BAGHDAD — Less than six months after an American air strike ended Abu Musab Zarqawi’s campaign of Sunni terrorism, an equally brutal fanatic has emerged on the Shi’ite side of the religious divide.
Abu Deraa’s trademark method of killing is a drill through the skull rather than a sword to the neck, but his work rate is just as prolific as the former al Qaeda in Iraq leader’s and shows the same diabolical artistry.
In the past year, he and his followers are thought to have killed thousands of Sunnis, their victims’ bodies symbolically dumped in road craters left by al Qaeda car bombs.
Stopping monsters such as Abu Deraa — whose nom de guerre means “the shield” — is a top U.S. priority as it tries to halt sectarian violence, which regularly claims 100 lives a day.
But the Shi’ite-dominated government has shown a marked reluctance to sanction the kind of large-scale operation necessary to arrest him in his stronghold of Sadr City, a vast Shi’ite slum in eastern Baghdad.
Taking action against him could cost it valuable support among other Shi’ite militias who, despite official disdain for Abu Deraa’s bloodthirstiness, value the fear that such a loose cannon inspires in their enemies.
“We are proud of leaders like Abu Deraa,” said Hassan Allami, 25, a fighter with the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army, which Abu Deraa quit earlier this year to form his own faction. “His drills destroy the crazy minds of the Sunnis.”
The worsening of interreligious bloodshed reflects badly on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose chief task when he took power in June was to win back Sunni confidence in the political process by stamping out the tacit backing of Shi’ite militias such as the Mahdi’s Army.
Yet, increasingly, men such as Abu Deraa appear to operate beyond anyone’s control. He is among at least 20 former Mahdi’s Army commanders who are pursuing their own agendas, sometimes sectarian, often simply criminal.
Sheik al-Sadr may be a thug himself, coalition officials say, but at least he represented a single, identifiable authority. If dozens of freelance players emerge alongside him, negotiation becomes impossible.
“The whole thing is becoming increasingly localized, with people like Sadr being outflanked by extremists whom he can’t control,” said Eric Herring, the British author of “Iraq in Fragments,” a study released last year that charts Iraq’s breakup into innumerable competing factions. “It’s possible that we may eventually remember Sadr as a moderate.”
The emergence of local warlords with their own agendas is not confined to the sectarian front lines of Baghdad. In the city of Amara, in Shi’ite-dominated southern Iraq, local Sadrists are in a violent power struggle with the Badr Brigade, a rival Shi’ite militia backed by Iran.
In the capital, the two factions sit together as fellow members of the Shi’ite Unity parliamentary block. But in Amara, they have been fighting pitched battles since the British army ended its permanent presence in the city in August.
Both factions have tried to stake out political territory by introducing rafts of Taliban-style restrictions, including banning music at weddings, segregating schools, shutting Internet cafes and stopping people from watching Western satellite-TV channels.
“The Mahdi Army heard I had a satellite dish that was tuned to the Western channels,” said Abu Fadl, 45, a teacher. “They went up to my roof, removed it and then beat me. Then they sold the receiver in the central market. They aren’t doing this for God, just to show who is in power.”