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IRAQ: The language of war

May 7, 2008 |  8:09 am

Sadr_2

When is a militia not a militia?

When it's a gang of criminal thugs, according to the U.S. military, which has tied itself into a verbal knot as it takes on the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr while trying not to lose whatever relationship it may have left with Sadr himself.

The United States' language toward Sadr and his Mahdi Army has undergone a radical change since last year when, at news conferences and in interviews, U.S. military and political leaders freely referred to it by its Arabic acronym, JAM. Splinter groups were known as Rogue JAM. When Sadr last August called on JAM to cease armed activities, ostensibly so he could sort out the Rogue JAM from the real JAM, some began referring to his truce-abiding fighters as Frozen JAM.

Jam_2

Now, it is difficult to get the military to even utter the word Mahdi Army, much less JAM, during news briefings. Instead, when discussing the ongoing fighting with militiamen in Shiite neighborhoods, they refer to "criminal gangs" or "thugs." They insist that Sadr's fighters are not being targeted in the fighting that has raged in his stronghold, Sadr City, since Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops launched an offensive against militias -- er, criminal gangs and thugs --  in March.

"This is focused on the criminal groups -- those who are using the force of arms outside of the government of Iraq -- and they are endangering not only those who live in Sadr City, but they are endangering innocent Iraqis in many neighborhoods in Baghdad," the chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, said April 30 when asked point-blank at a news conference who exactly U.S. forces are fighting in Sadr City.

The reasons for the change are clear. Sadr is dangling threats to lift a truce, in effect since last August, over the United States' head. That is something the U.S. military is loath to see happen, given how sharply troop deaths fell after he called his truce. The troop deaths have been rising since the March offensive, and it is clear they could soar if Sadr called for a return to all-out war with the Americans as he has threatened to do.

A high-ranking American military official said the language used to refer to the Mahdi Army was simply a reflection of the Iraqi government's decision to enforce the law against non-governmental groups carrying heavy weapons. He insisted it had nothing to do with politics, though he acknowledged that the military was eager to see Sadr's truce -- such as it is -- maintained.

Confusion sets in when the topic of Al Qaeda in Iraq comes up. When asked why the U.S. military refers to the Sunni Muslim insurgent group as AQI, rather than a gang of murderous thugs, it explains that AQI is a formal terrorist organization without the political roots of Sadr's Mahdi Army.

As for Sadr himself, the U.S. has quietly dropped the honorific, Sayyid, that it had begun using last October when referring to him. It introduced "Sayyid" when Sadr's cease-fire took hold and U.S. troop deaths began falling. Last month, though, it was dropped. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid calling attention to the switch, military officials also are rarely using Sadr's name at all in news briefings.

Whatever their commanders want to call, or not call, Sadr and his armed supporters, the soldiers on Baghdad's front-lines mince no words.

"I consider him a thug, really," said one U.S. Army major, who did not want his name used because of the political nature of his comments. "I don't quite know how he gets that following."

1st Lt. Matt Vigeant said it is the political following that makes JAM so dangerous. He calls JAM "the dirty little secret of Iraq" because of its ability to sustain support, either through coercion or because of genuine support for its beliefs and actions. "JAM has infiltrated everything," he said. "It's common knowledge. JAM has that popular base that AQI does not."

—Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photos: Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr (Alaa Al-Marjani /Associated Press); Hold the JAM: U.S. officials rarely mention JAM, the Arabic acronym for Sadr's Mahdi Army, in public anymore. (Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times)

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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