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.
Abu Jaffar, 31, a day laborer from the Shaab area of Baghdad, was one of those purged, according to current Mahdi Army members.
Shortly after the freeze was declared, Abu Jaffar said in a telephone interview, he received a summons from a Mahdi Army unit known as the Golden Battalion, often described as an intelligence service that maintains internal discipline. Abu Jaffar said the battalion members blamed him for allowing the 100 or so men under his command to commit crimes against civilians.
"They came to me and said, 'Why didn't you know about the mistakes of your people when you are the commander of this company?' " said Abu Jaffar, who, like others interviewed for this article, would not give his full name for fear that it would lead to his arrest by U.S. or Iraqi forces. "They said, 'You are not capable to command.' And because of that I was fired."
Abu Jaffar said he learned that his men had kidnapped and fought with people, though he declined to give details and said he had no knowledge of their actions. Other Mahdi Army leaders, however, said that the company was also linked to killings of civilians and that Abu Jaffar was aware they were taking place.
"The Mahdi Army was strict with me because it is controlled by a strict law," Abu Jaffar said. "It doesn't permit any mistakes."
Signs of the purge dot the sewer-filled streets of Sadr City, which the Mahdi Army controls.
During some Friday afternoon prayers, the names of those expelled from the militia are read aloud. Many of those identified flee their neighborhoods and sometimes the country to avoid punishment.
Some walls bear posters announcing who has been purged and why, though these are often quickly ripped down by friends and family members of the accused.
One flier, addressed to "All Mahdi Army Members" from the militia's Baghdad Battalion, reported the firing of one member because of his "immoral actions" and "use of the blessed name of the army to loot, kidnap and bargain."
Elegant calligraphy at the top of the flier read: "Lions in the day and priests in the night."
In many Sadrist strongholds, the militia's focus has shifted from militancy to providing services to residents, as the Mahdi Army continues recasting itself as a political and social force.
On a recent afternoon at the main Sadr office in Sadr City, a woman dressed in a black head-to-toe abaya arrived and began explaining that her husband was beating her.
"I have problems!" wailed the woman, who gave her name as Um Mohammed. "I need the help of the Sadr office."
After about 15 minutes, an official scribbled a note requesting that her husband come to the office for mediation.
"We solve hundreds of problems like this," said the official, Abu Haider. "This is what the Mahdi Army is doing now."
But many residents grumble that robberies, car thefts and other crimes in some parts of the city have gone up since the militia was ordered to lay down its weapons. And in southern Iraq, Sadrists have complained that they have been victimized by rival forces, leading many to demand that the freeze be lifted.
Amar Jabar Saadoon, 35, a Karbala resident who fled to Sadr City, said security forces linked to the armed wing of the Supreme Council destroyed his house and threatened his family.
"We pray to God that the freeze will end soon," he said.
U.S. military commanders, who have fought some of their bloodiest battles of the war against the militia, now praise Sadr and say the Mahdi Army is no longer participating in violence. Anyone disobeying the freeze, they say, cannot be a member in good standing of the militia. The military refers to splinter elements as "special groups" and links them primarily to Iran.
U.S. officials and some Mahdi Army members view the freeze as Sadr's attempt to cleanse Iranian elements from the militia.
"They said, 'Look, we have two foreign influences that are battling for control of Iraq: Iran and the American occupation,' " said a senior U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under diplomatic ground rules. " 'And of the two, we need to be more concerned with Iran. We can deal with the U.S. politically and they are going to withdraw soon anyways.' "
Although American officials say they do not have direct contact with Sadr, they convey messages to him through intermediaries and have publicly flattered him.
The commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Jeffery W. Hammond, whose soldiers were killed in fighting with the Mahdi Army during his first tour in Iraq, now refers to the militia's leader as "the honorable Moqtada al-Sadr."
"His decision to order the freeze has been a most honorable decision," Hammond said.
Sunni leaders, who as recently as last year were accusing Mahdi Army members of sectarian cleansing, said the freeze has ended most of the horrific violence by the militia. "We are not afraid of them now," Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni and one of the country's two vice presidents, said in an interview. "Now we don't have eye-catching sectarian strife."
But there are still areas where men professing to be Mahdi Army members continue to engage in sectarian violence.
In December, a dozen Mahdi Army fighters on motorcycles stormed into an ice factory in the capital's Tobji neighborhood and kidnapped its Sunni owner, Maath Salman Feneer, a 30-year-old with three children, according to his family.
When the family complained to the Sadr office in Tobji, officials there said the attack had been carried out by Mahdi Army fighters in the neighboring Hurriyah area, according to Feneer's cousin, Ahmed Abdullah. He said the office in Tobji told the kidnappers to return Feneer or a complaint would be made to the main Sadr office in Najaf.
In discussions with the family about a ransom, the kidnappers disregarded the threat and used an expletive to refer to Sadr. "We don't take orders from anyone," they said, Abdullah recalled. His cousin's bullet-riddled body was found a few days later.
"I don't trust anyone in the Mahdi Army," said Abdullah, 37, a plumbing store owner. "They are all killers."
At the Sadr office in Sadr City, Salman al-Fareji, the local head of the organization, disagreed. "The main reason for the freeze is to save the Iraqi blood," he said. "This is our goal. This is our brightest hope."