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Both Shi'ite and Sunni militants insist they would rather fight to rid Iraq of U.S. forces than take up arms against each other. Abu Mohammed says there's nothing to be gained by waging a costly religious fight while the U.S. remains in the country. "The Shi'ites are an inseparable part of the resistance. We have to unite our efforts against the invaders, so we must be careful to avoid a civil war that will weaken us," he says. Contact between Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias like al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have been under way since the battle of Fallujah in 2004, with both exchanging expertise and manpower. "We have nothing against Shi'ites ... our dead are buried with theirs, as theirs are buried with ours in Fallujah," says insurgent commander Abu Saif. It's a sentiment echoed by the Sadrist leaders, who bear scars from dueling with the U.S. "We have many relationships binding us together," says Abu Zainab.
Still, few U.S. or Iraqi officials believe Iraq can ever become a stable, functioning society as long as political parties maintain their armed wings. The U.S. would prefer that the Iraqi security forces disarm the militias, but it hasn't happened. A senior military official in Baghdad says the U.S. is deliberately avoiding confrontations with the militias. But last month alone, soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad have had what the official calls 19 "encounters" with militias, including a shooting incident. The danger is that the bigger the militias get, the more likely they are to intensify their clashes over turf and authority. A U.S. military-intelligence officer says there is still some reason to believe that Iraqis will put their common interests ahead of their rivalries. "In this society, there are many ties that bind--from tribe to clan to educational, social and political," he says. "I don't think the threads have been cut." If they ever are, it may prove impossible to put them back together.