Saturday, June 21, 2014

Answering a Cleric’s Call, Iraqi Shiites Take Up Arms

from nytimes

BAGHDAD — The long lines of Shiite fighters began marching through the capital early Saturday morning. Some wore masks. One group of fighters had yellow and green suicide charges, which they said were live, strapped to their chests.
As the hours passed, they swelled into a seemingly unending procession of volunteers with rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, backed by mortar crews and gun and rocket trucks. 
The Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force that once led a Shiite rebellion against American troops here, was making its largest show of force since years before the American war ended in 2011. This time, its fighters were raising arms against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Qaeda splinter group that has driven Iraq’s security forces from parts of the country’s north and west.
Chanting “One, two, three, Mahdi!” they implored their leader, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, to send them to battle.
“ISIS is not as strong as a finger against us," said one fighter, Said Mustafa, who commanded a truck carrying four workshop-grade rockets, each, he said, packed with C4 explosive. “If Moktada gives us the order, we will finish ISIS in two days.”
A Mahdi Army rally in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on Saturday. CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times
The Mahdi Army rally in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on Saturday was the largest and most impressive paramilitary display so far, but there were also mass militia parades in other cities, including Najaf and Basra on Saturday, and smaller rallies in Baghdad on Friday, equally motivated by what participants described as patriotic and religious fervor.
Large sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq’s Shiite heartland have been swept up in a mass popular mobilization, energized by the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists. Shiite and mixed neighborhoods now brim with militias, who march under arms, staff checkpoints and hold rallies to sign up more young men.
Together they have formed a patchwork of seasoned irregulars who once resisted American occupation, Iranian proxies supported by Tehran, and pop-up Shiite tribal fighting groups that are rushing young men to brief training courses before sending them to fight beside the Iraqi Army against ISIS.
It is a mobilization freighted with passion, confusion and grave risk.
Militia members and leaders insist they have taken up arms to defend their government, protect holy places and keep their country from breaking up along sectarian or ethnic lines. They have pledged to work alongside the Iraqi Army.
But as Iraq lurches toward sectarian war, the prominent role of Shiite-dominated militias could also exacerbate sectarian tensions, hardening the sentiments that have allowed the Sunni militants to succeed.
Moreover, some of the militias have dark histories that will make it hard for them to garner national support. Some commanders have been linked to death squads that carried out campaigns of kidnappings and killing against Sunnis, including from hospitals.
Against this background, even as more armed men have appeared on the streets, Shiite clerics have taken pains to cast the mobilization as a unity movement, even if it has a mostly Shiite face.
“Our mission is to explain to the people what Ayatollah Sistani said,” said Sheikh Emad al-Gharagoli, after leading prayers Thursday afternoon at the Maitham al-Tamar Mosque in Sadr City. “He said, ‘Do not make your own army, this army does not belong to the Shia. It belongs to all of Iraq. It is for the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds and the Christians.’ ”
The clerics have also said the mobilization will be temporary, that the militias will be disbanded once the ISIS threat subsides.
But for now, with ISIS holding territory and having recently been on the offensive, the Shiite militias have focused on growing larger and more lethal.
Their leaders are busy with a host of daunting practical matters intended to convert a religious call to a coherent fighting force.
Sheikh Haidar al-Maliki, who is organizing fighters of the Bani Malik tribe in Baghdad, said he had been in constant consultation with the government to ensure that the tribe’s call-up ran efficiently.
He has been seeking letters from the army that volunteers can show their employers to protect their jobs while they are fighting, and asking for uniforms and weapons for the few men who have not appeared with their own. He said he was also asking for government-issued identification cards, so that as thousands of armed men head to and from battle, it might be possible to know who is who at checkpoints along the way.
The Bani Malik militia is new. The tribe’s volunteers, at one registration rally, showed up with mismatched weapons and uniforms. Many of the weapons were dated. Some were in disrepair.
Nonetheless, he said, in a week, he had already sent hundreds of young men to military bases, where they are trained for a few days before shipping out to provinces where the army has been fighting ISIS.
“We do it step by step,” he said. “But we work very quickly.”
His militias had already fought in Mosul and near Baquba, he said. On Thursday, the first of its members died of battle wounds.
Other young men have been lining up to replace the fallen.
Ahmed al-Maliki, 23, a business-management student, said he had begun military training more than a month ago, in anticipation that ISIS’s campaign would grow.
A Mahdi Army rally in Baghdad’s Sadr City drew tens of thousands of Shiite fighters Saturday.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times
His training, even before Ayatollah Sistani’s June 13 call to arms, pointed to what Sheikh al-Maliki said was the Shiite tribes’ realization early this year, after ISIS seized Fallujah, that they needed to prepare for clashes with Sunni extremists.
The recent call-up, he said, was a public step that invigorated a body of quieter work already well underway.
The Bani Malik tribe had organized volunteers into 25-man units, each led by an active-duty Iraqi soldier who had been training them in weapons, small-unit tactics and communications.
Ahmed al-Maliki said he had never served in the army, and did not fight as a militant during the American occupation from 2003 to 2011.
But in the preparatory system that his tribe had organized this spring, he had learned to use a Kalashnikov that his family owned and other weapons under the instruction of Mustafa al-Maliki, a three-year Iraqi Army veteran.
“I don’t have any experience in the army,” Ahmed said. “But I can serve my country and do as Ayatollah Sistani says.”
For the Mahdi Army, the mobilization has not been a matter of creating a militia, but of preparing fighters for battle again.
Many of its members marching on Friday and Saturday had combat experience. They appeared in uniforms and with many newer weapons, typically in a better state of cleanliness and repair.
One member, who gave only a first name, Ahmed, said he had been with the Mahdi Army since 2004, and fought many times.
A Mahdi Army leader, Hakim al-Zamili, a member of Iraq’s Parliament who was accused of organizing death squads when he served as Iraq’s deputy health minister, appeared with a Mahdi unit on Friday evening and said that he intended to fight ISIS personally.
Mr. Zamili had been captured and held by American forces, and was released only after an Iraqi government trial on terrorism charges stalled after witnesses did not appear. He suggested that experienced militias would prove more nimble than Iraq’s conventional army.
“Why do the terrorists win battles against the Iraqi Army?” he asked. “Because the army is afraid to do what it must. They don’t have the right leadership.”
“The Army waits for orders,” he continued. “But the militias will do it quickly. We can seize a place and then give it to the army.”
A Mahdi fighter, who declined to give his name, framed it another way. “There is a difference between army fighting and street fighting,” he said. “We are street fighters.”
On one point the militias have been firm: In interviews throughout the past week, clerics and fighters for different groups said they did not want American ground forces in Iraq again, even to fight ISIS.
Some of the militias said they would, however, welcome other forms of military aid, and did not oppose President Obama’s commitment to send military advisers to Baghdad.
“We need matériel, and guns, and intelligence, or drones,” Sheikh al-Maliki said.
The sheikh said Iraq would also need Washington’s political and diplomatic help, in particular to try to sever ISIS’s foreign support, including, he said, from donors in Persian Gulf states and Turkey.
“If America helps us in these ways,” he said, “we can stop them.”
Deep divisions remain between many Shiite tribes and militias, which have competed for resources, power and standing, and had varied relations with Iran. For now, Sheikh al-Maliki and Mr. Zamili said, they have set aside most of their disagreements to face a common foe.
“We have differences,” Mr. Zamili said. “But in front of our enemies, we are one.”

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