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Tensions rise as US troops depart

There are fears the American pullout from urban areas of Iraq will be the cue for a new wave of sectarian strife

Members of Kut's Swat unit train on the outskirts of the city in the Wasit province, southern Iraq.
Members of Kut's Swat unit train on the outskirts of the city in the Wasit province, southern Iraq.

BAGHDAD // US troops will pull out from Iraqi cities today amid signs that sectarian tensions are once again on the rise after a deadly wave of bombings.

A string of recent attacks, mainly targeting Shiite civilians, have killed at least 250 people and injured hundreds more, creating a situation in Baghdad that bears some disturbing similarities to that which led to a bloody civil war here three years ago. The insurgency, which has been diminished but never quashed, appears to have drawn new energy from the prospect of US military units leaving urban areas in Iraqi hands. As the death toll has risen, so have concerns that Iraqi government forces are not capable of protecting the population.

In Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite area in the north-east of the capital, retired militia fighters and residents are saying they might have to turn, once more, to the disbanded Mahdi Army for defence against Sunni extremists. According to one former Mahdi Army commander, arms will be handed out if necessary. "We have a few light weapons, we have rifles, to distribute to the children [residents] of Sadr City so they can protect themselves from al Qa'eda or terrorists," Abu Seif, a former district-level leader of the Mahdi Army, based in Sadr City, said in an interview.

Insisting that the US army was ultimately responsible for this month's bombs, Abu Seif said Shiite militia attacks on foreign troops would now resume, comments that, if more than rhetoric, would mean an end to a ceasefire that has lasted for years. "We promise all the people of Iraq that the heroic resistance will defeat the Americans and take revenge on them," he said. "We will attack their bases and target them where we find them; we will heal our country from the pain of being invaded."

The Mahdi Army, the armed wing of the Sadrist movement, largely rose to power in the face of a concerted campaign of violence against Shiites by al Qa'eda-style Sunni militants. In the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, Sunni radicals carried out devastating attacks on Shiite civilian areas that US troops and the embryonic Iraqi police and army failed to halt. That security void was quickly filled by the Mahdi Army, a poorly organised and ill-disciplined group that boasted more than 100,000 armed members, often semi-educated young men from impoverished backgrounds. Although gangs of Mahdi Army fighters were often implicated in theft, extortion and murder, they nevertheless became popular because they offered an embattled civilian population what no one else could - protection.

Any semblance of restraint on the heavily armed Mahdi Army disappeared after the bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006, the incident that plunged Iraq into a sectarian civil war. Shiite militants working under the Mahdi Army umbrella were involved in death-squad killings and a programme of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad that cost thousands of lives. By 2007 a US troop surge that pushed soldiers out into small neighbourhood bases, combined with a reaction against al Qa'eda by Sunni tribes, known as the "awakening", had helped improve security and rendered the out-of-control Mahdi Army obsolete. The government launched a series of military operations against the militia, killing and arresting hundreds of fighters. Moqtada al Sadr, the Shiite cleric at the head of the Sadr movement, also sought to rein in the Mahdi Army, which had become a political liability, ordering it to obey a ceasefire and disowning any militants who refused to lay down their arms.

Now, however, there are growing calls from within Sadr City, the Sadrist's heartland, for the Mahdi Army's return, in response to a new campaign of violence focused on Shiites that is being widely blamed on al Qa'eda. "The Iraqi security forces are weak and ineffective," said Abu Mizher, a 58-year-old vegetable trader in Sadr City. "They have been infiltrated by religious groups and political parties; they are not doing their job. We want the Mahdi Army back. We want the Mahdi Army to protect us and to protect the streets of this city. "Al Qa'eda couldn't come here when the Mahdi Army was protecting us." His comments reflect widely held concerns that Iraq's security forces are not impartial arbiters of law and justice and, instead, follow more narrow political agendas, with some units effectively pledging allegiance to parties, not the state.

The police are less trusted than the army and, according to Iraqi politicians and analysts, continue to arrest and detain people without charge, often in accordance with a political agenda. Within ethically homogenous areas the security forces are frequently viewed as partial actors in a turf war. Among Shiites, the Sadrists believe they are unfairly persecuted by their main rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which wields power at the interior ministry. Internal power struggles are also being played out among Sunnis, as various tribes compete for influence with one another and the religious Iraqi Islamic Party.

And then there is the dreaded prospect of renewed sectarian discord. In addition to bombings in mainly Shiite areas, a leading Sunni moderate politician, Harath al Obaidi, was assassinated this month. He was a leading advocate of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, and his death was further seen as an attempt to subvert unity. "None of these attacks are random. They are designed to open up sectarianism with the Americans about to pull out of the cities," said Mohammed Majid al Saadi, an Iraqi political commentator based in Baghdad. "There are strong fears that Shiite and Sunni militias will be on the streets and fighting again. If security keeps being undermined, that is a real possibility."

But perhaps more than the threat from al Qa'eda, which is severely weakened from the height of its powers three years ago, it is the political rivalries that remain a source of deep-seated alarm and, for that reason alone, some Iraqis are wary about the United States' step back. They may not like to be under foreign occupation, but they see the US military as a restraining force. "I don't want to see a sudden US pullout," said Mizher al Hamadani, a leading member of one of Iraq's largest tribes and a Sahwa Council head near Mahmudiya, just south of Baghdad. "It should be slow, step by step until our military can control the area and there are no militia inside the police and we can be sure about their nationality and loyalty. The Americans cannot leave until then. I think that will take at least 10 years. At least 2020."

Regardless, the US military is working on a much more rapid timetable. US commanders have insisted their withdrawal programme remains on course, pulling combat forces from most urban centres today. Yet troops are expected to remain in Mosul, where seven Iraqi police and a Kurdish militiaman were killed yesterday trying to defuse bombs, and huge bases in the suburbs of key towns, including Baghdad. A complete pull-out of the US military from Iraq is scheduled for the end of 2011.

US and Iraqi military officials say they are confident the worst days of sectarian violence will not return, even if there is a surge in insurgent activity. Iraqi troops are better equipped, better trained and more experienced now than they were in 2006. "I do believe they're ready," said Gen Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq. "We've seen constant improvement in the security force, we've seen constant improvement in governance."

It is not a view shared by Salim Kazim, a 27-year-old unemployed resident of Sadr City, who said the Mahdi Army would have to return because of the worsening security situation. "It is very dangerous at the moment; al Qa'eda wants to target us and the Americans are happy if that happens because the Mahdi Army was always opposed to the [US] occupation. The Americans will pull out and leave al Qa'eda to kill us. The Mahdi Army will have to come back and protect the city. It is much more effective at doing that than the entire Iraqi army."

Mr al Sadr has publicly resisted calls to reform his military wing. On Friday, when two more bombs hit Baghdad, he urged his followers to continue a peaceful campaign for improved security and sovereignty. But his frustration with the US military was obvious and he accused it of having a hand in the attacks. Abu Mizher, the Sadr City vegetable seller, echoed the widely held belief here that US forces are deliberately trying to undermine Iraq's stability, as a pretext for retaining their military presence.

"Things are getting worse here and that is part of the American plan," he said. "They do not want things to be safe and secure here because then they will have to leave Iraq. If there are still attacks they will use that as an excuse to keep their soldiers here." The government has made it clear that private armies will not be tolerated. If the Mahdi Army does take to the streets again it can expect a sharp response from Iraqi troops, which will be able to call on US support should they need to. More than 130,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq and, although they intend to keep a low profile for the coming weeks, they are likely to carry out operations - even inside cities - with Iraqi forces in the future.

Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has called on the country to remain united in the face of increasingly deadly attacks. Warning that extremists were trying to restart a sectarian war he insisted government forces were capable of facing the threat and defeating it, despite "some security violations". Today will be a national holiday and a cause for national celebration, he said, as the country moves closer to genuine sovereignty and independence.

Nizar Latif reported from Baghdad, Phil Sands from Damascus nlatif@thenational.ae psands@thenational.ae