Iraq's Sadr uses lull to rebuild Army
Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia aims to return leaner, stronger.
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In his latest statement last week, Sadr said: "I tell the evil Bush, leave our land, we do not need you or your armies.… I tell the occupiers … you have your democracy and we have our Islam; get out of our land."Skip to next paragraph
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And using language that could have been torn right out of the fiery speeches of Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he urged the Mahdi Army to continue to abide by his freeze order for now.
The cleric warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against extending the mandate of US-led multinational forces. He blasted Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party and its allies, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr Organization, for targeting Sadrists. And he chided Iraqi security forces, many of them beholden to ISCI and Badr, for taking part in those anti-Sadrist operations.
The early history of Hizbullah, too, involved bloody internal fighting with a rival Shiite group and training by Iran before it became a skilled guerrilla group.
"Iran is definitely interested in having its own proxy political and military force in Iraq, just like Lebanon. Iran may try to wait a bit now to see who will emerge as the more dominant force," says Riad al-Kahwaji, a Dubai-based military expert on Iran. "All the indications so far are that [Iran] has invested a great deal in the Mahdi Army."
But, he adds, "it has been a bumpy start. The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah."
Shiite rivals do battle
The Mahdi Army freeze grew out of fierce battles in late August between ISCI and its affiliate, Badr, both headed by Sadr's archnemesis Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, in Karbala. In two days of fighting, more than 50 people were killed at the city's shrines during an important pilgrimage. The outside wall of the revered Imam Hussein mausoleum still bears the scars of the fighting.
Video footage of the clashes provided by Sadr's aides in Karbala shows black-clad men loyal to the cleric taunting guards, who are largely made up of Badr partisans, and then hurling shoes at them for refusing them entry into the shrine. Later, these guards are seen firing directly at throngs of pilgrims.
Mr. Maliki himself came down to Karbala at the time and gave police chief Brig. Gen. Raed Shaker, carte blanche to go after the Mahdi Army.
About 500 people were arrested at the time, including several provincial council members loyal to Sadr. General Shaker also declared publicly that the Mahdi Army was responsible for the assassination of at least 400 people in Karbala since 2004. "These are only the bodies that we found," he said in an interview. "This is all documented. I am not doing this for any political agenda."
Umm Bassem says the Mahdi Army killed her son Bassem Hassoun, an Iraqi Army officer. She says they crippled her second son, Haidar.
"It's the fault of Sayyed [honorific] Moqtada; he encouraged them and armed them," says a tearful Umm Bassem, a nickname that means "mother of Bassem," as she clutches a portrait of her late son.
Mahamadawi, Sadr's aide in Karbala, says there may have been bad apples in the ranks of the Mahdi Army.
"We are not saying they are all angels, they are humans that can make mistakes; we have punished some and kicked out others," he says, adding that there is an intent by the government to sully the image of the Mahdi Army and finish it off. He also accuses the Karbala police of committing unspeakable crimes against the Sadrists including the killing of two children of a wanted militiaman in October and the torture of prisoners.
The assault on Sadr supporters
Anger against the police force, mixed with vows of revenge, reigns among the Daoum tribe in their village fiefdom on the outskirts of Karbala. Sixty-five of their members were among those arrested in the aftermath of the August events.