Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Militiamen fighting under the banner of radical Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are pumping themselves up with drugs before confronting coalition forces, according to U.S. military reports and State Department and Iraqi sources.

Although quelled in Najaf in August, the Mahdi’s Army militia is still active around southern Iraq and continues to largely control the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City — the target of repeated U.S. military air raids and tank patrols.

“They give their suicide bombers barbiturates, and the amphetamines are for street fighters who are facing off with the U.S.,” a State Department analyst said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Amphetamines are addictive stimulants that induce feelings of power, but in the long run can result in violent and aggressive behavior. Barbiturates, also addictive, are used to reduce anxiety, but can cause more anxiety and hallucinations once someone is dependent on them.

Most schools of Islam believe that the prohibition of alcohol in the Koran is applicable to other mind-altering substances, including narcotics.

An Iraqi engineer, incredulous at reports of drugs being bought and sold by the militia inside Sadr City mosques, sent a member of his staff to purchase a sample.

“She brought me capsules filled with powder — heroin — that they are selling everywhere in Baghdad and financing their fight from this trade,” said the engineer, who asked that his name not be used.

He said the heroin was entering the capital through the southern Iraqi cities of Amara and Basra — both Mahdi militia strongholds — from Iran.

U.S. military reports also have said that members of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army are using a local drug similar to the mildly euphoric stimulant known as khat, which is widely used across the Arabian Peninsula.

“Reports are that a large percentage, maybe as high as 85 percent of [Mahdi’s Army] fighters are using a hallucinogenic drug, Arteen, to provide courage during their attacks,” according to one document focusing on the security situation in southern Iraq.

The document said the drug made the typically black-clad fighters feel bolder and less fearful. It also “makes them less predictable and looking for fights,” it warned.

According to the State Department analyst, gunfights have broken out between members of the Mahdi’s Army fighting over their share of the drugs.

“There was a firefight in a mosque where two factions of Sadr guys shot each other to pieces over amphetamines,” the analyst said, citing eyewitness reports.

“It’s big-time stuff,” said the analyst, who added that the drug usage appeared limited to Iraqis — “regular guys on the street” — who had joined the cleric’s militia, and were not being used by “foreign fighters” bent on destroying U.S. efforts in Iraq.

The Mahdi’s Army is spread around southern Iraq, from Basra to Najaf and Sadr City in Baghdad, but it is not clear whether it is one coherent force or even whether Sheik al-Sadr has complete control over its members.

After the standoff with U.S. forces in Najaf in the summer, which ended with the country’s top religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, brokering a cease-fire, militia members appear to have focused their efforts in Sadr City.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are attacked on a daily basis in the slum area by black-masked militia members wielding small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Roadside bombs are common.

During the summer, Sheik al Sadr’s militia targeted military and civilian reconstruction projects throughout the south, coercing local Iraqi police to leave them alone or even to cooperate with them.

Separate military reports stated that Mahdi’s Army militiamen were roaming through southern Iraq setting up ambushes, overrunning Iraqi police stations and stealing weapons, vehicles and uniforms.

In one incident, a vehicle stopped on a road from Amara to Basra was found to be carrying some 1,000 mortar rounds, several mortar tubes, 200 rocket-propelled grenades, Katusha rockets and two bags of TNT.

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