BAGHDAD - In the past 10 days, the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia has resurfaced in force, making a push to roust Sunnis from Baghdad and to isolate Sunni enclaves in the west of the capital from their brethren in the south.
Mahdi Army militiamen in the Shiite dominated neighborhood of Bayaa were reinforced by other Shiite fighters and men in civilian clothes with weapons have cordoned off the area. In the past 10 days Mahdi Army activity has escalated, intensifying in the past two days with the capture of two Sunni mosques, residents and police said.
The push appears to be part of a strategy by the Mahdi Army to control swaths of the once Sunni-dominated west bank of the Tigris River. Late last year, the militia, which has long regarded itself as a protector of the Shiites, drove Sunnis out of Hurriyah, killing some and burning homes.
On Friday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida dominated insurgent group, issued a statement on the internet calling on the Sunnis to fight against Shiite militia. The commentary appeared designed to shore up support for the extremist group that many Iraqi Sunnis have turned on.
"Now there is a supreme conspiracy to push Sunnis out of Baghdad," the statement said. "What you have to today is to depend on God and attack the rawafudh (a derogatory word for Shiites), and the checkpoints of the pagan guards. The fall of one his almighty houses is a great tragedy."
The new escalation coincides with the withdrawal of Kurdish soldiers, who were stationed in the Amil and Bayaa area as part of the Baghdad Security Plan. The Kurdish pullback began Wednesday as their scheduled three-month deployment ended, according to Iraqi and U.S. military officials.
After they left young men from the Mahdi Army rejoiced in the streets handing out candy to celebrate their departure, residents said.
The Mahdi Army is largely blamed for the revenge killings of thousands of Sunnis. They were formed in 2003 under the auspices of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and battled U.S. forces in Najaf in 2004. Once seen as a form of the national resistance, now they are known as thugs and killers among Sunnis and some Shiites. While of other Shiites see them as providers of services and protection in a security vacuum.
A U.S. military official said the Mahdi Army had become more active in recent days. Al-Sadr ordered the militia not to fight U.S. forces as the Baghdad Security Plan was launched in February.
But in May and June death squad killings escalated to pre-surge levels as bodies were found executed and thrown in the streets. Dead bodies are found daily in Bayaa and Amil.
"We have seen a resurgence in (Mahdi Army)-related activity aimed at inciting sectarian violence," Maj. Kirk Luedeke, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 1st Infantry Division said in an e-mail. "When sectarian actors are identified, they're dealt with."
He said that the two attacks on Sunni Mosques were being investigated. "With the realignment of forces comes some expected turbulence," he said. "But we will closely monitor the situation and continue to operate closely with our (Iraqi Security Force) partners there."
Two Sunni men reached by phone had fled Bayaa in the last five days because of the rising violence. Neither of the men would give their names or new places of residence for fear of retribution.
Five days ago one of the Sunni men was warned by his Shiite neighbors and friends.
"The Mahdi Army is asking about you, they are watching you," he was told. So he packed up his things, his family and left.
Last week his cousin was dragged from his car at a Mahdi Army checkpoint and shot.
"The army is fighting along side the Mahdi Army," he said. "We cannot trust a security plan that doesn't protect the people. . . . They come to you as a state of government with power. . . . If you defend yourself, the interior commandoes will arrest you as a terrorist the next day."
Two Shiite men in Bayaa also described an escalation of violence but were happy to see the Mahdi Army return to protect them, they said.
"It is a sectarian war," said Muntathar Mohammed, a resident in Bayaa. "On one side there is al-Mahdi army and on the other side there is al-Janabat and al-Gurtan," he said referring to two Sunni tribes in Bayaa and neighboring Amil.
While Mohammed said he felt sad for the Sunnis who were forced to leave, it is for the better. Sunnis were attacking them and on May 29 a Shiite mosque was leveled, "This was too much," he said.
"The Mahdi Army has taken on the role of the government inside Bayaa, it is the provider of services and of security," he said. "The Mahdi Army did a lot of things that have a sad side to them, like displacing the Sunnis in the area; they did it out of necessity to secure the area."
In nearby Saidiyah, the Mahdi Army passed out fliers in badly written Arabic signed by the "Supporters of the Right."
"You aflakee, (followers of the founder of the Baath party) . . . We will show you days that you haven't seen before. We will make you taste the heat of hell. . . . your fate will be killing and displacement."
On Friday mortars pounded the area and gun battles between the Mahdi Army and local residents broke out.
One resident ran from his home and saw a barefoot man wielding a weapon.
"Get back in your homes," he said. "Get back in your homes. Anyone who can hold a gun and defend his house and his family they can stay. Other wise get back in your homes."
He shot a warning shot in the air and let out a string of expletives about the Mahdi Army. The resident who would not give his name for fear of retribution returned to his home.
"I wanted to defend my home," he said. "But I didn't want to be arrested as a terrorist."
At dawn the Mahdi Army raided homes and residents saw the men in black flowing into the Janabat area, the last Sunni part of the Shiite dominated Amil neighborhood in west Baghdad.
On a trip to Bayaa on Saturday U.S. Humvees flooded the empty streets. On a loudspeaker an Arabic refrain boomed.
"People of Bayaa the result of sectarianism upon the future of Iraq is very dangerous. Stop these killings. Stop these crimes. Unite with your neighbors."
A young woman sat in the heat by a freezer of ice cream in the otherwise empty streets.
"As long as they (the Americans) are roaming the streets not one rat will leave his house," she said.
McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Yasseen Taha contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.
2007 McClatchy Newspapers