Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Iraq's Sadr Could Be Backing Off Threat To Revive Mahdi Army If U.S. Doesn’t Withdraw

April 9, 2011 was the eight anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein. On that day hundreds of supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr marched in Baghdad. A spokesman threatened the return of the Mahdi Army if the United States did not withdraw its troops by the end of the year. That may have been an idle threat, which the movement is now moving away from since it has made its point.

In June 2008, Moqtada al-Sadr officially disbanded the Mahdi Army. An armed faction, the Promised Day Brigades, remained with its sole purpose being armed resistance to the American occupation. During the April 9, 2011 demonstration, Sadr issued a statement that he would bring back the Mahdi Army if the United States did not withdraw by December 31. On May 7, a Sadrist member of parliament was quoted as saying that they would resist the Americans politically, militarily, and through demonstrations if they remained in the country past the deadline. A few days later, a spokesman for the Sadr bloc said that Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi should step down if the Americans were to stay. On May 11, a meeting of the Southern Tribes Council in Basra took place where sheikhs threatened a revolt against an extended American presence. A Sadrist lawmaker welcomed their announcement, and said the Mahdi Army would fight alongside them if necessary. Sadr has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the U.S. since they invaded Iraq in 2003. Talking about bringing back his militia to oppose them past 2011 fits into his previous rhetoric, and plays well with his followers.

Since then, Sadr has been slowly backing away from his position, partly due to pressure from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At the end of April, the premier told a press conference that the government had not decided on whether the U.S. should withdraw or not. He said that the major parties would discuss the matter, and parliament would have the final say. He repeated that on May 11 after a trip to South Korea. Maliki warned that those who lost in the discussion had to abide by the majority’s decision, an obvious warning to Sadr. On May 12, a Sadrist leader said that two-thirds of the legislature would have to okay a troop extension, and even then the movement would hold demonstrations and sit-ins against the Americans. He also said that the use of the Mahdi Army would be a last resort. The next day, Sadr gave a sermon during Friday’s prayers in Najaf where he appealed to the public to get rid of the Americans through protests. He went on to say that if Iraq’s parties agreed upon a new arrangement with the Americans he would reconsider his threat about bringing back the Mahdi Army. The Sadrists are an important part of Maliki’s ruling coalition. At the same time, he can’t have Sadr threatening renewed violence when security has been one of the premier’s main selling points. Maliki therefore, had to call Sadr out on his remarks. Sadr on the other hand is trying to return to Iraqi politics, and establish himself as a national leader. Bringing back the Mahdi Army would undermine that effort, and could cost him popular support as most Iraqis have turned against fighting.
Sadr giving his sermon in Najaf, May 13, 2011 (AP)
When Sadr mentioned the return of his Mahid Army it made headlines within and without Iraq. That might have been Sadr’s aim all along, as he has to keep up his anti-American image. In response, Prime Minister Maliki hinted that if Sadr wanted to be a politician, he could not bring back his militia. Since Sadr is much more interested in his position within the halls of power currently, his threat might have been an idle one all along. He has made his point, and now more moderate statements are being issued. The situation could in fact, work out for Sadr either way. He will lead the drive within parliament to keep the Americans on track to withdraw, and if they stay it will provide a convenient foil for the Sadrists to blame all of Iraq’s problems on and rally his followers around.


Aswat al-Iraq, “Legislature of Shiite al-Ahrar (Liberals) Trend threatens that Sadrists would resist U.S. forces if they insist to stay in Iraq,” 5/7/11

Aziz, Raber, “Iraqi army chief voices concerns about pending US withdrawal,” AK News, 5/10/11

Davis, Aaron, “In Iraq, an internal Shiite battle may be key to U.S. troop extension,” Washington Post, 5/13/11

Mohammed, Muhanad, “Iraqi cleric issues new warning against U.S. troops,” Reuters, 4/9/11

Al-Rafidayn, Al Mowaten News, Al-Mada, “Al-Maliki Has ‘Private Opinion’ About U.S. Military Withdrawal From Iraq,” MEMRI Blog, 4/28/11

Salaheddin, Sinan, “Iraqi PM open to US troop presence if blocs agree,” Associated Press, 5/11/11

Sapa, “Iraq PM calls for dialogue over US troops,” Agence France Presse, 5/11/11

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “Sadrists: Unfreezing Jaysh Al-Mahdi Militia Last Resort If U.S. Military Presence Extended,” MEMRI Blog, 5/13/11

Smith, Patrick, “Southern tribal leaders threaten to rise up if US troops don’t withdraw,” AK News, 5/11/11

Yates, Dean, “ANALYSIS – Iraq’s Sadr avoiding fight with government,” Reuters, 6/16/08

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