Will the Shi'a Militia Truce Last?

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Franco Pagetti / VII for TIME

A U.S. soldier patrols Sadr City, Baghdad.

When Capt. Ron Sprang assumed command of a company of U.S. soldiers operating on the outskirts of the Shi'ite militia stronghold Sadr City, he was walking into a street fight. This spring and summer the area was a battleground for the American Army and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Sprang's men deployed by the dozens to conduct raids; in retaliation, local militiamen salted the roads with powerful bombs that crippled the heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles used by the Americans. The result was the opposite of what the American troop surge was supposed to accomplish: instead of reassuring residents and improving their security, the neighborhood turned into a battlefield.

But late in the summer, the relationship between the U.S. and the militia changed. Members of the militia had grown weary of the destruction; and the Americans began reaching out to them. Bolstered by a national militia cease-fire declared by Sadr, the resulting cooperation has seen violence decline and a sense of normalcy return to the area. The question now is whether the militia's more conciliatory approach will last, especially when American troop levels begin to drop next year.

For now, at least, war weariness seems to be working in the Americans' favor. "The violence between us and the militia was hurting the residents around us," Sprang said. The last straw, he believes, came in August, when the militia blew up a police station just before it was scheduled to open. The blast killed a little boy and injured his mother. The incident, Sprang said, made residents even more eager for an end to the fighting.

Indeed, the violence was hurting the local militia's standing with residents. In east Baghdad and other heavily-Shi'ite areas of Iraq the Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi, or "JAM" in American military shorthand) is as much a political entity as a military organization. Its support hinges on its ability to provide the security and services the central government has not. The constant violence in the area had hamstrung the U.S. and the Iraqi government, but it also damaged the militia's reputation among residents as a protector and benefactor.

The same dynamic was playing out in other neighborhoods patrolled by Sprang's battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Sauer, the battalion commander, said that it became clear to everyone as the summer wore on that the militia could continue using the neighborhoods as battlefields, but would not be able to push out the Americans. He said the conditions were right to make a pitch to the militia: cooperation with the U.S. and the central government, rather than more fighting, was in JAM's best interests. "At some point you have to go to the political level to solve this," Sauer said, "or you risk your survival as an organization."

Sadr seems to have made the same calculation at the national level. A few weeks after Sauer and his men reached out to the militia in their area, Sadr announced a unilateral, nationwide "freeze" on militia activity. The late-August move, said an official at the U.S. Embassy, was a concession to the organization's precarious circumstances. At the same time JAM was trying to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Army, it was fighting an escalating and ugly battle in southern Iraq with rival Shi'ite militias. Both its military reputation and its credibility as a defender of Iraqi Shiites were under assault. "The organization was under tremendous pressure," the official said.

In Sprang's neighborhood the Americans first approached members of the local government. But they were too afraid that discussions with the Americans would lead to reprisals from more extreme members of JAM. So Sprang went directly to the militia. "We started talking with some of the contacts we had," Sprang said. They told JAM members, he said, "how, by doing the right thing, they could build their clout."

Talks with a militia might conjure up images of meeting heavily armed men at fortified hideouts. But in much of east Baghdad it's difficult to see where the militia ends and politics begins. "JAM isn't the enemy," Sprang said. "They're another political aspect of Iraqi society — as long as they aren't conducting criminal activity." Thus, reaching out to the militia meant reaching out to politicians and other community leaders, many of whom were open about their relationship to JAM. Membership in Sadr's organization is often a point of pride, not a cause for secrecy, in east Baghdad. Says Sprang, "Most of them would outright admit it to you."

With the militia standing down and the political skids greased, conditions in the neighborhoods began to improve. Violence declined dramatically; roadside bombings dwindled and the Americans sharply curtailed raids and other disruptive operations. Sauer said meetings with local leaders that used to degenerate into arguments over security are now focused almost exclusively on how to bring money and services into the area. Sauer said that credit for that ultimately goes to Iraqis. "Everything that's happening now is not because of our work," Sauer said. "It's because the Iraqis are giving it to us."

That raises the question, though, of what will happen when the American troop surge ends and military pressure on the militia eases. While local political progress may be an Iraqi achievement, the presence of U.S. troops has been a powerful incentive for JAM to pursue a non-violent approach. American officers said that the recent stand-down and the resulting drop in violence were not signs of a new benevolence from Sadr, but rather a calculated decision on his part to stop a fight that was damaging his organization.

The hope is that the Sadrists and JAM will now reap the benefits of political participation and reject violence. But since joining the national political process in 2004, the Sadrists have proven willing to engage in politics when it suits them and resort to violence when they feel it is necessary. The U.S. Embassy official said it was too early to make predictions about the organization's future. "The Sadrists," he said, "are still at a crossroads."