October 31, 2005
BAGHDAD -- Identity cards issued to members of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr's illegal militia are brandished openly in areas controlled by the firebrand Muslim cleric, reflecting widespread defiance of the central government.
Other Iraqis also seek the protection of the cards, which ensure the bearer of safe passage in Sadr City -- home to about 2 million Shi'ites in Baghdad -- and parts of southern Iraq.
Private militias are theoretically banned in Iraq, but Sheik al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has cemented its control of the neighborhood so thoroughly that anyone wishing to travel to Sadr City must get permission from the local Sadr offices or risk getting killed.
One 23-year-old Sadr City resident said he uses his identity card to pass through militia checkpoints or enter certain buildings.
The Mahdi Army is feared throughout Baghdad because of its reputation for attacking the U.S. military and those working for the Americans, the young Shi'ite said.
"If I show this badge to a Sunni in Baghdad, he respects me," he said proudly. "The Mahdi Army also kills Ba'ath party leaders who killed a lot of people -- but they just kill the leaders."
Even Western security companies, some of whom have clients working in the city, are cooperating with the system.
"In order for these guys to operate in Sadr City, they have to go to the local district office and get permission," said one private security operator, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The ID cards are one more piece of security in a country, where street checkpoints can be run by the Iraqi police one day, imposters the next day and armed militiamen the day after that. There are at least five armed militias in Baghdad.
Before returning sovereignty to the Iraqis last year, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority issued an order that militias must disband or the political parties they represent would be denied from participating in the political process. Nine political parties signed onto the idea, but it was never enforced.
Now some political leaders are openly merging their militias into the government and civil society structures, including the security forces run by the Ministry of Interior.
"Security forces themselves are not always just responsible to government authorities," said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"There is unquestionably killing going on by militias and armed gangs. In places like Basra and Babil and Baghdad, militias have been involved in extrajudicial killings as well as kidnapping."
Sadr City has a police force and administration, but neither interferes with Sheik al-Sadr or his Mahdi Army, the Western security operator said. The system keeps terrorists out, but has created a mini-state beyond the government's control.
Other militias are increasingly visible in other parts of Baghdad, each protecting the interests of its political patron. And there does not appear to be any concerted effort by the government to control them.
"There is no government now," said Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni leader and interior minister under the short-lived transitional government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Every major political bloc has its own mini-army. Armed peshmerga -- Kurdish guerrillas famous for their fighting skills -- can be seen walking on the broken sidewalks in certain areas of Baghdad.
The Iranian-trained Badr Brigade, which answers to the political party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), are also armed and on the streets -- as well as inside the offices of the Ministry of Interior.
Political leader Ahmed Chalabi, once favored by the Pentagon but now apparently operating on his own, reportedly controls some of the 5,000 U.S.-trained fighters that arrived with him in 2003.
The young Shi'ite Sadr supporter with the card explained it this way -- "Militias control little areas, like the Kurds protect Kurdish parts because they do not trust the Arabs. The Badr do the same thing," protecting party leaders -- including the interior minister -- and their families, he said.
Former Sunni soldiers, unemployed because of the de-Ba'athification program, also have formed militias.
Some of these Sunnis belong to the insurgency that -- together with vast criminal networks and religious militants such as Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi -- has practically destroyed Iraq.
But other Sunnis want to retaliate against Shi'ite death squads, and some are just waiting for the civil war they fear will break out if the next round of elections does not produce a more balanced government.
"This has to be solved or there will be no more security in this country," said Mr. al-Naqib, speaking in his private home in Baghdad.
Weapons are easily available in Iraq. Some come from vast arsenals of former dictator Saddam Hussein that were opened up after the U.S. military took control of the country.
The rest can be bought on the black market. A new Beretta 9 mm handgun is going for $600, and an AK-47 costs between $200 and $250 for a short barrel. A Browning pistol with 16 bullets is about $900, and a PKC light machine gun is available for $500 to $600.
"Everything is available on the black market, from missiles to police cars to cheese," said one Iraqi businessman who, for security reasons, agreed to be identified only as Thaer.
A high-ranking Iraqi National Guard officer said he thinks the government is quietly authorizing the militia operations.
"Someone is letting these guys operate legally on the ground -- the problem comes from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense," he said. The officer, who asked that his name be withheld, said there were deep political divisions within the ministries.
Thaer explained the divisions inside the Interior Ministry: The Badr Brigade leadership is located on the 11th floor of the building; intelligence officers are on the 10th floor; and the emergency forces officers are on the ninth floor, but "each one answers to his own boss."
Iraqis have long said the Interior Ministry is infiltrated by insurgents as well as the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade. Many Iraqis are loath to give information to the ministry for fear they will be killed.
The ministry has also been accused of organizing Shi'ite hit-squads to execute Sunnis -- leading to increased fears of a large-scale sectarian conflict.
Britain's ambassador to Iraq, William Patey, has asked for an investigation into these claims, Reuters news agency has reported.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, a SCIRI party member, has denied the existence of any such death squads.