A senior member of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iraqi Shi’ite militia, the Mahdi Army, says the group is forming a squadron of up to 1,500 elite fighters to go to Lebanon.
The plan reflects the potential of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah to strengthen radical elements in Iraq and neighboring countries and to draw other regional players into the Lebanon conflict.
“We are choosing the men right now,” said Abu Mujtaba, who works in the loosely organized following of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “We are preparing the right men for the job.”
Mr. Mujtaba, who was interviewed in Baghdad, said some of the men have had special training but did not specify what kind.
Sheik al-Sadr’s black-clad armed militia numbers in the thousands, operates throughout central and southern Iraq and is thought to be responsible for numerous killings of Sunnis.
A rival Sunni cleric, Abdul Rahman al-Duleimi, said he knew about the militia’s recruiting effort and that he had appealed to his own followers to fight Israel.
“We know that the Mahdi militia is on this issue since the Lebanon-Israeli crisis started,” said Sheik al-Duleimi, whose house in Baghdad contains a large portrait of former ruler Saddam Hussein. The cleric is not related to Adnan al-Dulaimi, also a Sunni cleric and leader of a major faction in parliament.
Sheik al-Duleimi said that during prayers on Friday, he “called the people to volunteer, and if they cannot, they should donate anything. I called on people to donate even one bullet, because maybe this one bullet will kill one Israeli.”
Government officials said they knew nothing of the Mahdi militia’s plans, although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has condemned Israel’s assault on Lebanon and said he will discuss it with President Bush during a scheduled visit to the White House tomorrow.
“The hostile acts against Lebanon will have effects on the region, and we are not far from what is going on in Lebanon,” Mr. al-Maliki said Saturday. “We will speak to the United Nations and American government to call for a cease-fire quickly.”
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowafaq al-Rubaie, said he had not heard of any Iraqis planning to go to Lebanon, “and if I had heard it, I don’t have a comment.”
Mr. Mujtaba shrugged off the government reaction, saying the Mahdi militia has been keeping its moves quiet until it has everything ready.
“If some politicians or Iraqis laugh at us, I think the coming days will prove these reports and we will see who is defending Islam to prove he is a Muslim and who is not,” he said.
Other Shi’ite groups in Baghdad are rumored to be gathering donations to help the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, where the Islamist group has come under fierce attack since kidnapping two Israeli soldiers on July 12.
Sheik al-Sadr has openly voiced support for Iran — Hezbollah’s main sponsor — and on Friday urged Iraqis to stand behind Lebanon to confront the “common enemy,” Israel.
“We say no, a thousand nos to Israel and its terrorism, and everybody should know that we in Iraq will not stay quiet against the rampaging Zionists,” Agence France-Presse quoted Sheik al-Sadr as saying in a statement issued from his home in the southern Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the Mahdi militia’s claim to be sending a force to Lebanon could be exaggerated, but that Sheik al-Sadr stood to gain a lot by sending volunteers to help Hezbollah.
“He shows he is a fighter for the Arab cause at a time when the Iraqi government cannot, which gives him support at the local level in Iraq and makes him into a regional rather than a local figure, even if it isn’t real,” he said.
“He gains power and status as a person seen as willing to take such risks,” Mr. Cordesman said.
Mr. Mujtaba said the Mahdi militia was figuring out how to get its fighters to Lebanon without the help of the Iraqi government.
“People have volunteered … but as this is not the government, we cannot use planes. We need to go by land,” he said.
The most direct land route would be across Iraq’s western Anbar province to Jordan or Syria. Because of border restrictions, Jordan would be an unlikely crossing point, Iraqis said. Syria is an important backer of Hezbollah but may not want to be seen as helping Mahdi militia fighters reach Lebanon.
Sheik al-Duleimi said the fight in Lebanon extends beyond the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, and that it is a struggle between Muslims and the American-Israeli alliance.
“This is a must-do, to show all the Arabs that Iraq is still standing,” said the Sunni cleric.
“And the other reason is we want to extend the fighting range so they will know Lebanon is not just one country and Iraq is not just one country, it is Muslims from all over the world,” he said.
“I have ex-officers and young college students and workers who volunteer, and I think if you come to the next Friday prayers you will find more supporters and donations.”