DIWANIYAH, Iraq – Detentions have become commonplace in Iraq, but now more than ever before people are being detained after being accused of membership in "militias supported by Iran."
"Hundreds of our men were detained and accused of being militiamen supported by Iran," Mahmood Allawi, a 50-year-old lawyer from Diwaniyah, 160 km south of Baghdad, told IPS.
"We are Arab Shi’ite, and Iran is as much an enemy to us as America! It is Iran that we fear most after our leaders were killed by the so-called ‘Iranian supported’ militias," Allawi said.
There has been a spike in abductions being carried out by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Diwaniyah, capital of Iraq’s al-Qadisiyah province and home to a population of roughly 400,000.
On Nov. 13, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 60,000 people are currently detained in Iraq.
U.S. officials claim that the military has been actively fighting against members of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-occupation cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
People here told a different story to IPS.
"If they mean the Mahdi Army then they know them well because they worked together for about two years now," Abdul Kazem Hussein, a former Iraqi officer who fled to Baghdad from Diwaniyah recently, told IPS.
Hussein claimed that the U.S. military had been using members of the Mahdi Army to carry out attacks on Sunnis in Baghdad, as well as areas south of Baghdad, like Diwaniyah.
"But they are detaining hundreds of people who have always been afraid of being drilled to death by Mahdi Army murderers," Hussein explained, alluding to a practice used by Mahdi Army members of using electric drills to torture Sunni men they capture.
"They are detaining those who have not accepted the influence of Iran in the city," Hussein said.
Bassam al-Shareef, a spokesman for the Shi’ite party al-Fadhila criticized the campaign and warned the Iraqi government of the consequences if the campaign against the Mahdi Army continues this way.
"We believe the government should take slower actions to contain the militias rather than lead such a harsh campaign," Shareef told IPS in Baghdad.
The leaders of the Iraqi army unit in charge of the crackdown, the al-Baqir Brigade, said they are determined to conduct their offensive to the end.
"We will detain all suspects in Diwaniyah and chase those who fled to hide in the surrounding villages," Col. Othman of the brigade’s staff told journalists in Baghdad recently. "Our intelligence will lead us to all those who are wanted for questioning."
The question of whether the offensive is targeting the Mahdi Army or the Arab Shi’ites in Diwaniyah was best answered by local politician Hassan al-Mayali, who recently fled to Baghdad.
"This offensive is targeting all those who do not follow Iranian cleric [Grand Ayatollah] Ali al-Sistani," Mayali told IPS. "Americans, Iranians and the so-called Iraqi government felt the danger of those Shi’ites who rejected the influence of what they call the peaceful clerics and they are pressing hard to make them accept their leadership. Any Iraqi who does not keep his mouth shut will be detained or assassinated so that the separation plan and the ever lasting occupation will succeed."
Many Iraqis interviewed felt sure that after the bombing of the Golden Shrines in Samarra in February 2006, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the Badr Organization, worked with the Mahdi Army to kill thousands of Sunnis.
Millions were also displaced from their homes in southern Iraq, as well as Baghdad.
"Moqtada sold us to Iran," a former member of the Mahdi Army, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS in Diwaniyah.
"We are Arabs and the wave of killings conducted by us was committed for money paid by the Badr Organization and Iran. Now the Badr Organization is getting the American Army to help detain and kill us because we did not follow the orders given to us to kill our Sunni brothers," the former Mahdi Army member said.
"We are still obeying the orders given by our leader Moqtada al-Sadr to maintain peace, but that will not be forever," a member of the movement, speaking on the condition of anonymity, in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad told IPS. "They [SIIC] are trying our patience, and there will be a strong reaction if they do not stop their organized campaign against us."
On Nov. 25, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the powerful Shi’ite cleric who leads the SIIC, defended Iran against U.S. accusations that the country is involved in anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq.
"These are only accusations raised by the multinational forces, and I think these accusations need more proof," Hakim, the head of the largest Shi’ite party in Iraq, told reporters.
Hakim has established ties with Iran and is one of its staunchest supporters in Iraq, but he also has been a major partner in U.S. efforts during the occupation.