue influence.

In the Kadhimiyah neighborhood, militiamen who engaged in a firefight with U.S. forces near a mosque were also dismissed.

"Yes, this was self-defense, but they exceeded the orders of the commander," Salaam said. "Any breach of the security operations will be blamed on the Mahdi Army."

But it is hard to get rid of the militiamen. "Some of those who are dismissed still go around and say they are members of Mahdi Army," said Abu Ali, the Sadr spokesman.

"We sent people to talk to them, to inform them of Moqtada Sadr's instructions and abide by them, but they refused," Salaam said. "We now consider them a splinter group. They don't belong in the Mahdi Army."

A few days later, the fighters attacked the Sadr office in Hurriyah with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, killing two bystanders, including a child.

Even as Sadr struggles to reform his militia, mistrust runs deep on the streets. Khulood Habib, 45, a Sunni seamstress and mother of four, lives in Baghdad's Risala neighborhood, where tensions are growing after recent bomb attacks on Shiite areas. In the last week of April, gunmen kidnapped two Sunni men near Habib's apartment. The next day, their bodies were found mutilated and tortured -- a signature practice of Shiite militias.

Two days later, Habib received an envelope containing a bullet and a letter signed by the Mahdi Army that ordered her to leave within 24 hours. The next afternoon, gunmen began to drive out the Sunnis in her building. Soon, they were in front of her apartment.

"They broke the door down. It fell on my little boy's leg and broke it," Habib recalled, round-faced with light brown hair peeking from underneath her black head scarf. "He was screaming. I was screaming."

Cursing Sunnis as apostates, the men ordered the family to leave the neighborhood. Within an hour, they fled to the home of Habib's parents in the Adil neighborhood. Today, she's too afraid to return.

"Moqtada is saying something, but on the ground they are doing something else," Habib said, tossing a glance at Ibrahim, 6, his left leg in a cast. Sadr's call to reconcile with Sunnis is "all nonsense," she continued. "They want to know who the Sunnis are, so they can start butchering people at their own pace."


<             4

© 2007 The Washington Post Company