Iraq gives Mahdi militants preferential treatment

Some Iraqis say Mahdi Army militants will remain intact in some form after American troops leave and will continue to wield considerable influence in the country.

An Iraqi army helicopter releases flares during training at Basmaya military base in Baghdad Friday. With US troops scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of the year, Baghdad is looking to build its air capabilities as its national armed forces take over responsibility for security.
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Baghdad // Mahdi Army militants who fought against US troops say they are putting down their weapons and returning to their normal lives as American forces leave Iraq.

But some Iraqis say the Shiite militia will remain intact in some form and continue to wield considerable influence in the country. Also, many of the militiamen are joining the government's security services under a secret deal between the government and the Sadrist movement, media reports say. Critics say the militants are getting preferential treatment when they apply for admission.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003, the Mahdi Army, loyal to cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, battled with US soldiers and Iraqi troops or, more commonly, planted bombs in roadside ambushes or fired mortars at military bases. It claimed to be able to call on tens of thousands of fighters.

Even after the Sadrist movement called a ceasefire in 2008 and won an influential place in Iraq's mainstream politics, militants associated with its armed wing continued to stage sporadic attacks against US troops, particularly in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq.

Now, however, some of the fighters - it remains unclear exactly how many - say the time has come to put their weapons aside and return to civilian life.

"I was fighting to end the American occupation and now they are leaving. There is no need for me to fight anymore," said a former militant from Amarah, 300 kilometres from Baghdad, who asked to be identified only as Abu Fatima.

Once he was happy to risk his life in the fight against US troops. He eventually was arrested by Iraqi forces in 2008 and jailed for a year over his role in militant activity. But now, Abu Fatima is middle-aged and earns a living selling kitchen utensils in a street market

"We have been instructed to return to our normal lives, to go back to our jobs, to be normal citizens again," Abu Fatima said, citing orders from the Sadrist leadership. "We have defeated the Americans. They are leaving. It's over at last."

In Nasariyah, 370km from Baghdad and another area in which Sadrists wield significant influence, a young militant named Mohammad said the "war was over" and that he now hoped to complete his education.

"I'm now going back to normal life," he said. "I left college to fight the Americans and I can to go back to that. Now, no more fighting."

Mohammad described an exhausting, transient life as a militant, moving from place to place to avoid capture, narrowly avoiding house raids and staging attacks against US forces that more often than not failed, sometimes causing more destruction to Iraq's archaeological treasures than to the American troops he was intent on pushing out of his country.

"The Americans had a base next to Ur and many times we fired mortars at them there but we'd miss and hit the old city instead," he said. "It wasn't good."

The history of Ur, near Nasariyah, dates back as far as 6,000 years BC. It is the birthplace of the oldest surviving legal code, making it a site of exceptional historic interest.

Mohammad said he remained concerned that Iraqi authorities would still try to arrest him. "I want to hear there has been an amnesty. The government should say that there is now reconciliation, that people like me will not be chased or jailed, then we can just get on with life," he said.

An arrangement with the government designed to entice the Sadrists to abandon militancy may already be unfolding, according to Iraqi media reports. Hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters have joined security services, some at high ranks, even though they are less qualified than other applicants, the reports say.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, two Iraqi government civil servants with knowledge of recruitment practices confirmed that such a deal had been struck. They said government staff had been told to approve job applications submitted by former Mahdi Army fighters, in preference to similar applications by ordinary Iraqis.

The militants "are being taken into the interior ministry, the defence ministry, the air force, the border guards, Baghdad operations command, everywhere," said one of the officials.

He said the Sadrists had handed a list of more than 1,000 names to the authorities and that those on the list were to be given work even if they were not as well qualified as other applicants.

"Lots of the military people are not happy about it. These Mahdi Army people will be in the security services and some are going straight in at a high rank, captain and above, despite not having the qualifications," the official said.

Government officials have dismissed as media speculation claims that the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has cleared the way for former militants to join the army and police. With a bloc of some 40 members of parliament, the Sadrists have been an important source of support for Mr Al Maliki's fragile governing coalition, and a frequent critic of his leadership.

Rafa Abdul Jabar, a Sadrist MP, insisted that reports that Mahdi Army members were being amalgamated into the armed forces were nothing more than "newspaper rumours".

"The Mahdi Army's objective was to oppose the American occupation forces, so if they are going it is natural that operations will be frozen," he said.

MPs in different political blocs have said they hope the US pullout, due to be completed by the end of the year, will prompt militias to disband. But now they are warning that it's unlikely.

"These militias represent the real challenge to Iraq's future security and stability," said Bakir Sadiq, a Kurdish MP. "Iraq will be challenged by neighbouring countries that want to exert influence, and they will seek to do that in part though these militias."

Critics of the Sadrists accuse them of being an Iranian proxy, one of the levers Tehran uses to exercise some control over Iraqi politics.

And people who have suffered at the hands of the Mahdi Army doubt the militants will quietly join civilian life.

"The Mahdi Army will take advantage of the situation when the Americans have gone. They will not just go back to normal life," said Nahidar Al Musawi, a widow from Amarah whose husband was killed by militants for working with the Iraqi security forces.

"They claim to be interested in jihad against occupation, but I have seen them up close and they are really criminals, interested in money and power and sex, nothing more than that."