Iraq's Youthful Militiamen Build Power Through Fear

In addition to ordering girls to wear scarves, young militiamen have ordered teachers to give Shiite religious lessons, even if the students are Sunnis.
In addition to ordering girls to wear scarves, young militiamen have ordered teachers to give Shiite religious lessons, even if the students are Sunnis. (By Sudarsan Raghavan -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 13, 2007

BAGHDAD -- On the first day of class, two male teenagers entered a girls' high school in the Tobji neighborhood, clutching AK-47 assault rifles. The young Shiite fighters handed the principal a handwritten note and ordered her to assemble the students in the courtyard, witnesses said.

"All girls must wear hijab," she read aloud, her voice trembling. "If the girls don't wear hijab, we will close the school or kill the girls."

That October day Sara Mustafa, 14, a secular Sunni Arab, also trembled. The next morning, she covered up with an Islamic head scarf for the first time. The young fighters now controlled her life. "We could not do anything," Sara recalled.

The Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is using a new generation of youths, some as young as 15, to expand and tighten its grip across Baghdad, but the ruthlessness of some of these young fighters is alienating Sunnis and Shiites alike.

The fighters are filling the vacuum of leadership created by a 10-month-old U.S.-led security offensive. Hundreds of senior and mid-level militia members have been arrested, killed or forced into hiding, weakening what was once the second most powerful force in Iraq after the U.S. military. But the militia still rules through fear and intimidation, often under the radar of U.S. troops.

"JAM is alive and well in Tobji, although they have gotten younger, like in many other areas," said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, using a military acronym derived from the militia's name in Arabic. For much of this year, his soldiers operated in many Shiite and mixed enclaves of Baghdad, including Tobji.

The rise of this new generation is a reflection of the Mahdi Army's deep infiltration of society and could presage a turbulent resurgence of the militia as the U.S. military reduces troop levels. The emergence also highlights the struggle Sadr faces in his quest to control the capital and lead Iraq.

In late August, the 34-year-old cleric declared a freeze in operations, in part to exert more authority over his unruly, decentralized militia. Many followers stood down, so much that U.S. commanders give Sadr some credit for a downturn in violence this year. But some militia leaders have ignored Sadr's freeze, and their young, power-hungry foot soldiers may ultimately undermine the cleric's popular appeal.

"We have to show people we are not weak," said Ali, a 19-year-old Mahdi Army fighter in Tobji.

'I Was in Control. I Ruled'

Two years ago, Ali was unemployed. He recalled that he idolized his older cousins who were veteran Mahdi Army fighters. Like them, he was born and raised in Tobji, a wisp of a neighborhood in north-central Baghdad where every neighbor knows the other. Its official name is Salaam, or peace.

Ali and his cousins once befriended Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian violence shattered Tobji's tribal and social bonds. Suddenly sect was all that mattered to Ali, and the militia became his new family. He was 17.

Abu Sajjad, a 44-year-old former Mahdi Army fighter, remembered seeing a rise in disaffected, jobless recruits at the time. "They were nothing before they joined the Mahdi Army," said Abu Sajjad, who asked to be called by his nickname to protect his security. "The Mahdi Army will protect them better than their tribes or their families."

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