Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Iraq May See The Return Of Sadr’s Mahdi Army

On the eighth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement held a demonstration in Baghdad. Sadr issued a statement warning that the Mahdi Army militia might be brought back if the Americans failed to withdraw at the end of 2011. This has been a fear since the Sadr bloc did so well in the March 2010 elections, but it could backfire on them.

Sadrist demonstration in Baghdad, April 9, 2011 (Reuters)
On April 9, 2011 the Sadr Trend held a march in Baghdad to commemorate the fall of Saddam Hussein. During the demonstration a Sadrist spokesman read a speech by Moqtada stating that if U.S. forces remained in Iraq past the 2011 deadline, the movement would fight them militarily and politically, and threatened the return of the Mahdi Army. Sadr’s statement was part of an increase in anti-American rhetoric by the group. The next day, a Sadrist leader said that a special wing of the Mahdi Army, the Promised Day Brigade, was still active and carrying out attacks upon the U.S. He went on to say that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was part of the occupation, and that Iraq should break diplomatic relations with Washington. A few days later, a Sadrist lawmaker claimed that the U.S. was working with Israel to bring down Iraq. Playing upon anti-occupation sentiments has been a staple of the Sadrist strategy since 2003. The movement was also taking advantage of a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who came to pressure Baghdad into making a decision on whether they wanted to extend the U.S. presence in the country. 

After the Baghdad march, there were reports of militia activity. The National for example, ran a story about Sadrist graffiti appearing in the capital and southern provinces proclaiming the return of the Mahdi Army. It went on to interview a former militia commander who claimed that fighters were making preparations to fight the Americans, as well as a government source and intelligence officer who said Mahdi men were collecting weapons again. It’s yet to be seen whether there is any substance to such reports since there have been many similar ones for the last year.

The press first began writing about the revival of the Mahdi Army in early 2010. In February, the head of intelligence at the Interior Ministry stated that the Mahdi Army had been reformed. By May, Sadr was issuing statements about opposing the Americans militarily if they stayed past 2011. The Sadrists also offered to use their militia to protect mosques after a mass-casualty bombing occured during prayers in the capital in April. Unarmed militiamen were seen parading in Baghdad and some southern cities immediately afterward. The U.S. general in charge of southern Iraq added that the Sadrists were becoming more active in May by intimidating people, extorting money, and speculated that the Promised Day Brigades could’ve been involved in attacks upon U.S. forces. At the time, the Sadrists were likely carrying out operations against American bases with indirect fire and IEDs against convoys because they wanted to claim responsibility for the U.S. withdrawal

The Mahdi Army was officially disbanded in 2008. That came after a cease-fire Sadr announced in 2007. Analysts have worried that the militia could make a comeback after the Sadrists did so well in the 2010 election. Those fears were increased when the Sadrists gained the release of hundreds of their followers in return for supporting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s second term. Sadrists were also said to be gaining positions in the local police as part of the quid pro quo. Other fighters have returned to the country from Iran after the government’s 2008 crackdown on the Mahdi Army and Special Groups. If Sadr wanted to bring back his militia he definitely has the leaders and a pool of possible recruits to draw upon. The upcoming withdrawal deadline provides him with a very public justification and rallying point for his followers. The rhetoric also provides a way for militants to remain part of the movement that has moved towards social and political issues in the last couple years.

For several years now, Moqtada al-Sadr has struggled with what direction he wants to take the Sadr Trend. Since his support comes from the street, he wants to maintain his populist image by dishing out services, while providing the image of being the protector of the nation against the foreign occupation. At the same time, he also wants power, and that can only be achieved by joining the political process. He tried to balance those conflicting interests in 2005 when he had his followers run in the national elections and joined first the Ibrahim Jaafari, and then the first Maliki administrations. That attempt failed when Sadr decided to boycott the government, his militia splintered, and Maliki went after the Mahdi Army in 2008. Now Sadr is attempting to repeat history in 2010. Once again, he ran candidates in the 2010 voting, and was the kingmaker behind Maliki’s return to office. Since then he has taken some very risky steps that threaten to repeat the events of 2005 all over again. Sadr has tried to appropriate the on-going demonstrations that have focused upon the lack of electricity, sanitation, health care, and water, even though his politicians are now in charge of some of the main ministries responsible for providing those services. Now he is threatening a new wave of attacks when Iraq is focused upon politics and developing the economy. That shows the contradictions of Moqtada. He is nothing but a survivor, but he still has consistently made bad decisions that set back any aspirations he has to become a real politician. His recent moves could be just for show, but they could be the latest miscalculation by Sadr as well.


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