Iraq's Sadr uses lull to rebuild Army
Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia aims to return leaner, stronger.
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Muhammad Miri, who has been released since, lifts up his shirt to show scars on his back from what he says are from torture with wire cables. He says at least 22 prisoners were also sexually abused by police interrogators.Skip to next paragraph
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A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says his claims are true. Widely circulated video footage also shows Hamid Ganoush, a Sadrist provincial council member, blindfolded and on his knees as he is being hit on the head with a shoe by interrogators who press him on the whereabouts of Ali Shria, a Karbala Mahdi Army leader, believed to be in Iran now.
The risk now is that these ever-deepening intra-Shiite feuds may also take on a tribal aspect.
A Baghdad-based US Department of Defense intelligence analyst, who tracks the Mahdi Army and who spoke on condition of anonymity, says intra-Shiite feuds in Iraq have always managed to sort themselves out, adding that he believes Sadr will maintain his freeze despite the rhetoric, as his paramount concern is political survival.
"It's working well. It's serving Sadr's interest well because it's solidifying his position as the clear leader … and satisfying our desires to eliminate rogue criminal elements," he says. "I am not seeing any evidence that there is [a danger] that this is going to unravel."
Echoing recent remarks by top US military officials, he says that while there has been a decrease in roadside bombs – using Iranian armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) – against US troops, the militia's rogue elements still operate.
He blames recent bombings in Baghdad and mortar attacks on the Green Zone on Thanksgiving Day on these rogue elements. He also says a "massive" cache of Iranian-made arms was found in Diwaniyah recently, and on Dec. 1 a dealer of Iranian weapons was arrested in the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
"The guy was a major mover of lethal aid in his area," he says.
Some of these so-called rogue groups have also been blamed for the kidnapping of five Britons in May from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad. A group calling itself the "The Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq" released video footage of one of the hostages on Dec. 4 accompanied with a written statement demanding British troops leave Basra within 10 days.
Britain has pulled out from inside the city in September and now has only 4,500 soldiers left at an air base outside the city. The pullout of the bulk of this force is expected soon, leaving the Mahdi Army as the strongest armed group among its rivals in Basra.
Top US officials in Iraq have made no secret of their concern over Iranian plans to turn the Mahdi Army into another Hizbullah-like organization, pointing to their capture of a Hizbullah operative in March in Basra.
"His sole purpose in life was to come to Iraq to try to make JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi] a mirror image of Hizbullah," the Defense analyst says.
A senior official in Sadr's rival party, the ISCI, which is very close to the Iranian government, says Mr. Hakim received assurances from Iran at the highest level that they would rein in the hard-line factions within the Islamic Republic who might be supporting Sadr's militia.
"The events in Karbala embarrassed the Iranians," says the official, who requested anonymity, referring to the sanctity of the shrines to Shiite Iran. "There is a nationalist current in Iran, though, that does not want to see stability in Iraq ... this keeps us worried."
The Sadrists have long distanced themselves from Iran publicly and sought to portray themselves more as Arab nationalists.
Sadr's spokesman Obeidi says while the movement admires Iranian-backed Hizbullah, the Mahdi Army is different.
He says the US military and the Mahdi Army's Shiite rivals are trying hard to force the dismantling of Sadr's militia forming tribal councils across the Shiite south, much like the Americans did in Sunni parts of the country to combat Al Qaeda.
But, the spokesman says, this strategy isn't going to work in the south, where many of the tribesmen's sons are Mahdi fighters.