You can spot them by their black outfits and black balaclavas. Members of the Mahdi Army, the 10,000-strong militia formed by Muqtada al-Sadr shortly after the April 2003 invasion of Iraq, are now deemed responsible for many of the sectarian killings in recent months. The army’s loyalists primarily consist of unemployed Shiites from Sadr City, a Baghdad slum. Several have infiltrated the ranks of the interior and defense ministries. Like Hamas or Hezbollah, the Mahdi Army fills a security void. It is increasingly drawing support from local Iraqis fed up with the government’s—not to mention outside powers like the United States’—inability to police their streets (WashPost) and provide basic services.
Yet Sadr’s army is not just a gang of thugs, experts say. Sadr controls a large voting bloc in parliament. His loyalists mounted a formidable offensive last week and briefly took control of the southern city of Amara (Reuters). As this new Backgrounder explains, the government has been unable—or rather unwilling—to disband the militia because Nouri al-Maliki, the embattled prime minister, relies on Sadr for political support. Balancing Sadr’s bitter feud with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (al-Jazeera), another prominent Shiite leader whose Badr Brigade has often clashed with the Mahdi Army, has been the key to holding his combustible government together. Maliki can ill afford to alienate conservative Shiites like Sadr or Hakim, yet Washington has pressed the prime minister to disband and disarm these leaders’ militias. This Backgrounder profiles Iraq's militia groups.
The violence in Iraq reached a crescendo in recent weeks, particularly in Baghdad, which now verges on “war-torn Beirut” (NYT). An effort by the U.S. military to clear the capital of insurgents has proven largely unsuccessful, as suicide attacks and drive-by shootings have spiked since July, when the sweeps began. When a joint operation of U.S. and Iraqi forces pushed into Sadr City this week in search of a militia leader, Prime Minister Maliki was quick to distance himself (al-Jazeera). A controversial study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the start of the war (though many statisticians question the study’s inconsistent use of cluster metrics). Meanwhile, U.S.-led efforts to rebuild Iraqi schools and hospitals remain hobbled by corruption, poor security, and, some say, incompetence. Small surprise, then, that a growing number of Iraqis say Iraq is now heading in the wrong direction, according to a recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes.
Despite all the bad news, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters "success is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable (IHT)." Back home, however, U.S. officials on both sides of the political aisle are calling for a change of course. October was the deadliest month this year for U.S. forces (WashPost). President Bush said recently in a somber press conference that he knows "many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either." Earlier this month, he even conceded the situation in Iraq warrants comparisons to the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive (VOA), though Don Oberdorfer, author of the book Tet!, tells Bernard Gwertzman the comparison does not stand up. "It was nothing like what has happened so far in Iraq," he says. "It was as if the Iraqi Shiites took over the Green Zone." Meanwhile, a much-awaited bipartisan commission report, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, will be released after the November midterm elections and is expected to advocate a phased pullout of coalition forces and a plan to include Iraq’s neighbors in security negotiations. A recent CFR symposium considered the impact of the war on the future U.S. foreign and defense policy.
Yet the Bush administration says it does not plan to overhaul its “clear, hold, and build” strategy and denies a New York Times report claiming a timetable was set to disarm Iraqi militias. Top White House officials (Bloomberg), along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have called on the Iraqis to step up and take more responsibility for providing security. In an Online Debate, Lawrence J. Korb of the Center for American Progress says “we have already given [the Iraqis] more than ample time to begin doing that and unless we put pressure on them by setting a date certain, they will continue to use us as a crutch to avoid making the hard choices.” Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College disagrees, claiming the conditions are not ready to establish a timetable to withdraw by the end of 2007.