By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The platoon of American soldiers was pinned down in an alley outside the holiest Shiite shrine in western Baghdad's Kadhimiyah neighborhood. Machine-gun fire sprayed from apartment windows and rooftops with a deafening clatter. The troops were 15 yards from their Humvees, but they didn't know if they could survive the dash.
Less than a mile away, a powerful Shiite parliament member stood inside an American military base, in the office of the Iraqi army brigade commander responsible for Kadhimiyah. The Americans had called for Iraqi army backup, but according to the brigade commander and American officers, the lawmaker would help ensure that no assistance arrived from the Iraqis that crucial day.
"No Iraqi army unit, of the 2,700 Iraqi security forces that are in Kadhimiyah, no Iraqi army unit would respond," said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, a deputy brigade commander based in this Shiite enclave of 200,000 people on the western shore of the Tigris River. "It shows you how difficult it is to root out the militia influence when they've got political top-cover."
The two-hour firefight under the golden domes of the Musa al-Kadhim shrine on April 29 left at least eight Iraqis dead. While no Americans were injured, it marked the start of the deterioration of security in Kadhimiyah, once one of Baghdad's safest neighborhoods. It also made plain -- "the first time the complicity was staring us right in the face," as one American soldier put it -- that the Iraqi army's problem in the area was about more than just being under-trained or ill-equipped.
Building up the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces has been a pillar of Gen. David H. Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, but the Iraqi army in Kadhimiyah is so thoroughly infiltrated with Mahdi Army militiamen that U.S. and Iraqi soldiers say it is close to useless. Iraqi soldiers in Kadhimiyah have been arrested and accused of attacking Americans and other Iraqi troops. Those who are not affiliated with the militia, which is loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, tend to be too frightened for their families to pursue their corrupt colleagues.
"I don't want you to expect that this battalion will do anything good in Kadhimiyah," an Iraqi army officer said, insisting on anonymity out of concern for his safety. "The Mahdi Army now controls the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police at the same time. Nobody can execute direct orders to do a raid to detain them."
Iraqi and American officers estimate that about 200 of the 900 soldiers in the 5th Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division are complicit with the militia. On Aug. 28, U.S. forces made every Iraqi soldier in the battalion who came to pick up his salary submit to fingerprinting, retinal scans and being photographed.
"It's sad that we have to do this with our counterparts," said Capt. Jared Harty, who leads the U.S. transition team that works with the Iraqi army in the area.
The American soldiers attribute part of the blame to Bahaa al-Araji, a lawmaker loyal to Sadr whose brother, Hazim al-Araji, preaches at the Musa al-Kadhim shrine and is a top Sadr adviser. In January, Bahaa al-Araji created a 300-member force of plainclothes security officers in Kadhimiyah, widely believed to be Mahdi Army members. Some of them were later incorporated into the Iraqi army.
Officials loyal to Sadr have said that their men operate in Kadhimiyah to protect the shrine, which would be an attractive target for Sunni insurgents. Bahaa al-Araji could not be reached for comment.
The day after the April 29 firefight, the parliament voted to prohibit U.S. troops from approaching within a half-mile or so of the holy shrine. U.S. soldiers still patrol in the area, but they are now wary of getting too close for fear of provoking a popular uprising and political backlash.
"Basically what they did was create a sanctuary" for the Mahdi Army, said Capt. Stephen Duperre, another transition team member. "The Iraqi government won't let us go after these guys, and the American government says okay. They shoot . . . at us, and we can't do anything about it."
American commanders accuse Iraqi soldiers of participating in attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi officers who work with the Americans. On Aug. 5, the Americans' most-trusted Iraqi army ally, Brig. Gen. Falah Hassan, was persuaded by a subordinate to walk toward the Sadr office in Kadhimiyah after a meeting at the shrine. On the way, dozens of gunmen popped up from behind vendors' carts and pulled up in Iraqi army vehicles to surround Hassan. His security guards were able to whisk him away unharmed.
"The militia does not like my style, so they tried to assassinate me. This is the fourth time," said Hassan, 39, a brigade commander. "The government offices here in Kadhimiyah apply many pressures. I never respond to them."
The Iraqi army also suffers from more mundane deficiencies. The battalion in Kadhimiyah has just three Humvees and two armored personnel carriers for 900 soldiers. They lack sufficient weapons, helmets, protective vests, uniforms, radios, fuel and other basic equipment.
"The unit is basically combat-ineffective. We're trying to get them to develop enemy targets, but the enemy targets are their friends," Harty said. "I think the most they've ever found is one rifle, which is very ridiculous, and a waste of time."
Late last month, on an evening mission far from the shrine, the Iraqi troops arrived in a motley caravan that included pickup trucks and ambulances. They walked casually down the center of the darkened streets, clustered together and exposed. Some wore no helmets or flak vests. Some nonchalantly smoked cigarettes. For a little over an hour, they walked through several houses but made no arrests and found nothing.
"We're just here to make sure they don't steal anything or break anything," Duperre said. Working with the Iraqi army, he's learned to lower his expectations, but frustration still surfaces. He came out of one house, looked at the Iraqi soldiers and spoke to his interpreter with weariness in his voice.
"Hey, ask those two guys why they're sitting down," he said.