In Sadr City, a Repressed but Growing Rage

Limited by Cease-Fire, Mahdi Army Fighters Increasingly Restless as Iraqi Troops Go on Offensive

Iraqis in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City, in Baghdad, hold a poster of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr at a rally against the United States. Sadr's backers say they are being targeted by the Iraqi army.
Iraqis in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City, in Baghdad, hold a poster of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr at a rally against the United States. Sadr's backers say they are being targeted by the Iraqi army. (By Adil Al-khazali -- Associated Press)
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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company