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'Martyrs' list' shows trouble in Iraqi militia

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Loyalists within Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia network call it the "martyrs' list," and it's long and growing: At least three dozen senior members killed in slayings or fighting since last summer and nearly 60 others detained.

The internal document -- obtained by The Associated Press -- offers a rare look at how the top echelon of the Mahdi Army militia is assessing the sustained blows to its once-mighty shadow state and the challenges to its absentee leader al-Sadr, who is holed up in Iran.

It also underscores the twin pressures on al-Sadr's followers.

Shiite rivals are waging gangland-style hits with diminishing fear of reprisals. Iraqi-led forces, meanwhile, are pressing their advantage against al-Sadr's weakened network -- militia cells, quasi-civic groups and street-level operatives who have all crafted reputations as the champions of the Shiite poor.

Each chip in al-Sadr's power base seems to tip the scales a bit more in favor of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his pro-American allies. Most important, the shifts give the government more confidence and room to widen its influence over Shiite politics, the key to control of the country.

As recently as this spring, the Mahdi Army still looked to be gaining ground on its dream of influencing Iraqi affairs the way Hezbollah exerts itself in Lebanon. Now, the al-Sadr leadership is penning more names onto its list and looking how to rebound.

The latest entry in the martyrs' list was July 18 after gunmen waited at a highway choke point to ambush Sheik Saffaa al-Lami, a midlevel al-Sadr functionary.

He joined 35 other names, including Riyadh al-Nouri, the director of al-Sadr's office in the southern city of Najaf Al-Nouri was gunned down in April as he returned from Friday prayers.

The list also has at least 58 midlevel to senior figures and militia commanders who have been detained by U.S. or Iraqi forces.

The al-Sadr leadership began the tally last summer to count perceived abuses after the Mahdi Army declared a shaky truce. Many of the incidents on the list were widely reported, but some could not be independently confirmed.

"No doubt we are facing pressures," Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for the al-Sadr movement, told the AP. "Each time we are hit, it encourages others to do the same. But, I assure you, we are not going to break or disappear."

The Mahdi Army has never released figures on its membership, but the Iraq Study Group in December 2006 estimated it could have ranged as high as 60,000 fighters. Defections and feuds suggest the current number is smaller.

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, also is gaining some breathing space on another front as al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents are down to only a few key footholds around Iraq.

So who is hunting the al-Sadr ranks?

The targeted slayings are widely blamed on power struggles between al-Sadr's militia and government-allied Shiite groups, which have been mostly absorbed into the security forces.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr's own foundations may be cracking.

Some factions are drifting into the government's fold before important provincial elections, which could come late this year. The mainline al-Sadr forces do not plan to field candidates.

"There is a perception of weakness around al-Sadr now and people will take advantage of that," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The Mahdi Army is also on its heels after a series of Iraqi-led offensives that began in March in the southern oil hub of Basra. It then spread to other al-Sadr strongholds, including Baghdad's Sadr City -- named for the cleric's father.

The security forces said the main target was breakaway militia groups backed by Iran and not the regular Mahdi Army. But the net effect left the Mahdi Army uprooted in its main areas.

Al-Sadr, however, has been an outside observer from the Iranian seminary city of Qom since last year. His aides say he is engaged in religious study. But his absence from Iraq has opened speculation that Tehran could want to bolster ties with al-Makiki and doesn't want the firebrand al-Sadr in the mix.

Al-Obeidi would not elaborate on al-Sadr's self-exile. But he acknowledged: "It encourages our enemies."

No military commander is ready to dismiss the chance of a Mahdi Army resurgence. But its current trajectory shows how much -- and how rapidly -- its fortunes have changed.

The ambush of Sheik al-Lami offers something of a road map to the Mahdi Army's diminished grip.

Until about May, the New Baghdad district where he was killed was fully under the control of Mahdi Army checkpoints and patrols that flew banners of al-Sadr. Iraqi forces now move through the area at will.

At his funeral procession, a few hardline Mahdi Army militants chanted against the Iraqi military, calling them occupiers. A shopkeeper, who gave his name only as Ahmed, watched the cortege and dismissed it with a wave of his hand.

"The Mahdi Army acted like kings here and not like helpers of the people," he complained.

Ahmed -- still too fearful of Mahdi Army backers to give his full name -- said the al-Sadr network had controlled nearly everything from the price of cooking fuel to what type of displays appeared in store windows. He put up a poster of al-Sadr to avoid any trouble.

In many places around Baghdad, the former swagger of al-Sadr's followers has given way to worries about trying to hold the movement together.

On Friday in Sadr City, an imam finished prayers by chastising members of al-Sadr's bloc in parliament for appearing to abandon the former Mahdi Army strongholds.

"They stay away like they are strangers," said Sattar al-Battat. "Either they rally to our side or we should cast them off."

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