BAGHDAD — Identity cards issued to members of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s illegal militia are brandished openly in areas controlled by the firebrand Muslim cleric, reflecting widespread defiance of the central government.
Other Iraqis also seek the protection of the cards, which ensure the bearer of safe passage in Sadr City — home to about 2 million Shi’ites in Baghdad — and parts of southern Iraq.
Private militias are theoretically banned in Iraq, but Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has cemented its control of the neighborhood so thoroughly that anyone wishing to travel to Sadr City must get permission from the local Sadr offices or risk getting killed.
One 23-year-old Sadr City resident said he uses his identity card to pass through militia checkpoints or enter certain buildings.
The Mahdi Army is feared throughout Baghdad because of its reputation for attacking the U.S. military and those working for the Americans, the young Shi’ite said.
“If I show this badge to a Sunni in Baghdad, he respects me,” he said proudly. “The Mahdi Army also kills Ba’ath party leaders who killed a lot of people — but they just kill the leaders.”
Even Western security companies, some of whom have clients working in the city, are cooperating with the system.
“In order for these guys to operate in Sadr City, they have to go to the local district office and get permission,” said one private security operator, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The ID cards are one more piece of security in a country, where street checkpoints can be run by the Iraqi police one day, imposters the next day and armed militiamen the day after that. There are at least five armed militias in Baghdad.
Before returning sovereignty to the Iraqis last year, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority issued an order that militias must disband or the political parties they represent would be denied from participating in the political process. Nine political parties signed onto the idea, but it was never enforced.
Now some political leaders are openly merging their militias into the government and civil society structures, including the security forces run by the Ministry of Interior.
“Security forces themselves are not always just responsible to government authorities,” said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“There is unquestionably killing going on by militias and armed gangs. In places like Basra and Babil and Baghdad, militias have been involved in extrajudicial killings as well as kidnapping.”
Sadr City has a police force and administration, but neither interferes with Sheik al-Sadr or his Mahdi Army, the Western security operator said. The system keeps terrorists out, but has created a mini-state beyond the government’s control.
Other militias are increasingly visible in other parts of Baghdad, each protecting the interests of its political patron. And there does not appear to be any concerted effort by the government to control them.