'Just a few strikes': Iraq militia wants help from old US foe

Jean Marc Mojon

Jurf al-Sakhr (Iraq) (AFP) - Iraq's Mahdi Army fought US troops to the death in past years, but now some members of the rebranded Shiite militia say they could do with a little help from their old foe.

Jurf al-Sakhr is a sprawling patchwork of orchards and palm groves south of Baghdad irrigated by the Euphrates River, but the beauty of the scenery belies the deadliness of one of Iraq's most relentless battlefields.

Positions are hard to hold and weeks of military yo-yo between Islamic State (IS) jihadists and pro-government forces, including the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), which counts many Mahdi Army members among its fighters, have killed hundreds and produced no victor.

A campaign of US air strikes in the north, however, has helped flagging Kurdish troops regroup and allowed them to go on the offensive, whetting the appetite of other anti-IS forces for similar assistance.

"I fought the American occupation in 2004 and up to 2006," Saad Thijil, 30, said near a bombed-out building in Jurf al-Sakhr, his rifle strapped behind his back. "Now of course, we need US support, especially their military advisors."

"But we don't want any troop presence in Iraq," he added.

In 2004, fiery young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr unleashed the Mahdi Army militia against US troops, mainly in the poor Baghdad district of Sadr City and in the holy city of Najaf, farther south.

Sadr and his militia played central roles in the wave of sectarian bloodshed that peaked in 2006-2007, but he eventually froze the militia's activities in a move the US credited with sharply reducing violence.

When jihadists who had held parts of Syria for months swept across swathes of Iraq in June this year, Sadr announced the formation of the Saraya al-Salam, a group he said would be tasked with defending the holy sites of Shiite Islam.

Jurf al-Sakhr is strategically vital because it buffers the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad from militant-held areas west of the capital.

Hassan is a 27-year-old from Baghdad and works as an air marshal on a commercial airline. When he is not flying, he spends a few days as a volunteer with Saraya al-Salam.

"Just a few air strikes, you know," he said, puffing on a slim cigarette. "Not too many, we must win this battle by ourselves, but some support would be welcome, especially in this place."

- 'Air force for militias' -

Bullets at least did not look to be in short supply as Saraya al-Salam leader Hakim al-Zamili visited the Jurf al-Sakhr front line this week, with some fighters burning off entire ammo belts to greet his convoy.

Discipline and sheer determination are some of the factors that have consistently made the IS look like the best fighting force in Iraq over the past two and half months.

IS "is strong because they are tough and they believe in a cause," Zamili told some of his field commanders gathered in a local command centre.

"The fighters they run up against should also believe in something and be even tougher," said Zamili, who was accused of running a death squad that abducted and executed hundreds of Sunnis between 2005 and 2007.

Zamili, now a lawmaker, was cleared in court but as pressure mounts on the US to expand its strikes beyond north Iraq, helping the ex-Mahdi Army does not appear to be high on the list.

US President Barack Obama justified launching air strikes earlier this month by pointing to a threat to US personnel in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and the risk of genocide against minorities.

"We don't want the Americans to come back to Iraq, we don't want a new occupation, we just want their support in the form of air strikes," Zamili told AFP as he toured the Jurf al-Sakhr front line.

When Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government first requested US air strikes in June to reverse the debacle of disintegrating Iraqi federal forces, David Petraeus, a former commander-in-chief of US-led forces in Iraq, warned against America becoming an "air force for Shiite militias".

Some of the most battle-hardened fighters among Saraya al-Salam's disparate ranks were adamant, however, that any battle won with US support would be half lost.

"We don't need America. We are brave people, we have enough weapons and experience," said Ali Abu Hassan, who heads an elite unit in the militia.

"I consider anyone asking for US air strikes a traitor to Iraq."