- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

BAGHDAD | As the sun came up on a recent morning in the district of Sadr City, Iraqi army troops searched as many as a thousand houses, arresting a dozen suspects and collecting nearly 50 unregistered weapons.

Four months ago, these streets, some too narrow for Humvees, were controlled by the Jaish al-Mahdi, a Shi’ite militia whose name in Arabic means the Mahdi Army, which in 2006 poured out of Sadr City and took over large parts of Baghdad.

“When you ask if the Mahdi Army could return as a military power, I don’t think so,” said Maj. Nadhim Khadim of the Iraqi army’s 11th Division, the only one that operates entirely without U.S. advisers.

Even though the Iraqi army now has as many as 3,500 soldiers in the area, many residents still fear that the militia - most of whose leadership fled before the army entered - will return.

“I’m looking for a safer job,” said one young man, who is a medical student from Sadr City and works as a translator for the U.S. military. “The militia will come back.”

As part of the deal brokered with Tayyera Sadrieen, the political party linked to the militia and led by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, U.S. troops remain south of a three-mile wall that bisects the neighborhood.

Militia fighters put up heavy resistance in April and May as the wall was installed, and U.S. armored vehicles and air power were integral to the operation. Even now, the Iraqi army commanders acknowledge they are dependent on the U.S. for resupply and air support. However, they are steadily being asked to take a greater role in providing security.

President Bush said Thursday that the surge of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq that began early last year had ended. He also said that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, will soon make recommendations on future troop levels, which will include “further reductions in our combat forces as conditions permit.”

But the Iraqi army’s capability to stand alone against the militia remains untested because a cease-fire with the Mahdi Army has largely held since troops entered Sadr City.

The recent search carried out by the army only turned up light weapons, and none of the suspects brought in for questioning was a major militia figure. Larger weapons remain hidden, according to members of the Mahdi Army.

“Now we are waiting for the cease-fire to stop so we can show the Iraqi army what we will do to them,” said Ali, a 21-year-old member of the militia who showed off IEDs and said that most of the group’s heavy weaponry had been moved or well-hidden before the Iraqi army arrived.

The Iraqi army in the last few weeks has taken up positions on Shwader Street, where thousands of Sadrists pray outdoors each Friday. On a recent Friday, men from the Sadr office linked arms to prevent young men from confronting the army. The presence of the army at Friday prayers has heavy overtones of the previous government, which forbade such large gatherings entirely.

“We had three Saddams. The first is gone. The second wears a hat. The third wears sunglasses,” Ali said, referring to Amar al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), a rival Shi’ite political party, and Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.

Keeping young men like Ali in check might be the greatest challenge in maintaining a cease-fire ahead of provincial elections. The elections, which have been delayed because of an impasse over a power-sharing deal in the ethnically diverse oil-rich city of Kirkuk, may not be held until early 2009.

Tayyera Sadrieen’s spokesman, Saleh al-Obaidi, said that the Iraqi government is using the cease-fire to allow the Iraqi army and the U.S. military to arrest criminal elements of the militia to attack the Sadrieen as a whole.

“They are afraid that during the coming elections, they will not have the same results as in the last elections. During the last elections, Iraqis did not understand the importance of local councils. Now they do, and they do not want the local councils dominated by certain political parties,” he said, referring to the SIIC.

Mr. al-Obaidi said that Friday prayers have been shut down at Sadrist mosques across the south and that as many as 10,000 Sadrists are in U.S. custody and as many as 6,000 are in Iraqi prisons. The operation in Sadr City took place shortly after a similar operation in Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, in which the U.S. supported the Iraqi army before a cease-fire was brokered.

South of the wall, where the U.S. military continues its operations against the militia, soldiers proudly guide journalists through markets where merchants can once again operate without paying taxes levied by the militia.

The militia’s “capabilities are severely, severely degraded,” said Capt. Andrew Slack of the First Armored Division. “They have talking power - threats, graffiti - but they don’t have the means to contest coalition forces right now.”

Capt. Slack noted that part of the militia’s strength and appeal is its dual role as a political party. A major issue is whether Mr. al-Maliki will follow through with a request that the U.S. military set a timetable for withdrawal - a demand that since 2003 has made Mr. al-Sadr a popular figure.

Mr. al-Sadr, who is thought to have been in Iran for the last 18 months, regularly issues policy statements, most recently urging the government on Thursday not to sign an accord being negotiated with Washington that will govern the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

Sam Parker, an Iraq specialist with the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said Mr. al-Sadr still commands a large degree of popular support and would get a response if he issued a call to arms, even though the cleric’s influence has waned.

“We probably saw his movement at its strongest earlier this year,” Mr. Parker said.

The U.S. military and government claim Iran heavily supports the militia, a claim Mr. al-Obaidi said is exaggerated.

“We have the right to cooperate with anyone who can help us here and there, including the Iranians. But we are not the followers of the Iranian decision,” he said. “Our agenda is working against the occupation.”

It is the SIIC that is most heavily supported by Iran and closer to the government there, Mr. al-Obaidi said.

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