BAGHDAD, Aug. 30 (UPI) -- The reported return to Baghdad of one of the bloodthirstiest killers in Iraq, a Shiite known as Abu Deraa, from safe haven in Iran could signal an escalation in an already ferocious sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis as U.S. forces withdraw.
The Asharq al-Awsat newspaper has reported that Abu Deraa, who fled to the Islamic Republic in early 2007, was back in Sadr City. That's the stronghold of one-time Shiite firebrand Moqtada Sadr who has become a key figure in efforts to form a coalition government in Iraq.
Before Abu Deraa fled from U.S. forces, he was one of the commanders of Sadr's Shiite militia known as the Mehdi Army that twice launched insurgencies against U.S. forces.
There has been no confirmation by U.S. nor Iraqi forces that Abu Deraa has returned to his old killing ground of 2004-07. But the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor says "he has apparently returned … under Iranian protection."
That has an ominous ring to it. U.S. military commanders say that Iran has been arming, funding and possibly even directing Shiite groups who are killing political opponents of the cross-sectarian coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former CIA asset.
His Iraqiya bloc, which has a strong Sunni component, is battling with the Shiite State of Law coalition, led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, supported by Tehran, for leadership of a new government.
The two parties emerged as the leaders in March 7 parliamentary elections, Iraqiya with 91 seats in the 280-member national assembly, State of Law with 89. Sadr's Iraqi National Alliance bloc came third with 41 seats any may yet be the kingmaker.
However, negotiations to form a governing coalition have foundered amid an upsurge in violence in which hundreds of people have died, with Allawi's loyalists, especially the Sunnis, major targets.
The reported return of such a high-profile warlord as Abu Deraa, under Iranian auspices, at such a sensitive time with Tehran seeking to consolidate Shiite rule could mean that attacks on Sunnis and their moderate Shiite allies could escalate.
"The timing of Abu Deraa's return to Iraq was likely carefully deliberated by Iran," Stratfor commented in an Aug. 19 report, at a time when "the United States is about to complete a major phase of its war effort in Iraq …
"Though the United States has imposed a level of stability in Iraq to allow for this phase of the withdrawal, the mission is still far from finished," Stratfor cautioned.
"Most notably, the Iraqi government remains in complete flux, with Iranian-backed political forces blocking an attempt by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and others to ensure a prominent place for Iraq's Sunnis in the ruling coalition."
Before Abu Deraa got lost in 2007, Maliki's security forces, composed primarily of hard-line Shiites opposed to any political participation by the Sunni minority, repeatedly failed to kill or capture him.
Indeed, they were widely believed to have turned a blind eye to his murderous rampage in which hundreds, possibly thousands, of men, women and children died often in the most barbaric manner.
Abu Deraa, which means "Father of the Shield" in Arabic, is a nom de guerre. His real name, depending to whom one talks, is either Ismail al-Lami, twice married with at least a dozen children, or Ismail Hafidh.
But most accounts agree that his father was fishmonger, a trade that Abu Deraa, believed to be in his late 40s, plied for a time.
All manner of myths and rumors swirl around this mysterious figure and it's difficult to separate fact from fiction. He remains an elusive, bogey-man figure. He has given no interviews, remaining in the shadows and leaving his actions to speak for him.
Most of the Sunni victims of Abu Deraa's group were tortured before they were killed. Bodies were found dumped in the streets, pierced by nails and bolts or bored by hand-held electric drills. Many of the victims were shot but some were found with their heads crushed by cement blocks. Many were decapitated.
In those days, the bodies from Abu Deraa's depredations were usually dumped on a stretch of waste ground known as al-Saddeh on the outskirts of Sadr City.
It became known with macabre ghetto humor as "Happiness Hotel."