In mid-June 2011, there was an armed clash between members of Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, and followers of a former Mahdi Army commander in Baghdad’s Sadr City. People were killed and wounded, and the Iraqi Army was called out to secure the area. The Sadr Trend has seen a series of splits since 2004, and that problem continues to this day.
On June 20, 2011, a letter from Moqtada al-Sadr was made public in which he attacked Abu Dura, a former commander in the Mahdi Army. Sadr called the followers of Abu Dura criminals and killers. He went on to tell the Sadr Trend that they needed to resist Abu Dura, and said that the government should arrest him. According to the media, Abu Dura, also known as Ismail Hafiz al-Lami, his two brothers Halim and Salman, and his nephew Haider are running a criminal gang in the neighborhood, which had attacked homes and displaced several families in the area.
The letter was the result of residents of Sadr City calling for Moqtada’s help after a violent clash happened in the district. The incident started when members of the Electricity Ministry, who happened to be Sadrists, came to the area to install some equipment. Reports said that Abu Dura’s gang stopped them from doing their work, and demanded that the Ministry provide Dura’s followers with jobs. That led to a shootout between Dura’s men and Sadrists that left between one to three people dead, and four to five others wounded. The Iraqi Army was called out, and cordoned off the area. This was the first time in years that Shiite groups have fought each other. The Sadrists and the Supreme Council for Iraq Revolution for example, used to have a running battle with each other, but that ended with the cessation of the civil war in 2007. Since then, Shiite militants have largely focused upon the Americans, and not each other.
During the sectarian war of 2005-2007 Abu Dura was called the Shiite Zarqawi for his brutality. He said that he wanted to cleanse Baghdad of its Sunni population, and was known for using an electric drill on his enemies. Dura was originally a non-commissioned officer in Saddam Hussein’s army who deserted in 2000. After the U.S. invasion he turned to killing former Baathists and army officers, joined the Sadr movement, and rose to the rank of a brigade commander in the Mahdi Army. He took part in the 2004 Sadrist uprising in Najaf against the Americans, and sometime afterward left the Trend to form his own breakaway militia, which was supported by Iran. During the sectarian fighting in the capital, Dura was blamed for hundreds of deaths. He eventually fled to Iran when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved against the Mahdi Army in 2008. He then joined another breakaway Sadrist faction, the League of the Righteous, and returned to Iraq in August 2010. Since the civil war is over, militiamen like Dura really only have three options. One, they can try to become civilians and find work, which would be especially hard for someone with such a bloody past as Dura. Second, they can carry out attacks upon the Americans, since that is the only enemy left in Iraq for Shiite militants. Third, they can become criminals and prey upon their own neighborhoods. It appears that Dura took that last path.
Abu Dura’s return to Iraq last year was a bad sign. Someone like him, can really only live a life of violence. Since there is no more fighting in Iraq, becoming a gang leader was the next best path since it would use tools like weapons and intimidation that he was already familiar with. His family formed a criminal entity, and began taking advantage of their neighbors, which was something that the Mahdi Army did was well during the civil war. It seems like by pure chance their activities were finally made public, when they tried to extort jobs from people they thought were just Electricity Ministry workers, but unfortunately for the gang, were Sadrists. That led to the shootout in Baghdad. Whether the security forces will now arrest Abu Dura and his relatives, or the Sadrists will try to exert vigilante justice against them is unknown. It is just the latest example of the factionalism that the Sadrists have experienced over the years, and its repercussions.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq’s Sadr calls to punish rogue militia members,” 6/20/11
Al Rafidayn, “Sadr calls on the government to deter the followers of Abu Dura in Sadr City,” 6/20/11