Chilling stories from the Mahdi Army

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2007 

BAGHDAD — In 2005, Abu Rusil was a penniless Shiite Muslim taxi driver who could barely afford to rent a room. Then Sunni gunmen stopped his older brother at a checkpoint, checked his ID and discovered he was a Shiite. They dragged him from his car and shot him dead on the spot.

Now Abu Rusil lives for revenge. He brags about the people he's killed; there are so many, he boasted in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, that he's lost count. His tales are horrific - people buried alive, others burned in their homes, still more who died when holes were drilled in their heads and shoulders.

"Life is about getting even," he said coldly, dressed in the all-black uniform of the Mahdi Army militia. "There is no innocent Sunni."

There's no way to confirm Abu Rusil's accounts, but there's every reason to believe them and the challenge they pose to American efforts to pacify the city. He talks of fomenting a revolution to drive the Sunnis from Iraq, of his training trips to Iran and of his need to avenge his brother's death.

In Adhamiyah, the Sunni neighborhood where his brother died, residents confirmed that he leaves signed notes on dead Sunnis. "Best regards," they read.

"Half of Adhamiyah is gone because I killed them," Abu Rusil said.

In Hai al Salam, a once peaceful mixed neighborhood where Abu Rusil is a Mahdi Army commander, fear of him and his compatriots is palpable. Residents confirm that the militiamen bury people in the dead of night.

The increased American presence means little, they say.

"We are playing a game of cat and mouse," said Haider Shwail, a Shiite whose brother was shot dead as he was making photocopies. Abu Rusil's militiamen took $500 that his brother had in his pocket as a contribution for what they call "the Martyr's office."

"When the Americans are inside the neighborhood, we go out to do our shopping," Shwail said. "When they leave, we go inside because the killing begins."

U.S. military officers plead ignorance to the extent of the brutality, though they say they're going after "rogue" and "criminal" members of the Mahdi Army. They say there's little they can do if Iraqis are too frightened to talk.

"It is all very interesting that the people that are witnessing such tragedies are too afraid to tell anyone about it, so they willfully allow the continued prosecution of terror by these criminals against innocent Iraqis," said Col. J.B. Burton, the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, which has responsibility for Hai al Salam. "We've neither seen nor heard of this degree of horror because nobody wants to talk."

McClatchy Newspapers interviewed Abu Rusil after asking an intermediary to find a Mahdi Army commander from Hai al Salam to comment on residents' stories of brutality. Abu Rusil introduced himself as Abu al Hassan, then acknowledged his better known nom de guerre. He refused to be identified by his real name, though several residents said they knew it.

Abu Rusil said he'd never killed anyone until his brother's death. He struggled to make ends meet as a taxi driver. When Sunni insurgents shot his brother, Abu Rusil and his family had to pool their money to come up with the $2,000 it cost to retrieve the body.

Now he enjoys the spoils of war as a Mahdi Army commander. He has a house and three sport-utility vehicles, which he uses in his transportation business. He confiscates cars from Sunnis to get around town. The cars, of course, now belong to the Mahdi Army.

The killings will end, Abu Rusil said, when every Sunni has left the country and Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who heads the Mahdi Army, rules Iraq.

"The Mahdi Army will lead the revolution in Iraq as Imam Khomeini did in Iran," he said, referring to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of that country's Islamic revolution. Then, using an honorific reserved for descendants of the prophet Muhammad, he added, "This is what Sayed Muqtada wants and what the Sadr trend wants."

Publicly, Sadr has called for reconciliation with the Sunnis and joint prayers, most recently in an interview on Iraqiya state television.

"Anyone assaulting an innocent Iraqi civilian does not belong to this army, and I would disown him until the Day of Judgment," he said.

But Abu Rusil said he's only following orders with his brutal acts.

He said he's been to Iran eight times for training. All of the Mahdi Army's weapons except for the AK-47 rifles come from Iran, he said. His men also get help from the U.S.-trained Iraqi Security Forces, whose commandos bring them larger weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers and improvised explosive devices, that they can't bring into the neighborhood themselves. When they have to, his men drive official-looking GMC SUVs and wear police and army uniforms, he said.

His most recent victims, he said, included a gaggle of shopkeepers and men from Samarra who watched the minarets of the Shiite Askariya shrine topple because of a powerful explosion last week. Iraqi police commandos turned the men over to him. They're now buried in unmarked graves, along with hundreds of others, in Hai al Salam. The story could not be independently verified.

Abu Rusil offered to show the area to a reporter, before adding that the Sadr office needed money and that it wouldn't be safe to go without him. A foreign reporter could fetch $300,000 to $400,000, he said, then laughed. His offer was refused.

Shiites, too, can be victims of Abu Rusil's wrath. He said that followers of Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the elderly leading Shiite cleric in Iraq who's been critical of Sadr and the Mahdi Army, must die as well. This month, he shot one.

Pausing to tally in his head, he recalled that of the 46 people he and his fighters have killed in their neighborhood in the last two months, three were Shiites. Eight, he added, were women.

In Hai al Salam, Abu Rusil's stories ring true. Through the narrow streets of low-slung beige homes, young teenage boys roam, surveying the neighborhood. They rule with weapons and instill fear, much as former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did.

A Sunni leader who asked that he not be named - "I have a family, I have children," he said - recalled the night two weeks ago when seven people were killed in an hour. He was told of each new victim, nails driven into their feet and hands, gas cans pounded on their bodies to break their bones, holes drilled into their bodies.

One torture chamber is the old Baath party headquarters, he said. Another is an abandoned Sunni home. He said he'd asked for help from the Americans and said he was speaking to a reporter in hopes that that would trigger some action.

He dismissed the Iraqi government's troops. "The Mahdi Army owns the Iraqi Security Forces," he said.

He pleaded for the Americans to stay. "America is the one who came and freed Iraq. Why have they left Iraq in the hands of Iran and its minions and Muqtada?" he said. "If the U.S. leaves, Iran will come in and Iraq will be reduced to nothing."

In one home, a Shiite widow grieved, curled up on the cold floor of the room she once shared with her husband. The room is bare; every piece of furniture was sold to support her three young girls, her mother-in-law and her two brother-in-laws.

The woman's husband, Riyadh Shwail, worked for a foreign newspaper. He was shot a month ago while making photocopies near the Sadr office, the $500 in his pocket taken as a donation to the "office of the martyrs."

Shwail's mother, Fouziya Hmoud, can't bear to look at the picture of him smiling in front of a blue-domed mosque. Her wails echoed through her small home as she carried Sara, his 1-year-old daughter. Nearby another son, who has Down syndrome, echoed her wails.

"Why are they killing people?" she cried as she slapped her face in grief. "Do they think God blesses this?"

The Mahdi Army wouldn't allow them to bury Shwail in the holy Wadi al Salam, the Valley of Peace, in the Shiite southern city of Najaf. So they passed his body to another family that was burying its own son and posed as pilgrims to go to the burial.

Other stories are even worse. Shwail's brother, Haider, told of how Mahdi Army militiamen brutalized his friend Dhia, a Sunni. He was strangled with a rope in the street. But that wasn't enough, Haider Shwail said. So they stripped the body and buried its lower half in the sand and beat the upper half with bricks as residents looked on in horror.

"They are a gang," he said. "They are terrorists and thieves."

A few streets over, dried blood is still visible on the front step of one home. A Shiite woman named Iman was shot there as she was returning from a trip to the store for bread. Her 7-year-old son, Mohammed, had rushed through the front door and cradled his mother in his arms.

No one had stopped to help until Amal Mohammed Thaifa saw her friend's body bleeding on the ground, and she rushed to the little boy.

She took him inside. "Let's clean you up," she recalled telling him.

"No, I want to stay covered in my mother's blood," he replied. "Auntie, just wait until I grow up. You will see what I will do."

Abu Rusil remembered Iman and the reason for her death. She had said bad things about the Mahdi Army, he said.

2007 McClatchy Newspapers

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