Thursday, March 15, 2007

Death squad murders drop as U.S. troops sweep through Sadr City

For U.S. and Sadr, Wary Cooperation

BAGHDAD -- U.S. troops are conducting security sweeps in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City for the first time in three years, part of a revamped plan to pacify the capital. Yet the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has not risen up to fight them, despite U.S. raids on militia members' homes and growing Sunni attacks on Shiites.

The absence of full-blown resistance against U.S. troops and the recent decline in the number of bodies found in the capital with signs of torture, usually attributed to the Mahdi Army, suggest that Sadr still controls the bulk of his forces, even as U.S. intelligence officials assert that his grip over the Mahdi Army is slipping.

Such murders have dropped by a third during the first month of the security plan, Fil said.

Sadr has other motives for allowing U.S. soldiers into Sadr City, U.S. military officials said. In recent months he has become increasingly concerned about his political and religious image, because the Mahdi Army has been linked to torture and other crimes. He has purged militiamen from his fold and threatened to excommunicate others.

U.S. intelligence officials say he is competing for authority with extremist figures inside the Mahdi Army who oppose his decision to join mainstream politics. By allowing U.S. forces to enter his stronghold and arrest his militiamen, Sadr appears to be ridding his army of rogue fighters. In the past six months, nearly 700 of the "real extremist elements" of the Mahdi Army have been taken into custody and detained, including those who have committed death squad killings, Caldwell said.

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