Violence Seen as Sign of Shiite Militia Strength

Over the past two days, police in Baghdad have found the bodies of more than 70 men — some shot, some strangled, most with their hands bound — raising fears that Shiite militias are running death squads to avenge Sunday's bombing in the capital's main Shiite district. The wave of reprisal killings is seen as the latest show of strength by Shiite militias.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. We start this part of the program with news from Iraq. For the first time in his trial for crimes against humanity, Suddam Hussein took the stand today. The former Iraqi leader praised the insurgency and suggested that the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque last month was the work of others, not Iraqis. The destruction of that Shiite shrine set off a wave of sectarian violence and talk of civil war. This past Sunday, dozens of Shiites were killed and many more wounded in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Since then, police in Baghdad have uncovered more than 100 bodies, many of them Sunni Arabs, the apparent victims of reprisal killings by Shiite militiamen. NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports on militias from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY, reporting:

His name, ironically, is Saddam Hussein, but any resemblance to the former leader ends there. This Saddam is a member of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. Saddam says he joined the Mahdi Army four years ago, and his loyalty is clear.

Mr. SADDAM HUSSEIN (Soldier, Mahdi Army): (Through translator) I joined this army because of my love for the Sayyed Moqtada, may God keep him for us. He is the face of courage in Iraq. We're trained, have our weapons and are organized. We are in the thousands. We are tens of thousands.

TARABAY: Sadr's militia launched two separate uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004. And while both were put down by American forces, Sadr himself escaped retribution and he has since joined the political mainstream. In last December's election, Sadr placed followers in several different parties, and he now commands a block of more than 30 legislators. His power in parliament now echoes his power in the streets of Sadr City and elsewhere.

(Soundbite of chanting)

TARABAY: When the Shiite holy mosque in Samarra was attacked last month, the Mahdi Army came out in force. Men in the militia's black uniform were seen opening fire on Sunni mosques in Baghdad and nearby provinces. Sunnis blame them for the death of dozens of Sunni clerics and others.

(Soundbite of chanting)

TARABAY: Now, as chants honoring Shiite martyrs echo through the streets of Sader City, the Mahdi Army is again the face of revenge, stringing up the bodies of four people accused of involvement in last Sunday's bombing. In the hours that followed, scores of corpses have been found in the streets of Baghdad. The city's morgue reported receiving 74 bodies in 24 hours, most of them Sunnis. Blaming Sadr and his supporters, Sunni leaders are mulling creation of their own militia. But Sadr's men are not the only Shiite militia in Iraq. There's also the Badr Brigade, the military armor of SCIRI, the largest Shiite religious party in the country. Abdul Karim Al-Makim(ph) is Badr's public relations director, and in a suit and tie, he dresses the part. He insists Badr is now a political organization.

Mr. ABDUL KARIM AL-MAKIM (Public Relations Director, Badr Brigade): (Through translator) As you can see now, we have no weapons. We do not carry out operations, and we don't attack any other sect or party. We use democratic ways to make our demands.

TARABAY: Makim acknowledges that members of the Badr Militia have joined the ranks of Iraq's security forces, but he claims the number is low. He dismisses accusations that Shiite commander units, under the Interior Ministry's control, operate as death squads, randomly killing Sunnis.

Mr. AL-MAKIM: (Through translator) What's been said about human rights violations is incorrect and exaggerated.

TARABAY: In addition to the Mahdi Army and the Badr Militia, there are two large Kurdish militias operating mostly in northern Iraq. And some government ministers and political leaders employ their own personal militias as protection units. Iraqis, like 20-year-old Mustafa Basim(ph), blame the government for allowing the militias to take control.

Mr. MUSTAFA BASIM (Iraqi citizen): (Through translator) They are the Mahdi Army, the Badr Organization. They kill people and oppress the Iraqis, like in the secret jails. They kidnap people from their houses and take them to jail.

TARABAY: Speaking to reporters recently, General George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, says there's no silver bullet for solving the militia problem.

General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Military Commander, Iraq): It will take a holistic effort to get at the militia issue. There're several aspects to it, and I do not believe that we will, ultimately, succeed until the Iraqi security forces, the police and the military, are the only ones in Iraq with guns. Now that's a longer term solution.

TARABAY: In the meantime, well-armed militia continue to rule many of Iraq's streets. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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