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Shiite Militia in Baghdad Sees Its Power Ebb

Posted on 3:12 PM by Sameer Shah

BAGHDAD — The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.

It is a remarkable change from years past, when the militia, led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, controlled a broad swath of Baghdad, including local governments and police forces. But its use of extortion and violence began alienating much of the Shiite population to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki struck another blow this spring, when he led a military operation against it in Baghdad and in several southern cities.

The shift, if it holds, would solidify a transfer of power from Mr. Sadr, who had lorded his once broad political support over the government, to Mr. Maliki, who is increasingly seen as a true national leader.

It is part of a general decline in violence that is resonating in American as well as Iraqi politics: Senator John McCain argues that the advances in Iraq would have been impossible without the increase in American troops known as the surge, while Senator Barack Obama, who opposed the increase, says the security improvements should allow a faster withdrawal of combat troops.

The Mahdi Army’s decline also means that the Iraqi state, all but impotent in the early years of the war, has begun to act the part, taking over delivery of some services and control of some neighborhoods.

“The Iraqi government broke their branches and took down their tree,” said Abu Amjad, a civil servant who lives in the northern Baghdad district of Sadr City, once seen as an unbreachable stronghold for the group.

The change is showing up in the lives of ordinary people. The price of cooking gas is less than a fifth of what it was when the militia controlled local gas stations, and kerosene for heating has also become much less expensive. In interviews, 17 Iraqis, including municipal officials, gas station workers and residents, described a pattern in which the militia’s control over the local economy and public services had ebbed. Merchants say they no longer have to pay protection money to militiamen. In some cases, employees with allegiances to the militia have been fired or transferred. Despite the militia’s weakened state, none of the Iraqis interviewed agreed to have their full names published for fear of retribution.

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