'Martyrs' list' offers rare view of Mahdi Army's troubles

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brian Murphy
Associated Press / August 3, 2008

BAGHDAD - Loyalists within Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia network call it the "martyrs' list," and it is 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 Sadr, who is holed up in Iran.

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

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

Each chip in 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 Shi'ite 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 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 Sadr functionary who headed the office in the New Baghdad neighborhood in the eastern part of the capital.

He joined 35 other names, including Riyadh al-Nouri, director of Sadr's office in the southern city of Najaf - the spiritual and operational center of Sadr's forces where the Mahdi Army fought street-by-street battles with US troops in 2004. 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 US or Iraqi forces.

The 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," said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for the Sadr movement. "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 Madhi 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 number is smaller.

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

So who is hunting the Sadr ranks?

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

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 Sadr forces do not plan to field candidates.

"There is a perception of weakness around 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 spread to other 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 Madhi Army uprooted in its main areas.

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