Shiite Muslim militias pose the greatest threat to security in many parts of Iraq, having killed more people in recent months than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, and will likely present the most daunting and critical challenge for Iraq's new government, U.S. military and diplomatic officials say.
Assassinations, many carried out by Shiite gunmen against Sunni Arabs in Baghdad and elsewhere, accounted for more than four times as many deaths in March as bombings and other mass-casualty attacks, according to military data. And most officials agree that only a small percentage of shooting deaths are ever reported.
The surge in sectarian killings, triggered by the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in late February, had slowed in recent weeks. It was uncertain if attacks on prominent Shiite mosques Thursday and Friday would signal an onset of renewed bloodletting.
A delicate, volatile situation
While acknowledging the instability caused by Shiite armed groups, the largest of which are linked to the country's dominant political parties and operate among Iraq's police and army, U.S. and Iraqi officials here have yet to implement, or even publicly articulate, a strategy for addressing the problem.
"We know militias are an issue. We've asked both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense to work there," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, the top American officer working with Iraq's police force, in which many Shiite militiamen serve. "They recognize the problem. But there's been no decision as to what to do about it."
"There are laws and constitutional articles dealing with militias that explain how to dissolve them and integrate their members into the security forces on an individual basis," said Adnan Ali Kadhimi, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari. "But this is on the basis of theory. On the basis of practicality, the situation is still very fragile. The implementation has to be cautious and careful."
Private forces gain traction
Militias last emerged as a top U.S. concern in 2004, when the American and Iraqi armies spent months putting down violent uprisings by the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Baghdad, Najaf and other cities. But the problem is far thornier now, U.S. officials say, because the militias have added thousands of foot soldiers and gained new political stature.
Two years ago, the Iraqi government was largely under American control and led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Iraq's next parliament will be dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a religious party that oversees a militia called the Badr Organization, and by followers of Sadr. Together the two groups claim nearly a quarter of the legislature's 275 seats and will likely hold several cabinet ministries.
"It's a far more serious problem now than it was then because of who is in power," said a U.S. official who worked on the militia issue with the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council two years ago and spoke on the condition that he not be named. "Until there's a commitment on the part of the government, there will be no solution."
Practically every Shiite political party in Iraq maintains a force of men with guns -- some virtual armies of several thousand or more, others what Peterson described as little more than a "neighborhood watch on steroids."
Iraq's other major factions maintain armed forces as well. Insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna are composed predominantly of Sunni Arabs and conduct frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and Shiite civilians. The pesh merga , a large militia maintained by ethnic Kurds, is formally under the command of the Iraqi army, operates mainly in the Kurdish north and poses no major security threat, U.S. officials say.
All of the militias justify their existence, to some extent, by claiming a need to protect their communities from the violence that pervades the country.
Reports of lawlessness
Shiite militiamen are believed to number in the tens of thousands. Maj. Gen Rick Lynch, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said in a recent interview that the Mahdi Army -- formed by Sadr from the long-oppressed Shiite underclass in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion -- was believed to have about 10,000 members. The Badr Organization, created in Iran in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein's rule, has roughly 5,000, he said.
Other estimates for the groups, both accused by the United States of receiving backing from Iran, range far higher.
The aftermath of the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra refocused attention on the Mahdi Army. Hours after the bombing, dozens of pickup trucks packed with rifle-toting young men -- most clad in the militia's telltale black shirts and pants -- streamed out of Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad. Many said they had left work immediately in response to commanders' and clerics' calls to protect their mosques and neighbors.
In the days that followed, despite a government-imposed curfew on vehicle traffic and Sadr's public pleas for calm, residents of several Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad said roving bands of gunmen dragged people from homes and Sunni mosques, some of which were then occupied by Shiites.
A Mahdi Army member, who did not want to be identified by his real name, denied charges that the militia had killed Sunnis after the Samarra bombing, calling the claims "a rumor by the occupation forces to get the Iraqi people into an internal war."
Committed to resistance
Dressed in a suit and seated at a large wooden desk, the commander of a company of some 200 men looked little like a fighter during an interview one recent morning at an office in the southern city of Najaf. He said he expected another confrontation between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army, which has won a fierce following not only by battling foreign troops but by providing such social services as cleaning streets and feeding the poor.
"It is like fire and ice. We will never get together and we consider the occupation our worst enemies," he said. "We are expecting martyrdom at any moment. When the order comes to defend ourselves, God willing, we will fight bravely."
Approaches to the problem of militias have often conflicted.
Order 91, issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led organization that administered Iraq following the invasion, outlawed militias. Members of nine recognized armed groups, including Badr but not the Mahdi Army, were supposed to turn in their weapons and were offered places in Iraq's security forces. The weapons were never handed over.
Last month, the Iraqi government renewed calls for the fighters to be further folded into Iraq's police force and army. But U.S. and British advisers to the police and army units have pressed Iraqi commanders to weed out members with militia ties.
Iraqi forces, militias in cahoots?
The State Department's annual report on human rights practices, released in March, said that "militia members integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) typically remained within preexisting organizational structures and retained their original loyalties or affiliations."
In December, about 160 members of the 2nd Public Order Brigade, an Interior Ministry force with a little more than 2,000 officers, were discharged for alleged involvement with the Mahdi Army. And the police internal affairs division in the southern city of Basra was closed late last year amid accusations it was operating death squads.
Rival Shiite militias -- including the Mahdi Army and an armed group tied to the Fadhila political party -- fight openly in Basra's streets, doubling the city's homicide rate in recent months. This week, about 42 people were killed over a four-day period, local officials reported.
Some U.S. officials and military commanders argue that the groups must be confronted. "There's a law on the books that these things are illegal, and it has to be enforced," said the U.S. official who worked on the militia issue.
‘The greatest risk’
Col. Jeffrey Snow, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division in restive western Baghdad, said he had taken an aggressive stance toward militias, particularly the Mahdi Army, which he blames for a February roadside bomb attack that killed two U.S. soldiers.
"Second to the formation of the government, the key thing here now is dealing with these militias," said Snow, 44, of Nashua, N.H. "My personal opinion is, they form the greatest risk to the development of a professional army and police force."
Snow pointed to a series of heated meetings he has held with Mahdi Army representatives in recent months. "We told them, 'We will not tolerate you bearing arms.' We said, 'You can protect property but cannot leave property carrying a weapon.' And we gave them clear examples of people we detained while implanting bombs who were carrying Mahdi Army badges."
Though the militia question is unlikely to be dealt with until Iraqi leaders finish forming a government, U.S. officials are turning up the pressure but offering few specifics about how the problem should be addressed.
"You can't have in a democracy various groups with arms. You have to have the state with a monopoly on power," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on a recent visit to Baghdad. "We have sent very, very strong messages repeatedly, and not just on this visit, that one of the first things . . . is that there is going to be a reining-in of the militias."
For now, Iraqi leaders are circumspect about what exactly they will do.
"The government has a detailed plan on this. I know -- I'm the coordinator," said the national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. "But I am sorry, I cannot comment on what it is."