- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The militia of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr is increasingly being targeted by coalition forces who fear that the firebrand Shi’ite cleric’s ragtag fighters will push Iraq into civil war and exert control over southern towns as they did in 2004.

In what could be the first of many raids against Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, U.S. and Iraqi forces executed a strike early yesterday on a hide-out in Sadr City, the poor Shi’ite district in Baghdad from where the militia gets many of its recruits.

Army Gen. John Abizaid signaled a new get-tough approach in testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I wouldn’t characterize the target as being either Sadr or the Mahdi Army,” said Gen. Abizaid, the U.S. Central Command chief who oversees operations in Iraq. “I would say there are elements within the [Mahdi Army] that will be targeted because they’re participating in death-squad activities.”

The statement reflected the sensitivity with which U.S. commanders talk about violence in Baghdad. They have been reluctant to single out Sheik al-Sadr for the violence. A slate of his candidates won election to the new Iraqi parliament in December. A direct verbal or operational assault on the cleric could ignite more Shi’ite violence.

But administration officials, who asked not to be named, said there is no doubt that units within the Mahdi Army are committing much of the violence in Baghdad against Sunni Muslims and U.S. troops.

A Pentagon official, who asked not to be named, said the June 7 killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi and the methodical elimination of many of his aides have gutted the organization, and that some Sunni insurgents seem willing to end their attacks. Officials say the increasing problem is Sheik al-Sadr’s army.

“Preventing the Jaish [Army] al Mahdi from developing into a state within a state, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, will be a priority,” outgoing British Ambassador William Patey said in a memo leaked to the British Broadcasting Corp.

The United States says disarming and neutralizing the Mahdi Army is principally the job of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite.

“I believe that the prime minister and his government will take the steps necessary to get the sectarian violence under control and do what has to be done against the death squads,” Gen. Abizaid said.

Officials say Mr. al-Maliki’s battle with the Mahdi Army is partly a contest against Iran. Tehran’s Shi’ite-dominated regime is seeking to transform the Shi’ite south into Tehran-friendly territory that will vote for hard-line Islamist candidates opposed to the U.S. presence.

“In my opinion, there are groups within the Mahdi Army that are under the pay of the Iranian government [and] are terrorist organizations,” Gen. Abizaid said.

Sheik al-Sadr formed his army in June 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The cleric quickly built it into several thousand fighters, thanks to an influx of Iranian money used to meet a payroll and buy equipment and arms.

Twice, the sheik’s militia took control of key government buildings in southern Iraqi towns by force, and twice, the U.S. Army defeated it and forced Sheik al-Sadr to call cease-fires.

Now, the militia is back, more violent than ever. Gen. Abizaid described its strategy as “trying to ensure that the Iraqi government, as voted, fails, and that they become ascendant.”

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