Ever since the radical Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr joined the Iraqi government, his power on the streets has been slipping. Now U.S. and Iraqi officials worry that even more violent men might be taking up his mantle. One name has come up again and again: Abu Deraa, sometimes called "the Shiite Zarqawi." Abu Deraa and the death squad he runs have been waging a campaign of Shia terror across the city. He is suspected of torturing and killing scores of Sunnis in a bloody wave of ethnic cleansing in neighborhoods across Baghdad. U.S. officials believe Abu Deraa is responsible for the capture of a U.S. Army translator who disappeared two weeks ago while leaving the fortified Green Zone and remains missing. Abu Deraa "is a brutal, loathsome character," says a senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified by name because of the sensitive nature of the topic. "He is definitely a guy we'd like to see not around anymore."
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hasn't made the job of hunting him any easier. Last week U.S. forces launched a massive raid in Sadr City, targeting Abu Deraa. The attack reportedly killed two of his sons, but he escaped. Concerned about the political implications, Maliki ordered U.S. troops to end the assault and then dismantle the checkpoints they had set up to net Abu Deraa if he tried to slip away. Maliki insists he would like to see Abu Deraa and other insurgents like him brought to justice--but he wants the United States to let him handle it his own way, by relying on Moqtada al-Sadr to clear out the death squads. "What the prime minister is doing--if it works it would be quite good," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad tells NEWSWEEK.
But it's a gamble. The son of a fishmonger from one of the poorest slums of Sadr City, Abu Deraa (real name: Ismael Hafidh) has capitalized on Iraq's sectarian hatreds and won support among some Shiites as a defender of the faith. "What Abu Deraa does is just a reaction for what is being done by the mobs that kill innocents," says Abu Ali, 46, a Shiite policeman who has met and worked with Abu Deraa. For now, U.S. officials are reluctantly going along with Maliki's plan to let Sadr deal with Abu Deraa. Privately, however, the officials fear that Maliki can't really rely on militia groups like the Mahdi Army, which has ties to the most brutal death squads, like the one Abu Deraa runs. "[Al-Sadr] has been a violent militia leader for more than three years," says the U.S. official. "It's going to take more than statements to convince me that he's not still got one foot in the violence." Or that he could stop the bloodshed, even if he wanted to.