Denials and conspiracy theories notwithstanding, a figurehead has emerged in connection with the Mehdi Army, who is able to wreak havoc while still affording Moqtada al-Sadr plausible deniability.
The recent increase in Shi’ite militia activity that the article describes begs the question of Iranian involvement.
Sunni-Shi’ite Jihad Update, from AFP:
BAGHDAD – Sadr City and Internet bulletin boards buzzed with talk Saturday that a US-Iraqi raid on the poor Shia district that killed nine was targeting a militiaman nicknamed the “Shia Zarqawi”.
There were suggestions that the unnamed “high-level insurgent leader” US forces said they had captured in Friday”s nighttime raid on the industrial “Kisra wa Atash” neighbourhood in the northern fringes of Sadr city was a shadowy and brutal Shia militiaman known as Abu Deraa.
The operation, which Iraqi security sources said lasted for about four hours, also wounded about 30 people and resulted in heavy damage to buildings in the area.
Residents insisted that Abu Deraa did not live in the neighbourhood and that during the raid US and Iraqi forces arrested eight people, all civilians including an elementary school teacher.
“There is no Abu Deraa here — all of those detained were innocent civilians,” Ali Abdul Jalil, the owner of a car workshop in the area said.
A US military spokesman confirmed the number of detainees and said they were involved in shooting at Iraqi forces during the raid.
I cant yet provide positive identification of the individual targeted and detained,” Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said.
The military had said that Iraqi forces were fired at from the rooftop of the building “from which the insurgent leader was detained”.
The military hinted in its statement that the man it captured was part of the Mehdi Army militia of radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, which controls Sadr City, but that he was attempting to break away from the group by stocking up on weapons smuggled from neighbouring Syria.
“He and his followers have kidnapped, tortured and murdered Iraqi citizens and… he carries out vigilante judgment on perceived enemies of his organisation,” it said.
But a city councilman from Sadr City, who is also a senior official in the Sadr movement, denied that Abu Deraa was in the Mehdi Army.
“I have heard of Abu Deraa, but he is not a member of the Mehdi Army, which is only a defensive force to protect our people and sacred places,” Naim Al Qaabi said.
“Even if this person existed, they should have come with an arrest warrant for him and not just storm in with their guns like that, killing innocent
Several postings on two Iraqi Internet bulletin boards described Abu Deraa as the “butcher of Rusafa” in reference to the city”s east bank district. They accused him of kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunni Arabs in retaliation for attacks against the country”s majority Shias in the ongoing sectarian bloodshed plaguing Iraq.
The Iraqi League board, popular with Sunnis, posted a purported picture of Abu Deraa showing a thin, tall man in traditional dress with an assault rifle slung from his shoulder and a cartridge belt around his waist.
It said his real name was Ismail, 33, married with two children and that he was a “high school dropout and a former army deserter”.
Others called him the “Shia Zarqawi”, or the flip side of Jordanian-born Sunni Arab militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, killed in a US raid on June 7 and accused of masterminding some of the most vicious attacks against Shias.
The obligatory conspiracy theory follows:
Postings on the Shia Iraqi Centre board said Abu Deraa was a fictional figure and that the raid was instigated by Sunni Arab leaders who accuse the Mehdi Army of abducting a Sunni MP and her bodyguards.
Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi had hinted on Wednesday that the Mehdi Army may be behind the kidnapping of lawmaker Tayseer Al Mashhadani a week ago.
“It is a Sunni conspiracy against the Mehdi Army using the kidnapped deputy as an excuse,” a participant writing under the nickname “Al Atraqji” said.
Another contributor, “Zaid Al Nar”, said Abu Deraa was real and that he was wanted for killing US soldiers during the bloody rebellion against US forces in 2004 and that he also “killed dozens of Sunnis after bombings in Sadr City”.
A suicide truck bombing in a busy Sadr City market on July 1 killed 66 and wounded dozens.