Sectarian militias seen gaining strength in Mahmudiyah
MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — Sectarian militias are gaining strength in the area. The mostly Shiite Iraqi army unit that secures the area tolerates — or worse, helps — the surging, bloodthirsty sectarian militias.
And, as 1st Lt. Seth Reimers notes dryly, people are constantly trying to kill him.
“The first time I came out here,” he said, indicating a trash-filled expanse of street in downtown Mahmudiyah, “a mortar hit 20 meters from my truck. It scared the ever-living [expletive] out of me.”
With less than a month in Iraq under his belt, the 24-year-old platoon leader from the 10th Mountain Division’s Company A, 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment already views his mission of working day-to-day with Iraqi troops at local checkpoints with the weariness of a combat veteran.
“It’s a constant job, doing checks to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” he said as his Humvee rolled down the road on a recent, Ramadan-quiet Friday.
“This city can turn bad very fast,” the Iowa native warned. “Mahmudiyah can turn from completely calm to chaos in a few minutes.”
However, on a recent patrol earlier this month, things appeared calm. Iraqi soldiers at the area’s varied checkpoints manned the checkpoints diligently, duly reported the occasional attack or roadside bomb and — in what has sort of become the Iraqi army’s schtick — complained bitterly about the army’s lack of logistical support while assuring American soldiers that the area was safe.
But their wide smiles and assurances, Reimers said, hide an uglier truth.
“Stories change by the minute,” he said. “There’s more sectarian violence in this neighborhood than they’re telling you about.”
As if to illustrate, a group of Iraqi army soldiers, who were standing less than 100 feet away from a well-known camp for the radical Shiite Mahdi militia, told a visiting reporter that the encampment was, in fact, a village for the elderly and indigent.
“The Mahdi militia, they don’t live in this village,” said Sgt. Ahmed Abdul Hassan, 32, through an interpreter. However, when pressed, he admitted that the wire-fenced encampment — which featured a giant rendering of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr — was the Shiite militia’s local outpost.
“The Mahdi militia, they just want to protect themselves,” he said of the militia, whose signature is taking electric drills to victims’ various body parts. “They’re doing the right things. They’re trying to protect the people.”
Hassan, who is from predominantly Shiite southern Iraq, said he supports the militia’s mission to rid Iraq of Sunnis, but denied being a member of the militia.
“Sunnis are doing the wrong things,” he said. “We have let Sunnis work with us, but they try to kill us. … Sunni soldiers, they used to work at this checkpoint. Every day we found dead bodies of Shiite soldiers and police.”
Another soldier, who said his name was Lt. Haider, 26, then made a claim so ludicrous that even other Iraqis smirked.
“There is no militia in this area,” he said.
When asked if he was a member of a sectarian militia, he looked away.
“I’m not going to say no or yes,” he said, adding, “My [noncommissioned officer] is in the Mahdi militia. They just want to kill the civilian population.”
When asked about the militia’s charismatic leader, he echoed many Shiites’ blind devotion for the Baghdad-based radical firebrand who has exhorted his followers to kill American forces and Sunnis.
“Muqtada al-Sadr is good,” he said. “I don’t know why, I just like him. Shiites like that guy because he’s a good man.”
At another, more rural checkpoint, Capt. Baha, 33, bluntly laid out the area’s dynamics.
“[The militias] are getting stronger,” he said. “The militias have more power.”
Meanwhile, he said, the Iraqi army is crippled by corruption and logistical problems. When Reimers asked him about a shipment of winter uniforms and new equipment, Baha smiled bitterly.
“Brigade, they sell some stuff,” he said. “The militias have better weapons than we do ... We don’t have enough supplies and we don’t have enough soldiers,”
It was quiet as Reimer and his platoon rolled back into Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah hours later, untouched.
“Maybe they’re resting up so they can blast us tomorrow,” he said.