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Reigns of Terror, Both Shiite and Sunni
Nir Rosen's Reflections on the State of Iraq as 2007 Draws to Close: Part 2 of 3
By NIR ROSEN 12/06/2007 09:26 AM ET
Iraqis inspect a booklet distributed by the police in the holy city of Karbala, 10 November 2007, showing victims allegedly killed by Shiite militiamen affiliated to the Mahdi Army.
Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty
Iraqis inspect a booklet distributed by the police in the holy city of Karbala, 10 November 2007, showing victims allegedly killed by Shiite militiamen affiliated to the Mahdi Army.

The Mahdi Army dominates Baghdad. Sunnis have been hunted not only by Shiites—both in and out of the government--but their battles with al Qaeda had weakened them and made them vulnerable on two fronts. The Mahdi Army, never very disciplined or hierarchical, eventually descended into localized gangs. When ordered to cease fighting by Muqtada in August, it was clear some would be unlikely to heed his orders. Muqtada had become merely a symbol for the warlords who fought in his name. Muqtada appointed sheikh Abbas al Kufi to investigate the misdeeds of Mahdi Army members. Kufi was head of ‘special groups’ for the Mahdi Army, who act as bodyguards for Muqtada, protect holy sites, and conduct investigations. Kufi appointed Sheikh Ahmad Kamel Yaaqubi as head of the “Golden Group,” another special unit of the Mahdi Army. Yaaqubi had been trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guard, and had visited Mecca with Muqtada for the Haj pilgrimage.

Abbas al Kufi had recently killed 33 Mahdi Army leaders. He tried to persuade Muqtada to disband the Mahdi Army and establish a new militia called “Jeish al Tahrir,” or the Army of Liberation, which would focus on fighting the Americans. Muqtada refused, explaining that the Mahdi Army had done a lot for Shiites. Despite their internal power struggles, Shiite militiamen understood that the American occupation obstructed the road to full control over Iraq. It took the Americans longer to realize that they had tried to play sectarian politics and lost, betting that the “good” Shiites would cooperate against the “bad” Sunnis. They had not counted on Shiite recalcitrance to cooperate fully.

As a result, and due to fear of Iran and pressure from “moderate” Sunni allies in the region, the Americans backed the creation of Sunni militias as a temporarily expedient measure. The move had indeed reduced the level of attacks against the Americans, their coalition allies, and the private security companies that guarded their convoys. But the creation of more warlords only helps to guarantee that Iraq will never exist as a state by promoting the same fissiparous tendencies that initially caused the civil war. At the most cynical level, instead of allowing for a winner in the civil war, it would prolong the fighting, and resembled the American dual containment strategy of the 1980s. The US now backs the Shiite government in Baghdad and its Shiite militia-dominated security forces, while backing Sunni militias, whose ultimate ambition is to receive funding, weapons and other assistance from the Americans so they could fight the Shiites.

Such was the case of Abu Risha, a member of the Sunni resistance who used to attack American convoys for his own profit, thus alienating the resistance. After al Qaeda killed his relatives, he went to war against them. The Americans and other tribes invented a title for him and the fiction that he was a leader, and he led the main Sunni militia in the Anbar province until his cousin from his mother’s side, Muhamad al Nmrawi, wired his car to blow up. Elsewhere, Sunni militias had imposed a reign of terror on their neighborhoods. In Amriya, a western Baghdad neighborhood long since emptied of Shiites and control by militias, Sunni students came to take their final high school examinations, many with their parents, to take their tests. Three gunmen entered the high school and kidnapped two students. They beheaded one and sent the other one back within an hour with a warning that this was the fate of those who crossed al Qaeda.

Then another militia showed up, this one belonging to the Islamic party. Its members rounded up all the students and led them to the yard, shooting into the air, removing the females from the males and threatening to kill the males. Many parents, including mothers, were waiting outside. The brother of the beheaded student led the militiamen, and told the terrified students that they would be killed because they had done nothing when the al Qaeda kidnappers took his brother.

Then the powerful Sheikh Abdallah Janabi showed up with his militia. Janabi, also known as Abu Muhamad, had led the mujahedin in Falluja, and had previously collaborated with al Qaeda. He ordered the men not to kill other Sunnis. At the same time some of the mothers had called the Iraqi National Guard, who were blocked from entry to the neighborhood by Janabi’s militia. They agreed and offered to help should they be needed. Janabi told the Islamic Party to give him some time and they agreed. His men soon returned with eight al Qaeda members, the men who had beheaded the student. The al Qaeda men explained that the boys had been writing anti al Qaeda slogans on walls and that one of them had a brother in the Islamic Party, so they had to make an example. Janabi told them that he would make an example of them. They were executed and hung in front of the school and all the people gathered there.

The Islamic Party fought with al Qaeda in Amriya and finally pushed al Qaeda out. Similar battles occurred in the volatile Dora district, but neither al Qaeda, nor the Islamic party led by Sheikh Ali Juneid could succeed in defeating the other.

Read yesterday's installment, "Violence in Iraq Was Never Senseless," and check back tomorrow for Part 3, "A Nation in Search of a Strongman."

Nir Rosen is a freelance journalist currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. He has spent years reporting from Iraq, writing for a number of publications, including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Magazine, and authored a book on the Iraqi insurgency, Inside the Belly of the Green Bird.

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