Iraq gives preferential treatment
Mahdi Army militants who fought against US troops say they are putting down their weapons and returning to their normal lives as American forces leave Iraq.
But some Iraqis say the Shiite militia will remain intact in some form and continue to wield considerable influence in the country. Also, many of the militiamen are joining the government's security services under a secret deal between the government and the Sadrist movement, media reports say. Critics say the militants are getting preferential treatment when they apply for admission.
Since the US-led invasion of 2003, the Mahdi Army, loyal to cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, battled with US soldiers and Iraqi troops or, more commonly, planted bombs in roadside ambushes or fired mortars at military bases. It claimed to be able to call on tens of thousands of fighters.
Even after the Sadrist movement called a ceasefire in 2008 and won an influential place in Iraq's mainstream politics, militants associated with its armed wing continued to stage sporadic attacks against US troops, particularly in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq.
Now, however, some of the fighters - it remains unclear exactly how many - say the time has come to put their weapons aside and return to civilian life.
"I was fighting to end the American occupation and now they are leaving. There is no need for me to fight anymore," said a former militant from Amarah, 300 kilometres from Baghdad, who asked to be identified only as Abu Fatima.
Once he was happy to risk his life in the fight against US troops. He eventually was arrested by Iraqi forces in 2008 and jailed for a year over his role in militant activity. But now, Abu Fatima is middle-aged and earns a living selling kitchen utensils in a street market.
"We have been instructed to return to our normal lives, to go back to our jobs, to be normal citizens again," Abu Fatima said, citing orders from the Sadrist leadership. "We have defeated the Americans. They are leaving. It's over at last."
In Nasariyah, 370km from Baghdad and another area in which Sadrists wield significant influence, a young militant named Mohammad said the "war was over" and that he now hoped to complete his education."I'm now going back to normal life," he said. "I left college to fight the Americans and I can to go back to that. Now, no more fighting."
Mohammad described an exhausting, transient life as a militant, moving from place to place to avoid capture, narrowly avoiding house raids and staging attacks against US forces that more often than not failed, sometimes causing more destruction to Iraq's archaeological treasures than to the American troops he was intent on pushing out of his country.
"The Americans had a base next to Ur and many times we fired mortars at them there but we'd miss and hit the old city instead," he said. "It wasn't good."The history of Ur, near Nasariyah, dates back as far as 6,000 years BC. It is the birthplace of the oldest surviving legal code, making it a site of exceptional historic interest.
Mohammad said he remained concerned that Iraqi authorities would still try to arrest him. "I want to hear there has been an amnesty. The government should say that there is now reconciliation, that people like me will not be chased or jailed, then we can just get on with life," he said.
An arrangement with the government designed to entice the Sadrists to abandon militancy may already be unfolding, according to Iraqi media reports. Hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters have joined security services, some at high ranks, even though they are less qualified than other applicants, the reports say.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, two Iraqi government civil servants with knowledge of recruitment practices confirmed that such a deal had been struck. They said government staff had been told to approve job applications submitted by former Mahdi Army fighters, in preference to similar applications by ordinary Iraqis.
The militants "are being taken into the interior ministry, the defence ministry, the air force, the border guards, Baghdad operations command, everywhere," said one of the officials.He said the Sadrists had handed a list of more than 1,000 names to the authorities and that those on the list were to be given work even if they were not as well qualified as other applicants.
"Lots of the military people are not happy about it. These Mahdi Army people will be in the security services and some are going straight in at a high rank, captain and above, despite not having the qualifications," the official said.
Government officials have dismissed as media speculation claims that the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has cleared the way for former militants to join the army and police. With a bloc of some 40 members of parliament, the Sadrists have been an important source of support for Mr Al Maliki's fragile governing coalition, and a frequent critic of his leadership.
Rafa Abdul Jabar, a Sadrist MP, insisted that reports that Mahdi Army members were being amalgamated into the armed forces were nothing more than "newspaper rumours".
"The Mahdi Army's objective was to oppose the American occupation forces, so if they are going it is natural that operations will be frozen," he said.MPs in different political blocs have said they hope the US pullout, due to be completed by the end of the year, will prompt militias to disband. But now they are warning that it's unlikely.
"These militias represent the real challenge to Iraq's future security and stability," said Bakir Sadiq, a Kurdish MP. "Iraq will be challenged by neighbouring countries that want to exert influence, and they will seek to do that in part though these militias."
Critics of the Sadrists accuse them of being an Iranian proxy, one of the levers Tehran uses to exercise some control over Iraqi politics.And people who have suffered at the hands of the Mahdi Army doubt the militants will quietly join civilian life.
"The Mahdi Army will take advantage of the situation when the Americans have gone. They will not just go back to normal life," said Nahidar Al Musawi, a widow from Amarah whose husband was killed by militants for working with the Iraqi security forces.
"They claim to be interested in jihad against occupation, but I have seen them up close and they are really criminals, interested in money and power and sex, nothing more than that."The National
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, Muqtada al-Sadr STARVING BRITAIN
DESPERATE families are facing a Dickensian Christmas with at least 100,000 Britons relying on food parcels because they can’t afford to eat.A new food bank is opening every week as charities struggle to cope with increasing numbers of people hit by a combination of Government cuts, rising unemployment and soaring food and fuel prices.
The Sunday Express has uncovered shocking cases of hunger and deprivation, even among the middle classes in areas once considered affluent.Diseases linked to poverty, such as rickets, could be making a comeback as Britons battle against the odds.
One charity, The Trussell Trust, which operates 200 food banks across the country, says it is overwhelmed with increasing demand from Britain’s “hidden hungry”.Earlier this month an Army veteran and his wife committed suicide after struggling to live “hand to mouth” on food handouts from a soup kitchen they walked 10 miles to get to.
Mark and Helen Mullins were found lying side by side in their home in, Bedworth, Coventry.
In other distressing cases a family of four was eating roadkill after the father lost his IT job, a mother burned her furniture so she could save on fuel and pay for food, another ate paper towels to curb her appetite so she could feed her daughter and a 10-year-old boy was arrested for stealing food for his younger sisters.
In the wake of these tragic stories, The Trust, which provides dried and tinned food parcels to tens of thousands of people across the country, will next week begin a special collection to provide treats, such as chocolate and crackers, for children on Christmas Day.
Mark Ward, food bank manager, said: “Food banks are replacing the workhouses of 100 years ago.“There will always be people who need support, but now we are seeing poverty affecting people who never dreamed it would hit them, including young people and middle England.”
Tim Lobstein, spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group, said the crisis was directly linked to the Government’s £8billion cuts to welfare benefits.He said it was inevitable that the poorest suffer first, but our own enquiries show middle-income families have also been hit hard.
Mr Lobstein continued: “As we approach the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dickens next year it is awful that families are suffering the same trouble we associated with Dickensian Britain.” The Trussell Trust calculates it will feed 100,000 people between 2011 and 2012.
For the same period last year the figure was 60,000; for 2009-2010 it was 41,000.The Trust, launched in Salisbury 11 years ago, has found it difficult to meet demand lately. It recently heard about a family and their elderly relatives who had not eaten for two days.In affluent Oak-hampton, Devon, calls for help to the Trust have doubled from 10 a week to 20.
There has been a surge in demand in “well-off” areas, including Westminster, central London, Exeter, Bristol and Truro in Cornwall. Jennifer Eastmond, 21, a mother-of-one from Salisbury, was referred to the Trust by her GP when she started to suffer depression.She had given up her job as a customer services manager to look after her baby boy and her partner, a trainee architect, was not earning enough.
“We never had any luxuries and I haven’t been out for two years, but we still couldn’t pay the bills.”Some families rely on junk food to survive.Professor Philip James, former government advisor on nutrition, said: “The rate of malnutrition is reaching astonishing levels.
“Children are being denied fresh foods because families cannot afford to buy them. By early adolescence they will be affected by premature diabetes and signs of underlying heart disease.”He said doctors are seeing a resurgence of rickets, a condition caused by a lack of vitamin D and thought to have been all but wiped out in countries like Britain.
by Lucy Johnston, The Express