The violent Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, adding a potentially even more deadly element to Iraq's violent mix.
Two senior militia commanders told The Associated Press that hundreds of these fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
The breakup is an ominous development at a time when U.S. and Iraqi forces are working to defeat religious-based militias and secure Iraq under government control. While al-Sadr's forces have battled the coalition repeatedly, including pitched battles in 2004, they've mostly stayed in the background during the latest offensive.
The U.S. military has asserted in recent months that Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Quds force have been providing Shiite militias with weapons and parts for sophisticated armor-piercing bombs. The so called EFPs -- explosively formed penetrators -- are responsible for the deaths of more than 170 American and coalition soldiers since mid-2004, the military says.
In the latest such attack, four U.S. soldiers were killed March 15 by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad.
At the Pentagon, a military official confirmed there were signs the Mahdi Army was splintering. Some were breaking away to attempt a more conciliatory approach to the Americans and the Iraqi government, others moving in a more extremist direction, the official said.
However, the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the topic, was not aware of direct Iranian recruitment and financing of Mahdi Army members.
The outlines of the fracture inside the Mahdi Army were confirmed by senior Iraqi government officials with access to intelligence reports prepared for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
More dangerous foe?
The information indicates a disintegrating organization yet a potentially even more dangerous foe, they revealed, on condition that their names not be used.
The militia commanders and al-Maliki's reports identify the leader of the breakaway faction as Qais al-Khazaali, a young Iraqi cleric who was a close al-Sadr aide in 2003 and 2004.
He was al-Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004, when he made nearly daily appearances on Arabic satellite news channels. He has not been seen in public since late that year.
Al-Sadr has been in Iran since early February, apparently laying low during the U.S.-Iraqi offensive, according to the U.S. military. He is not known to be close to Iran's leadership or Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
While Al-Sadr's strategy appears to be to wait out the government offensive and preserve his force, his absence has left loyal fighters unsure of his future and pondering whether they had been abandoned by their leader, the commanders said.
Al-Sadr tried to return to Iraq last month but turned back before he reached the Iraqi border upon learning of U.S. checkpoints on the road to Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad where he lives.
"Conditions are not suitable for him to return," said an al-Sadr aide, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "His safety will not be guaranteed if he returns."
The Mahdi Army commanders, who said they would be endangered if their names were revealed, said Iran's Revolutionary Guards were funding and arming the defectors from their force, and that several hundred over the last 18 months had slipped across the Iranian border for training by the Quds force.
In recent weeks, Mahdi Army fighters who escaped possible arrest in the Baghdad security push have received $600 each upon reaching Iran. The former Mahdi Army militiamen working for the Revolutionary Guards operate under the cover a relief agency for Iraqi refugees, they said.
Once fighters defect, they receive a monthly stipend of $200, said the commanders.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, a spokesman for an Iranian dissident group, told reporters in New York on Tuesday that Iraqi Shiite guerrillas and death squads were being trained in secret camps in Iran with the blessing of top Tehran government leaders and at least three senior Iraqi political figures.
Inside Iraq, the breakaway troops are using the cover of the Mahdi Army itself, the commanders said.
The defectors are in secret, small, but well-funded cells. Little else has emerged about the structure of their organization, but most of their cadres are thought to have maintained the pretense of continued Mahdi Army membership, possibly to escape reprisals.
Estimates of the number of Mahdi Army fighters vary wildly, with some putting the figure at 10,000 and others as many as 60,000.
Loosely knit force
The extent of al-Sadr's control over his militia has never been clear. Like many of Iraq's warring parties, it's a loosely knit force. The fiery cleric inspires loyalty with his speeches and edicts, and the Shiite gunmen are also bonded by the goal of maintaining Shiite dominance in a country long controlled by the rival Sunni Muslims, most recently Saddam Hussein.
Commanders thought to have disobeyed Mahdi Army orders or abused their power are publicly renounced during Friday prayers, a move that has forced them to quit their posts or go into hiding.
Mahdi Army militiamen also could be attracted by the cash promises of the splinter group. They don't receive wages or weapons from al-Sadr, but are allowed to generate income by charging government contractors protection money when they work in Shiite neighborhoods.
The two Mahdi Army commanders blamed several recent attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Baghdad on the splinter group. The commanders also said they believed the breakaway force had organized the attempt last week to kill Rahim al-Darraji, the mayor of Sadr City.
Al-Darraji, who is close to the Sadrist movement, was involved in talks with the U.S. military about extending the five-week-old Baghdad security sweep into Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold in eastern Baghdad that was a no-go zone for American forces until about three weeks ago.
Al-Darraji was seriously wounded and two of his bodyguards were killed when gunmen ambushed their convoy in a mainly Shiite district near Sadr City. There was no claim of responsibility.
The commanders said recruitment of Mahdi Army gunmen by Iran began as early as 2005. But it was dramatically stepped up in recent months, especially with the approach of the U.S.-Iraqi security operation which was highly advertised before it began Feb. 14. Many Mahdi Army fighters are believed to have crossed the border to escape arrest.
Calls by the AP to seek comment from the Iranian Foreign Ministry have not been returned.
The Iranian recruitment of the Mahdi Army fighters appears to be an extension of its efforts to exert influence in Iraq, in part to keep the U.S. bogged down in a war that already has stretched into its fifth year. Iran already has the allegiance of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia founded and trained in Iran in the 1980s that maintains close links to Iraq's ruling Shiite politicians.
The Bush administration has carefully not ruled out military action against Iran, but the war in Iraq keeps U.S. ground forces at least stretched thin.