Wall Street Journal: Residents in two Shiite-controlled neighborhoods here said armed militias have taken over rooms in several schools and stocked them with rockets, in a sign they could be gearing up for more attacks against the U.S.-backed government. The Wall Street Journal
Residents Say Schools
Stocked With Rockets;
Mahdi Army on Alert
By GINA CHON
March 25, 2008; Page A6
BAGHDAD — Residents in two Shiite-controlled neighborhoods here said armed militias have taken over rooms in several schools and stocked them with rockets, in a sign they could be gearing up for more attacks against the U.S.-backed government.
The reports come as U.S. officials blame Iran-backed Shiite extremist groups for a deadly barrage of rocket attacks against the Iraqi government’s heavily fortified seat of power on Sunday.
Tensions in Baghdad have increased amid recent violence between two politically backed armed forces in the south, and after Sunday’s attacks against the International Zone. The area is a secured section of Baghdad that includes the U.S. and British embassies and the homes of many Iraqi government officials.
In the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniyah and Karbala, followers of cleric Muqtada al Sadr have clashed recently with government security forces aligned with the main Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, stoking tension between the two groups across the country.
In February, Mr. Sadr announced an extension of a six-month cease-fire of his Mahdi Army that had been due to expire. The U.S. military has credited the cease-fire with contributing to a recent drop in violence, but it says rogue elements of the Mahdi Army, backed by Iran, continue to perpetrate violence.
The Iraqi government says its security forces have arrested criminal militia gangs that operate like the mafia in Iraq’s southern cities. Representatives of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Dawa Party, the other main Shiite party, of which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member, denied they were targeting Sadr followers.
But the clashes in the south appear to have put Sadr-aligned forces on alert in Baghdad. Armed militia members aligned with Mr. Sadr were walking around Sadr City, Shurta and other Shiite districts of Baghdad in what appeared to be a coordinated show of force Monday.
Some residents were stocking up on food and water, worried that an upsurge in fighting might keep them from shopping in days to come.
In areas under its control, the Mahdi Army ordered some shops to close on Monday, according to witnesses. The militia has said it would initiate what Sadr-aligned politicians have called a “civil disobedience” movement in Baghdad, to protest what it says is an unfair crackdown on Sadr followers by the government.
“Mahdi Army members carrying pistols came by and told shop owners to close down,” said one Shurta resident. “People were stocking up on frozen chicken and vegetables.”
Saed Hazeem, a taxi driver in Sadr City, said Mahdi Army members have been very visible in the past two days and appear to be on alert.
“I am afraid that this civil disobedience might lead to fighting with the government and the Americans,” he said.
A teacher in an elementary school in Sadr City said Mahdi Army members on Monday took over two classrooms and a room for teachers in one school and brought in rockets. It is unclear whether the men were legitimate Mahdi Army members or part of a faction that has broken from Mr. Sadr.
Militias have used buildings such as schools and mosques to stage attacks in the past because they are believed to provide some protection from reprisals. Residents in Shurta, another Shiite neighborhood, reported similar activity at schools.
Mr. Sadr himself has been absent recently from Iraq, studying in Iran to become an ayatollah. On March 7, he issued a statement saying he was taking a break from politics, partly because he was disappointed at the situation in Iraq.
–Iraqi staff of The Wall Street Journal contributed to this article.