It wasn't a subtle warning. Two weeks ago a convoy of 12 cars bristling with AK-47s rolled through Elam, one of the last mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, in broad daylight. The young men cranked a dirgelike song on their stereo praising Moqtada al-Sadr and shouted at residents to get off the streets. To reinforce the point, they unloaded their AKs into the air. And they left behind a very clear message in black graffiti: DEATH TO NAWASIB, a derogatory term for Sunnis.
Three days later Ibrahim, a Sunni man in his early 20s, was walking home from a neighborhood soccer match. A black Hyundai sedan pulled up and the passenger pumped three bullets into Ibrahim's chest with a handgun. By the time a crowd gathered around, blood had seeped through Ibrahim's beige and yellow tracksuit and formed a pool on the ground. The gunmen raced off toward a nearby highway. "He got in a fight with someone during football and talked bad about the Mahdi Army and Moqtada Sadr," says an Elam resident who does not want his name used for safety reasons.
Drive-by shootings are nothing new on Baghdad's streets. But petty murders like Ibrahim's are a sign of a more worrying development. Weeks ago Sadr issued orders for his fighters to lie low as thousands of new U.S. and Iraqi soldiers deployed throughout Baghdad. For the most part they've obeyed—and the resulting drop in sectarian killings was the best news that U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus had to report last week, as he pleaded with congressional leaders to give his security plan time to work. Now individual gunmen and sometimes whole units from Sadr's Mahdi Army are breaking off on their own. The militiamen "are under a lot of pressure, so it's natural for them to shed pieces," says a Coalition official familiar with the group who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive material.
The freelancers add a new dimension to Iraq's already brutal kaleidoscope of violence. In Baghdad, after an initial dramatic drop, the number of corpses being found each morning is on the rise again. Outside the capital, fighters fleeing south have linked up with local Mahdi units; their presence is upsetting the uneasy balance of power struck between various Shiite groups in the region. Coalition officials worry that Iran's Revolutionary Guards will use their ties with the Mahdi Army to recruit rogue units for attacks on American troops. Last week Petraeus claimed that a Mahdi splinter group was responsible for the killing of five Americans in Karbala in January.
Sadr himself, who has not been seen in public since the security plan was launched, has hinted at the divisions within his organization. Just before a massive Sadrist rally in Najaf on April 9, he issued a statement pleading for his followers to stay loyal: "If you love the Sadr movement," he wrote, "then listen and obey." Lower-level Mahdi commanders are even more frank. "There are some groups who do not obey the orders of seyed Moqtada," says Abu Hawra, a Mahdi commander in west Baghdad. But he adds, perhaps self-servingly, "We've given the green light to government forces to arrest or punish them. Those who break [Sadr's] orders are certainly excluded from the Mahdi Army."
The refrain is a familiar one—and so are the stories coming out of neighborhoods like Elam these days. On April 23 a man was shot while driving with his wife and son through the area. Residents took the injured woman and child out of the car to a nearby hospital but didn't dare touch the driver, who was still alive, for fear of being targeted. (Iraqi police eventually picked him up; he died en route to the hospital.) Two days later, gunmen shoved a young Sunni man out of a maroon Opel and executed him on the side of a road leading into Elam around 6 p.m. It wasn't the first time they'd killed someone on the spot. "You can set your watch by it," says Ali, a young man who lives nearby. A source in the Ministry of the Interior who is not authorized to speak on the record says that 15 to 30 corpses are being found in Baghdad daily now, about half the number before the security plan went into effect.
The violence has spread south as well. A U.S. military source who isn't authorized to speak on the record says criminal activity in southern Iraq has spiked as American and Iraqi forces have concentrated on securing Baghdad. At least some of this is presumed to be linked to the number of Mahdi fighters seeking refuge with tribes in the area. "We have much more of the fighters here than it was before," says Maj. Gen. Pawel Lamla, the Polish commander of multinational forces in "central-south" Iraq, which includes Wasit and Qadisiyah provinces. The smuggling of weapons and cigarettes is up in Al Kut and Nasiriya, and clashes between drugrunners have also increased near the Iranian border.
Political conflict is an even greater danger. All across central and southern Iraq, Sadr loyalists coexist uneasily with partisans of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its former Badr militia, as well as a few other Shiite groups like the Fadhila Party, which has a strong presence in Basra. All are competing for power, patronage and a piece of the region's massive oil revenues. Intra-Shiite fighting could well flare into the next civil war. "Iraq holds huge potential for Shia-against-Shia conflict," says Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "It has everything to do with power." Senior clerics in Najaf, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have tried to cool things off with little success. "There's more in-house fighting [in the south]," says a U.S. military official who didn't want to be quoted discussing security matters about the tensions between Shiite groups.
In the city of Ad Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, a fragile truce had held between Badr and Mahdi fighters since last August, when heavy clashes left dozens dead. Then in March, militiamen from the capital began to join up with a local Mahdi commander named Kifah al-Qureity. Emboldened, Qureity turned his guns on the local government, run by SCIRI officials, and on Coalition forces. (Locals in Ad Diwaniyah say he rallied his new forces, some 400 strong, while wearing a suicide vest.) Street battles dragged on for almost two weeks in early April, and claimed the lives of dozens of militants as well as one U.S. soldier. Qureity escaped during a lull in the battle.
So far, other Mahdi Army units have not confronted U.S. troops head-on. But U.S. military sources not authorized to speak on the record say Iran is actively seeking to recruit disaffected Sadrists to take part in attacks on Americans. In particular, the U.S. military has zeroed in on the activities of Qais al-Khazali, a cleric once close to Sadr who was arrested in March. Last week Petraeus claimed that Khazali was running a "secret cell network" that received money, training and "advanced explosive munitions" from the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He also said a 22-page memorandum discovered as part of the investigation into Khazali "detailed the planning, preparation, approval process and conduct of the operation" in Karbala in January, when assailants dressed like Westerners killed five U.S. soldiers.
Petraeus stopped short of accusing Tehran of having ordered the ambush. "We think that records are kept so that the individuals that carry out these attacks can demonstrate what they're doing to those who are providing the resources to them," he said at a Pentagon briefing. But he added, "we did not find ... a direct [Iranian] fingerprint."
A separate U.S. military source who isn't authorized to speak on the record says fighters linked with the Mahdi Army continue to cross the Iran-Iraq border unarmed in ones and twos; on occasion groups have traveled by bus through the border crossing near the city of Zurbatia (Mehran on the Iran side). He says the six-week training course they receive includes sharpshooting practice as well as training in assembling IEDs. There are also workshops on communication methods like cell phones and using the Internet.
According to this source, dozens of Mahdi-linked fighters detained in recent weeks have admitted that they trained in Iran. In a recent interview, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, insisted Iran did not play a role in the Karbala attack and is not arming or training any militias. "If there is any evi-dence then show this evidence," he said.
Shortly before the Baghdad security plan was launched, a sobering Pentagon report declared that the Mahdi Armywas the greatest threat to stability in the capital. But dismantling Sadr's forces obviously poses its own problems. In Ad Diwaniyah, for example, the Mahdi out-of-towners offered locals $50 each to lay IEDs, a significant amount of money in southern Iraq. And those payouts quickly helped destabilize the entire town. "It's like the mafia," says one U.S. military source who didn't want to be quoted on security matters. "Once you get a taste of the money, there's no going back."
Sadr, whom U.S. officials contend is in Iran, may be trying to stabilize his organization. His decision to withdraw six ministers from the cabinet two weeks ago was an attempt to distance himself from ineffectual Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom Iraqis are fed up with. "The Maliki government is very weak," says Baha al-Araji, a prominent member of the Sadr bloc in Parliament. "The chances of its success are decreasing." Within the Mahdi Army, say fighters, Thahabiya, or Golden Units, have been tasked with hunting down renegades. One such unit may have been involved in clashes between Mahdi gunmen in Baghdad last week. Still, the forces Sadr has already unleashed are going to be hard for anyone to control.