Men in Black
Why Iraq's Shiite militias are so brutally effective. What can be done to stop them?
BAGHDAD-When U.S. Army Maj. Mark Brady drives through a once well-heeled section of western Baghdad, he is often greeted by flocks of doves, released in advance of his patrol's arrival. Symbols of peace and welcome? Not here, not now. What they are is a warning signal by militia lookouts that U.S. and Iraqi government forces are in the area.
The doves are the least of Brady's worries. As an adviser to the 5th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, he is most concerned about the brigade's own soldiers, who use their cellphones to tip off allies in the militia. It's information that's particularly helpful to members of the Mahdi Army, followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who have set up checkpoints and
lately stepped up attacks on Sunni enclaves, reprisals for the recent bombings that killed more than 200 in the the capital's Sadr City neighborhood. So now, for operational security, brigade commanders collect soldiers' cellphones before presenting the day's plans. "The cellphones," Brady says, "were killing us."
Tit for tat. As the violence in Baghdad grows worse, the militias are gaining strength, in part by promising safety and services for Iraqis in desperate need of both-and by delivering retribution in the tit-for-tat cycle of sectarian attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. In its report last week, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group stressed the corrosive effect of Shiite militia activities that "undermine the authority of the Iraqi government and security forces, as well as the ability of Sunnis to join a peaceful political process." Reining in the militias is just one of the hurdles to implementing the panel's prescriptions for national reconciliation (Page 38). The committee's report raises doubts about the willingness and ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even to confront the militia problem: "He owes his office in large part to Sadr and has shown little willingness to take on him or his Mahdi Army."
Taking on the militias will be no easy task, as they are now woven into the fabric of so many communities. "Militias exist when, in the eyes of the people, the standing government isn't providing something-and in this case that something would be security," Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the senior American commander in Iraq responsible for training and equipping Iraqi security forces, tells U.S. News. "It seems to me that the issue we're all concerned about is the degree of militia influence on serving members of the Army and police."
To complicate matters, the greatest fear among some U.S. military officials here is that some of the militia directives may be coming from within Iraqi government ministries. Col. Steven Duke, a brigade military transition teams commander and adviser to the 6th Iraqi Army Division in Baghdad, cites a raid last month in which company commanders captured two members of the Mahdi Army. Upon hearing of the Mahdi Army connection, Iraqi Army officials turned their new prisoners over to U.S. forces. "They thought they would get pressured by the MOD [Ministry of Defense] to let these guys go," says Duke.