NYT: Fragmenation of Mahdi Army
Sabrina Tavernise has an interesting front-page story in today’s New York Times (Sabrina Tavenise, “Influence Rises But Base Frays For Iraqi Cleric,” New York Times, November 13, 2006) about Muqtada al-Sadr’s current political fortunes, and the fragmentation of the Mahdi Army.
But she gets some facts wrong: “One result is a small proliferation of senior militia leaders—a coalition intelligence official said in September there were at least six—striking out on their own. One new commander is a fishmonger who goes by the name Abu Dera, meaning “man of the shield.””
According to what I’ve heard, Abu Dera’s real name is Isma’il Hafidh al-Hilfi, but I have heard some others give his tribal affiliation as al-Lami or al-‘Izerjawi, and he was born and raised in the southern town of ‘Amara. He is the illiterate son of a fishmonger. He served as a Master Sergeant (Artillery) in the Iraqi Army and saw front-line action during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), but was discharged after receiving a debilitating wound. Some claim he was wounded in his left foot, and he presently walks with a slight limp. Abu Dera rose to prominence in Sadr City as a projectiles expert during the second round of clashes between American forces and the Mahdi Army in November 2004. He also seemed to be well funded. After the Samara Shrine bombing last February, Abu Dera’s stature as the “protector” of Sadr City reached its zenith. One myth had him atop the dome of the Abu Hanifa Mosque (the most important shrine for Iraq’s Sunnis) within hours of the Samara bombing. He was allegedly rigging the dome with explosives when a call came in from Muqtada al-Sadr himself asking him to stop.
Abu Dera’s gang was responsible for much of the sectarian reprisal killings in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of ‘Adhamiya.
The most interesting piece of information I have heard about Abu Dera is that he had gone into hiding in Iran in July and stayed there for six weeks. Recently, there have been many reports of Abu Dera sightings in Sadr City (at funerals, rallies…etc.) and in Basra, prior to the most recent arrest attempt against him. He is now, according to a source, in Iran. I believe Abu Dera is an asset of the Iranians Revolutionary Guard, although I can’t prove it. All I know is that is that in the summer of 2004, the Iranians were very much interested in penetrating the Mahdi Army and placing commanders such as Abu Dera at its helm.
Tavernise also writes that “Mr. Sadr has disavowed a number of his commanders. At a Friday Prayer last month, the names of 40 dismissed Mahdi Army commanders were read aloud at a lectern in front of a sea of men holding umbrellas against the hot sun. Among them were Hassan Salim, the leader of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, and Hajj Shimel, a prominent cleric.”
“Hajj Shimel” should read Hajji Shibil al-Zaidi, who is a short man in his late forties, and was a member of the Shi'a Political Council. Shibel is not a cleric, and has had his ups and downs with Muqtada. He was commander of the Mahdi Army during the April 2004 clashes with American forces. Shibil had also gone into hiding in Iran in the past, and could very well be there now. Shibil was not expelled in the latest “purge” but rather received a “warning” to toe the line.
Hassan Salim is also known as “Abu Rabi’.” He took over command of the Mahdi Army after Shibil, but resigned seven months ago in a dispute with some of Muqtada’s inner circle.
(The full text of the article has been posted in the comments section.)