The Mahdi’s Deep Freeze

Chilling stories from the Mahdi Army
By Leila Fadel | McClatchy Newspapers
Posted on Fri, June 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.”

Read the rest here.

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