Iraq's Gunmen Morphing Into Men In Suits

Iraqi members of Shiite radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement prepare lamb meat to be distributed to impoverished people in Baghdad's Shula district, October 1, 2007.
From CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey in Baghdad.

Iraq is a place that often defines "self-fulfilling prophecy," especially the one that begins "Be careful what you wish for..."

For several years a fervent wish of the U.S. military and diplomatic efforts here has been to blunt if not negate the military strength of the Mahdi Army, which is nominally under the control of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But just at the point where that wish is about to come true, those in the movement have shifted from gunmen to Iraq's equivalent of men in suits.

U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker warned a few days ago that elements of the Mahdi Army have forsaken military activities in favor of financial enterprises such as control of gas stations and basic services in Shiite neighborhoods.

The move suggests what Crocker called a "Hezbollahzation" of parts of Iraq, a reference to an emphasis on social networks as a base of strength that has been the hallmark of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The predicament for the Americans is that any effort to curtail that process can cost them support in the street. In many Shiite areas people both welcome and rely on the social work of the Mahdi Army for services and help the government does not provide.

"If they arrest people who are Mahdi Army but who are not doing military things, people will not like them for it," said one resident of a neighborhood where the Americans are trying to crack down. The sweeps also tend to collect suspects regardless of age.

"When they arrest a 16-year-old person for example," the resident said, "It angers many people, because we all have sons or brothers or cousins who are that age, and we know they could be arrested too, even if they have nothing to do with the Mahdi Army."

The military disputes that it detains anyone without good reason, and maintains that when mistakes are made they are quickly rectified. The problem is that committing errors is much easier that rectifying them.

Indeed, Sheik Assad al-Nasseri, a representative of Muqtada al-Sadr, warned during his during Friday sermon in the holy city of Kufa that a moratorium on Shiite militia activities could end if U.S. and Iraqi forces continue with detention campaigns against the movement.

(Spencer Platt/Getty)
But the operations seem to be continuing unabated. During a pre-dawn raid in a Shiite area this week an American officer who encountered an English-speaking resident (who for obvious reasons asked not to be identified) told Iraqi troops to wait outside, and then told the resident that the U.S. military was setting up "an intelligence network" that did not include the Iraqi army. Agents would report directly to and be paid by U.S. forces.

If true, it is an arrangement fraught with danger. As has been amply demonstrated over and over again, the U.S. military lacks the language skills and cultural understanding to deal with the complexities Iraq's social order. This population is steeped in the ways and atmosphere of secrecy, informants and double-dealing.

"If you put an Iraqi in a corner," an interpreter working for a Western company said, "he will find a way to talk his way out. Any Iraqi can do it."

"It's not lying," the interpreter added, "it's something we learned from the time we were born, because that is how you had to live to under Saddam's rule."

What Iraqis do not know how to work is the system of restitution for damages, which means goodwill can be as hard to buy as it is to win. A case in point is the condolence payments being offered by the U.S. Embassy for victims of the shooting involving Blackwater security on September 16.

The embassy began offering payments on October 24. The embassy insists that acceptance of the payments does not mean claimants are waiving their rights to future compensation. In an e-mail response to questions by CBS News, the embassy described the money on offer this way:

"Condolence payments are not an admission of culpability. Condolence payments are simply intended to aid and support affected families on a speedy, short-term basis. The payments should not be construed as a statement about the value of human life."

But in Iraqi society payment is often seen in terms of what is called "fasil al-ashair" which translates roughly as "separation of the tribes." If a member of one tribe commits an offence against a member of another tribe, payment made in compensation is seen as final restitution, and the matter is closed.

Urbanized Iraqis, like the people killed and injured by Blackwater, may not adhere to "fasil al-ashair" as a matter of normal recourse, but neither will they dismiss it as irrelevant no matter what assurances they are given, especially by an occupier few if any trust, acting on behalf of contractors who have been placed above the law, and are hated for it.

To believe otherwise is to indulge in wishful thinking.