Sunni Militias of Baghdad Are Recruiting
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
In Iraq today, U.S. and Iraqi troops raided the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City. The military says the attacks were aimed at suspected torture cells run by members of Muqtada al-Sadr's militias, the Mahdi Army. The raids triggered angry protests from aids to the influential cleric. They called them acts of terrorism.
As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad, many Iraqis fear a further escalation of violence. And some Sunnis are responding by trying to form militias of their own.
COREY FLINTOFF reporting:
An uneasy young man from the city's Jihad neighborhood says recruiters are trying to get Sunnis to join a militia that might help to defend against Shiite fighters such as the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade. The young man is afraid to use his real name because he fears reprisals, so he asks that we call him Laith. He says news about the recruiting is passing among his friends by word of mouth.
LAITH (Resident, Sadr City): (Through translator) We're also worried about joining, but we all know Shiites are forming militias all over the city. Our only recourse then is in gain power.
FLINTOFF: Laith says the recruiters are looking to start with up to 350 men. Some of them would defend Sunni religious shrines and others would be detailed as a bodyguard for Sunni politician Tariq al-Hashimi, one of the vice presidents in Iraq's new government. The bodyguard would be paid, trained and equipped by Iraq's Ministry of Defense. Laith acknowledges that Hashimi may be abusing his power by using state funds to create a personal bodyguard.
LAITH: (Through translator) He knows that people from both sides are out to kill him. Like some other big politicians, he's preparing to protect himself when he's no longer the vice president.
FLINTOFF: Laith is 26 and he doesn't look like a fighter. He's a slight young man with Rudolph Valentino sideburns and a rhinestone studded watch. But he does have military experience. He spent three years in Saddam Hussein's army before the U.S. invasion. Since then, he's worked in his family's perfume shop, a shop they had to close eight months ago after his older brother received a threatening note wrapped around a bullet. It demanded that he leave the neighborhood.
LAITH: (Through translator) My father's disabled. This job was the only source of support for our family. I don't know how we can manage anymore.
FLINTOFF: One of the things that attracts Laith to the militia is the reported salary, $700 a month with extras, such as hazardous duty pay. He says he's desperate but that he'd refuse to do the things that the Shiite militias are accused of, kidnapping, torturing and killing people from the rival sect.
LAITH (Through translator): I'm disgusted with my friends. They asked me if I would do such things, raid a house or kill somebody. If I were ordered to do something like that, I would quit. I would probably leave the country.
FLINTOFF: Besides that, he says there are two things that make him uneasy about joining the planned militia.
LAITH: (Through translator) The first thing stopping me from signing up is that we heard that in the next six months there will be a real civil war. If a civil war started, who would I be fighting? Other Iraqis. Also, we know that the names of the recruits will probably be discovered and sent to Muqtada al-Sadr's office. If that happens, the Shiite militias will be after us.
FLINTOFF: Laith blames the U.S. occupation for much of today's trouble. He says the democracy America promised has devolved into a democracy of kidnapping, murder and torture. Like many Iraqis, he quotes a pessimistic catchphrase that conveys their feeling that the country is spiraling into irredeemable disaster.
LAITH: (Through translator) We say, yesterday was better than today and tomorrow will be worse than today.
FLINTOFF: Whether that outlook will drive Laith into joining the militia is unclear, but he might see it as the only alternative to what many other Sunnis are doing, leaving Iraq for Syria or Jordan, where they'll face a life of exile.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.