Rogue Mehdi Army Fighters Attempt Expansion In Washash, American and Iraqi forces are facing a challenge: Rogue members of the Mehdi Army, a Shiite militia, are vying for power and influence.
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Rogue Mehdi Army Fighters Attempt Expansion

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Rogue Mehdi Army Fighters Attempt Expansion

Rogue Mehdi Army Fighters Attempt Expansion

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Challenges for American and Iraqi forces in Baghdad can change drastically from one neighborhood to the next.

Yesterday, we heard about a Sunni neighborhood in West Baghdad trying to rebuild its economy and to create a new locally recruited police force. In the adjoining district of Washash, there's a very different problem. Rogue members of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, are vying for power and influence.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has the second of two reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division Delta Company Battalion 164 have turned a formerly grand residence in Washash into a mini-fortress. A giant abstract sculpture in the square just outside contrasts with the massive concrete blast walls that now surround the house. Officially, it's called a joint security station or JSS. Shiite militia here often call it a target.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: AK-47 and machine gunfire crackled as U.S. 1st Lieutenant Jeremy McCool maneuvers some of his men to support the Iraqi Army in repelling an attack by suspected members of the Mahdi Army.

1st Lieutenant JEREMY McCOOL (U.S. Army): They launched an ambush against a checkpoint just north of us.

WESTERVELT: This combat outpost sits on a fault line between Shiite Washash and a Sunni neighborhood. Shiite militiamen are active to the north, while Sunni insurgents, including members of al-Qaida in Iraq, operate to the south.

In August, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Jaish al-Mahdi or Mahdi Army, ordered his fighters to stop attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces. The majority of his gunmen have heeded the call. But some have not.

Lieutenant McCool says cells of rogue Mahdi Army fighters are trying to expand southward. But after today's gun battle, the Shiite fighters are retreating back into their densely packed neighborhood.

1st Lt. McCOOL: It's a great defense for Jaish al-Mahdi. Fifty-six thousand people live in 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer square. You can get more people settled to that area, so they can hide, they can move, the houses are stacked really close together.

WESTERVELT: After the nearly hour-long firefight, an Iraqi army unit arrives at the joint security station with some 17 Mahdi Army suspects, all of them bound and blindfolded.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Because Washash is so densely packed and tough to operate in, the U.S. relies on a network of local informants. Several of the detained fighters have leaflets stuffed in their pockets from so-called punishment committees warning locals they'll be killed if any, quote, "cooperate with the infidels."

Some soldiers begin drawing big black numbers on the detainees' foreheads, just above the blindfold, with a felt pen.

Unidentified Man #3: All right. Here's just what you write on his forehead.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #3: Write on their forehead. I already got it.

WESTERVELT: Nearby, a chubby, barefoot 16-year-old in black T-shirt and sweatpants squats in the dirt weeping and shaking uncontrollably as a soldier tries to put a bottle of water in his bound hands.

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #6: Calm down big guy. There's nothing wrong with you. (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #7: No.

Unidentified Man #6: Okay. All right, sit down. Sit down. There you go.

WESTERVELT: Nearby, a group of U.S. soldiers monitors the blindfolded detainees who are queued up for medical checks. The soldiers swat at flies, drink soda and smoke while listening to the band Disturbed. In a tent nearby, detainees are given fingerprint and retina scans — the information that's fed into the military's database.

Unidentified Man #8: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #9: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Then word comes that the Iraqis have rolled up another suspect. His name is Ali Shihab. On his cell phone, soldiers find what amount to sectarian snuff films — homemade cell phone videos of Sunnis getting gunned down in the streets of Baghdad during the height of the Iraqi civil war late last year.

(Soundbite of video from cell phone)

Unidentified Man #10: (Through translator) I finished them off. By Imam Ali, I cut them to pieces. Oh, you're still alive, huh? Brother of a bitch. You're still alive? By Ali, I will (bleep) your sister, you brother of a bitch.

WESTERVELT: U.S. Lieutenant McCool takes aside a commander of the Iraqi forces, who here are mostly Shia. McCool puts his hand on the Iraqi major's shoulder and points out the detainees he thinks are of value.

1st Lt. McCOOL: All right, the killer, Shahib killer.

Unidentified Man #11: (Speaking foreign language)

1st Lt. McCOOL: Killer. He's a spy? The old man?

Unidentified Man #11: (Speaking foreign language)

1st Lt. McCOOL: …financed or something like that.

WESTERVELT: McCool calls the grisly video a potential smoking gun against Ali Shihab.

1st Lt. McCOOL: The Mafia style hit, you know, more like gangland style hit like that, it's self-incriminating. We don't have to do anything else after that.

WESTERVELT: But other officers aren't so sure. 1st Lieutenant Andrew Coody, Delta Company's executive officer, thinks the cell phone video is little more than the kind of propaganda video found on most every Mahdi Army fighter.

1st Lieutenant ANDREW COODY (U.S. Army): He's quick to jump, instead take it slower. Let's process the guy first.

WESTERVELT: Lieutenant Coody said he doesn't think the Iraqis rolled up any high-value Mahdi Army targets today in Washash, but he is pleased with how Iraqi forces responded forcefully to the ambush — something, he says, that would not have happened a few short months ago.

1st Lt. COODY: What I was more pleased with today was the Iraqi Army, when they had - when they were attacked, they responded quickly and they fought without me or anyone in the, you know, on U.S. Army side of the house having to kind of stick a cattle prod to them.

Unidentified Man #12: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: At day's end, the 17 suspected Mahdi Army fighters are hauled away in Iraqi armored vehicles to be questioned and processed by the Iraqis. It's not clear whether this kind of joint Iraqi-U.S. effort in the end is dampening support for the Shiite militia that, in this neighborhood, continues to try to fight its way to wider power.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, West Baghdad.

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