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Mahdi Army brings slaughter to the streets

Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr's militia acknowledges its part in the sectarian violence that has killed more than 10,400 Iraqis.
Shiite Militia Parade in Baghdad
Members of Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army parade in Baghdad. The militia acknowledges its part in sectarian violence that has killed more than 10,400 Iraqis.Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In a grungy restaurant with plastic tables in central Baghdad, the young Mahdi Army commander was staring earnestly. His beard was closely cropped around his jaw, his face otherwise cleanshaven. The sleeves of his yellow shirt were rolled down to the wrists despite the intense late-afternoon heat. He spoke matter-of-factly: Sunni Arab fighters suspected of attacking Shiite Muslims had no claim to mercy, no need of a trial.

"These cases do not need to go back to the religious courts," said the commander, who sat elbow to elbow with a fellow fighter in a short-sleeved, striped shirt. Neither displayed weapons. "Our constitution, the Koran, dictates killing for those who kill."

His comments offered a rare acknowledgment of the role of the Mahdi Army in the sectarian bloodletting that has killed more than 10,400 Iraqis in recent months. The Mahdi Army is the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, now one of the most powerful figures in the country.

Defending brutal tactics
The death squads that carry out the extrajudicial killings are widely feared but mysterious. Often, the only evidence is the bodies discovered in the streets. Several commanders in the Mahdi Army said in interviews that they act independently of the Shiite religious courts that have taken root here, meting out street justice on their own with what they believe to be the authorization of Sadr's organization and under the mantle of Islam.

"You can find in any religion the right of self-defense," said another commander, senior enough to be referred to as the Sheik, who was interviewed separately by telephone. Like the others, he lives and works in Sadr City, a trash-strewn, eight-square-mile district of east Baghdad that is home to more than 2 million Shiites. They spoke on condition that their names not be revealed and that specific areas of Sadr City under their control not be identified.

"The takfiris , the ones who kill, they should be killed," said the Sheik, using a term commonly employed by Shiites for violent Sunni extremists. "Also the Saddamists. Whose hands are stained with blood, they are sentenced to death."

"This is part of defending yourself," the commander said. "This is a ready-made verdict -- we don't need any verdict."

A new force in the streets
Before Feb. 22, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed a wave of sectarian killing and retribution, U.S. authorities and others believed the primary force behind Shiite death squads was the Badr Brigade, the militia of another large Shiite organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. But since the bombing, the Mahdi Army appears to have taken the lead in extrajudicial trials and executions, according to Joost Hiltermann, a project director in Jordan for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

For suspected enemies taken by the Mahdi Army, the outcome is swift, with guilt and punishment already determined, the commanders said.

"If we catch any of them, the takfiris, Saddamists, bombers, we don't hand them over to police. He could be freed the next day," the Sheik said.

The captured men get a rapid interrogation, he added. They are asked, "How do you come here? Who is working with you? Which organization is supporting you?"

"We get a full confession," he said. "Once we do, we know what to do with them."

A widow's story
In a darkened living room in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, the widow of a retired army officer -- a Sunni allegedly taken by the Mahdi Army after the Samarra bombing -- recounted the last hours of her husband's life, stopping her account only to call aloud to God for revenge.

Gunmen from outside the neighborhood surrounded the mosque where her husband and other men were at late-afternoon prayer, she said. It was Feb. 23, the day after the shrine bombing. The armed strangers were wearing black clothes of the type then worn by the Mahdi Army. Sadr later ordered his fighters to discard the uniform, saying rivals were using it to commit killings in the guise of the Mahdi Army.

The gunmen took her husband and the other men to a police station in the Habibiya neighborhood of Sadr City, the black-clad widow said, surrounded by her daughters and granddaughters. Women of the neighborhood gathered in another room to pay their respects to the bereaved family. Some of the men were released, surviving to tell what happened. They recalled that her husband and three other retired officers from Saddam Hussein's military were subjected to a one-hour hearing.

"The trial was held in public, at 6 a.m., on Friday," she said. "At 10 a.m., they called us to tell us to pick the body up from the morgue."

Living in fear
As directed, male relatives retrieved her husband's body from the Baghdad morgue. The corpse bore bullet holes in the face and chest, with both hands still cuffed behind the back.

Fearful despite her anger, she refused to say who she thought killed her husband. An 8-year-old granddaughter whispered the answer into her ear: "The Mahdi Army."

"Darling," the widow scolded, frowning at the child to be silent.

Asked about the Mahdi Army's role in the surge of killings immediately after the Samarra mosque bombing, the Mahdi Army commander in short sleeves at the restaurant frowned, and answered carefully. "Terrorists" were at work then, he said, using a term employed by Shiites for Sunni insurgents. "There was an immediate need to move and contain these groups," he said.

Grisly discoveries
Thousands of bodies turned up on the streets and vacant lots of Baghdad in the months after the Samarra bombing, found by U.S. Army patrols, Iraqi forces, passersby and families of the dead. Unlike earlier in the conflict, when the biggest share of victims were killed by the bombs of Sunni insurgents, these corpses were found shot to death, often bearing signs of torture and with their hands still bound. Shiite militias were blamed for many of these deaths.

The Mahdi Army commanders who were interviewed balked at detailing how many people the militia may have killed, and how. American forces, by contrast, saw nothing but the end results.

One small unit alone, made up of roughly two dozen Americans helping train the Iraqi army in Sadr City, happened upon more than 200 bodies this year along roads on the edges of Sadr City, said 1st Lt. Zeroy Lawson, the unit's intelligence officer.

Witnesses and residents of Sadr City told the Americans that the victims had been brought from all over Baghdad, said Lawson and Capt. Troy Wayman, an officer in the same squad. Victims typically had their shoes removed and their hands bound, Lawson said, and were executed in public. The Americans said they suspect that the women they found dead, like the men found with their genitals mutilated, were judged guilty of extramarital sex.

Lawson and Wayman offered several examples. One was a female worker at a Sadr City clinic that Mahdi Army members believed was a brothel. The militiamen warned the women there to shut the place down, pistol-whipped them in public and then shot the worker dead on the street, the two Americans said.

In another case, Lawson spotted the unmoving form of a paunchy man in a checked shirt by the side of the road. Residents told Lawson that the man, a Sunni, had been taken from his home in Mansour, an affluent neighborhood of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians in central Baghdad. Accused of conspiring to drive Shiites from their homes, the Sunni man had been brought to Sadr City and shot dead where he now lay, witnesses told the Americans.

Kidnapped over booze
In late spring, Wayman recalled, the Americans in Sadr City happened upon uniformed Iraqi security forces clustered around the body of an Iraqi man. Gunmen had shot the man dead seconds before, then sped off when the Iraqi and U.S. forces happened by, Wayman said.

Americans traced the killers' vehicle to a nearby police station, where they found two grateful captives inside. The men were Christians who told Wayman they worked at a store elsewhere in Baghdad that sold alcohol. Gunmen had visited the shop to tell the men that alcohol was forbidden by the Koran and that they must shut down. When the two refused, they told Wayman, the gunmen stuffed them into a car at gunpoint and brought them to a house in Sadr City.

A Shiite cleric visited the two Christians at the house, they told Wayman. The cleric demanded that the captives convert to Islam and, when they refused, informed them that alcohol was forbidden by Islam.

They would be punished, the cleric said, but he did not specify how. The captives said they believed they were second and third in line for execution, after the man who was found in the street.

Mahdi Army commanders interviewed uniformly denied that they kill people for selling alcohol. The Mahdi Army only warns liquor vendors, increasingly strongly, they said. If the vendors still refuse to stop selling, the Mahdi Army "beats them lightly, in accordance with the Koran," the commander known as the Sheik said.

‘They terrorize people’
Lawson, the intelligence officer, credits the Mahdi Army with an intelligence operation that has become skilled at feeding bad information to Americans about the militia's activities. But U.S. military officials say they know enough to condemn much of what the Mahdi Army does.

"I have no doubt . . . they hold trial courts and execute people," said Lt. Col. Mark Meadows, commander of a cavalry regiment with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division. Meadows's men oversaw Shula, a northern Baghdad neighborhood under Sadr's control, at the time of the Samarra bombing. The Mahdi Army "is probably the largest, most aggressive militia in this country," Meadows said. "They are a terrorist organization. They terrorize people."

But Iraqi and U.S. security forces are often left as puzzled spectators in areas under the Mahdi Army's jurisdiction.

On patrol early one morning, Wayman and his convoy pulled over at the telltale sign of a group of Iraqi police gathered by the side of a road in northern Sadr City, eyes cast down.

The police officers made room for Wayman, who looked down at an Iraqi girl lying on her side. She appeared to be no more than 15. The morning light bathed her face, and her hands curled gently to her mouth. Wrapped in a blanket, she looked asleep, except for two bursts of pink flesh from bullet wounds in her back.

Neither American nor Iraqi forces had any inclination to investigate what had happened to the teenager.

"Who knows?" one of the Iraqi policeman said, preparing to bundle up the body. Wayman got back into his Humvee, and the Americans drove on.