- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Prominent Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a foe of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, has lost control of his Mahdi Army, which has embarked on a wide range of criminal activity, defense officials said.

The officials said the Mahdi Army, which once confined most of its activities to protecting the firebrand cleric’s religious turf and trying to dominate towns in Shi’ite southern Iraq, has become a criminal organization that commits homicides, kidnappings and robberies in the Baghdad area.

“They are killing Sunnis. Looting,” said a defense official briefed on the Mahdi Army’s growing violence. “It has become a gang of thugs. Sadr has lost control.”

Sources said Army Gen. George Casey, during his trip to Washington last week for talks with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, raised the Mahdi Army as a growing obstacle to peace.

Gen. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, gave no indication that U.S. forces will move against the thousands of Mahdi Army militiamen. But it was clear to those who heard Gen. Casey’s talks that the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have to confront the militia with force if he is to carry out his goal of reducing violence in Baghdad.

Officials said they think the Mahdi Army is responsible for many of the execution-style killings of Sunni Muslims, whose bodies are found regularly dumped in the city and its suburbs.

The Mahdi Army is backed financially by Shi’ite-dominated Iran, which has poured agents and cash into southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“Iran is encouraging lawlessness,” the defense source said.

In a press conference Thursday, Gen. Casey listed “illegal armed groups” as one of four major security challenges in Iraq, along with meddling from Iran, the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq. He did not mention the Mahdi Army by name, but officials said he considers it an illegally armed group.

“These illegal armed groups are operating outside the rule of law,” he said. “They need to be dealt with through a combination of political influence and security forces, and they will be. The government has stepped up to the challenge, has issued instructions for enforcing weapons bans in and around Baghdad and is committed to dealing with the illegal armed groups issue to protect their citizens.”

Sheik al-Sadr created the militia shortly after U.S. forces ousted Saddam. U.S. intelligence sources said it has grown from a few hundred to perhaps 10,000, armed with AK-47s, mortars and explosives.

Twice in 2004, the U.S. Army launched successful offensive operations when the militia gained control of towns and villages. American soldiers, backed by Abrams main battle tanks, killed hundreds of Sheik al-Sadr’s armed followers.

But the Mahdi Army has risen again, capitalizing on the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from the south and its ability to infiltrate the Iraqi police force and army.

Iran backs the army through training and money, defense officials said. Tehran’s meddling has reached the point where Gen. Casey singled out the regime for criticism.

“We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, [improvised explosive device] technology and training to Shi’a extremist groups in Iraq,” Gen. Casey said.

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