LEAVE THE GUN, TAKE THE HADGI BADAH. Today's LA Times, on the difficulties of rooting out Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army:
Many soldiers also say practices that worked against insurgencies in other wars or in other parts of Iraq may not apply to Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods.
The Al Mahdi militia is not a textbook insurgent group. To Iraqi Shiites, the militia offers a source for basic services and support for the political and religious work of popular anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr.
"The Mahdi militia provides services and protects the region," said a 25-year-old clothing salesman in the Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad who gave his nickname as Abu Atwar. "Militiamen do some killings from time to time, but we do not care about the crimes they commit. Only God can make them pay for that because, as you know, no law is working in Iraq now."
The Mahdi Army may not be a textbook insurgent group, but they are in many ways a textbook Islamic resistance organization. Like Hamas and Hezbollah, the Mahdi Army define themselves as self-defense movements, providing services and protection to their respective communities in the space created by irresponsible and incompetent regimes. With Sadr, however, the security and services vacuum left by U.S. forces after the fall of Saddam was so large, and Sadr's organization so well-positioned to take advantage of it, that he's been able to create run what is essentially a state within a state, controlling most if not all aspects of life within his territory. As the article states, insurgent groups typically fight against the state. In many Shi’i neighborhoods Sadr's organization is the state. They maintain support through a combination of social services far better than anything delivered by the central government, as well as mafia-style violence, extortion, and revenge.
Interestingly, the word mafia is most likely derived from the Arabic mu'afiyah, meaning "refuge." The various secret societies we've come to call mafia began as organizations for protection against governments that either had no interest in protecting them, or that openly preyed upon them, first in Italy, and then among the immigrant communities in America. This is very close to what we're seeing with Sadr's organization.
This isn't to say that Muqtada is just Tony Soprano with a turban, or that Jamaat al-Sadr is just a crime organization -- far from it. It's unlikely that Muqtada bothers to meet with the various Tony Sopranos they have working for them, as long as they keep earning and kicking upstairs. Muqtada has folded the various criminal enterprises of the Mahdi Army into his larger movement, a movement that speaks to and for the aspirations of thousands of poor Iraqi Shi'is, and has roots that go back decades. When various generals and politicians talk about confronting the Mahdi Army, they are in fact talking about confronting this entire organization, as well as the people it serves.