Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mahdi Army Keeps the Peace
Three months ago, the sprawling northeast Baghdad slum of Sadr City was engulfed in chaos.
"There was looting, drug dealing, and a complete absence of policemen," said merchant Zuheir Abd al-Jalil, who owns a shop along the broad boulevard renamed "Vietnam Street" after it became a focus of the fighting.
Merchants came to work only during the day for fear of being robbed. Many women did not venture out at all, while taxi drivers complained they could not leave their cars even for a quick lunch without the tires being stripped.
Ghayeb Lazem Shibib, 33, a former captain in the Iraqi army, who now sells clothes in the open-air Mreidi market alongside Vietnam Street, said the area was infested with drug sellers and gangsters.
"People were afraid to come to the market because of their abusive behaviour,” he said. “They were carrying weapons and shouting, and many people were wounded at this time.”
Shibib recalled a gang leader who appeared one day carrying two pistols, shooting in the air and cursing that his brother-in-law had been murdered.
The gangster ordered all the merchants to close their shops – they had no choice but to comply.
In a word, the criminal gangs took advantage of the anarchy as US troops fought with members of the Mahdi Army of radical preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, who fired on local police stations to assert their authority over the neighbourhood.
But Sadr last month called a ceasefire, and instructed his militia to end the insurrection and cooperate with the police in restoring order.
After the truce, Shibib summoned a group of Sadrist militants, who told the gangs at gunpoint to get out.
Drug dealers were informed through their relatives, in time-honoured Iraqi tribal fashion, to stop selling their wares or they would be killed. "The situation now is very good," Shibib told IWPR.
"Now we have a truce with the American forces," said Mahdi Army leader Salah Hanoon, 30. "Our duty is to look out for the Muslims … and fight the drugs gangs, and the traders of the weapons … with the help of the Iraqi police."
Police captain Hashim Abd al-Muhsin of the local al-Thawra station said, "Our morale has risen after the Mahdi Army and the public declared their support for us, and we've sent out our patrols across the city.”
Muhsin said that "many members of the Mahdi Army inform us about the drug gangs, and document forgers... and we've started to pursue the gangs and we've succeeded in capturing many of them, in addition to organise the traffic in the city crossroads with volunteers from the Mahdi Army and the residents.”
Residents told IWPR that Sadrist preachers at Friday prayers have declared that the Mahdi Army must combat criminals and Sunni "Wahhabi" radicals, but that anyone who kills a policeman should himself be killed or arrested.
This pattern which emerged in Sadr City has repeated itself in other former centres of insurgency across the predominantly Shia south.
In the southern town of al-Kut, Sadrist fighters told police of a seven-man cell that was stockpiling explosives, and even assisted the police in making the arrest.
"The soldiers of the Mahdi Army had a great role in capturing them," said local police captain Hussein Rafid.
He said the informers not only uncovered the cell but were also the first through the door in the police raid on the suspects’ home.
Sadrist militiamen stand alongside soldiers of the New Iraqi Army inspecting cars on checkpoints on the outskirts of town, and join patrols on the highway running east to Amara.
"We work with the Iraqi police free of charge, to help keep security," said Abbas al-Tai, 35, who stood at a checkpoint in the Sheikh Saad neighbourhood along with fellow soldiers of the Mahdi Army.
The police said that Sadrist mosques also supply the patrols with meals and drinks.
The cooperation began after a proposal by Sadrist cleric Sheikh Muhammed Fadhil al-Musawi, according to sources in the police and Mahdi Army.
"As the Mahdi Army was created to keep security and to regain the freedom for Iraqis, the duty of each of [its] fighter[s] is working in the interests of the police and the civil defence corps," Musawi said.
While the head of al-Kut's police station Nizar al-Bahadli welcomed the Mahdi Army, he said the militia's involvement in maintaining law and order as an independent entity would be "temporary".
Still, even Bahadli acknowledged he would recruit 50 Sadrist fighters into the police, as "they have proven their skills and capabilities in keeping security in al-Kut".
But not all citizens of Kut are happy with the Mahdi Army.
Followers of older and more conservative clerics often view Sadr's followers as violent troublemakers.
"The fighters of the Mahdi Army are the cause of the riots which happened months ago, and now they are acting like good people,” said Muneer Ahmed, 42, a storeowner and follower of the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.
Grocer Salih Ali, 44, holds a similar view. "The majority of Mahdi Army soldiers are criminals," he said. "How are these criminals working with policemen to keep security?"
Awadh al-Taie and Aqil Jabbar are IWPR trainees.
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