Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Divided Sadr Trend

The Institute for the Study of War recently released a report “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement." The paper argues that there is a major divide within the movement between the clerics and politicians on the one side who stress social, religious, and educational programs along with participation in the political process, and the militiamen on the other who want to fight the U.S. and the government. The first splits began shortly after the end of the second Sadr uprising in 2004 when some agreed to the cease-fire, while others did not and began their own militias as a result. Later, Iran’s creation of Special Groups, the Surge, Maliki’s offensive, and Sadr’s political missteps led to more and more break away groups. At this point the study believes that the movement is at a turning point where the two sides have irreparable differences, and are facing a new political and military situation, which they are not in a good position to deal with.

Origins Of The Sadr Trend

The Sadr movement began in the 1990s after the Shiite uprisings that followed the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein started a program to reach out to and co-opt the country’s Shiites. He picked Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father, as his Shiite representative to head this initiative because of his family’s prominent clerical background, and a belief that he would follow the traditional quietist form of Shiitism that stayed out of politics. Sadeq al-Sadr set up a network of mosques, schools and offices throughout central and southern Iraq, and stressed charitable work for the poor. He also negotiated ties with southern tribes and gave them religious authority that they did not enjoy before. With his new following Sadeq al-Sadr began calling for a larger role for clerics in society. He began stressing Iraqi nationalism and an anti-Iranian stance that began to challenge Saddam. In response, he was killed in February 1999 along with two of his sons who were pinned to be his successors. Moqtada, who at the time was in charge of security for the movement, was placed under arrest, while others went underground or fled the country. The group was largely kept in tact secretly by some of Sadeq al-Sadr’s top followers: Riyad al-Nouri, Mohammed Tabatabai, Mustafal al-Yacoubi, Jaber al-Khafaji, and Qais Khazali. Tabatabai and Yacoubi were the most powerful of the group. At the time, Moqtada was not seen as a leader because of his age, lack of religious training, and immaturity.

Rise Of Moqtada al-Sadr

Shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Sadr Trend re-emerged from the shadows. On April 7, 2003 Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, the teacher of Sadeq al-Sadr who lived in Qom, Iran, proclaimed Moqtada as his representative in Iraq. This allowed him to collect Islamic taxes that proved to be the largest source of income for the group. It also gave Moqtada religious standing he otherwise would not have. The next day, Haeri told Iraq’s Shiites that they should seize power. Sadrists began setting up Offices of the Martyr Sadr across Iraq. Sheikh Ahmed al-Fartousi became the head of the Sadr offices in Sadr City and was a representative for Haeri, while Riyad al-Nouri ran the Sadr headquarters in Najaf as Sadr’s deputy. Besides the social programs, Sadr tried to impose Islamic law such as banning alcohol, and telling all women, even those who were not Muslims to wear a veil. Sadr made opposition to the U.S. and Iraqi nationalism major points of his political stance. To protect his operation he created the Mahdi Army, which quickly grew in size. To many it appeared that Sadr was following the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is an integrated social, political, and military organization.

At the same time, the Trend moved to challenge the Shiite religious establishment. Sadr began attacking the Hakim family, the leaders of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, for having fled the country for Iran during the Saddam years. More importantly, Sadrists attacked and killed Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Khoei. Khoei was from another prominent Shiite family who might have challenged for a leadership position. Shortly afterwards Sadr members also surrounded Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s residence in Najaf and tried to force him out, but were stopped by tribal leaders. For the Khoei murder an Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for Sadr, and two of his top aides Mustafa al-Yacoubi and Riyad al-Nouri.

2004 Uprisings And Cracks In The Movement

While the Iraqis didn’t follow up on the warrant, it did give the U.S. the first opportunity to target the movement. The Coalition Provisional Authority shut down a Sadrist newspaper in March 2004, and then arrested Yacoubi. This led to the first uprising by the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf and Kufa that included fighting around various Shiite holy sites. The fighting ended in May 2004 with the militia losing many men. A second round of shooting began in Najaf in August when some militiamen believed a U.S. patrol was going to arrest Sadr. That ended on August 26 with the help of Ayatollah Sistani. The cease-fire included a clause that said there would be a demilitarized zone around Shiite shrines in the city, and that the Iraqi forces would provide security exclusively, shutting out the Mahdi Army. The effect was to ensure that the established Shiite clerics remained in control. Sadr dropped out of the public eye for several months afterwards as he regrouped and recalculated a new strategy.

Iran was opposed to Sadr’s second uprising, and began trying to curtail his activities and influence as a result. That began with Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri coming out against the second uprising in Najaf. He said that Sadr was no longer his representative in Iraq, and cut him off from collecting religious taxes. This was a huge financial lose for the movement as they relied on that money to finance their offices. They also had extra costs at the time paying for the dead and wounded from the two rounds of fighting. Iran was afraid that Sadr’s uprising would disrupt the 2005 elections that Tehran was hoping would usher in friendly Shiites parties into power. Supreme Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei even went so far as to tell the Revolutionary Guards Qods Force to tame Sadr. This led the Qods Force to offer money and weapons to members of the Mahdi Army in an attempt try to establish some kind of direct control over the militiamen.

The Najaf fighting also led to the first rivals to Sadr’s control. Cleric Mohmmad al-Yacoubi, a follower of Sadeq al-Sadr, had already established the Fadhila Party based in Basra in July 2003. Now Qais Khazali, one of Sadr’s top deputies who had kept the movement alive after his assassination, left to lead his own militia. The break began during the second uprising when Khazali disagreed with Sadr over the direction of the fighting, and began issuing his own orders to militiamen. Afterwards he went to Sadr City where he and Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji created what has been called the Khazali Faction.

Other militia commanders also began breaking away. Ismail Hafiz al-Lami, better known as Abu Dura, fought with the Sadrists in Najaf. He went on to set up his own militia group in Sadr City. They carried out some sensational attacks such as the kidnapping of the speaker of parliament in July 2006, and workers from the Ministry of Higher Education in November, and were known for their sectarian attacks on Sunnis. Attempts by the U.S. to arrest him led al-Lami to flee to Iran where he continued to run his militia until at least 2007.

Political Ascendancy And More Cracks

In 2005 Sadr took a new tract focusing upon politics and society, while starting the first of many re-organizations. In the light of his failure to use force to gain power, Sadr now turned to the ballot. He joined the United Iraqi Alliance with the Dawa and Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and ran in the November 2005 election. His followers ended up getting 30 seats in parliament. The Resalyoon Party, which was pro-Sadr, also gained two seats. His followers were given control of the Ministries of Health, Transportation, and Agriculture that opened up new forms of patronage and income for the movement. He also wanted greater control over his militia after the defections and interference by Iran. To accomplish that he set up the first discipline unit to vet the Mahdi Army. Khazali was convinced to rejoin the fold, and he and Akram al-Kabi were put in charge of Sadr’s offices. Top aids such as Riyad al-Nouri and Hazem al-Araji were also pushing for a return to social programs, which was the origins of the movement with Sadr’s father.

Not all were happy with the move away from confrontation however. There were some militia members who wanted to continue the fight against the occupation rather than participate in politics. They found an ally in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force who was looking to peel off parts of the Mahdi Army in an attempt to weaken Sadr, and gain control over Shiite militias. They expanded their recruiting in 2005, and began using Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the effort. Ali Mussa Daqduq for example, a senior Hezbollah officer was sent to Iraq to coordinate with the Qods Force. By 2006 the U.S. claimed that Iran was trying to form these Special Groups into Hezbollah like organizations.

One new breakaway faction was headed by Ahmed al-Farousi, a Mahdi Army commander in Basra. He carried out attacks against the British in 2004 and 2005. He eventually stopped taking orders from Sadr, and became an independent militia leader. Sadr banished him from the movement, but to little effect. In September 2005 he was arrested by English troops.

More importantly, in June 2006 Iran turned to Qais Khazali to head their new militia effort. He was put in charge of the Iranian trained fighters that became known as Special Groups. They called themselves Asaib Ahl al-Haq, League of the Righteous. Daqduq was the link between Khazali and the Qods Force. Khazali was still officially part of the Sadr Trend and his lieutenant Akram al-Kabi was commander of the entire Mahdi Army until May 2007. The paper believes that both were using their positions to further then own movement and Iran’s goals. The Special Groups therefore operated within the Mahdi Army, but followed their own orders, not Sadr’s.

The Khazali faction was receiving arms and money at the time through Mustafa al-Sheibani. Sheibani was a former Badr Corps member who was based in Iran, and was in charge of operations against Saddam in Baghdad and central Iraq in the 1990s. By 2005 he had built up an extensive network based upon his old Badr routes that included 280 men and seventeen groups. Iran used his network to try to control the Special Groups and the level of violence in Iraq by regulating the amount of weapons and money they received. After the relative calm of the 2005 elections, Iran upped their support by having Sheibani deliver explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that were capable of destroying any vehicle the U.S. had. Sheibani also helped Iraqi militiamen go to Iran for training.

Despite all these problems, the Sadr Trend seemed at its highest point in 2006. After the February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Amarra, both the mainstream Sadrists and the Special Groups had a common cause, protect Shiites and attack Sunnis. By mid-2006 both factions had taken over large parts of Baghdad and were one of the largest armed groups in the country. Sadr had also put the new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power in May, and he was indebted for it. Maliki in turn largely prohibited the U.S. from entering Sadr City. At the beginning of November for example, Maliki ordered the end of a two-week long blockade of Sadr City by U.S. forces that were looking for a kidnapped American soldier they believed the Mahdi Army had snatched, as well as militia commander Abu Dura. Sadr’s 30 parliamentarians were an important bloc in the legislature, necessary to win over to pass any laws.

The expansion of Sadr’s power also led to further fragmentation of the Mahdi Army. Many militia commanders began funding themselves, largely using criminal rackets such as selling houses taken from Sunnis, selling fuel on the black market, extorting money, etc. Iran was also stepping up support. These both allowed them to operate independently. In response, Sadr repeatedly tried to regain control of his militia, but to little avail. The armed wing was always a loosely organized, bottom up group, which Sadr had little actual control over.

The Surge And Maliki’s Offensives Against The Sadrists

In late-2006 the U.S. began pressuring the Maliki government to allow its forces to go after the Mahdi Army. As the sectarian war increased, the U.S. launched Operation Together Forward to secure Baghdad. By October the U.S. military was admitting that the offensive was failing. One problem was that the government was protecting one of the major combatants in the fighting. By the end of the year, President Bush announced the Surge that was aimed at increasing the U.S. troop presence to protect the population, especially in the capital.

Sadr facilitated the crackdown that was coming by making a political misstep. At the end of November 2006, he withdrew his ministers from the cabinet to protest Maliki’s cooperation with the Americans. The act was meant to pressure the Prime Minister, but in fact ended up pushing Maliki into the camp of Sadr’s opponents. In December Maliki met with the Supreme Council and forged a new alliance to move against Sadr. By January 2007 he had agreed to allow the U.S. to launch operations against the Mahdi Army.

Sadr’s departure, the military pressure of the Surge, along with the political moves of the new Shiite alliance further degraded Sadr’s movement. First, Sadr left for Iran in January or February 2007. The Sadr movement at first tried to deny his absence from the country, but he was in Iran in the city of Qom studying to be an ayatollah. Sadr was always criticized for his lack of religious training, and becoming a high ranking cleric would give him greater stature, allow him to issue fatwas, as well as collect taxes. The problem was the process usually takes years. Sadr might have also been afraid that the U.S. would arrest him during the Surge, giving him added incentive to leave the scene. In the meantime, Sadr’s absence led to a leadership vacuum within his movement. By the second half of 2007 the tide was turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq and the insurgency, which freed up resources to go after the Mahdi Army more intensely. Hundreds of militiamen were either killed or rounded up in the process. Finally, in September 2007 Sadr withdrew his parliamentarians from the United Iraqi Alliance, breaking his final tie with the ruling alliance. To cement his blocs isolation, Maliki made a new coalition between his Dawa Party, the Supreme Council, and the two Kurdish parties. Sadr, who put the Prime Minister in office, now found himself with little say in political decisions.

By 2007 the Sadr movement had broken up into at least five major groups. The mainstream Sadrists were led by the clerics in Najaf and the politicians in Baghdad, and were still loyal to Sadr. They wanted to get rid of the criminals and the Iranian backed Special Groups. They set up a unit known as the Golden Battalion to take care of breakaway groups. The U.S. tried to bolster this group against the Special Groups and rogue elements by releasing several moderate Sadrist officials that they had arrested. The second group the paper identified was called the Noble Mahdi. They were also concerned with the factionalism rampant in the movement, the criminal elements that had been attracted to it, and the rackets many militiamen had taken up to fund themselves. They operated in northeast Baghdad, and in the Shula and Hurriyah neighborhoods secretly worked with U.S. and Iraqi forces in an attempt to purge groups they were opposed to. The third group was in the same section of the capital led by the brothers Hazem al-Araji, a cleric, and Bahaa al-Araji, a parliamentarian. They controlled the Shiite shrine in the Kadhimiya neighborhood, which provided them their own source of income from the pilgrims that went there. By the spring of 2007 they had their own militia, and were no longer listening to Sadr. The fourth group was the Khazali Faction. It sometime worked within the mainstream Sadr Trend, but was in fact independent, and received money and weapons from Iran and Hezbollah. After a bold attack on the Karbala Joint Coordination Center where they killed five American soldiers after infiltrating the complex, Khazali, his brother Laith Khazali, and the Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq, were all captured. Documents found with them revealed that Iran were providing them with between $750,000 to $3 million a month. The fifth group was made up of various gangs that had joined the movement during the sectarian war. They were opposed to Sadr’s demand for restraint and greater discipline, because it would cost them their sources of income.

The situation got so bad that Sadr returned from Iran around May 2007. He talked with his deputies about what should be done. The results were more purges by the Golden Battalion, and eleven leaders being expelled. One of those was Akram al-Kabi who was the commander of the entire Mahdi Army. He took over the Khazali network. Like previous moves, this had little actual affect.

While back in Iraq, Sadr also discussed a cease-fire. It wasn’t until August however, that he actually ordered it. That came after a battle with security forces loyal to the Supreme Council in Karbala that left over fifty civilians dead and two hundred wounded. The Sadrists were largely blamed for the fighting, and came away with a black eye. The next day Sadr ordered a six-month stand down. He also said that he would go after all the breakaway groups, and banned attacks upon the Coalition forces. The Sadrists also signed a reconciliation pact with the Supreme Council, that didn’t last. The decision brought more divisions even with the mainstream faction. Some thought it would make the movement look weak, a few believed that it would lead younger Shiites to leave the movement for the Special Groups, while others were afraid that it would open them up to attacks by their Shiite rivals and the Iraqi and U.S. security forces.

In 2008 Prime Minister Maliki made his move by launching military operations against the Mahdi Army. In early 2008, Basra had become largely lawless with various militias and political parties competing for control of the port and oil infrastructure after the British had withdrawn. The offensive began in March, with violence quickly spreading across the south all the way to Sadr City. The fighting was ended by two separate deals brokered by General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Qods Force. In June Maliki sent forces to Maysan, the one province that the Sadrists controlled, and a major way station in the flow of weapons and fighters from Iran. Hundreds of mainstream militiamen, Special Groups, and members of the Khazali Faction fled to Iran, where many still reside.

Towards the beginning of the Basra operation, Sadr gave a rare interview to Al Jazeera. He said that he wanted to re-organize his militia, and stress education and culture instead. He also believed that the various factions would re-unite under his leadership. In a move in that direction, he called for the release of Qais Khazali. Last, he complained about the interference of Iran. The turn of events however showed that he had lost control of major parts of his movement, and that Iran was the real power broker, a role that he had aspired to.

The Aftermath

The Sadrists found themselves at a low point, and reflected on their predicament. One point of discussion was whether to continue on with the Mahdi Army. During the government offensives, Maliki warned that he would ban any party that had a militia from participating in provincial elections. The politicians in the movement wanted to emphasize politics, culture, and education instead, while the militia commanders wanted to maintain the armed wing. The clerics were divided. At first, Sadr said that he would only disband his militia if the leading clerics such as Ayatollah Sistani wanted it. In June he finally made a decision and announced that the Mahdi Army would end, and that a new group, Mumahidoon, Those Who Pave The Way, would replace it as a cultural and religious group. Hazem al-Araji would lead this new organization. Sadr did say that he would maintain a small elite armed group as well, but there is no evidence that this has happened. The Sadr bloc in parliament also convinced him to support independents in the elections rather than run on their own to get around Maliki’s threats.

On the flipside, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Special Groups are currently retooling in Iran. There are now two main Special Groups, The Khazali Faction, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Akram al-Kabi who succeeded Khazali after his arrest, has tried to move into politics as well, saying that his group is the rightful heir to Sadeq al-Sadr. In late 2008 Sadr tried to reach out to them once more asking their fighters to give up their group and rejoin the mainstream, but it failed as before. Both groups have received training in new tactics such as the use of sticky bombs and assassinations, and continue to carry out operations in Iraq, although at much lower levels. Allegedly President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad told Maliki that he would tone down violence in the month before the provincial elections. Iran has done this before, as political influence, rather than the use of violence is their major focus in Iraq, and balloting is the way to have their Shiite allies ascend to power.


Today the Sadrist movement is divided in two. On the one hand there is the mainstream made up of politicians, clerics, and the new social group Mumahidoon led by Hazem al-Araji, who have gotten rid of their militia. On the other side is Asaib Ahl al-Haq commanded by Akram al-Kabi, and the other Special Groups. Kabi is claiming the mantle of leadership from Sadr, while continuing to attack the government and U.S. forces. They have been blamed for killing moderates in the movement, such as Saleh al-Ugaili, a parliamentarian, who was assassinated in October 2008. The Sadrists have also lost the support of many Shiites who no longer need their protection since the sectarian war is over, and have grown tired of their turn towards criminality for funding. The Mahdi Army no longer controls local economies either after the security crackdowns. In politics, Prime Minister Maliki has appropriated much of Sadr’s nationalist rhetoric and call for a U.S. withdrawal. He has moved aggressively to sway Sadr’s followers to his side before the 2009 elections. Sadr could still be a factor in Iraq if he can keep his movement together. The report believes that this is unlikely, as Sadr needs his militia and a mass following, but has lost both.


Anderson, John Ward, “General Says Mission In Baghdad Falls Short,” Washington Post, 10/20/06

Associated Press, “Iraqi leader drops protection of militia,” 1/22/07

Bennett, Brian, “Underestimating al-Sadr – Again,” Time, 2/12/08

Cochrane, Marisa, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2009

Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08

Knickmeyer, Ellen and Anderson, John Ward, “Iraq Tells U.S. to Quit Checkpoints,” Washington Post, 11/1/06

Los Angeles Times, “Sadr aides deny the cleric is in Iran,” 2/14/07

Paley, Amit, “Sadr’s Militia Enforces Cease-Fire With a Deadly Purge,” Washington Post, 2/21/08


deth said...

A very good post Motown. Very interesting reading. I had always wondered what had happened to the potent force that was the Mahdi Army of 2006. I consider myself smarter for having read this. Thank you.

Joel Wing said...

I have several other posts on Sadr as well if you're interested. Click on "Sadr" in the labels section at the bottom of the article. Glad you enjoyed this one.

deth said...

I'll do that, thanks. By the way, this is truly one of the top tier blogs I have on my list. The fact that you put your references out there give a lot of credibility to your posts. Thanks again, keep it up please.

Anonymous said...

Yeah dude, good stuff. Where do you work?

Joel Wing said...

I'm a public high school teacher in Oakland, CA.

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