BAGHDAD, Iraq—Shiite Muslim militiamen swagger in increasing numbers through the streets around Baghdad's mosques and elsewhere in Iraq these days, openly carrying AK-47 rifles, pistols and other weapons in defiance of the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority.
"Our position is that we are not going to tolerate militias," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top coalition commander, said Thursday. "And where we find them, we are going to go ahead and disarm them."
The militias threaten to undermine the central authority of the U.S.-led coalition. They're becoming a headache for American troops and a nascent Iraqi security apparatus struggling to establish law and order six months after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
And American forces aren't sure how to respond: If they crack down too hard, they risk more armed confrontations, a situation that could spin out of control quickly.
Iraq is awash in guns, and there are many armed groups associated with the various political parties, especially with the powerful exiles on Iraq's interim Governing Council. But the resurgent Shiite militias are a special case. Long persecuted under Saddam, they are relishing their newfound political and social freedom, and many vow to die rather than give up those liberties.
In the latest incident, U.S. soldiers exchanged fire Wednesday with a group of about 50 militiamen and police after they were met by stone-throwing demonstrators at a Baghdad mosque. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and the soldiers withdrew to avoid risking a bloody confrontation.
The exchange illustrates the fine line that American troops must tread in trying to establish security while avoiding inflaming tensions with the country's Shiite majority, whose cooperation is essential to a stable future in the country.
It also underscores that in dealing with these new vigilante gangs, U.S.-led forces may find themselves in the crosshairs of the newly established Iraqi police forces.
Torn between loyalties, the police are more likely to side with their countrymen in a disturbance.
According to witnesses, Wednesday's incident began after American soldiers in a Humvee and an artillery ammunition carrier arrived shortly before dusk to investigate a demonstration at al Bayai mosque, in a southwestern Baghdad slum populated mostly by Shiites. Soldiers had tried to arrest Sheik Moayed al Khazraji, a militant cleric there, two days earlier but were chased away by an angry crowd. When soldiers arrived Wednesday, a cleric with a bullhorn was whipping up the crowd.
"If we give you the order, are you ready to fight the Americans?" witnesses quoted the cleric as saying. "Are you willing to be crushed by American tanks? Are you ready to fight for Islam?"
When the U.S. soldiers arrived, the crowd surged toward them, pelting their vehicles with stones. A soldier on one vehicle responded by firing a .50-caliber machine gun over the demonstrators' heads.
The situation gave the Iraqi policemen standing about 100 yards away little choice, the officers said.
"When they started shooting at the mosque, we started shooting at them," said Jassim Mohammed, 35, an Iraqi police officer. "We started shooting because we are Muslims first and policemen second. Besides, our job isn't to protect the Americans. It is to protect Iraqis."
Militiamen guarding the mosque belong to a group called the Mahdi Army, formed by a radical young cleric named Moqtada al Sadr. Al Sadr has called for resistance against the U.S.-led occupation force and the Governing Council and has a large following in Baghdad, even though many Shiites privately accuse him and other radicals of trying to foment public discontent.
Sanchez said this was the first he was aware of Iraqi police deliberately firing on American soldiers.
The militias formed mainly in Baghdad and the southern city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad and home to the holiest shrine of the Shiite branch of Islam, after the assassination Aug. 29 of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim. Hakim was a longtime Saddam foe who led the 10,000-strong Badr Brigade, an exile group that fought on the side of the Iranians in their 1980-1988 war with Iraq and waged a low-level guerrilla campaign against Saddam in southern Iraq for years afterward. Hakim died in a car bombing outside the Najaf shrine that killed at least 78 other people and wounded more than 100.
After American-led forces ousted Saddam, the Badr Brigade voluntarily disarmed. But after Hakim was assassinated, its members began appearing in the streets of Najaf, frustrated by the lack of protection from coalition forces.
American Marines in Najaf had stayed away from the shrine in deference to Shiite religious sensibilities. They'd begun plans to train a 500-man "Shrine Protection Force" of Iraqis to watch over the city's holy places.
Once the force was ready Sept. 9, coalition authorities gave it an ultimatum. "Coalition officials told politicians connected to the militias that, effective immediately, their armed men would be disarmed by force, and if necessary (were) subject to arrest by any coalition forces who came across them," said a coalition official who asked not to be named.
Badr Brigade leaders told authorities they didn't want a confrontation, and withdrew armed gunmen from around the mosque and Najaf's streets. Gunmen from al Sadr's group who took over three mosques in neighboring Kufa on Sept. 19 also were disarmed under threat of force, the coalition official said.
In Baghdad, coalition authorities have yet to deal effectively with a problem that took shape Aug. 31 during Hakim's funeral at the city's Khadimiya mosque, a prominent Shiite shrine in the northwest of the city: As hundreds of thousands of mourners packed the streets, hundreds of armed Badr Brigade militiamen were posted in the crowd and dozens kept a tight security cordon around Hakim's coffin.
U.S. soldiers had stayed away to avoid angering the crowd. And they've cut a wide swath around the mosque in the weeks since Hakim's death.
During a three-day religious event there last week, hundreds of armed Badr militiamen and gunmen from Sadr's Madhi Army patrolled the streets around the mosque. A religious leader said their presence was necessary during ceremonies and prayers that draw large crowds, to prevent further terrorist violence against Shiites.
"They (coalition forces) failed to provide adequate security for us, so it became necessary for us to take matters into our own hands," said Sheik Ra'ad al Khadimi, leader for Friday prayers at the mosque.
A U.S. military officer said American troops had seized weapons from some militiamen at the mosque last week, but acknowledged they'd been reluctant to deal with the issue more forcibly.
"Neither side appears to be seeking any confrontation," said the officer, who asked not to be named.
One Iraqi police officer worries that the militias could undermine the authority of the newly established security forces and the U.S.-led coalition.
"We don't know how to deal with them," said Lt. Col. Aqeel Abdullah, 38, the deputy police commander for the Khadimiya district. "The main problem is that there are too many political parties, and they all have their own militias and plenty of weapons. But right now, we don't have the authority from the Governing Council to solve this matter. We are powerless."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+militias