Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Multitude of Militias Pose Threat to Democracy in Iraq ; Jay Garner Thursday Distanced US Rebuilding Efforts from Returned Exile Leader Ahmed Chalabi

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Multitude of Militias Pose Threat to Democracy in Iraq ; Jay Garner Thursday Distanced US Rebuilding Efforts from Returned Exile Leader Ahmed Chalabi

Article excerpt

Some stand at mosque gates, warily cradling AK-47 assault rifles while their comrades frisk the faithful filing in to noon prayers. Others join US soldiers in the hunt for remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. Still more are hidden in the Iraqi countryside, awaiting orders.

Some are in uniform; some wear civilian clothes. Some carry their guns openly; others have cached their weapons against the day when they might need them. Some support the US; some violently oppose it.

But all of these men are loyal to one of the various militia groups in Iraq that could pose serious threats to American plans for a peaceful transition to democratic rule. "If the Americans don't impose their authority on the people, militia groups will spring up, and there will be a lot of trouble," warns Khasro Jaaf, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) Baghdad office. "They will grow up around the political parties here."

Organized armed groups come in many shapes and sizes in Iraq, and they have no trouble finding guns. This country has been awash with weaponry for many years - former President Hussein armed loyal tribesmen, fedayeen militiamen, and other supporters - and the collapse of the last government left military armories open to looters.

On the Baghdad black market today the most casual potential customer can find a Chinese-made AK-47 for around $25 (a Russian model costs double that) and 200 rounds of ammunition for a dollar.

The most official of the unofficial armed groups currently operating in Iraq - and the most sympathetic to the US - is the armed wing of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the US-backed former opposition group led by Ahmed Chalabi that spearheaded exile efforts to topple Hussein.

Known as the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF), dressed in camouflage uniforms and traveling in pickup trucks draped with the same fluorescent orange flags that identify coalition military vehicles, the militiamen take orders from US Central Command, according to Zaab Sethna, the INC spokesman here. Around 1,800 of them work alongside US troops in several cities around Iraq, tracking down remaining Baath Party fighters, guarding supply depots and assuring law and order.

US officials have said they see the FIF as the potential nucleus of a reformed Iraqi army. "We are not currently recruiting because we don't have the resources and logistical facilities to handle new recruits," says Mr. Sethna. "But we are overwhelmed with applications, and we could put together a force of 15,000 men within 45 days."

Operating independently of the American forces, and increasingly hostile to them, to judge by the words of their leaders, are the Shiite Muslim armed groups that have sprung up in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq over the past two weeks.

They say they take their orders from religious leaders based in the holy city of Najaf, and their prime task so far has been to impose law and order, since no central government authority yet exists. In the predominantly Shiite northeastern district of Baghdad, for example, hundreds of armed men, mostly in civilian clothes, guarded worshipers at an outdoor noon prayer session last Friday. They claimed to be the tip of an iceberg some 5,000 to 6,000 strong in their part of the city.

Better trained and established is the Badr Brigade, an Iranian- backed Shiite force estimated at 10,000 men, of whom some 2,000 are thought to be in Iraq now. They attacked Iraqi forces from the rear in the south of the country during the war, although they do not appear to have coordinated their operations with the coalition.

The Badr Brigade owes its loyalty to Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al- Hakim, head of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for an Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). …

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