In Sadr City, a Repressed but Growing Rage
Limited by Cease-Fire, Mahdi Army Fighters Increasingly Restless as Iraqi Troops Go on Offensive

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 23, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Outside the tan, high-walled house, Shiite militiamen stood guard. Inside, men sat on a red carpet, their backs against a wall adorned with images of Shiite saints, their anger rising with each sentence. Hashim Naseer, a tribal leader, remembered how Iraqi soldiers arrested his brother early this month at a nearby park along with other Shiite fighters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

"We thought this government was for Shiites, but now they have become worse than Saddam Hussein's regime," said Naseer, 40. "We placed much faith in the Iraqi security forces, but they are taking advantage of us."

Seven months after intense clashes with U.S. and Iraqi government forces rocked Baghdad's Sadr City enclave, a sense of betrayal and frustration flows through its sprawling expanse. Iraqi army units, backed by U.S. forces, are launching pre-dawn raids and arresting dozens of suspected militiamen, despite a deal between Sadr and Iraq's government. Residents, once fearful of the Mahdi Army militia, have become informants, and senior Sadrist leaders have been assassinated.

Yet the enclave, Sadr's largest popular base in the capital, has remained relatively calm. In interviews, Mahdi Army fighters insist they are shackling their rage and complying with Sadr's cease-fire, issued last year.

"Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr told us: 'If they arrest you, do not do anything. If someone does bad things to you, don't retaliate,' " said Ahmed Abu Zahara, 37, a Mahdi Army commander, using an honorific for Sadr. "We are still obeying the Sayyid."

American and Iraqi officials have described Sadr's cease-fire as a key reason for Iraq's sharp drop in violence. They also cite the "surge" of 30,000 U.S. troops and the rise of the Awakening forces, made up mostly of Sunni former insurgents, who allied with U.S. forces for money and position.

Now, the surge troops have left. And concerns are growing that many Awakening fighters could rejoin the insurgency, as the Shiite-led government, long suspicious of the former fighters, takes control of the movement.

In places like Sadr City, Sadr's cease-fire is the main difference between war and peace, reflecting the tenuousness of the decrease in violence.

"If the Sayyid ordered us, we would rise up right now," Abu Zahara said. "We would not pay attention to the tanks or helicopters. Nothing would stop us."

The cease-fire is the cornerstone of Sadr's effort to transform his movement into a nationalist force and discipline the Mahdi Army; the militia's image has been battered by the brutality of its tactics during sectarian fighting and the actions of splinter groups. In March and April, Iraqi troops took control of the southern city of Basra only after Sadr consented to a truce. In May, Sadr agreed to allow Iraqi soldiers to patrol Sadr City as long as U.S. troops withdrew.

Sadr's followers in the enclave, home to an estimated 2 million people, welcomed the Iraqi army with flowers and smiles. Many soldiers were from the Shiite south and openly displayed Sadr's photo on their military vehicles.

But in August, hundreds of Sadr's followers rioted during a Friday prayer service after they heard Iraqi soldiers making disrespectful sounds at the worshipers. Demonstrators gathered around one Iraqi army Humvee and began to pound on the hood.

Sadrist organizers and Mahdi Army fighters began to yell at the crowd, saying: "Whoever loves the Sayyid should walk away." They created a human chain around the soldiers and the Humvees to prevent the demonstrators from attacking the soldiers. In 15 minutes, the crowds dispersed, vanishing into the warren of narrow streets.

In interviews, some Mahdi Army commanders and tribal leaders accused the Iraqi forces of sectarianism, saying that many officers are Sunnis bent on taking revenge for past violence. Others accuse their political rivals, Shiites who lead Iraq's government, of using the army against the Sadrists to weaken the movement ahead of provincial elections, expected early next year.

"They are trying to divide us and rule. They are trying to plant people among us to work against us," Naseer said.

Many commanders and leaders accuse the Iraqi army of reneging on their agreement with Sadr to not target his followers. They say soldiers are launching raids and making arrests without court-issued warrants based on rumors or false intelligence provided by Sadr's opponents.

"We brought this government into power," Abu Zahara said, referring to Sadr's early support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that propelled him into power. "Now they have betrayed us."

In an interview, Gen. Mizher Mishaher, commander of the Iraqi Army's 11th division, which is responsible for Sadr City, denied the accusations. He said his soldiers are targeting only the criminal elements in the Mahdi Army and those in "special groups" backed by neighboring Iran. Downplaying the impact of Sadr's cease-fire, he added that the Mahdi Army has not risen up because "our forces are everywhere."

"Anyone who terrorizes our people, our forces will chase them and arrest them. Anyone who holds a weapon, we will treat him as an enemy," Mishaher said. "No one controls Sadr City, unless they are from the 11th Division."

But on several recent visits to Sadr City, it was apparent that Sadr and his Mahdi Army still exert control. On virtually every street corner, Sadr glares from posters. On walls, black graffiti denounces his main Shiite rivals: Maliki and his Dawa Party as well as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, part of the country's ruling coalition.

Many Mahdi Army fighters who battled U.S. and Iraqi troops this year have returned to their jobs. But they still patrol their streets at night. Residents watch for strangers or U.S and Iraqi soldiers. Sadr's office continues to provide cooking oil and other basic items and services to residents.

Still, the fighters are under immense pressure. Outside the tan house, a man walked up to a visitor's car and took a photo of the license plate, then rushed away. Some fighters became nervous because they believed the man was an informant. They quickly moved the conversation to another house down the street. A half-hour later, they wrapped up the discussion, concerned that Iraqi forces would raid their street.

They said they left not out fear, but because they could not retaliate. Some fighters and tribal leaders wondered how long the current stalemate would last.

"Perhaps the situation will get worse," Naseer said. "If you put a lot of pressure on something, it will explode one day."

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