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Iraq's Sadr uses lull to rebuild Army

Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia aims to return leaner, stronger.

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For more than three months, the Mahdi Army has been largely silent. The potent, black-clad Iraqi Shiite force put down its guns in late August at the behest of Moqtada al-Sadr.

The move has bolstered improved security in Baghdad, even though the US says some Mahdi Army splinter groups that it calls "criminals" or "extremists" have not heeded Mr. Sadr's freeze.

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south – from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah – a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

"He is now in the process of reconstituting the [Mahdi] Army and removing all the bad people that committed mistakes and those that sullied its reputation. There will be a whole new structure and dozens of conditions for membership," says Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mahamadawi, a turbaned cleric who commands Sadr's operation in Karbala.

Sheikh Mahamadawi says each fighter would have to be vouched for by fellow fighters in good standing and would have to undergo a series of physical and character tests. "He must have high morals, strong faith, and above all, be obedient."

Sadr is also said to have created a special force called the "golden one" to cleanse the ranks of the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi in Arabic, from unwanted members, according to militia and police sources.

One Mahdi Army fighter, who did not wish to be named, says safe houses have been rented in Najaf for senior militiamen from neighboring Diwaniyah, where a joint Iraqi-US crackdown on the militia has been under way for months.

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