Green Zone shelling mirrors militia ire
By HAMZA HENDAWI and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press WritersMon Mar 24, 5:33 PM ET
Rocket attacks on the U.S.-protected Green Zone may carry a message with implications across Iraq: rising anger within the Mahdi Army militia.
The Shiite fighters led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are reorganizing their ranks, taking delivery of new weapons from Iran and ramping up complaints about crackdowns by U.S. and Iraqi forces that could unravel the Mahdi Army's self-declared cease-fire, according to militia commanders.
U.S. commanders credit the 7-month-old cease-fire for helping curb violence in Baghdad and slow the pace of U.S. military deaths, which reached 4,000 on Sunday. Washington also is highly concerned over any signs of expanding links between Iran and rank-and-file al-Sadr supporters before local elections this year.
The latest rumblings in the Mahdi Army are provoked by the belief that the Americans and their Iraqi allies abused the cease-fire by conducting raids that have targeted hundreds of al-Sadr's backers and aides.
Militia commanders told The Associated Press they viewed the arrests as a move by Shiite rivals to deny them a prominent political voice.
They also cited al-Sadr's statement this month that his cease-fire did not preclude his followers from self defense.
The three commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not supposed to comment on policy matters, said al-Sadr's statement gave them the nod to take on their adversaries.
That could lead to new attacks on the Green Zone, which was pounded Sunday by rockets in the most sustained assault in months. Al-Sadr's followers have not claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the weapons were fired from areas where the Mahdi Army operates.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith blamed Iranian-backed Shiite militia factions for the rocket attacks, which killed at least 12 Iraqi civilians outside the Green Zone. U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said two U.S. government employees — an American and a Jordanian — were seriously injured and six other people required medical attention.
Smith said the rockets were supplied by the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The Pentagon has dubbed the Iranian-linked Shiite military as "special groups" — or rogue cells — to distinguish them from mainline Mahdi militiamen. But the Mahdi Army commanders claimed many members of the "special groups" have been reintegrated into the militia in recent months after they swore allegiance again to al-Sadr.
"They don't seem to realize that the Sadrist trend is like a volcano,"
Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammedawi told worshippers Friday in Kufa, referring to the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers. "If it explodes, it will crush their rotten heads."
Leaders of the Sadrist movement are calling on supporters to protest the arrests by closing their shops and businesses.
The call was heeded Monday in at least two predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad.
Video by Associated Press Television News showed a deserted bus stop, shuttered shops and empty streets in normally bustling Amil and Baiyaa.
Police said Mahdi Army militiamen have also issued general strike orders in three other areas of southwestern Baghdad and in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of the capital.
"This civil disobedience may be called for in the rest of Baghdad and maybe in southern provinces if the government does not free our detainees," lawmaker Ali al-Mayali said after attending a meeting of Sadrist leaders Monday in the holy city of Najaf.
Liwa Smeism, a senior political adviser at al-Sadr's office in Najaf, said the shop closures in west Baghdad would continue for up to 48 hours, depending on the response of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's mainly Shiite government.
He ruled out the use of violence, but said there would be "other means" to pressure the government. He did not elaborate.
"There is ongoing negotiations with the government and we hope to end it peacefully," he told the AP.
In a statement aired on government television Monday night, the Iraqi military warned followers of al-Sadr against using threats and intimidation to enforce the general strike. The statement made no reference specifically to the Sadrists, but said any use of armed threats to keep people from going about their business violates the anti-terrorism act and would be dealt with.
The Mahdi Army, believed to number up to 60,000 fighters, was battered by U.S. troops in a series of battles in 2004. But the militia appears to have regrouped and, according to commanders, is ready to respond to "provocations."
According to the three commanders, the militia has received fresh supplies of weapons from Iran — contradicting repeated Iranian denials that it is supporting Iraqi militias.
The weapons, the commanders said, included rockets, armor-piercing roadside bombs and anti-aircraft guns that could be effective against low-flying helicopters.
Additionally, they said an infusion of cash from Iran has been spent on new communication centers equipped with computers with Internet connections, fax machines and mobile satellite telephones.
Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking during a visit to Iraq this month, reiterated Washington's claim that Iran seeks to destabilize Iraq through support of armed Shiite factions.
Saleh al-Auqaeili, a senior lawmaker loyal to al-Sadr, says between 2,000 and 2,500 Mahdi Army militiamen have been detained since the cease-fire came into force. Other al-Sadr loyalists complain that only a small percentage of the detainees being released under a new amnesty law have been from al-Sadr's movement.
"The Mahdi Army, strong and organized, is necessary now to protect the movement," said Hassan al-Rubaie, leader of the 30-seat parliamentary bloc loyal to al-Sadr.
The Sadrists blame the moves against them on their main Shiite rival — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The council's armed wing, the Badr militia, dominates Iraq's security forces.
Their rivalry is intensifying in the run-up to provincial elections expected before Oct. 1. Both sides consider the elections crucial to their future sway over the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.
Both the Sadrists and the Supreme Council hold 30 of parliament's 275 seats.
But the Supreme Council dominates local governments in southern Iraq because al-Sadr did not campaign vigorously in the last provincial elections in 2005.
A new law gives provincial councils considerable powers, including selection of governors who will in turn control local security forces.
On Monday, Iraqi authorities clamped an indefinite nighttime curfew on the main southern city, Basra, and the prime minister dismissed the city's top two security officials. Two weeks ago, thousands demonstrated near the Basra police headquarters with demands both security officers resign.
The moves were another sign of growing concern about security in the nation's oil capital since British forces handed over control of the city last year.
Al-Sadr's backers, however, threatened a backlash in Basra if Mahdi Army members face increasing pressure from al-Maliki's government.
"We will respond strongly and violently if they plan to target us," said Sheik Ali al-Saiedi, director of al-Sadr's offices in Basra.