Depending on whom you ask, Abu Deraa is either considered a Shiite hero or the Shiite version of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The legendary militant, notorious for his brutal tactics and hatred for Sunnis, is known to operate out of Sadr City, yet he remains a mysterious and elusive presence. He is feared by many Iraqis because of his reputation for cruelty as a death squad leader. The U.S. military has launched numerous operations recently to capture or kill Abu Deraa, but have so far come up empty-handed. Nevertheless, while Abu Deraa’s fable is great, the facts on him are slim.
“Abu Deraa,” his nom de guerre, means “Father of the Shield”; his real name is Ismail al-Zerjawi. Other than his name, little else is known about him or his whereabouts. It is believed that Abu Deraa was a refugee who came to Sadr City from the southern marshes where he had worked as a fishmonger. During the rule of the Baath Party, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and destroyed Shiite villages as punishment for their uprising after the first Gulf War—this caused many Shiites, like Abu Deraa, to move to the Sadr City slum in Baghdad. Abu Deraa is allegedly in his forties and is married with two children.
Many of the tidbits of information on Abu Deraa used for this report were gleaned from various Western and Arab news reports covering the practices of Iraq’s Shiite militias. The Iraqi media have remained largely silent on Abu Deraa. He has granted no interviews nor released any statements to the Iraqi or foreign press, preferring to remain elusive and have his legend speak for itself. Any member of the Iraqi press that conducts too many inquiries about Abu Deraa would likely suffer a fate similar to his victims. His associates and the Shiites he lives amongst are protective of him.
Until recently, his appearance was disputed, but oddly enough a video clip surfaced of him on the popular file-sharing website YouTube (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qV1qA_4v6u8). Short, stocky and bearded, Abu Deraa is pictured feeding a baby camel. His bodyguards were reported as saying that the video of Abu Deraa and the camel was a message to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. According to his bodyguards, when Abu Deraa captures and kills al-Hashemi, he will sacrifice this new camel. The accuracy of the video cannot be confirmed.
Abu Deraa’s Operations
Iraqi Sunnis accuse Abu Deraa of killing thousands of Sunnis, not just political figures and militant Salafists, but ordinary civilians as well. One of his associates recounted to an Australian newspaper how Abu Deraa lured Sunni men to their deaths. The associate explained how Abu Deraa commandeered a fleet of ambulances and drove them into a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad calling on all young men to come and give blood, announcing on a loud speaker that “the Shiites are killing your Sunni brothers” (The Age, August 22). The young men went to the ambulances and were trapped and killed. According to one of the many rumors circulating around the country, Abu Deraa offers his victims a choice in their murder—suffocation, shooting or being smashed to death with cinder blocks. Many of the murdered victims have been found in the al-Seddah sector of Sadr City, an area which Iraqis have nicknamed the “Happiness Hotel.” Victims are found in shallow graves, many with signs of torture.
Yet Abu Deraa has also captured and killed high-value targets. A video recorded on a telephone camera and circulated in Shiite areas shows a man believed to be Abu Deraa conducting the kidnapping and assassination of Saddam Hussein’s lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi. The video shows al-Obeidi emerging from a private residence, where he was undergoing interrogation, into a narrow alleyway. Al-Obeidi pleaded with his captors on the video, saying that he would lie beneath their feet and do whatever they wanted. Abu Deraa then tied al-Obeidi’s hands behind his back and placed him in the back of a white Toyota pickup truck. Al-Obeidi was paraded through Sadr City, where the crowd threw stones at him and taunted him with Shiite slogans. He was hit on the back of the neck, an extreme insult in Arab culture. After being paraded through the slum, the vehicle stopped and Abu Deraa fired three shots into al-Obeidi’s skull (The Age, August 22). Abu Deraa is also thought to be responsible for the July abduction of female Sunni MP Tayseer Najah al-Mashhadani. Unlike al-Obeidi, she is still believed to be alive.
The Sunni leadership is understandably nervous. Last summer, an anonymous letter was distributed to Sunni mosques in Baghdad, titled “The Reaper of al-Rusafa.” It warned Sunnis living in the area about Abu Deraa. The letter reads, “His name is Abu Deraa and he is a professional killer who is not any less dangerous than al-Zarqawi…Some of the Sadr City police force works under his command and under the command of other forces from Moqtada al-Sadr…Everyone in Sadr City knows this madman but they do not say his name; it is whispered in Sadr City when they wake up to the news of the blindfolded dead bodies thrown out at al-Seddah…which the Interior Ministry officially made as a place for Abu Deraa’s victims.”
Connections to Shiite Militias
Reportedly, Abu Deraa was a forger during Saddam’s rule, but he now makes his living doing the dirty work of Shiite militias and political parties, whose leadership publicly disavow him. His connection to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is unclear. He may have, at one point, taken orders from al-Sadr, or alternatively played up his connection to the Mahdi Army for his own legitimacy and standing within the Shiite community. Either way, he is most likely now working as a free agent whose actions are publicly denounced by the Shiite leadership but who privately are not altogether unhappy about the “justice” he is inflicting on the Sunni community. Since he mostly operates out of Sadr City and neighboring Shula, he must have at least the tacit approval of al-Sadr since the latter’s organization regulates human traffic in the entire area (al-Sharqiyah, November 3).
Abu Deraa has mostly been associated with the al-Sadr trend, but it is also rumored that he is supported by Iran (Tehran, not knowing who will emerge as the dominant Shiite group in Iraq, has been supporting all of the Shiite parties). It is also possible that he is supported in some way by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a powerful party within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). SCIRI and the Mahdi Army are rival Shiite groups that are competing for dominance in the UIA. SCIRI has a powerful backer in Iran and is a strong proponent of federalism based on three large regional blocs. SCIRI’s power base is mostly in southern Iraq, while al-Sadr is more powerful in Baghdad. Al-Sadr is a nationalist and is opposed to the strong federalization of Iraq. Although he has recently flirted with Iran, his group’s connection to Iran is not anywhere near as strong as is SCIRI’s.
Yet, where does Abu Deraa fit into this picture? There is much confusion about the labyrinth of connections and competing interests among Shiite political parties and Abu Deraa is a piece of that puzzle. Abu Deraa is married to the sister of Hadi al-Amari, the SCIRI Badr Corps commander (author interview, senior Iraqi advisor, November 6). It is not altogether clear what other connection between Abu Deraa and SCIRI exists beyond family ties, but it is safe to assume that the SCIRI’s Badr Corps commander is at least aware of Abu Deraa’s actions and whereabouts. SCIRI has publicly condemned the sectarian killings conducted by Shiite gangs and militias, despite incidents committed by their own Badr Corps. It is in SCIRI’s interest to have Abu Deraa associated with the Mahdi Army. This connection damages the Mahdi Army’s and Moqtada al-Sadr’s reputation by associating them with such a ruthless figure. It also keeps the political heat on al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army and away from SCIRI. SCIRI is also aware that the U.S. military has been intent on capturing or killing Abu Deraa, and it has not raised any public criticism against these operations.
Nevertheless, for both al-Sadr and SCIRI, Abu Deraa is a useful tool because he remains a disposable one. If he is killed or captured, as will likely happen sooner or later, he will have served his purpose in avenging Shiite deaths without tainting the more established political parties, especially SCIRI and Da’wa. For Moqtada al-Sadr, it is in his interests to maintain a murky connection to the death squad leader. The Shiite community applauds Abu Deraa’s actions against their former oppressors, making it important for al-Sadr to appear on Abu Deraa’s side; at the same time, al-Sadr must distance himself from Abu Deraa’s distasteful methods so as not to damage his growing political reputation.
Al-Sadr understands that the U.S. military seeks to capture or kill Abu Deraa. He has calculated that it is not in his interests to stick out his neck for Abu Deraa and has ordered his followers to avoid confrontation with U.S. troops in Sadr City. Al-Sadr’s spokesman said on al-Sharqiyah television on November 3 that “Al Sayed Moqtada al-Sadr and the jihadist al-Sadr trend distance themselves from the deeds that were committed, and are being committed, and which are attributed to the al-Sadr trend.”
Abu Deraa has been reportedly pushed further and further out of Sadr City. Previously based out of the Lost 70’s area of Sadr City—a desolate, largely abandoned area of the poor slum—military operations have forced him to go to the al-Amin district, according to some sources. Others have even speculated that Abu Deraa crossed the eastern border into Iran. Military forces conducted two recent raids targeting Abu Deraa, one in July and most recently on October 25. He escaped in both instances, but in October his son and an associate were killed (al-Jazeera, October 30). Abu Deraa may be able to evade capture for a period of time, but the pressure on him is intense. That same pressure is also on his tacit Shiite backers. Nevertheless, the established Shiite parties, particularly al-Sadr’s movement, are still unwilling to take action against him. Al-Sadr, for example, recently released a list of blacklisted members of his party and individuals he claims are acting on his behalf but are not associated with the Mahdi Army—Abu Deraa is not on that list.
Abu Deraa, however, is only a small part of the larger issue facing Iraq—the splintering of militia groups into uncontrollable gangs. The Mahdi Army may have unleashed Abu Deraa and others like him, but now they are unable to rein him back in, even if they had the will to do so. This development is a serious threat to al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s movement is considered the only legitimate, national, grassroots movement to have emerged out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Having criminal gangs and individuals like Abu Deraa not only associated, but uncontrolled by al-Sadr, marks a serious danger to his legitimacy. If this trend continues, then Moqtada al-Sadr will no longer be viewed as an Iraqi nationalist, but as another partisan Shiite leader beholden to Iran.