Iraq: War Within a War: Who Runs the Mahdi Army?

To stop Iraq's slide into civil war, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a new security plan in Baghdad last week. One major problem: how to deal with the country's most powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, which has been linked to death squads responsible for a string of assassinations and kidnappings. Worse, the Mahdi Army's leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, seems to be losing his grip on the thousands of armed men who once followed his every word. "There are forces that are controlled by Moqtada, but there are commanders that are not controlled by him; there are death squads that are not controlled by him," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told NEWSWEEK. One U.S. military intel official, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the info, says of the rogue elements: "The biggest threat now in Baghdad is the Mahdi Army."

Under the leadership of Sadr, the Mahdi Army was considered a containable force, susceptible to political bargaining. After the militia's uprising against U.S. forces two years ago, Sadr and his followers eventually joined the political process; his party, the Sadr Trend, now has 30 seats in the National Assembly. But as Sadr has leaned toward moderation, men fighting under his militia's banner have become more aggressive. In interviews with NEWSWEEK, Mahdi Army members, Iraqi politicians and Western officials describe an organization in which local commanders are increasingly independent of Sadr, splintering into cells of fighters committed to civil war. There are at least four offshoot Mahdi leaders in Sadr City alone; some groups are taking orders from Iran. There's similar fragmentation in the largely Shiite cities of Najaf and Basra. According to a U.S. military-intel official in Najaf, Coalition forces have been attacked by individuals who get their inspiration from the Mahdi Army but are not official members--men with "an AK-47, an RPG and a Sadr poster," says the official, requesting anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The situation is so volatile that, according to the U.S. officials, Sadr now fears for his own safety and position.

The United States is targeting militia-run death squads in the new Baghdad security operation, which will last for the next three months. Close to 5,000 additional U.S. troops are being moved to the city. But even as the Americans shift strategy, they face resistance from influential leaders in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. A suicide bombing in Najaf last week left more than 150 dead or injured and brought renewed calls among some Shiite leaders for the Mahdi Army and other militias to take over more security operations. But it's difficult for the United States to turn over control to an increasingly uncontrollable force.