http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=482652004 Mystery group wage war on Sadr's militia COLIN FREEMAN IN BAGHDAD FOR the past month they have been the rude young pretenders, a rag-tag slum army ruffling the quiet dignity of Iraqs holiest city. For every day that the United States army fails to act on its threat to crush them, the Shiite militiamen of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have grown in confidence in their stronghold in Najaf. Now, however, a shadowy resistance movement within might be about to succeed where the 2,500 US marines outside the city have failed. In a deadly expression of feelings that until now were kept quiet, a group representing local residents is said to have killed at least five militiamen in the last four days. The murders are the first sign of organised Iraqi opposition to Sadrs presence and come amid simmering discontent at the havoc their lawless presence has wreaked. The group calls itself the Thulfiqar Army, after a twin-bladed sword said to be used by the Shiite martyr Imam Ali, to whom Najafs vast central mosque is dedicated. Residents say leaflets bearing that name have been circulated in the city in the last week, urging Sadrs al-Mahdi army to leave immediately or face imminent death. "I havent seen the leaflets myself, but I heard about it when I was down there two days ago," said Ahmed Abbas, a carpenter from Najaf who visited Baghdad yesterday. "It has got some of the Mahdi guys quite worried, I tell you. They are banding together more, when normally you would see them happily walking on the streets alone. I think their commanders have ordered them to do that." As is the case with most fledgling resistance groups, further details are sketchy. Nobody knows yet who is really behind the group, if the deaths of Mahdi men are its handiwork or, indeed, if it really exists. Questioned about it at a Baghdad press conference on Tuesday, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt would say only: "I am not aware of its existence, although we have had some reports of that nature from the city." However, with the outcome of the stand-off in Najaf likely to prove a crucial, and possibly final, test of Sadrs power, the manpower and willpower to start such a resistance movement are not in short supply. Sadr and his militia have gambled that any attempt by US troops to use force in a sacred city such as Najaf would outrage even non-militant Shiites. US troops began yesterday to expand operations, setting up checkpoints on the road outside their Najaf base, but are still treading carefully, promising to stay away from sacred Shiite sites at the heart of the city. But while Iraqs leading Shiite moderate cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has warned the US that the city border was an uncrossable "red line", he is known to share the anger of many Shiites about Sadrs use of a holy place as a sanctuary. Local residents, moreover, are deeply angry at how his revolt has robbed them of their livelihoods in recent weeks. Since Sadrs forces drove out Spanish troops this month, the tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims who keep the citys hoteliers, taxi drivers and restaurateurs in business have become a mere trickle. During a visit to the city by The Scotsman last week, some residents branded Sadr "the second Saddam", claiming his followers regularly intimidate locals who speak against him. Yet others point the finger - albeit indirectly - at Ayatollah Sistani, who is understood to be increasingly anxious at the power that Sadr wields with the young and unemployed among Iraqs 13 million Shiites. Backing and protecting Ayatollah Sistani is the Badr Organisation, a well organised and disciplined anti-Saddam militia that put down its guns after the collapse of the old regime and has worked alongside the coalition in Najaf and elsewhere. In recent weeks, it has been trying to mediate in negotiations between Sadrs forces and the marines. Having agreed to give up its weapons, it has no interest in seeing another armed group take its place. "I dont think its entirely impossible that they may be backing this group either with men or advice," one coalition official said. "Sistani does not like people abusing the sanctuary of the holy shrines in this way, and if talks arent working, force can be used to make the point." Either way, the realisation that not every fellow Iraqi in Najaf may be a friendly face seems to have had a notable effect on Mahdi morale. According to the Najaf carpenter Mr Abbass, many of the militiamen are shedding their trademark black headbands and jumpsuits. "Many of them, I am sure, only joined because they like posing about in that clothing," he said. "Now, hopefully, they will go home."