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Al-Sadr Overhauling His Shiite Militia

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The Associated Press
Monday, September 10, 2007; 3:24 AM

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's most powerful Shiite militia leader is turning to his commanders who distinguished themselves fighting U.S. troops in 2004 to screen fighters, weed out criminals and assume key positions in an effort to build a more disciplined force, two of his key lieutenants say.

That suggests the goal of Muqtada al-Sadr's temporary freeze of Mahdi Army activities, announced Aug. 29 following deadly Shiite-Shiite clashes in Karbala, is to bolster the militia to intimidate his Shiite rivals as the anti-American cleric pursues his political ambitions.

A stronger and more efficient Mahdi Army could embolden al-Sadr to take on the rival Badr militia, a move that could fragment and weaken the country's majority Shiites as gunmen battle for control of Shiite towns and cities.

Thousands of young, impoverished Shiites flocked to al-Sadr's standard after he founded the Mahdi Army a few months after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.

But bands of young gunmen used the Mahdi Army's name as a cover for extortion, black marketeering and other crimes.

The task of weeding out militiamen with suspect loyalty and screening new recruits already has begun and will take months to complete, according to the two al-Sadr lieutenants, who also are militia leaders who fought the Americans in Najaf in the summer of 2004 and in Sadr City in the fall.

They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to share the information with the media and for fear of reprisals.

"The (Mahdi) army will be stronger and better organized," said one of them.

Both said the screening and reorganization process will be supervised nationwide by a 12-man council hand-picked by al-Sadr.

Under the new procedures, militiamen serving now in the ranks as well as new applicants must prove they have no criminal record, never worked for security agencies under Saddam and must submit written statements from three known community members vouching for their good character.

"Those who are found to be not telling the truth about their past will be expelled and maybe punished too," the other militia leader said. "Senior commanders who deliberately or unwittingly allow such individuals to slip through and join or retain their place in the militia will be punished too."

If the reorganization goes according to plan, the new Mahdi Army should emerge as a more disciplined and organized force _ similar to its main Shiite rival, the Badr Organization, which is linked to the biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

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