Iraq's Mysterious Vigilante Killers

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The dark blue Volvo sped toward the guard post near Najaf's Safi al-Safa shrine just as the muezzin began his evening call to prayers. Inside the car, three gunmen prepared to fire. Their targets were members of the Mahdi Army, a band of militants loyal to the firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has holed up in Najaf for the past month to avoid capture by the 2,500 U.S. soldiers surrounding the city. As the Volvo neared the tiny brick-and-reed building, a gunman in the car opened up with his AK-47, hitting one of al-Sadr's men. Mahdi Army members say they ran the Volvo down, killing one of the three gunmen and capturing the remaining two. But other witnesses say the car disappeared into the night, its occupants unharmed. Either way, it was a blow for al-Sadr's army, which last month staged dramatic uprisings against coalition forces in several cities.

With the U.S. seeking to avoid an outright confrontation with al-Sadr's forces inside Najaf, the holiest city for Iraq's majority Shi'ites, a shadowy group of al-Sadr's rivals appears to be taking matters into its own hands. Locals say the gunmen in the Volvo came from a new group calling itself the Thulfiqar Army, seemingly named for a famed two-pronged sword that in Shi'ite tradition was used by Imam Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Two weeks ago, the group began distributing leaflets ordering al-Sadr to leave Najaf immediately or face death. Since then, residents say, Thulfiqar has killed up to four Mahdi Army militiamen, a figure challenged by al-Sadr officials, who claim the group is the invention of American propaganda. U.S. officials say they believe the group exists but have few clues about its composition. "We don't assess it to be a very large activity at this point," coalition spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said last week.

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Plenty of people have an interest in seeing al-Sadr and his ragtag army cut down. The cleric has little widespread support among mainstream Shi'ites. But al-Sadr's rise has alarmed senior Shi'ite clerics, who view him as an upstart demagogue. Al-Sadr's troops have regularly clashed with the more powerful Shi'ite militia known as the Badr Brigade. Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the most prominent Shi'ite leader in Iraq, has ordered all Shi'ite factions to avoid further confrontation with al-Sadr's men, fearing it would lead to fratricidal Shi'ite violence, but, Iraqi intelligence sources say, Thulfiqar could be a splinter faction of the Badr Brigade working independently. Those sources think Thulfiqar may also be receiving support from Iran's intelligence services, which may fear that al-Sadr's anti-U.S. militancy could jeopardize the expected establishment of a Shi'ite-dominated government.

Many residents of Najaf have tired of al-Sadr and his militia's thuggish ways. Out of earshot of Mahdi Army members, locals complain that al-Sadr's men raid shops for supplies, confiscate mobile telephones and arrest people on suspicion of spying. A pro-al-Sadr newspaper ran a picture last week of a man hanged by al-Sadr followers for "spying." Waving the photo, Muntadhar al-Khazali, 18, an al-Sadr loyalist, issued a threat to others: "Anyone who works against us, this will be their fate. We will never let Muqtada al-Sadr die. If America is such a great country, why doesn't it come and get him?" Perhaps because there's a reasonable chance that someone else will first.