The New York Times has an excellent story on the loss of prestige and influence of the Mahdi Army and the rising collaboration between the Shiite population and the US military in taking on the militias. This complex change in the relations between the various party’s is both encouraging, and tragic. Encouraging because the official leadership of the Mahdi Army is discredited, and desperately seeking to come to an accommodation with the coalition, tragic because the change is partially due to the “success” of ethnic cleansing efforts:
The hardening Shiite feeling in Baghdad opens an opportunity for the American military, which has long struggled against the Mahdi Army, as American commanders rely increasingly on tribes and local leaders in their prosecution of the war.
The sectarian landscape has shifted, with Sunni extremists largely defeated in many Shiite neighborhoods, and the war in those places has sunk into a criminality that is often blind to sect.
While the Mahdi militia still controls most Shiite neighborhoods, early evidence that Shiites are starting to oppose some parts of the militia is surfacing on American bases. Shiite sheiks, the militia’s traditional base, are beginning to contact Americans, much as Sunni tribes reached out early this year, refocusing one entire front of the war, officials said, and the number of accurate tips flowing into American bases has soared.
Shiites are “participating like they never have before,” said Maj. Mark Brady, of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad Reconciliation and Engagement Cell, which works with tribes.
“Something has got to be not right if they are going to risk calling a tips hot line or approaching a J.S.S.,” he said, referring to the Joint Security Stations, the American neighborhood mini-bases set up after the troop increase this year.
“Everything is changing,” said Ali, a businessman in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Ur, in eastern Baghdad, who, like most of those interviewed, did not want his full name used for fear of being attacked. “Now in our area for the first time everyone say, ‘To hell with Mahdi Army.’
“Not loudly on the street, but between friends, between families. Every man, every woman, say that.”
Like many Shiites, Abbas, the car parts dealer, attributes part of the drop-off to a new precision in American arrests, fed by tips from Shiite residents. Abbas said he and his friends had a name for the Americans, the Janet Brothers, a tongue-in-cheek term of tribal respect that plays off an American name. Another name, Madonna Brothers, refers to the American pop star.
American commanders like Lt. Col. David Oclander, of the Second Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose area includes Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, have seized on that cooperation. In the past month and a half, he said, Shiite leaders have begun to make contact with the Americans. The brigade is now working with 25 sheiks in the Shiite neighborhoods of Shaab and Ur and is interviewing up to 1,200 candidates for semiofficial neighborhood guard positions.
The lieutenant colonel compares the shift among the Shiites to the one in Sunni neighborhoods that began to turn against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence agencies say is foreign led.
In some cases, residents seem more willing to stand up to the Mahdi Army. In Topchi, several businessmen refused to pay protection money to Mahdi Army members this month. The news spread through the neighborhood. Four months ago, a truck driver was killed in Lieutenant Colonel Oclander’s sector, after the driver’s boss refused to pay protection money. Such retribution is much rarer now, he said.
Ali, the Ur businessman, said he expected the Mahdi Army to be much smaller in the future. People simply do not believe its leaders anymore. “There is no ideology among them anymore,” he said.
As proof, he told a story from his neighborhood about a religious man and a car acquisition.
“He was a poor man, but now he has a Mercedes-Benz,” Ali said. “The Prophet Muhammad, he didn’t even have a horse.”
Of course, in many ways al Sadr has been a boon, if a mixed, cruel and vicious one as his supporters attacked sunni revanchists and al Qaeda, to the American cause in Iraq. Much of the militia activity since 2004 has been beyond Sadr’s control, and his desperate decision to explicitly order his followers shows that:
In a last-ditch effort to re-establish control and respect, Mr. Sadr issued an order halting all Mahdi Army activity in August.
Abu Jafar, the spokesman, said that “the goal of this statement is to uncover the bad people that claim membership in the Mahdi Army and to let the security forces deal with them.”
Not that this is a new point, a few have made it over the past few years including John Wixted and Bartle Bull:
Back in 2004 and 2005, there was an insurgency in Iraq driven by former Baathists who wanted to restore themselves to power. In 2006 and 2007, most people (and all Democrats) thought they witnessed a civil war break out in Iraq as casualties increased dramatically. What they actually witnessed was a declaration of war by al Qaeda and a response by Muqtada al Sadr’s Shiite militia. What you are watching now is al Qaeda starting to lose the war they started. I obviously don’t know what the future holds, but I can say that the recent trends are very favorable.
H/T: Pajama’s Media
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