Sadr's Militia Enforces Cease-Fire With a Deadly Purge

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 21, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The Mahdi Army fighters recalled dragging the 25-year-old man into a dark house where, while verses were chanted from the Koran, he was hanged from a hook in the ceiling.

The execution, carried out last month by Iraq's largest Shiite militia, would have been unexceptional but for one fact: The victim was one of its own.

The man, a Mahdi Army commander whose nom de guerre was Hamza, had killed and kidnapped scores of people despite what was then a five-month-old order to militia members to lay down their weapons, group leaders said. So after Hamza confessed to his crimes during repeated interrogations, a three-page death sentence was issued by the office of the militia's leader, anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, they said.

"We were ordered to eliminate him and we did," said Mohammed Ali, 24, a commander of the militia in the Sholeh neighborhood who took part in the operation and described how it took place. "This is how we have been cleaning the Mahdi Army."

Hundreds of Mahdi Army members have been similarly executed, jailed or excommunicated by the militia since the freeze was ordered by Sadr in late August, part of a nationwide reorganization that has dramatically altered the group's public image in Iraq and has been a crucial reason for the recent downturn in violence, according to senior militia leaders and U.S. officials.

The purge has boosted Sadr's reputation -- particularly among American commanders who once considered him an enemy but now refer to him respectfully -- while also helping Sadr exert more control over his sprawling irregular army. At the same time, members say, the freeze has made the Sadrist movement more vulnerable to attacks and repression by rival Shiite groups.

Sadr is expected to announce by Saturday whether the freeze will be extended, his aides said. But interviews with more than a dozen leaders of the Sadrist movement suggest that whether or not it is continued, the freeze has already transformed the militia and its place in Iraqi society.

"The freeze brought many secrets to the surface," said Ahmed Abdul Hussein, 33, a Mahdi Army leader from Sadr City, a vast Shiite district of Baghdad. "Now we know who is good and who is bad. Now everyone thinks of the Mahdi Army in a new light. I think everything will be different now."

Last summer, Mahdi Army members were widely viewed as having carried out some of the most vicious violence against Sunnis, pushing the country to the brink of civil war. The militia clashed often with U.S. and British forces.

The militia's public image reached its nadir when more than 50 people were killed in the holy city of Karbala because of fierce fighting between the Mahdi Army and forces loyal to its chief Shiite political rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The next day, on Aug. 29, Sadr declared a six-month suspension of the militia's operations.

Sadr's office said at the time that the aim of the freeze was to push out elements not under the cleric's control.

"The freeze has helped us to distinguish and push out the bad figures," said Salah al-Obaidi, a top Sadr aide, who added that the militia now has more than 100,000 followers.

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