Delicate challenge of taming Iraq's militias

Some armed groups have helped a stretched US force, but long-run plan is to disarm them.

As US troops enter a second week of fighting an Iraqi insurgency, it is painfully clear how important it is to either integrate or eliminate the many armed militias in Iraq before the June 30 handover.

In fact, the fighting that erupted the beginning of April, in which some 70 Americans and 700 Iraqis have died, may have been part of a calculated effort to eliminate Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army, one of the most feared and despised militias in Iraq. In preparation for the transfer of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi Governing Council on June 30, CPA officials drew up a plan for integrating or eliminating some 30 armed Iraqi militias.

"Our objective is the complete elimination of militias," a CPA official said recently. "While the CPA cannot expect to achieve this by July 1, it can set in train a process whereby the goal can be achieved in the first six months of Iraqi permanent government."

The presence of the militias - some with as many as 50,000 fighters and others as few as 300 - is viewed as a threat to the internal stability in Iraq. It is difficult if not impossible, experts say, to build a national protection force when so many local, private armies threaten its power. And it may be impossible to turn over the control of Iraq to yet-to-be-named Iraqis by June 30 - as the US wants - if the CPA can't stabilize the country and create a viable national protection force.

"Without eliminating the militias, there is the potential for the kinds of incidents we've experienced over the past week," says Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel. "You can't have an army in a country that isn't controlled by the country."

In a briefing from Baghdad Sunday, Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for operations of the military's task force in Iraq, said coalition forces have made major gains against Sadr's militias. He said they regained control of all the cities Sadr forces took, with the exceptions of Karbala and Al Najaf. He called Sadr's militia "no longer an offensive threat. We have the forces to finish the destruction of the militia."

That task may not turn out to be so easy, however. While Sadr's militias have fled some cities like Al Kut, their ability to cause harm remains relatively uncontrained. Rather than standing and fighting, and probably being destroyed when US armor rolled in, they melted away.

That leaves Sadr's Mahdi army on the streets with the opportunity to attack in cities where coalition forces are thin. For Iraq's other militias, groups like the Badr Corps controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), that provides a strong incentive to remain armed.

Under the CPA militia plan, drawn up over the past several months, most of the armed groups would not be destroyed. The plan calls for integrating the three main militias - two branches of the Kurdish pesh merga estimated at some 50,000 and the Badr Corps - through transitioning the members into the new security services, retirement, or the work world. It expects that members of less-important militias will follow suit or lose out on the "enticements."

Militias that refuse to participate, like Sadr's, will be "dealt with through the use of force, if necessary," the CPA official said.

Still, the CPA's plan for disarming militias was drawn up before Sadr's rebellion, and it looks less workable as the security situation deteriorates inside the country. Even before the Sadr uprising, some militia groups complained that there weren't sufficient inducements to disarm.

"We'd consider standing down for the right reasons,'' says a SCIRI official who reviewed the CPA's plan. "But nothing has been put on the table by the CPA to convince us we should do this. Their proposals aren't concrete."

Sadr's Mahdi army, which has been threatening US forces since the fall of Baghdad a year ago, began its all-out attacks against coalition forces after Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, shut down Sadr's newspaper on March 28. The paper for months had criticized the US occupation and regularly incited violence.

Mr. Bremer had reportedly been trying to pressure the young cleric with the threat of a secretly prepared arrest warrant against him for the 2003 murder of a fellow Shiite cleric. At the same time, Bremer and colleagues were trying to persuade senior clerics to lean on Sadr to capitulate.

For a time, Sadr toned down his rhetoric. But Bremer decided after the group was blamed for killing five soldiers in October to prepare a plan to eliminate the 3,000- to 10,000-member militia. "He's got a nasty and violent gang of thugs, and if you're an Iraqi, you don't cross them," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University.

The level of resistance US troops have faced shows just how difficult it may be to disperse the militias - even those that have so far cooperated with US plans. Ms. Yaphe and others believe the violence may continue for the short-term, at least through June 30, while many of these militias jockey for position. And they say that eliminating Sadr and his militia is crucial, even though it may create a backlash.

"I think he is a real stumbling block - his ability to disrupt, to threaten, to intimidate has just got to be dealt with," Yaphe says.

Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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