After the fall of Mosul Moqtada al-Sadr mobilized his followers into a new militia called the Peace Brigades. They along with other Shiite armed groups provided the manpower to confront the insurgency that was lost by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) during the summer. In February 2015 Sadr withdrew his men from the front however after Sheikh Qasim al-Janabi was killed in Baghdad. By doing so he was attempting to maintain his nationalist credentials, while also taking shots at his rivals.
In the middle of February 2015 Moqtada al-Sadr froze his two militias the Promised Day Brigades and the Peace Brigades. On February 17, he answered a question by one of his followers to try to explain his decision. Sadr called for parties to end their boycott of the government. This was a reference to the Union of Iraq Forces, the main Sunni block, and Iyad Allawi’s National Coalition pulling out of parliament to protest the murder of Babil Sheikh Qasim Janabi. Janabi and his entourage were picked up at a checkpoint on February 13. All but one of that group was later found dead in eastern Baghdad’s Shaab neighborhood. Militias were immediately suspected of the murders due to where the bodies were found. That was the subject of the rest of Sadr’s statement. He attacked what he called “brazen militias” who were out to undermine the government and did not follow the chain of command laid out by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Sadr’s comments had two main goals. First, Sadr likes to portray himself as a nationalist statesman. In recent years he has often taken steps to show national unity such as when he backed the no confidence vote against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement and the Kurdish Alliance in 2012. This was another one of those occasions. Two lists were walking out of the government to protest the murder of a prominent sheikh. Sadr wanted to show solidarity with them, while also advising them not to abandon their positions, as it would achieve little. Second, Sadr was taking the time to attack his rivals, namely Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH). AAH was originally created as part of a covert alliance between Sadr and Iran to carry out attacks upon the Americans. Later, Iran grew tired of working with Sadr who they believed was too difficult, and encouraged his top lieutenant and AAH leader Qais Khazali to break away. Since then Khazali has claimed to be the true heir of Sadr’s father Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr’s legacy, and the two groups have fought each other before. Sadr has often attacked AAH, especially for its ties to Iran. For example, when AAH went to fight in Syria at the behest of Tehran, Sadr called them “foreign entities”. The death of Janabi provided the opportunity for Sadr to take another jab at AAH even if they weren’t involved in the killing. It was also connected to his nationalist position, as he believes that AAH serves Tehran rather than Baghdad.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s freeze is only a temporary one. The threat from the Islamic State is too great, and not staying in that fight would threaten Sadr’s credentials. At the same time, the death of Sheikh Janabi threatened the national unity government, and Sadr felt he needed to respond to that. His attacks upon other militias also showed that the Shiite armed factions are not a monolithic group. Rather there are several different groups, each with its own agenda some of which do not like each other such as the Sadrists and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. That rivalry extends to the battlefield as well as the two refuse to work with each other. That begs the question of what will happen between these organizations once the insurgency is beaten back, because their animosity still runs deep and they could very well go back to fighting each other. Before the government did nothing about that as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was using AAH to cut into the Sadr movement. Premier Haider Abadi on the other hand does not have a dog in that fight. It will be a major test to assert the primacy of the state over the use of force in the country with so many militias emboldened by the war. While many men who were volunteers will be demobilized the groups will want to keep their core fighters and there is still the conflict in Syria, which could quickly become a focus of the pro-Iran factions once again as it was before the Iraqi insurgency was reborn. This is just one of the long term issues that Iraq will face after specific incidents such as the murder of Sheikh Janabi pass from the headlines.
Fahim, Kareem, “Sunni Lawmakers to Boycott Iraqi Parliament Over Shiite Militias,” New York Times, 2/15/15
Habib, Mustafa, “Better Pay, Better Weapons: Are Shiite Militias Growing More Powerful Than Iraqi Army?” Niqash, 1/29/15
Martin, Patrick and al-Dulimi, Omar with Kagan, Kimberly and Adnan, Sinan, “Iranian-Backed Militias Cause a Political Crisis for Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 2/18/15
Shafaq News, “Al-Sadr decides to freeze al-Salam brigades: Iraq suffers from brazen militias,” 2/17/15
Xinhua, “Iraq’s Sunni MPs boycott parliament sessions for killing of tribal leader,” 2/14/15