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

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.

"We have to be out there with our coalition partners, engaging the populace and making progress on essential services and major projects," Frank said. "We know that we can conduct direct action from now until we go back" to the battalion's base at Fort Riley, Kan. "But that is not the solution to lasting victory."

In the most heavily Shiite neighborhoods, particularly al-Amil and Bayaa, the Mahdi Army has assumed the role of local government, according to American soldiers. On the streets of West Rashid, Sadr's followers maintain a hold over basic services, often to the detriment of Sunni residents.

"The Mahdi Army kind of shorts them out of power," said Capt. Charles Turner, who oversees reconstruction projects for the battalion. "You drive down the roads, you look over here, it's light. And you look over there, it's dark. From what I've seen, it's kind of a Tony Soprano thing: 'I outnumber you, so I'm going to do what I want.' "

Along certain militia-controlled blocks, "the curbs are painted, the streets are cleaner, they have beautification projects," Turner said. "It would be cool if it was a positive thing, but it's not."

To finance their operations, Shiite militiamen run an elaborate enterprise featuring stolen car rings, weapons trafficking, kidnapping and extortion of local businesses, U.S. soldiers said. One of their more lucrative initiatives involves forcing Sunnis from their homes, then renting their houses, cars and furniture to Shiite families at discounted prices. One Sunni woman in the al-Jihad neighborhood recently complained to U.S. soldiers that Shiite militiamen had forced her out of her home and used her yard to fire 120mm mortars.

The soldiers also believe the Mahdi Army controls gas stations, charging preferred Shiite customers a fixed price, regardless of the amount bought, while turning away Sunnis. One of the Iraqi army's projects in the area is to monitor gas stations to prevent such discrimination and corruption, in some cases temporarily shutting down the stations.

"Of all of these, that's the cash cow," said Frank, the battalion commander. "Jaish al-Mahdi, from our sources, is extremely upset that we're putting so much pressure on the gas stations. It's common sense. We're shutting down the cash flow."

The American soldiers offer rewards to residents who alert them about weapons caches or other signs of criminal activity, but the Mahdi Army offers wider support and will probably remain influential after the Americans have moved on.

"That's hard for us to combat. We can, and we've been trying since we've been here, but we're not giving away homes, whereas JAM is," said Wink, the intelligence officer. "Who are you going to go with -- somebody who just gave you a house or U.S. forces saying you shouldn't follow insurgents?"

'Ran Out of People to Kill'

The fighting here is daunting, with the eyes of the militia seemingly everywhere. The violence that U.S. troops monitor -- shootings, bombings, mortar and rocket fire -- has risen and fallen in their four months in the district, without obvious trends. Roadside bombs encountered rose from 25 in March to 51 in April, then fell to 49 in May and 32 in June. Gunfire attacks numbered 84 in March, 152 in April, 113 in May and 132 in June. Sectarian killings dropped to their lowest level of the past four months in June. But the downturn in violence in Shiite-dominated areas was not necessarily encouraging, Wink said.

"Now that the Sunnis are all gone, murders have dropped off," he said. "One way to put it is they ran out of people to kill."

On the decrepit city streets -- some dirt, some paved, some drowned in lakes of sewer water -- the fighters and bomb-placers seem relentless to the Americans. There are blocks in these neighborhoods that armored U.S. Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles visit only during targeted raids, normally at night. The soldiers avoid main routes, dipping through the dirt alleys to avoid the bombs that fire heated copper slugs capable of piercing armored vehicles.

Last Monday, they pulled up outside a gated school on a tip that someone had launched rockets from the inner courtyard, using the children as cover so the Americans would not fire back. The brigade commander, Col. Ricky D. Gibbs, said later his patience for such tactics was limited: "One of these days, if they keep shooting, I'm going to shoot back and level the whole neighborhood."

When his soldiers hopped the concrete wall that day they found no clues inside, only broken windows, empty classrooms and a few people cowering behind closed doors. These guerrilla tactics can breed suspicion and distrust -- sentiments hard to reconcile with a mission to win the confidence and allegiance of the Iraqis.

"One of their techniques is they'll pretty much just conscript a family -- you'll have no idea if those children and that woman are the guy's actual wife and children," said Lyons, the company commander. "They use them as cover all the time. If you see guys walking holding kids, holding their hands, it's almost like a perfect indicator that they're up to no good. It's really sad."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company