Q: So hows that Surge of Saint Pet's going then?
A: Great if you happen to be the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Hurriyah neighborhood of northwest Baghdad, gripped by a spasm of deadly ethnic violence a year ago, has grown markedly calmer over the past eight months. It is now the kind of area that both U.S. and Iraqi officials point to when they cite progress at stabilizing Baghdad.Now, this comes as no great surprise to those of us who said the Surge was always a plan to look for a political pony in Iraq. Many predicted the military surge would simply create space for more sectarian partitioning and the consolidation of militia's local power. We've seen those fears proven now in Anbar and Baghdad, in the North and the South. But maybe the cheerleading Right would like to explain how this is "success"?
But only Shiites are welcome — or safe — in Hurriyah these days. And neither Iraq's government nor U.S. or Iraqi security forces are truly in control.
Instead, the Mahdi Army militia runs this area as it does others across Baghdad — manning checkpoints, collecting rental fees for apartments, licensing bus drivers, mediating family fights and even handing out gas for cooking.
..."They control people's lives," said one resident of Hurriyah, a Shiite government employee who would give his name only as Abu Mahdi, 36, because he feared Mahdi militia reprisals. Scornfully calling them uneducated, bullying teenagers, he said: "They are worse than the Baathists" — the party that held total authority under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Others are more supportive of the militia.
"Our area is safe because of the presence of the Mahdi Army," said Abu Hussein, a 50-year-old taxi driver, who also refused to give his full name. "Most people feel that way. Very few are anti-Mahdi Army."
Yet even Abu Hussein can find the militia oppressive. The rent payments they collect from fellow Shiites displaced from other parts of the city, who now live in apartments in Hurriyah that once belonged to Sunnis, are little more than protection money, he complained.