Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Surge" Working Against Shiite Civilians

The Mahdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia, has been hiding out during the early weeks of the Baghdad "surge."

The absence of the militiamen is causing Shiite residents and pilgrims to holy sites to be sitting ducks for Sunni insurgents.

Hundreds of Shiite Muslims, beating their chests in mourning, accompanied 17 coffins through Baghdad's main Shiite district Monday, demanding that militiamen be allowed to protect them after a wave of attacks on pilgrims.

"Despite the heavy security presence in Baghdad, we are seeing the terror and bombings escalate and more innocents being killed," said a man who identified himself by a traditional nickname, Abu Fatima Sadi. "When the Al Mahdi army was providing protection, there were no violations."

This year, the Al Mahdi militia, led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, held back from protecting millions of Shiite pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Karbala for weekend religious rites. The move came after intense pressure by the Shiite-led government to give a U.S.-Iraqi security plan a chance to succeed.

Attacks against Iraq's Shiite majority, however, have persisted despite the month-old crackdown, intended to clear the capital of sectarian fighters and anti-U.S. insurgents.

More than 220 people were killed in the last week as Sunni Arab militants unleashed suicide bombers and gunfire on the Shiite pilgrims who converged in Karbala to mark the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

Iraqi officials have reported a modest drop in recent weeks in the number of execution-style killings, which are considered to be a signature of the Al Mahdi militia.


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