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Iraq: Though Small In Number, Al-Mahdi Army Posing Challenges To Coalition Troops

A militia loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- believed to number several thousand -- is battling coalition forces in Baghdad and other towns in Iraq. The Al-Mahdi Army was formed last summer, when al-Sadr said it would be a nonviolent force used primarily for security. That changed last weekend, however, when al-Sadr issued a call for his followers to "terrorize" the enemy.

Prague, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) – On 4 April, Muhammad Abbas closed his small shop in Baghdad's Sha'ala district, bought a machine gun, and joined the Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in its battle against U.S. troops.

Abbas -- dressed in the all-black uniform of al-Sadr's militia -- says he is ready to die for his leader and to do everything needed to liberate Iraq from its occupiers.

"I'm ready, not only to be a martyr, but I will blow myself up if [Muqtada al-Sadr] orders me," he said. "I will even burn myself, during these events, in front of millions. I said, by God, if I stand in front of my leader and my leader tells me to put gasoline on myself and to burn myself, I'm prepared to do that. I'm prepared to do anything."

"I'm ready, not only to be a martyr, but I will blow myself up if [Muqtada al-Sadr] orders me."
Abbas says that, "with God's help, we will liberate not only Iraq but also the whole world from the Americans."

Abbas is one of an unknown number of fighters who have pledged their support for al-Sadr and who have been fighting coalition troops in a number of Iraqi cities this week. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday said he has heard varying estimates that al-Sadr's militia contains between 1,000 and 6,000 fighters. While Rumsfeld calls the militiamen "thugs," he has acknowledged that the coalition is facing a "serious problem" with unrest in the country.

More than 20 U.S. soldiers and dozens of Iraqis have been killed since 4 April in clashes between coalition troops and Shi'a insurgents believed to be loyal to al-Sadr. The unrest was sparked by the arrest of a senior aide to the cleric and the coalition's closure of al-Sadr's "Al-Hawza" newspaper, which it accused of inciting anti-American violence.

On 4 April, al-Sadr urged his followers to "terrorize" the enemy. His forces are reported to be in control or partial control today of the southern cities of Al-Kut, Al-Kufah, and Al-Najaf.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, yesterday said the actions of al-Sadr's militia do not appear to be well-coordinated or its soldiers well-trained, saying only that "some forces are better trained than others."

Today, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, said the Al-Mahdi Army has no future in Iraq: "There is no place within the democratic system of Iraq for a renegade militia that chooses to intimidate and terrorize the people while seeking to control the basic institutions of the country with a violent power play."

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday said al-Sadr's militia does not represent the will of the Iraqi people.

"Muqtada al-Sadr has created a private militia -- the Al-Mahdi army. This is a militia that he has armed, that is dedicated to protecting him and his cause and not the cause of the Iraqi people -- and to that extent, it is working across purposes with what the Iraqi people are trying to achieve."

Ahmad al-Baghdadi, a representative of al-Sadr, disagrees. In comments to reporters in Al-Najaf yesterday, he said, "All the Iraqi people are in the Al-Mahdi Army -- women, children, and men. We do not fear America. We fought the most dangerous dictator in history, Saddam Hussein. Americans will remain very small in our eyes."

Julian Lindley-French, an analyst at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, says al-Sadr's militia is drawing fighters from impoverished Shi'a areas where resentment against the U.S. occupation is growing. Other fighters, he says, are Muslim fundamentalists or Iraqi nationalists.

French says the fighters not only have a desire to fight but the means to do so effectively.

"They are armed with a range of the usual Kalashnikovs -- the AK-47s, significant small arms. Some evidence of very light antitank weapons and bazookas -- that kind of thing. Fairly basic, but nevertheless deadly weapons when used against thin-skinned vehicles, such as jeeps and other light military vehicles."

Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council, says it was relatively easy for al-Sadr to arm his militia. Othman says the U.S.-led coalition did not manage to disarm the population and that weapons are widely available.

"There are too many arms in Iraq, and anybody could get whatever arms he likes because the old Iraqi army was just disbanded and was just let [to] go around and be free with their arms. There have been millions of arms distributed by Saddam to the population, and you could buy arms wherever you like, easily, and not only in Iraq but even from neighboring countries."

Uthman says many of al-Sadr's militiamen appear to be experienced fighters. He says some of them may have served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein. Others, he says, could have been trained abroad.

Al-Sadr announced his intention to create the Al-Mahdi Army last summer. The militia provided needed security in Baghdad's Shi'a slums and distributed food and other aid. Uthman says many members of the Iraqi Governing Council understood this move posed a danger to the fragile stability in the country, but says Iraq's top U.S. civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer, never consulted the members of the council about the dangers the new militia might pose.

"He usually doesn't ask [questions], you see. He listens, but he doesn't listen well, also."

Lindley-French says the coalition knew al-Sadr was creating his militia but chose to focus on the immediate problems posed by the Sunni resistance.

"It was hoped that because [U.S. troops] liberated the Shi'a from the oppression of the Saddam regime, that by working closely with [Grand] Ayatollah [Ali] al-Sistani and by not provoking too many of the militias that were around certain clerical figures, that they could actually have, as it were, a kind of de-facto alliance, particularly with such groups."

French says the current violence also reflects disagreements within the Shi'a community over the future of Iraq as different factions jockey for position as the country prepares for the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June.

Yesterday, influential Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani tried to strike a tone of balance, criticizing the methods used by U.S. forces to quell the insurgency but calling on all sides to end the violence.

(RFE/RL freelancer Sami Alkhoja contributed to this report.)