Iraqi PM's Alliance With Cleric Prompts Concerns
In the Southern port city of Basra, the Mahdi Army, a militia run by the radical, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, once had the run of the place. These days, open-air markets thrive as people shop well into the night.
The security picture changed back in early 2008, when U.S. troops and Iraqi forces led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on the Mahdi Army, and Sadr's forces announced a cease-fire. But that tenuous peace could be unraveling, residents here say, as Sadr has decided to team up with his once arch-rival, Maliki, in a coalition that could be poised to form Iraq's government in the coming days.
At a gold shop in the Basra mall, an open-air collection of shops under a large tent, the manager, who would only give his first name, Aysun, said a man claiming to be a Mahdi Army member recently came into the shop and demanded the equivalent of $800.
"He said he was with the Mahdi Army," Aysun said. "What could I do?"
Aysun said he took his case to the local authorities, but police just ignored him.
"They told me to put my case in a bottle and drink it," Aysun said, citing a familiar proverb. "This means the police are afraid of the militiamen."
Last month, Mahdi Army members who were detained back in 2008 rioted in a prison here. Officials say one lobbed a grenade that killed one guard and injured two more.
Maj. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, who commands U.S. forces in Basra and the surrounding provinces, agreed that the militias have gained a new confidence since Maliki and Sadr formed their alliance.
He said this partnership could threaten U.S.-sponsored projects in the south, as Sadrists claim provincial posts once held by Maliki's people, who were more open to work with Americans.
And this new confidence also could cause rifts with fellow Iraqis.
"Sometimes it's in the form of attacks that begin, score-settling. In other cases, it is direct threats to Iraq security force leaders," Brooks said.
These threats from Sadrists to Iraqi commanders, Brooks said, sound something like this: "'We're going to have one of the key ministries [in the new government]. And once we have control of this ministry, it would behoove you to make sure you're on our side. So quit arresting our guys."
"This has happened several times over the last several months," Brooks said.
It's these types of threats that worry American officials. But other analysts say it's better to have Sadr inside the political tent than hiding in the shadows.
Hisham al-Hashemi, who advises the Iraqi government on militant groups, said the lavish life of politicians could temper the Sadrists' violent leanings.
"Once they get involved in this civilian life, in this luxurious life, they'll be paying attention more to the car they're going to [drive], whether it's Japanese made or it's German made," he said. "So once they experience this luxury, they will stick to it and they will forget about the past."
For now, though, Iraqis in Basra and Baghdad say they worry about a resurgent Mahdi Army. Their main concern is the recent release of militiamen who were detained back in 2008.
The Sadrists claim they've been demanding these releases since the 2008 detentions. But they acknowledge that they've pushed even harder in recent talks with Maliki's people.
Sadrists say Maliki agreed to form a committee to re-examine all of the cases. The result, said Sadr adviser Hazem al-Ariji, is that scores of Mahdi Army men are now free.
Ariji said people have no reason to fear these releases.
"The Mahdi Army people, the Sadrists in general, all believe in the wisdom of ... Muqtada al-Sadr, who has frozen the activities of the Mahdi Army. And they are committed to that order," Ariji said.
That order, Ariji said, does not apply to a small and secretive faction of the Mahdi Army called the Promise Day Brigades. That group's sole aim is to wage resistance against occupying forces, namely U.S. troops.
When asked if it's acceptable for a political party that's poised to participate in the new government to be allowed to maintain an armed wing, Balqis al-Khafaji, a member of Sadr's advisory committee, said, "Absolutely."
"As long as there is American interference, as long as there are occupation forces on Iraqi territories, and as long as the Iraqi territories will be threatened by outside forces, we will resist," she said.
"After all this is gone, the militias will become civilians again."
Back in 2008, three brothers were detained by American troops for fighting with the Mahdi Army. Just this month, they were released from jail. They pulled chairs into the front yard of their Baghdad home to tell their stories.
One brother, who didn't want to give his name for fear of being detained again, said he has killed Americans. But he hasn't killed Iraqis. Now, he's prepared to wage a political battle, he said.
But what if Sadr ordered him to take up arms again?
"I am ready," he said. "Any time. Any time."
As the sun went down, more Mahdi Army men gathered around, clutching photographs from their time in jail.
"We won't just fight Americans," one murmured, "but the Iraqis who collaborated with them, too."
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