Iraqis begin to 'despise' the Mahdi Army in Baghdad's Rusafa district
BAGHDAD, IRAQ: The nighttime walk through a difficult neighborhood in southern Rusafa was uneventful; a careful "presence patrol" designed to show local citizens American forces and gauge public opinion. The jumbled maze of brightly-lit ramshackle shops and pitch-black back alleys is one of the less secure parts of the district.
The few blocks are "a neighborhood with the most potential to become violent because of the JAM [Mahdi Army] Special Groups networks that are known to operate in that area," according to Lieutenant Mike Hebert, the patrol's leader. No one challenged the platoon, and the expressions of Iraqi civilians were studiously neutral. But the Mahdi Army presence was apparent in the nervous energy of shopkeepers who hesitantly spoke with the Americans, a fear that increased when directly asked about the Shia militia.
Rusafa is a large district in central Baghdad bordered by the Tigris River to the southwest and Sadr City to the northeast. The district is predominantly Shia, but contains significant Sunni enclaves and a small Christian population, with a surprising number of openly practicing churches, according to Colonel Craig Collier, the commander of the 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. The 450 soldiers of the 3-89 Cav are responsible for the district's security, in conjunction with thousands of Iraqi Army, Iraqi National Police, Iraqi Police, Kurdish private contractors, and Sons of Iraq (neighborhood watch).
Rusafa contains Baghdad's largest and most famous markets, including the Shorja, Saria, and Bab al Sharji, some of which were the scenes of high-profile suicide bombings during the sectarian-fueled carnage of 2006-2007. Over the past year, and especially over the past six months, the district has calmed significantly. The predominant remaining threats are Mahdi Army mortar rounds aimed at the International Zone that fall short and suicide vest bombers and car bombs that target the markets and Coalition forces. Less successful suicide attacks occur maybe once a month, while once common highly successful "spectacular attacks" have become much less frequent.
The Iraqi security forces show improvement in Rusafa
Soldiers in the 3-89 Cav attribute improved security to a few main factors. As is the case with Iraqi security forces across the country, leadership is everything. Collier believes that changes in leadership of the Iraqi National Police and Iraqi Army have improved the performance of the Iraqi security forces.
"We have now taken over an area, and because the first of the Surge units left, it's twice the size it was before, and I have less than half the people, and it's still working, so far," said Collier. "And that is in good measure because of the quality of Iraqi security forces. I was here two years ago and I've seen a noticeable improvement, and it's really the hope that this country has, that they're able to do things on their own. And they are -- they're doing quite a bit on their own."
Collier said that there remains variation in operational quality among units, but notes that many are performing well. He also states that logistics remain "the biggest weak point" with the Iraqi security forces, but asserts gradual improvement.
"The Iraqi Army battalion 3/4/1 [3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Division], which just transitioned here from Fallujah, is one of the most professional battalions I've seen," said Captain John Thornburg, commander of the 3-89's Bravo Troop, which is responsible for Joint Security Station (JSS) Babalsheikh in southern Rusafa. "They uphold the [operational and uniform] standard on checkpoints, they're battle-hardened professionals, and are the future of the Iraqi Army that we'd like to see. They're proud, professional-looking soldiers, and the people see the difference."
White Platoon of the Blackfoot Troop, 3-89 Cavalry conducts a presence patrol in a difficult neighborhood in southern Rusafa district, Baghdad. Click the image to view. Photo by Bill Ardolino.
A Shia Awakening
But Thornburg attributes most of the improvement in his area in southern Rusafa to the Sons of Iraq, the local neighborhood watchmen who are paid by the US. The Sons of Iraq program was started here seven months ago by local leaders and the 82nd Airborne, the unit last responsible for the southwestern half of Rusafa, which is essentially downtown Baghdad. Local Sons of Iraq leaders claim they were "the first Shia Awakening" against militias and al Qaeda.
"The SOI have exceeded expectations. They've turned one of the most violent areas of Baghdad into one of the most quiet," said Thornburg. "Specifically, they are looking for Mahdi Army. They know who comes into their area, they man checkpoints 24 hours a day, they do vehicle searches, they question people and they patrol. The locals trust them and they are happy with them. They've earned a lot of wasta [respect] from the citizens, and the results speak for themselves. It's a real success story."
The Sons of Iraq in Al Sadria -- a collection of neighborhoods in southwestern Rusafa -- are about 250-strong and primarily Shia. But Faris Abdul Hassan, their leader, refuses to hire individuals with sectarian allegiances. The Americans still write the contracts for the neighborhood watch, pay them, and issue their security instructions, but the government of Iraq is attempting the process of taking control of the program. The transition is contentious and marked by a lack of trust, as exemplified by a heated meeting that took place on Friday at JSS Babalsheikh. A Sons of Iraq leader from the Al Fahdil area angrily yelled at a local Iraqi Police general that "the government has done nothing for my people in five years."
Hassan and his Al Sadria Sons of Iraq also mistrust the government, specifically asserting that the Iraqi Police are still infiltrated "maybe 50 percent" by the Special Groups. An American officer agrees that there remains some level of Mahdi Army infiltration in the Iraqi Police. The Al Sadria Sons of Iraq have a more favorable opinion of the Iraqi Army, though overall distrust of the government remains an issue that will make integration with Iraqi security forces a difficult, delicate process.
The Mahdi Army is disliked in Rusafa
Above all, Hassan and his neighborhood watchmen do not like the Mahdi Army.
"Originally, the Jaish al Mahdi [Mahdi Army] in our area used to deceive people by using the name of the religion to do their purposes," said Dhia, Hassan's executive officer. "They were all corrupted. They have history in crime, robberies, murders, rapes, and all kinds of bad things. They even reached the level of kidnapping people and demanding ransoms just because they have money. It didn't matter if he is Shia or Sunni; just because he has money. They gave a bad reputation for Islam."
American officials assert that the final factor that has improved security is the citizenry's fatigue with violence and the militias.
"They're still intimidated by [the Mahdi Army], but they're tired of them," said Thornburg.
In the past the Mahdi Army commanded local support because of the need for security in a vacuum and intimidation tactics. But as security improved and other forces are gaining prominence, support for the Mahdi militia in Rusafa is evaporating.
"Right now because of the fighting Sadr City, people have started to despise [the Mahdi Army] because of the situation they created," said "Rammie," an Army interpreter raised and living in Rusafa. "People have started to know the truth of [the Mahdi Army] as kidnappers, killers, carjackers, and agents of the Iranian government. But the recent fighting against the [Iraqi security forces] means they are also against the government. They are not trying to just fight the invasion forces as they claim, but they fight whoever interferes with their mafia activity."
Thus far, the fighting just north in Sadr City has not significantly spilled over into Rusafa, but it is affecting the lives of the district's residents. Mahdi Army militiamen used to egress from the southeast border of Sadr City to fire rockets and mortars at the International Zone, then duck back into the Shia slum, which served almost like a safe zone where no Iraqi or US military units would follow.
Mahdi mortars and rockets fall short in Rusafa
Since the government operation against the Mahdi Army in Basrah began in March, Mahdi fighters began firing mortars and rockets from Sadr City itself, a move that spurred the recent Iraqi Army and US incursion into the poor Shia enclave. A side effect of this new trajectory for indirect fire is that some rounds fall short of their target and land in southwestern Rusafa, killing civilians and destroying property. US personnel assert that this is angering the district's populace against the militias, and 3-89 Cav soldiers press the issue by immediately passing out leaflets that explain where the artillery came from after an attack.
Businessmen in Rusafa say that the recent deterioration in security directly impacts their businesses, driving up the prices they pay for goods, and causing consumers to save rather than spend. "Whenever there is peace and safety, my business does well," said a shopkeeper in southeastern Rusafa. "The prices of goods have increased because of the events [in Sadr City]."
When asked what he thought of the Mahdi Army, his voice dropped precipitously and he nervously glanced around before answering: "This is their country, but everywhere you can find someone who will destroy his own country, his own house."
Opinion has shifted against the militias and is more gradually moving toward supporting the Iraqi security forces. Yet views about Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr are varied and complex, as characterized by some individuals who despise both his Special Groups foot soldiers and their Iranian paymasters, but avoid placing blame on the cleric himself.
"These guys [the Mahdi Army] are fighting between the houses [among civilians]," said a corporal in the Iraqi Army. "They use the houses as their armor, so that's why many innocent people are killed, because they shoot mortars between the houses and run away. Iran will pay a lot of money for ignorant people to behave crazy. They claim that they belong to Muqtada al Sadr, but they do not belong to Muqtada, they belong to Iran."
Others have developed a distaste for the radical cleric. Rammie asserts that "many educated people" know that both the Mahdi Army and Iran are affiliated with Sadr, and that his popularity is waning in Rusafa as a result. "He is in Iran, not even here fighting with his own people," Rammie said.
"Muqtada is an immature guy," said Hassan. "He is not mature enough to lead such a militia and I don't think he even controls or leads the Mahdi Army, he's being directed by higher people."
Efforts to stabilize the area continue as surge units draw down and the battle in Sadr City escalates. Some American officials believe that the Iraqi government's confrontation with the militia is giving the Iraqi Army momentum and further shifting public opinion.
"We are so close to establishing a fully legitimized ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] structure," said Captain Nathan Hubbard, the commander of the 3-89 Cav's Alpha Troop, which is responsible for a Joint Security Station in the Al Fahdil area of Rusafa. "I would say that with the successful conclusion of Basrah and the continuation of [the offensive in] Sadr City -- the closing off of the criminal elements down there -- you'll see a significant swing in public belief in the ISF. More [Iraqis] would buy into ISF being a legit force. Right now, the citizens are maybe 40 percent pro-government, 40 percent on the fence, and some seriously anti-ISF guys on the side. The people want a force that is willing to go after any terrorists, including AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq], Mahdi Army, the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers' Party]. They just like to see the government doing something."
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