Shiite Militia Expands Grip in Baghdad

The Associated Press
Saturday, August 18, 2007; 9:58 PM

BAGHDAD -- The street market bustles in the early mornings and late afternoons as shoppers come out to buy fruit, bread, clothes and toys. Late into the hot summer nights, whole families gather to eat grilled kebabs at tiny stalls, their small children shrieking as they play tag.

The Hurriyah neighborhood of northwest Baghdad, gripped by a spasm of deadly ethnic violence a year ago, has grown markedly calmer over the past eight months. It is now the kind of area that both U.S. and Iraqi officials point to when they cite progress at stabilizing Baghdad.

But only Shiites are welcome _ or safe _ in Hurriyah these days. And neither Iraq's government nor U.S. or Iraqi security forces are truly in control.

Instead, the Mahdi Army militia runs this area as it does others across Baghdad _ manning checkpoints, collecting rental fees for apartments, licensing bus drivers, mediating family fights and even handing out gas for cooking.

The U.S. Army still runs regular patrols, sometimes on foot, sometimes by Humvee. And Iraqi police, on the streets, are nominally in charge.

But underneath the calm, an armed group hostile to the United States holds a firm grip on power. Some fear the Mahdi Army is simply biding its time _ eager to grab outward control and run things its way whenever U.S. forces pull back.

"They control people's lives," said one resident of Hurriyah, a Shiite government employee who would give his name only as Abu Mahdi, 36, because he feared Mahdi militia reprisals. Scornfully calling them uneducated, bullying teenagers, he said: "They are worse than the Baathists" _ the party that held total authority under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Others are more supportive of the militia.

"Our area is safe because of the presence of the Mahdi Army," said Abu Hussein, a 50-year-old taxi driver, who also refused to give his full name. "Most people feel that way. Very few are anti-Mahdi Army."

Yet even Abu Hussein can find the militia oppressive. The rent payments they collect from fellow Shiites displaced from other parts of the city, who now live in apartments in Hurriyah that once belonged to Sunnis, are little more than protection money, he complained.

At a store last week to buy ice, Abu Hussein said he came across the storekeeper and a customer arguing over a payment. When the customer threatened to take his complaint to the Mahdi Army, the storekeeper began stammering in fear. "His face got red," Abu Hussein said.

The Mahdi Army's control here has its roots in the ferocious wave of ethnic hatred that rippled across an arc of formerly mixed Baghdad neighborhoods last summer and fall.

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