Thursday, August 16, 2007

It’s like the 750’s all over again*

Shia militants signify their willingness to be martyred by wearing funeral shrouds.

It is not exactly “news” that the Iraqi army and police forces are heavily infiltrated by Shia militias, especially Jaish al Mahdi, nor is it surprising to anyone who has more than passing knowledge of the history of the region.

The Iraqi police and military forces are not simply infiltrated by Shia militiamen, they are infested – to the point that they have managed to apply sufficient political pressure to commanders that, on at least one occasion, they were able to create their own army units, staffed with its own Jaish al Mahdi fighters.

The units were disbanded in May, but like the oil in the pasta pot, it quickly came back together once the heat was off. The commander became the head of a new battalion, but the troops in his command didn’t really change all that much…

One Mahdi Army loyalist, a policeman by day and a militant after the sun goes down, was forthright about discussing the reality "There is a Mahdi Army member in every family and in every home across Iraq and the military is not exempt. The army wouldn't go after the Mahdi Army because many elements in the army are Mahdi Army. Here in Sadr City for example, there is one company and 35 of them are Mahdi Army."

Men like him, who seem to seamlessly lead dual lives, represent perhaps the greatest challenges faced by the American forces as they struggle to assemble and train non-sectarian security forces in the occupied country. They quietly, surreptitiously, go about their business of undoing the seeming advances toward a non-sectarian security apparatus.

The Sadr movement has used Iraqi soldiers and national police officers to push deeper into predominantly Sunni Arab districts in west Baghdad, U.S. Army officers said. It also swayed the leadership of an Iraqi army battalion in the spring to mount strikes in Fadil, a Sunni district in east Baghdad, the U.S. officers said.

The nexus has included soldiers carrying out killings or turning a blind eye as Sadr fighters slip through checkpoints. In late March, in the early phase of the U.S. military buildup, a Mahdi fighter who gave his name as Abu Haidar bragged to The Times that Iraqi army officers had provided vehicles to his group to carry out executions. "We have a deal with the Iraqi army and police," he said.

Last fall, Iraqi soldiers looked on as Shia militants forced thousands of Sunni families out of their homes in the western neighborhood of Hurriya in the wake of a bomb attack in Sadr City. A few weeks after the Hurriya neighborhood was cleansed of Sunnis, an Iraqi commander and four other officers were arrested, only to be released a week later. The very day they were released, the Lt. Colonel in the Iraqi army who had filed the statement that led to the arrests was shot dead at a checkpoint.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. intelligence officer was as plainspoken as the Iraqi policman/militant "We've slowed them down, but they are still slowly expanding their reach. Jaish al Mahdi expansion is taking place. Like water, they are going to find a crack and move through the weakest area."

*The 750’s signify the point when the Sunni-Shia split became an unbridgeable chasm. The Battle of Zab in Egypt occurred then, and so did the murder of Jaffar. The murder of Jaffar was the final treachery and precipitated the final split between the Shia and the faction that would later come to be known as Sunnis.