There have been rogue and criminal elements of the Mehdi Army, but clearly they have become a necessary force in securing Shia neighborhoods. It is unfortunate that the responsibility of security has been taken up by militias, but these militias would have been unnecessary if the authorities had been able to provide security on their own. Even an Iraqi Sunni admits that the "Jaish al-Mehdi are like protectors." It is difficult to tell between 'rogue elements' of the Mehdi Army and guys who are only interested in defending their neighborhoods, but it will be important for US troops to not aggravate the situation by killing or scaring away all Mehdi Army members. At some point the US must acknowledge that the Mehdi Army provides an essential role in securing Shia neighborhoods.
After bombing, Iraqis say security has decreased
By Damien Cave and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
Published: February 4, 2007
BAGHDAD: Following the deadliest single bomb blast since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Shiites on Sunday said that instead of making Baghdad safer, recent American efforts had opened Shiite areas to bombs that have left more than 450 dead in the past three weeks.
The attack on Saturday was the work of a suicide truck bomber who detonated about one ton of explosives in the bustling Sadriya market, in a largely Shiite enclave at 5 p.m., as shoppers finished buying food for dinner and men sipped coffee at cafés nearby, the police said. At least 130 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
"The terrorists chose this spot three months ago and again yesterday so they could kill as many people as possible," said Naeem Al-Kaabi, Baghdad's deputy mayor and a Shiite from Sadr City. "Trucks are not even allowed in the small alleys of the market. I wonder how the truck made it in."
It was a question that traveled through much of Baghdad on Sunday, and Shiites in particular came prepared with an answer. They said that the looming American-Iraqi security plan for Baghdad had weakened the Mahdi army, the Shiite militia loyal to the radical cleric Moktada Al-Sadr, emasculating the Shiites' only reliable source of security.
"A long time has passed since the plan was announced," said Basim Shareef, a Shiite member of Parliament. "But so far there security has only deteriorated."
An American military official, responding to the Shiite accusations, said that American checkpoints around eastern and central Baghdad last October seemed to reduce the number of car bombs until the checkpoints were removed because of objections from Sadr officials and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Major General William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, called for patience as the new security plan rolls out.
"Give the government and coalition forces a chance to fully implement it," he said.
His comments, however, came as more than a dozen mortars crashed on Adhamiya, a Sunni area of eastern Baghdad, in what appeared to be an act of retaliation from Shiites. At least 7 people were killed and more than 35 wounded.
And in the streets of Sadriya residents and merchants struggled to control their anger and grief.
"I saw with my own eyes young children flying from the windows of the apartments on top of the shops when the explosion arrived," said Haydar Abdul Jabbar, 28, a car mechanic who was standing near a barber shop when the bomb exploded, sending up a plume of smoke several stories high. "One woman threw herself out of the window when the fire came close to her."
Abdul Jabbar said that he rushed to collapsed buildings, trying to help the wounded, but found mainly hands, skulls and other body parts. At one point, he discovered the remains of his close friend, who was engaged to be married.
"I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all," he added, "so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil — which is the core of the problem — can come and get it. We can not live this way anymore; we are dying slowly every day."
On Sunday, the crater from the blast looked large enough to hold a sedan, and the truck's gnarled engine block sat more than 100 meters away, tossed like a pebble despite its weight.
While the American military put out a statement saying that an Iraqi Army unit and members of an Iraqi police brigade had secured the bomb site, the area closest to the bomb crater was controlled by the Mahdi Army. Between 8 and 15 men dressed in black, carrying assault rifles, waved reporters away Sunday morning and again in the afternoon.
Uday Ahmed, 31, a Sunni whose three restaurants at the market were obliterated by the blast, along with 20 of his workers, said that until a few weeks ago, Mahdi militiamen were more visible on the streets, checking vehicles, watching, offering to arbitrate disputes. After American and Iraqi officials arrested several top Mahdi commanders last month, he said, many of the Mahdi officers drifted into the shadows or fled.
He said that he believed the increased violence in Shiite neighborhoods was connected to their departure.
"The Jaish al-Mehdi are like protectors, but with the announcement of the start of the security plan the Americans really chased them, so they withdrew from these places and now we don't see them," he said, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army. "They don't want to confront the Americans."