Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Iraq’s Sadr Backs Off Threat Of Reviving Mahdi Army

In April 2011, Sadrists held a huge rally in Baghdad. A spokesman read a statement to the crowd from Moqtada al-Sadr saying that he would bring back the Mahdi Army if U.S. troops stayed past their deadline to withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year. The threat was part of Sadr’s effort to put pressure upon Washington to follow through with its exit strategy. Sadr’s tactics backfired as it angered other Iraqi parties, and now he claims he will not revive his militia.

On July 10, a statement was posted on a Sadr website that the Mahdi Army would not return. The release said they had studied the affects of their parade in Baghdad in May, which featured unarmed fighters, and decided that it was not the right time to end the freeze on the militia. Sadr disbanded the Mahdi Army in March 2008. The march was meant to send a message to the United States that the Sadr Trend was ready and willing to oppose them if they stayed past the end of 2011, but instead it was received badly by some of the country’s political parties. The movement also said it was not responsible for any clashes that might involve individual Sadrists, which might have been a reference to a June 20 shootout between members of the Sadr movement and a breakaway group led by Abu Dura in Baghdad. This was a dramatic change for Sadr who had been making ever more menacing remarks about using force if the Americans stayed in Iraq.
Sadr's April rally in Baghdad (Reuters)
The threat to revive the Mahdi Army was first aired on April 9. That was the 8th anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the Sadr movement held a rally in Baghdad to commemorate the date. A Sadrist spokesman read a speech at the event, which said that the Trend would resist the Americans if they stayed with both peaceful protests and armed resistance. This came the day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wanted Baghdad to agree upon a troop extension. The next day a Sadr leader remarked that the Promised Day Brigades, the armed faction of the movement, continued to carry out attacks upon U.S. troops. This was the opening salvo in a lobbying effort by Moqtada to convince the Americans that they should not stay in the country. Sadr wanted to publicly show the strength of his followers through his assembly in Baghdad, while also reminding Washington that violence could increase in Iraq if its troops remained past 2011.
Sadr's May march through Baghdad (Agence France Presse)
Sadr’s campaign continued into the next month. On May 26, the Sadrists held a march through Baghdad to protest against the U.S. presence. The Iraqi security forces counted 35,000 participants, the press said 70,000, while the Sadr Trend claimed 100,000. They waved Iraqi flags, chanted “No, no, America!”, walked over U.S., Israeli, and British flags painted on the street, and marched in military order. While Washington was the intended target, it actually had unintended domestic effects. First, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list, as well as members of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement complained that the march was a challenge to the authority of the state. Second, the premier was deeply angered. Shatt al-Arab ran a story saying that Maliki sent letters to Iraq’s political parties and to Tehran and Qom in Iran as well, stating that he had tried to accommodate the Sadrists by giving them ministries and integrated some of his followers into the security forces, but threatening to bring back his militia had crossed a redline. While the Mahdi Army was active it was a threat not only to the U.S., but to Sunnis that they expelled from Baghdad and other sections of the country, other parties like its rival the Supreme Islamic Iraqi party, the Shiite population, which it ended up exploiting, and the government. Maliki had also made his mark as a strong leader by cracking down on the Sadrists in 2008, and he along with others did not want to see the militia return to prominence again.

In June, the rhetoric became more inflamed. Members of the Mahdi Army claimed that they would be willing to carry out suicide attacks upon the Americans if they were still in the country in 2012. A Sadrist official later said that Moqtada had not condoned these types of attacks. Soon after, Sadr’s Promised Day Brigades claimed responsibility for ten mortar and rocket attacks upon U.S. bases in Baghdad, Ninewa, Diyala, Tamim, Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna provinces. It also said that it had set off roadside bombs against U.S. patrols, and to have killed and wounded U.S. soldiers in these operations. That same day, a Sadrist parliamentarian told the press that these attacks were meant to pressure the Americans to leave. The message was clear, the Sadrists were militarily opposing the Americans right now, and that would increase in intensity if they were given a troop extension. They also wanted to claim that they were responsible for the U.S. departure.

After three months of fiery words and deeds, Sadr has now backtracked. His rallies, threats about the Mahdi Army, and attacks by the Promised Day Brigades were meant to intimidate the Americans, and make them leave by the end of the year. Instead, he angered Maliki, the Iraqi National Movement, and others who were opposed to seeing militiamen back on the streets of Iraq. Sadr has always tried to straddle the line between being a militia leader and man of the street on the one hand, and being a politician on the other. In the previous Maliki administration, Sadr failed at this attempt when he ended dropping out of the government, and was then faced with an assault by the Americans during the Surge, and then the prime minister himself. Sadr tried again in the 2009 provincial election, and then the 2010 parliamentary voting. He is back to having control over several governorates, and was the major reason why Maliki returned for a second term. Talking about the Mahdi Army could threaten all of that, and was probably the main reason why he retreated from his militant talk.


Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraq: Thousands Rally Against U.S. Troops,” Associated Press, 5/26/11

Agence France Presse, “Sadr supporters ready for attacks on US troops,” 6/25/11

Alsumaria, “Mehdi Army Promised Day Brigade claims responsibility for missile attacks on US bases,” 6/27/11

Arango, Tim, “Spike in U.S. Deaths in Iraq Raises Worries,” New York Times, 6/26/11

Craig, Tim, “Sunni fears grow over Sadr’s resurgence,” Washington Post, 6/2/11

Dar Al-Hayat, Alsumaria, “Sadrist Militia Marches Unarmed In Baghdad, Challenging Al-Maliki’s Government,” MEMRI Blog, 5/27/11

Jakes, Lara, “Shiite militias step up Iraq attacks on US troops,” Associated Press, 6/30/11

Karim, Ammar, “Iraqi cleric Sadr will not revive anti-US militia,” Agence France Presse, 7/10/11

Latif, Nizar, “Sadrists stage massive rally to demand US troops leave Iraq on schedule,” The National, 5/27/11

The National Staff, “Iraqis fear return of the Mahdi Army,” The National, 4/13/11

New Sabah, Al Jewar, “Muqtada al-Sadr Escalates Threats Against U.S.,” MEMRI Blog, 4/12/11

Ramzi, Kholoud, “mahdi army parade raises further questions, no answers, on us troops,” Niqash, 6/1/11

Reuters, “Iraq cleric pursues U.S. troop ban in strongholds,” 6/30/11

Saadi, Ahmed, “Maliki is upset at the Sadrist movement and threatening new targeting of the Mahdi Army,” Shatt al-Arab, 5/26/11

Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Iraq’s Mehdi Army faces splits, wary of return to war,” Reuters, 6/16/11

Al Sharqiya Television, “Sadrists freeze the number of affiliated organizations,” 7/10/11

Shat News, Al-Sabah, “Al-Maliki Responds To Al-Sadr’s Muscle-Flexing Last Week,” MEMRI Blog, 5/31/11

Al-Wannan, Jafaar, “Mahdi Army to be disbanded on US departure,” AK News, 6/27/11


Anonymous said...

Would agree about Sadr's efforts to create distinction between the Mahdi Army and the Promise Day Brigades (as well, Sadr Trend's efforts to move passed militant associations), but think complete discussion of Mahdi Army should note shift towards social welfare to bolster grassroots support.

See Niqash article on the subject:


Joel Wing said...

The Sadr Trend has tried to provide social services since the 2003 invasion. When Sadr disbanded the Mahdi Army in 2008 he then created two social/political groups Mumahidoon and Munasiroon that are involved in this work.

You have to understand that the Mahdi Army was not an organized group, but rather a collection of armed men who took suggestions from Sadr, but were not under his direct control. I think when the militia was disbanded some went into these new organizations, some continued fighting as the Mahdi has faced constant breakaway groups, while others just went looking for work or joined gangs.