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Iraq's young fighters build power through fear

New generation of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia is alienating Sunnis and Shiites alike.
Image: Members of the Mahdi Army militia.
Members of the Mahdi Army militia of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr march in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, on Nov. 28.Nabil Al Jurani / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On the first day of class, two male teenagers entered a girls' high school in the Tobji neighborhood, clutching AK-47 assault rifles. The young Shiite fighters handed the principal a handwritten note and ordered her to assemble the students in the courtyard, witnesses said.

"All girls must wear hijab," she read aloud, her voice trembling. "If the girls don't wear hijab, we will close the school or kill the girls."

That October day Sara Mustafa, 14, a secular Sunni Arab, also trembled. The next morning, she covered up with an Islamic head scarf for the first time. The young fighters now controlled her life. "We could not do anything," Sara recalled.

The Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is using a new generation of youths, some as young as 15, to expand and tighten its grip across Baghdad, but the ruthlessness of some of these young fighters is alienating Sunnis and Shiites alike.

The fighters are filling the vacuum of leadership created by a 10-month-old U.S.-led security offensive. Hundreds of senior and mid-level militia members have been arrested, killed or forced into hiding, weakening what was once the second most powerful force in Iraq after the U.S. military. But the militia still rules through fear and intimidation, often under the radar of U.S. troops.

"JAM is alive and well in Tobji, although they have gotten younger, like in many other areas," said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, using a military acronym derived from the militia's name in Arabic. For much of this year, his soldiers operated in many Shiite and mixed enclaves of Baghdad, including Tobji.

The rise of this new generation is a reflection of the Mahdi Army's deep infiltration of society and could presage a turbulent resurgence of the militia as the U.S. military reduces troop levels. The emergence also highlights the struggle Sadr faces in his quest to control the capital and lead Iraq.

In late August, the 34-year-old cleric declared a freeze in operations, in part to exert more authority over his unruly, decentralized militia. Many followers stood down, so much that U.S. commanders give Sadr some credit for a downturn in violence this year. But some militia leaders have ignored Sadr's freeze, and their young, power-hungry foot soldiers may ultimately undermine the cleric's popular appeal.

"We have to show people we are not weak," said Ali, a 19-year-old Mahdi Army fighter in Tobji.

'I was in control. I ruled'
Two years ago, Ali was unemployed. He recalled that he idolized his older cousins who were veteran Mahdi Army fighters. Like them, he was born and raised in Tobji, a wisp of a neighborhood in north-central Baghdad where every neighbor knows the other. Its official name is Salaam, or peace.

Ali and his cousins once befriended Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian violence shattered Tobji's tribal and social bonds. Suddenly sect was all that mattered to Ali, and the militia became his new family. He was 17.

Abu Sajjad, a 44-year-old former Mahdi Army fighter, remembered seeing a rise in disaffected, jobless recruits at the time. "They were nothing before they joined the Mahdi Army," said Abu Sajjad, who asked to be called by his nickname to protect his security. "The Mahdi Army will protect them better than their tribes or their families."

Older fighters quickly indoctrinated Ali. "They are Sunnis. We are Shia. They are not going to kick us out of Tobji," Ali recalled them saying.

Ali, tall and slim with wavy black hair, spoke on condition that his full name not be used, fearing arrest by U.S. forces and retaliation by the militia. He is trying to leave the militia and has joined the Iraqi army, which he keeps secret from his comrades. In separate interviews, Sunni and Shiite residents said that Ali was a well-known Mahdi Army member involved in several attacks.

Initially, Ali was assigned to a militia checkpoint. He searched cars and demanded that drivers give their tribal names, so he could determine their sect. "I was a teenager. I was in control. I ruled," said Ali, who during a four-hour interview wore a brown sweater and, like many Shiites, a silver ring on his left pinky. "If I told any car to stop, it would stop."

At the local Sadr office, recruits were given lessons in Shiite religion and Mahdi Army ideology, which centered on Shiite supremacy. The recruits were ordered to inform on anyone suspicious or breaking Islamic codes.

"They can convince anybody," Ali said. "If they tell you that your father is a bad man, you will be more than happy to kill your father."

Ali also worked in a barbershop. When customers discussed their lives, he took mental notes and later reported what he had heard to the Sadr office.

Four months after he joined, Ali fought his first street battle. He fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the house of a member of a Sunni tribe called the Egheidat, killing him. Ali said he felt remorse, which vanished as smiling, older fighters hugged him.

"You are a hero," one of them told Ali. "The rocket saved our lives."

Two Egheidat leaders, including Mustafa Salih, Sara's father, said that Ali was known to have fired RPGs during the battle, but they were unsure if he had killed anyone.

Mahdi Army commanders punished young fighters for disobeying orders. Offenders were taken to a room inside the Sadr office, filled with steel cables, whips and slabs of iron, where they were tortured. Ali said it was called "The Happiness Room."

Murder and protection
On the streets of Tobji one recent day, clusters of girls headed to school in their uniforms, all wearing the hijab. The portrait of a serene Haider Hamrani, a 17-year-old militia fighter shot dead by U.S. forces, stared out from a billboard.

Young men with cellphones circled the neighborhood, which was plastered with images of Sadr. They drove mopeds on side streets or gathered on corners. Some wore jeans, others baseball caps, blending into the landscape. They were the early warning system, keeping watch for strangers and U.S. patrols.

"No one will suspect they are Mahdi Army," Ali said.

Today, more than half the militia here is under age 20, said Ali and another young fighter named Mahmoud. The new generation is heavily involved in the militia's income-generating schemes. They sell the cars of kidnap victims and rent out the houses of displaced Sunnis. The militia also demands payments from generator men supplying electricity. Each month, youths collect 5,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $4, in protection money from every household.

"The more flagrant, younger crowd tends to focus on organized crime and lining their pockets with cash," said Miska, the U.S. officer.

Many young militiamen appear to have become ruthless murderers, replacing older fighters who have been captured or gone underground. Ali said he took part in four killings, all of neighbors. After Ali informed the Sadr office that his childhood friend Wissam had joined the Iraqi army, several young militia members abducted him and his mother. First they shot Wissam. When his mother kneeled over his body, screaming and in tears, they shot her in the head, Ali and Mahmoud said.

Another neighbor, a divorced woman, was killed after Ali mentioned that he had heard on the street that she was a prostitute -- a crime in the view of the militia -- although he had no proof. One of her assassins, Ali said, was a 17-year-old named Saad, who had joined at age 15.

When young fighters are told to kill someone, Ali said, "they will kill that person the next day without hesitation."

Nearby, in the living room of his narrow two-story home, Abu Ali Hassan, a 42-year-old Sunni, has hung a portrait of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, in case militia fighters visit. Each month, he hands them 5,000 dinars, which he calls "extortion money."

He's noticed that older fighters have all but vanished. "They are running the neighborhood through these kids," said Hassan, a Transportation Ministry employee.

Like many areas in Baghdad, Tobji has experienced a decline in violent attacks. But most Sunnis who fled have yet to return, community leaders said. Those who remain live under constant fear that they are being monitored. This year, the militia started to deploy women as spies, Ali and other residents said.

Desperate, Hassan has befriended a few young militiamen on his street. "God forbid, if anything happens to me tomorrow, they will be useful to me," he said. "Now, they are the supreme power in our neighborhood."

Shiites as victims
Increasingly, the militia's victims are Shiites.

Tobji's Shiite head of the local council, Abu Hussein Kamil, and another official were assassinated in August. Kamil, Ali said, had not given jobs to relatives of the militiamen and was suspected of collaborating with U.S. forces. "He was hurting his own people," Ali said.

In June, several young fighters tortured and killed a Shiite generator man because he would not give additional electricity to the house of a militia member, his family and neighbors said. "They call themselves the Mahdi Army, but they act like a gang," said Majid al-Zubaidi, 28, the man's brother. "They just want to show they are in control of everything. They want people to fear them."

"Now, both Sunni and Shia are upset with the Mahdi Army," Zubaidi said.

Abu Sajjad, the veteran fighter, said many older militiamen are also angry. The youths are tarnishing the militia's image as guardians of Shiites, he said. One day, he witnessed two young fighters on a moped drive up to a car and fatally shoot the driver, a Shiite who had publicly criticized Sadr. Abu Sajjad urged the Sadr office to punish the assailants, but nothing happened, he said.

The leaders of the office protect the shebab, as the young men are called in Arabic, Abu Sajjad said. "The shebab are their eyes in the neighborhood and are following their orders."

On another day, a 17-year-old fighter went to the Sadr office and complained that his parents had ordered him to leave the militia. The office threatened the family, said Abu Sajjad, who knows the teenager and his family.

The U.S. military has exploited this generational rift and the anger of residents, Miska said. His troops paid informers for tips that often led to raids and arrests. But some community leaders complained that the American military had also targeted moderate leaders who brought some discipline to the militia.

"It's hard to believe they can't distinguish between the good people and bad people," said Ali Khadim, 44, a prominent Shiite tribal leader. U.S. troops, he said, recently raided his own house, where his elderly parents live.

Schoolchildren 'seduced'
Down the street from the Sadr office, the tan wall of a secondary school was covered with posters of Sadr and Imam Ali. A long black banner commemorated a Shiite holiday, as women covered in head-to-ankle abayas seemed to float by.

Inside some of Tobji's schools, young militiamen have pressured teachers to disclose exam answers and give high grades to relatives of Mahdi Army fighters. They have ordered them to give Shiite religious lessons to students, including Sunnis, according to teachers and parents.

"They have turned the schools into their safe houses," said Fadhil Hassan, who teaches at a school in Tobji that he asked not be named, fearing retaliation. A young fighter wanted by U.S. forces shows up every day, Hassan said, and sometimes hits students on the head or shoulder with a stick, separating Sunnis from Shiites.

Now, students with problems are also turning to the Mahdi Army, he added, and looking up to militiamen as role models.

"They are seduced by these young fighters," Abu Sajjad said. "When children get power and pistols, this is their biggest dream come true." By infiltrating the schools, he added, the fighters have found the most effective means of controlling Tobji. "Families will be terrified through their kids."

Following the arrests of Mahdi Army commanders, Tobji's tribes are trying to reassert themselves. But ancient rules built on honor and respect hold little sway over the new generation.

Khadim, the Shiite tribal leader, has tried to persuade several young fighters to leave. Only one did, he said.

Ali is trying to quit. He's in love with a Sunni woman from the neighborhood. If the militiamen learn of this, he fears he will be killed, he said.

Worried about his future, Mustafa Salih has added his name to a list of Sunnis keen to launch a sahwa -- or "awakening" -- protection force, like those the U.S. military has funded in other areas. The tipping point came when he saw his daughter, Sara, rush home from school in October, upset that she had to wear a hijab.

"Why plant extremist ideas in children?" Salih asked bitterly.

Today, Sara's head scarf has become a metaphor for the militia's grip on her neighborhood. "It feels like someone is choking me," she said.