The US Army is allowing the Mahdi Army, led by Moqutada al-Sadr, a discreet security role in protecting a key Shiite shrine, according to the AP (via the DC Examiner).
The mosque of Imam Kadhim, the most revered Shiite shrine in Baghdad, is a tempting target for Sunni insurgents. To protect it, Iraqi and U.S. troops rely on the Mahdi Army, the same Shiite militia that Washington considers a threat to Iraq's stability.This all makes sense to me, especially the bit from Lt. Col Mishka about trying to seperate the extremists in Jam from others who could provide a useful role. However, it also illustrates why Petreaus' surge is undermanned and unworkable.
That cuts to the heart of a dilemma for the U.S. military three months into the campaign to pacify Baghdad: whether to risk fierce battles by confronting Shiite militiamen blamed for massacring Sunnis or to deal with "moderates" in the Mahdi Army - which the U.S. believes receives weapons and training from Iran.
...The Americans believe that tolerating a discreet role for the Mahdi Army, which U.S. officers refer to by its Arabic acronym JAM, is better than either picking a fight with the militia or taking the blame if Sunni extremists manage a repeat of the February 2006 bombing of another Shiite shrine in Samarra.
That attack, which the U.S. blames on al-Qaida, unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodletting and reprisal attacks on mosques, plunging the country into civil conflict.
Without the militia, U.S. and Iraqi officers acknowledge that the 2,000 Iraqi security forces and 500 American soldiers based in the area would be hard-pressed to protect the neighborhood's 120,000 residents and the shrine, which houses the tombs of two 8th century Shiite imams.
U.S. commanders have chosen to use the Mahdi security network already in place rather than divert resources from other parts of the city where security is worse.
"There are a lot of people affiliated with JAM, and if we made them all enemies, we'd be in trouble," said Lt. Col. Steve Miska, 39, of Greenport, N.Y., who commands U.S. troops in northwest Baghdad.
"So we try to sort out who's extremist JAM and can't be reasoned with because of their ideology, and who we can live with as long as they're not killing U.S. and Iraqi soldiers or civilians."
...Those measures involve inundating the streets around the shrine - a tightly woven web of mostly pedestrian thoroughfares - with mostly young men in their teens and early 20s who dress in civilian clothes and loiter on street corners.
Armed with cell phones, they become the eyes and ears of the Mahdi Army.
The militia "dresses as civilians and they blend in," said Nabil Ali, 23, a Shiite who fled another Baghdad neighborhood after receiving a death threat from Sunni insurgents - a bullet in an envelope. "It's a better way to protect the mosque."
But remember this story next time you hear rhetoric about the evil of al-Sadr, the threat posed by his militia or indeed any talk of an ironclad determination to dismantle all militias. Remember that such linear narratives are aimed at those who like their world view to be powerpoint style and un-nuanced. You know - Republicans.