Shiites Answer a Cleric's Call to Arms ; A Mass Mobilization, Full of Passion and Risk, Sweeps through Iraq

By Chivers, C J | International New York Times, June 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

Shiites Answer a Cleric's Call to Arms ; A Mass Mobilization, Full of Passion and Risk, Sweeps through Iraq


Chivers, C J, International New York Times


Many men have been swept up in a mass mobilization, energized by a fatwa urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists.

The long lines of Shiite fighters began marching through the capital early Saturday morning. Some wore masks. One group had yellow and green suicide explosives, which they said were live, strapped to their chests.

As their numbers grew, they swelled into a seemingly unending procession of volunteers with rifles, machine guns and rocket- propelled grenades, backed by mortar crews and gun and rocket trucks.

The Mahdi Army, the paramilitary force that once led a Shiite rebellion against American troops here, was making its largest show of force since it suspended fighting in 2008. This time, its fighters were raising arms against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Qaeda splinter group that has driven Iraq's security forces from parts of the country's north and west.

Chanting "One, two, three, Mahdi!" they implored their leader, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, to send them to battle.

"ISIS is not as strong as a finger against us," said one fighter, Said Mustafa, who commanded a truck carrying four workshop-grade rockets -- each, he said, packed with C4 explosive. "If Moktada gives us the order, we will finish ISIS in two days."

Large sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq's Shiite heartland have been swept up in a mass popular mobilization, energized by the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists. Shiite and mixed neighborhoods now brim with militias, who march under arms, staff checkpoints and hold rallies to sign up more young men.

After three days of fighting, Sunni militants captured the Qaim border post into Syria late Saturday, opening the way for fighters and weapons to move across the frontier with ease. Iraqi and Western officials on Sunday described the development as worrisome.

With the capture earlier Saturday of two towns in western Anbar province, the militants seem intent on methodically consolidating their hold on the large Sunni provinces to the west and north as the Iraqi Army's attention is focused on securing Baghdad.

The Mahdi Army rally in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on Saturday was the largest and most impressive paramilitary display so far, but there were also mass militia parades in other cities, including Najaf and Basra on Saturday, and smaller rallies in Baghdad on Friday, equally motivated by what participants described as patriotic and religious fervor.

Together, the militias constitute a patchwork of seasoned irregulars who once resisted American occupation, Iranian proxies supported by Tehran, and pop-up Shiite tribal fighting groups that are rushing young men to brief training courses before sending them to fight beside the Iraqi Army against ISIS.

It is a mobilization fraught with passion, confusion and grave risk.

Militia members and their leaders insist they have taken up arms to defend their government, protect holy places and keep their country from breaking up along sectarian or ethnic lines. They have pledged to work alongside the Iraqi Army.

But as Iraq lurches toward sectarian war, the prominent role of Shiite-dominated militias could also exacerbate sectarian tensions, hardening the sentiments that have allowed the Sunni militants to succeed.

Moreover, some of the militias have dark histories that will make it hard for them to garner national support. Some commanders have been linked to death squads that carried out campaigns of kidnappings and killing against Sunnis, including from hospitals.

Against this background, even as more armed men have appeared on the streets, Shiite clerics have taken pains to cast the mobilization as a unity movement, even if it has a mostly Shiite face.

"Our mission is to explain to the people what Ayatollah Sistani said," said Sheikh Emad al-Gharagoli, after leading prayers Thursday afternoon at the Maitham al-Tamar Mosque in Sadr City. …

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