[Marxism] Sadrists admit role in sectarian killing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 25 07:39:01 MDT 2006


Sadr's Militia and the Slaughter in the Streets
'We Don't Need a Verdict,' One Commander Says

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 25, 2006; A01

BAGHDAD -- In a grungy restaurant with plastic tables in central Baghdad, 
the young Mahdi Army commander was staring earnestly. His beard was closely 
cropped around his jaw, his face otherwise cleanshaven. The sleeves of his 
yellow shirt were rolled down to the wrists despite the intense 
late-afternoon heat. He spoke matter-of-factly: Sunni Arab fighters 
suspected of attacking Shiite Muslims had no claim to mercy, no need of a 
trial.

"These cases do not need to go back to the religious courts," said the 
commander, who sat elbow to elbow with a fellow fighter in a short-sleeved, 
striped shirt. Neither displayed weapons. "Our constitution, the Koran, 
dictates killing for those who kill."

His comments offered a rare acknowledgment of the role of the Mahdi Army in 
the sectarian bloodletting that has killed more than 10,400 Iraqis in 
recent months. The Mahdi Army is the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada 
al-Sadr, now one of the most powerful figures in the country.

The death squads that carry out the extrajudicial killings are widely 
feared but mysterious. Often, the only evidence is the bodies discovered in 
the streets. Several commanders in the Mahdi Army said in interviews that 
they act independently of the Shiite religious courts that have taken root 
here, meting out street justice on their own with what they believe to be 
the authorization of Sadr's organization and under the mantle of Islam.

"You can find in any religion the right of self-defense," said another 
commander, senior enough to be referred to as the Sheik, who was 
interviewed separately by telephone. Like the others, he lives and works in 
Sadr City, a trash-strewn, eight-square-mile district of east Baghdad that 
is home to more than 2 million Shiites. They spoke on condition that their 
names not be revealed and that specific areas of Sadr City under their 
control not be identified.

"The takfiris, the ones who kill, they should be killed," said the Sheik, 
using a term commonly employed by Shiites for violent Sunni extremists. 
"Also the Saddamists. Whose hands are stained with blood, they are 
sentenced to death."

"This is part of defending yourself," the commander said. "This is a 
ready-made verdict -- we don't need any verdict."

Before Feb. 22, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed a 
wave of sectarian killing and retribution, U.S. authorities and others 
believed the primary force behind Shiite death squads was the Badr Brigade, 
the militia of another large Shiite organization, the Supreme Council for 
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. But since the bombing, the Mahdi Army 
appears to have taken the lead in extrajudicial trials and executions, 
according to Joost Hiltermann, a project director in Jordan for the 
Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

For suspected enemies taken by the Mahdi Army, the outcome is swift, with 
guilt and punishment already determined, the commanders said.

"If we catch any of them, the takfiris, Saddamists, bombers, we don't hand 
them over to police. He could be freed the next day," the Sheik said.

The captured men get a rapid interrogation, he added. They are asked, "How 
do you come here? Who is working with you? Which organization is supporting 
you?"

"We get a full confession," he said. "Once we do, we know what to do with 
them."

A Widow's Story

In a darkened living room in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, 
the widow of a retired army officer -- a Sunni allegedly taken by the Mahdi 
Army after the Samarra bombing -- recounted the last hours of her husband's 
life, stopping her account only to call aloud to God for revenge.

Gunmen from outside the neighborhood surrounded the mosque where her 
husband and other men were at late-afternoon prayer, she said. It was Feb. 
23, the day after the shrine bombing. The armed strangers were wearing 
black clothes of the type then worn by the Mahdi Army. Sadr later ordered 
his fighters to discard the uniform, saying rivals were using it to commit 
killings in the guise of the Mahdi Army.

The gunmen took her husband and the other men to a police station in the 
Habibiya neighborhood of Sadr City, the black-clad widow said, surrounded 
by her daughters and granddaughters. Women of the neighborhood gathered in 
another room to pay their respects to the bereaved family. Some of the men 
were released, surviving to tell what happened. They recalled that her 
husband and three other retired officers from Saddam Hussein's military 
were subjected to a one-hour hearing.

"The trial was held in public, at 6 a.m., on Friday," she said. "At 10 
a.m., they called us to tell us to pick the body up from the morgue."

As directed, male relatives retrieved her husband's body from the Baghdad 
morgue. The corpse bore bullet holes in the face and chest, with both hands 
still cuffed behind the back.

Fearful despite her anger, she refused to say who she thought killed her 
husband. An 8-year-old granddaughter whispered the answer into her ear: 
"The Mahdi Army."

"Darling," the widow scolded, frowning at the child to be silent.

Asked about the Mahdi Army's role in the surge of killings immediately 
after the Samarra mosque bombing, the Mahdi Army commander in short sleeves 
at the restaurant frowned, and answered carefully. "Terrorists" were at 
work then, he said, using a term employed by Shiites for Sunni insurgents. 
"There was an immediate need to move and contain these groups," he said.

Grisly Discoveries

Thousands of bodies turned up on the streets and vacant lots of Baghdad in 
the months after the Samarra bombing, found by U.S. Army patrols, Iraqi 
forces, passersby and families of the dead. Unlike earlier in the conflict, 
when the biggest share of victims were killed by the bombs of Sunni 
insurgents, these corpses were found shot to death, often bearing signs of 
torture and with their hands still bound. Shiite militias were blamed for 
many of these deaths.

The Mahdi Army commanders who were interviewed balked at detailing how many 
people the militia may have killed, and how. American forces, by contrast, 
saw nothing but the end results.

One small unit alone, made up of roughly two dozen Americans helping train 
the Iraqi army in Sadr City, happened upon more than 200 bodies this year 
along roads on the edges of Sadr City, said 1st Lt. Zeroy Lawson, the 
unit's intelligence officer.

Witnesses and residents of Sadr City told the Americans that the victims 
had been brought from all over Baghdad, said Lawson and Capt. Troy Wayman, 
an officer in the same squad. Victims typically had their shoes removed and 
their hands bound, Lawson said, and were executed in public. The Americans 
said they suspect that the women they found dead, like the men found with 
their genitals mutilated, were judged guilty of extramarital sex.

Lawson and Wayman offered several examples. One was a female worker at a 
Sadr City clinic that Mahdi Army members believed was a brothel. The 
militiamen warned the women there to shut the place down, pistol-whipped 
them in public and then shot the worker dead on the street, the two 
Americans said.

In another case, Lawson spotted the unmoving form of a paunchy man in a 
checked shirt by the side of the road. Residents told Lawson that the man, 
a Sunni, had been taken from his home in Mansour, an affluent neighborhood 
of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians in central Baghdad. Accused of conspiring 
to drive Shiites from their homes, the Sunni man had been brought to Sadr 
City and shot dead where he now lay, witnesses told the Americans.

In late spring, Wayman recalled, the Americans in Sadr City happened upon 
uniformed Iraqi security forces clustered around the body of an Iraqi man. 
Gunmen had shot the man dead seconds before, then sped off when the Iraqi 
and U.S. forces happened by, Wayman said.

Americans traced the killers' vehicle to a nearby police station, where 
they found two grateful captives inside. The men were Christians who told 
Wayman they worked at a store elsewhere in Baghdad that sold alcohol. 
Gunmen had visited the shop to tell the men that alcohol was forbidden by 
the Koran and that they must shut down. When the two refused, they told 
Wayman, the gunmen stuffed them into a car at gunpoint and brought them to 
a house in Sadr City.

A Shiite cleric visited the two Christians at the house, they told Wayman. 
The cleric demanded that the captives convert to Islam and, when they 
refused, informed them that alcohol was forbidden by Islam.

They would be punished, the cleric said, but he did not specify how. The 
captives said they believed they were second and third in line for 
execution, after the man who was found in the street.

Mahdi Army commanders interviewed uniformly denied that they kill people 
for selling alcohol. The Mahdi Army only warns liquor vendors, increasingly 
strongly, they said. If the vendors still refuse to stop selling, the Mahdi 
Army "beats them lightly, in accordance with the Koran," the commander 
known as the Sheik said.

Lawson, the intelligence officer, credits the Mahdi Army with an 
intelligence operation that has become skilled at feeding bad information 
to Americans about the militia's activities. But U.S. military officials 
say they know enough to condemn much of what the Mahdi Army does.

"I have no doubt . . . they hold trial courts and execute people," said Lt. 
Col. Mark Meadows, commander of a cavalry regiment with the U.S. Army's 
10th Mountain Division. Meadows's men oversaw Shula, a northern Baghdad 
neighborhood under Sadr's control, at the time of the Samarra bombing. The 
Mahdi Army "is probably the largest, most aggressive militia in this 
country," Meadows said. "They are a terrorist organization. They terrorize 
people."

But Iraqi and U.S. security forces are often left as puzzled spectators in 
areas under the Mahdi Army's jurisdiction.

On patrol early one morning, Wayman and his convoy pulled over at the 
telltale sign of a group of Iraqi police gathered by the side of a road in 
northern Sadr City, eyes cast down.

The police officers made room for Wayman, who looked down at an Iraqi girl 
lying on her side. She appeared to be no more than 15. The morning light 
bathed her face, and her hands curled gently to her mouth. Wrapped in a 
blanket, she looked asleep, except for two bursts of pink flesh from bullet 
wounds in her back.

Neither American nor Iraqi forces had any inclination to investigate what 
had happened to the teenager.

"Who knows?" one of the Iraqi policeman said, preparing to bundle up the 
body. Wayman got back into his Humvee, and the Americans drove on.

--

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