Mahdi Army, Not Al-Qaeda, is Enemy No. 1 in Western Baghdad

Lt. Col. Patrick Frank talks with the caretaker of a school in West Rashid, a formerly Sunni area of Baghdad now controlled by Shiites.
Lt. Col. Patrick Frank talks with the caretaker of a school in West Rashid, a formerly Sunni area of Baghdad now controlled by Shiites. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 16, 2007

BAGHDAD -- The lights were on in Baghdad. Something was wrong.

Two platoons were creeping through the southwestern neighborhood of al-Amil well past midnight last week. Headlights snapped off, night vision lenses lowered into place, they maneuvered their Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles down narrow streets, angling for surprise. As they approached the suspected homes of the militia leaders they were hunting, their cover of darkness disappeared, fluorescent bulbs on the houses and street lights casting a glow on their vehicles. At 3 in the morning in a city notoriously hard up for power, these blocks were strangely bright.

Capt. Sean Lyons, the company commander leading the raid, said he knew why. "This whole area here is just absolutely dominated by Jaish al-Mahdi," he said, using the Arabic for the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia led by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "They control the power distribution."

In the 10-square-mile district of West Rashid, the Mahdi Army also controls the housing market, the gas stations and the loyalty of many of the residents, according to the soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment. The militia has a structure familiar to U.S. soldiers: brigade and battalion commanders leading legions of foot soldiers. Its fighters are willing and able to attack Americans with armor-piercing bombs, mortars, machine guns and grenades. Meanwhile, the political wing of Sadr's movement plays an outsize role in the national government.

West Rashid confounds the prevailing narrative from top U.S. military officials that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is the city's most formidable and disruptive force. While there are signs that the group has been active in the area, over the past several months, the Mahdi Army has transformed the composition of the district's neighborhoods by ruthlessly killing and driving out Sunnis and denying basic services to residents who remain. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, described the area as "one of the three or four most challenging areas in all of Baghdad."

Dominance by Shiite militias is typically associated with places in eastern Baghdad, such as Sadr City, while areas west of the Tigris River and south of the Baghdad airport road are home to large Sunni enclaves. Not long ago the western neighborhoods conformed clearly with this perception. U.S. soldiers estimate that a year ago, Sunnis made up about 80 percent of the population there and Shiites 20 percent. But those numbers have now reversed, after a concerted effort to cleanse Sunnis from the area, according to U.S. military officials. Graffiti marking the walls in these neighborhoods herald the new order: "Every land is Karbala, and every day is Ashura," read one slogan, extolling the Shiite holy city in southern Iraq and a major Shiite religious holiday.

The brazen attacks on U.S. soldiers also appear to challenge the idea that the Mahdi Army has been lying low to avoid confrontations with Americans. Street fighting between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces has also broken out in other parts of the capital recently, including clashes in the al-Amin neighborhood Thursday in which Apache attack helicopters were called in to quell the gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades targeting U.S. troops. The next day, U.S. soldiers killed six Iraqi policemen during a raid in which they captured a police lieutenant believed to be working with Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

American soldiers who oversee West Rashid -- a district of about 700,000 people that includes the al-Amil, Bayaa and al-Jihad neighborhoods -- described an organized, well-financed Shiite enemy that rules ruthlessly and distributes the spoils of war to the area's impoverished residents.

In recent months, U.S. commanders have contended that the Mahdi Army, also known by its Arabic initials JAM, has splintered into a loosely connected militia in which its leader, Sadr, exerts a tenuous grip over disparate factions.

American commanders attribute much of the current violence to what they are now calling "special groups" or "secret cells" of Iranian-backed militiamen who may be acting independently of, or against, Sadr and his followers. But taken together, they say, militiamen acting as criminal power-brokers seeking profit and the perhaps more moderate Sadr loyalists constitute a formidable challenge for the soldiers who arrived in the capital in March as part of President Bush's troop buildup.

"We have a different fight than the rest of Baghdad," said Capt. Jay Wink, the battalion's intelligence officer. "It's all JAM, really. In one way, shape or form, everybody who lives there is associated with it."

Mahdi Army Rule

To prevent the extermination of Sunni residents, the battalion has launched a series of raids to capture Mahdi Army leaders. Because Sadr's followers dominate the Health Ministry and control access to most of Baghdad's hospitals, the Americans have plans to open a hospital catering to Sunnis in the al-Furat neighborhood. They are developing a program in which a roaming tanker would dole out gas to Sunnis barred from the area's gas stations. On his drives through the neighborhoods, Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, the battalion commander, points out Iraqi contractors newly hired by the U.S. military to clear trash, build fences, set up generators and fix sewage pipes. In the areas overseen by the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, $74 million has been committed for such contracts.

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