Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why Sadr Left Iraq

In February 2007 Moqtada al-Sadr fled to Iran. Several reasons have been given for his departure. Those range from Sadr running from U.S. forces, to his falling out with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to losing control of his militia. It’s impossible to say which factor was the most important, but it seems feasible that a combination of all of them played a role in Sadr’s decision.

In 2006 U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. Casey said that most of the violence was due to Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army (ABC News)
The U.S. military began focusing upon Sadr’s Mahdi Army once again in mid-2006. In August, the American commander in Iraq General George Casey said that 60% of the violence in the country was due to Shiite militias. Most of that was being committed by Sadrists. That was a reflection of the exploding sectarian civil war that had hit full throttle after the February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, Salahaddin. As a result, the U.S. was increasingly putting pressure on Maliki to allow them to crackdown on Sadr’s forces. The premier would let the Americans conduct a few raids over specific events, but otherwise the prime minister protected the Mahdi Army. When a senior Sadrist was arrested in October, Maliki ordered his release. Maliki was afraid that his coalition would unseat him. He was therefore leaning on the Sadrists, who put him into office in the first place in early 2006, for support and protection.

(Global Security)
At the same time, the Mahdi Army was splintering and growing out of control. The militia had already been breaking apart as early as 2004, and as the sectarian war took off, hundreds of Shiites joined their ranks. Some of them were part of gangs that used the chaos for their own gain. By October 2006, the U.S. military estimated that around one-third of the Mahdi Army had split off, and were no longer following Sadr. That same month he fired 40 militia commanders in an attempt to assert his control, but the Mahdi Army had no real organization. Rather they were a collection of fighters under the individual control of local leaders. Sadr could only make pronouncements and hope that his followers were listening. The problem was fewer and fewer were as the civil war intensified.

In November, things fell apart politically for Sadr. At the end of the month, Maliki met with President Bush, and Sadr ordered his 30 parliamentarians and five cabinet ministers to withdraw in protest. Sadr was hoping that this move would strengthen his nationalist credentials, but instead it opened up the possibility for Maliki to move away from him.

From late-2006 on, the White House was pressuring Maliki to form a new ruling coalition without Sadr. The Kurds, the Iraqi Accordance Front, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council were all on board with Washington’s agenda, but Maliki was hesitant. Again, he was afraid that the other parties would replace him, and therefore did not want to give up on his alliance with Sadr. With the Sadrists withdrawal however, the prime minister began to reconsider his position.

In January 2007 the Americans announced the beginning of the Surge, and Maliki ended his protection of the Mahdi Army. Sadr ordered his politicians to return to their positions to fend off the move, but it was too late. Not only did the prime minister let the U.S. target the Sadrists, he allowed the Supreme Council to do so as well, whereas before he tried to mediate between the two rival Shiite parties. The next month Sadr departed for Iran where he would stay for nearly four years. 

In around six months Moqtada al-Sadr’s fortunes took a dramatic turn. At the beginning of 2006 Sadr helped put Maliki into office, gained five ministries, while in the streets Shiites were increasingly turning to his militia for protection during the sectarian fighting. Sadr could not manage his success. His militia grew out of control, and splintered more and more. At the same time, as the Mahdi Army went on the offensive the U.S. began singling them out for more and more attention. Maliki was protecting him up to that point, but when Sadr decided to withdraw from the government he undermined everything he had achieved. The premier could no longer fall back on the Sadrists for support, and decided to try his luck with the Americans. That led to Sadr’s departure for Iran where he tried to regroup, reform his image, and gain new status through religious studies. Now he’s back trying to see whether he can do a better job this time around. 


Associated Press, “Iraqi leader drops protection of militia,” 1/22/07
- “Shiite militia may be disintegrating,” 3/21/07

Burns, John, “Precarious Cease-Fire in Amara Holds,” New York Times, 10/22/06

Glantz, Aaron, “Iraqi Health Ministry Severs Ties With US Over Raid,”, 8/15/06

Kazimi, Nibras, “Where Things Stand in Iraq,” Talisman Gate Blog, 10/20/06

Michaels, Jim, “Shiites Redefine Battle in Baghdad,” USA Today, 8/10/06

Murphy, Dan and al-Talee, Awadh, “Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers have clashed with US and Iraqi forces in the past week,” Christian Science Monitor, 10/23/06

Parker, Ned, “Hard-line Iraqi clerics group shut down,” Los Angeles Times, 11/15/07

Raghavan, Sudarsan, “Sadr Casts a Shadow Over Bush-Maliki Meeting,” Washington Post, 11/30/06

Tavernise, Sabrina, “Influence Rises but Base Frays for Iraqi Cleric,” New York Times, 11/13/06
- “Many Iraqis Look to Gunmen as Protectors,” New York Times, 10/21/06

Wagner, Thomas and Yacoub, Sameer, “Al-Sadr Loyalists Boycott Iraq Government,” Associated Press, 11/29/06

Wong, Edward, “Iraqis Consider Ways to Reduce Power of Cleric,” New York Times, 12/12/06


AndrewSshi said...

I have a question. You've noted that a lot of the time that any Shi'ite with a black outfit and an AK-47 would call himself a member of the Mahdi Army when the sectarian war was at its worst. I seem to remember reading that a lot of the sectarian murder was also being done by Badr (and its members in the police and army) but being blamed on JAM by both MNF-I and the Maliki government because JAM served as a convenient scapegoat. Am I remembering correctly, and if so, do you think that that's an accurate assessment?

Joel Wing said...


Badr was going around killing people from the get go.

Immediately after the 2003 invasion they assassinated a bunch of Baathists and military officials for Iran.

They also got their men into the security forces, especially Interior Ministry, early on because the SIIC was an American ally. Jaafari's Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, was a Badr Commander.

I think you're correct that at the beginning of the sectarian war, 2005-2006 period, that it was Badr, not the Sadrists that were doing much of the fighting. Remember when the U.S. forces found those secret prisons in Baghdad in late-2005 full of Sunnis that had been tortured? Those were run by Badr and the Interior Ministry.

I think the Mahdi Army took over from 2006-2007 however. Far more people joined the Sadrists, or at least said they were Mahdi, then ever joined Badr.

This is from International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Civil War, The Sadrists And The Surge,” 2/7/08 and lists the neighborhoods in Baghdad that the Sadrists controlled vs the Supreme Council during the civil war:

Mahdi Army strong in Sadr City, Shaab, Sumar, Shula, Hurriya, Iskan, Washash, Jihad, Abu Tshir, Marifa, Zafaraniya, Fudhayliya, Mashtal, Khansa, Muthanna, Amin

SIIC controlled Griat, Kadhimiyah, Shaltshiya, Utayfiya, Baghdad Jadida

The Sadrists were cutting a much bigger swath through the capital than Badr by the end of it.