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Shiites from Najaf form counter-militia to attack al-Sadr's army

NAJAF, Iraq—Armed with a 9 mm handgun and grit, Haidar is trying to do what the American military camped nearby hasn't done: Drive the gunmen of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from this holy city.

Since mid-April, Haidar and scores of other young men from Najaf have gathered nightly in the city's sprawling cemetery to attack members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Only a few gunmen are targeted each time to prevent big firefights that might injure civilians, said Haidar, who spoke with Knight Ridder on the condition that his last name not be used.

"If we capture them and they swear on the holy Quran they will leave Najaf and never come back, we let them go," the 20-year-old furniture maker said. "If they resist, they are killed."

As of Friday, the group claimed to have killed more than a half-dozen Mahdi gunmen and chased off at least 20.

This is the first homebred movement against al-Sadr, and it illustrates the animosity toward the radical cleric within Iraq's Shiite community, which makes up the majority of Iraq's population. The Shiites were oppressed under Saddam Hussein's rule, and the United States has looked to them for support in its efforts to transform Iraq.

Many Shiites in Najaf say only a small number of Iraqi Shiites support al-Sadr. But the grand ayatollahs who guide the Shiites are withholding support from Haidar and his band of vigilantes, fearing a civil war among their followers.

U.S. authorities have expressed hope that the Shiite community would take care of al-Sadr and have failed to condemn the vigilante attacks, leaving the impression that they endorse them. U.S. forces have sought to arrest the young cleric and disband the Mahdi Army, but they don't want to risk a public backlash that would follow a military incursion into Najaf.

Najaf businessmen, some of whom Haidar and others say are financing the resistance movement, say there's no choice but to fight back. Al-Sadr "is just a child and he's running everything," complained one shop owner, Mohammed Hassan, 45, who sells women's sundries in the main bazaar. "We haven't been able to get our goods from Baghdad since his men took over our city. They stop the trucks at checkpoints and steal everything."

Like the Mahdi Army, which al-Sadr named after the Shiite Muslim messiah to portray his fight against American occupation as God-driven, the counter-militia has adopted a religious name. The group is called "Thul Fiqar al Battar," named after the double-edged sword carried by Grand Imam Ali, recognized by this Muslim sect as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Haidar says the name is particularly relevant because they're targeting a group that commandeered the holy Najaf shrine where Grand Imam Ali is buried. But unlike Mahdi militiamen, who often dress in black and carry Kalashnikovs or rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Thul Fiqar fighters try to remain invisible.

They carry only handguns because they can be hidden in their street clothes. They use the common checkered keffiya, or Arab headdress, to cover their faces when they go on raids. Many lack military training.

Before joining Thul Fiqar, Haidar said he shot his 9 mm handgun only once and that was into the air to celebrate deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's capture.

Yet the young men have a major tactical advantage over Mahdi members, many of whom are from nearby Kufa, Baghdad or southern towns. Thul Fiqar fighters are hometown boys who know every inch of Najaf, including the hundreds of pathways in the cemetery, which is the largest Muslim burial ground in the world. This cemetery is where they've concentrated their attacks against al-Sadr's gunmen, who go there at night to monitor American troop movements in the distance.

"We don't use mobile phones or two-way radios," Haidar said. During the day, "we blend with the crowd and pass on what we learn about Mahdi to other Thul Fiqar, whom we identify by exchanging passwords."

The immediate impact is negligible, Haidar admitted. Mahdi Army numbers in and around Najaf are estimated in the thousands, compared with the 250 claimed by the Thul Fiqar. Their quest also comes at a high price. Four members of the new group have been killed in firefights with Mahdi, said Hashim, 27, a Thul Fiqar leader who refused to give his last name.

But the counter-militia believes al-Sadr's group will crumble if it's attacked from within by Iraqis while the Mahdi is fighting the Americans, camped outside of town.

"The Americans made us happy when they got rid of Saddam Hussein," Haidar said. "We're happy to return the favor by getting rid of the Mahdi Army."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NAJAF

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