|Moqtada al-Sadr (Al-Sabah)|
Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement has faced a never-ending series of splits and divisions. Within a year of his emergence as one of the leading opponents of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, some of his top lieutenants and militia commanders began leaving to form their own groups due to disputes over tactics and their desire for their own personal power. Today, Sadr finds himself dealing with another one of these breakaway factions led by Abu Dura, one of the most notorious militia leaders during the sectarian civil war.
In early August 2011, Moqtada al-Sadr was asked by one of his followers about Abu Dura, real name Ismail al-Lami. Sadr said that Abu Dura was in Iran, and that he had asked Tehran to send him back to Iraq, but it had not responded. In June, Sadr issued a letter calling Abu Dura’s men criminals, and called on the government to arrest them. This came after an armed clash between the two groups in Sadr City left one dead, and four wounded. The incident started when Abu Dura’s men confronted two Sadrists working for the Electricity Ministry. Allegedly, Dura’s followers demanded bribes to allow the workers to operate. That led to a scuffle that escalated into a gunfight, which ended when the army was called out. Afterward, there were reports that residents of the district called on Sadr for help with Abu Dura who was accused of running a gang, and displacing families. The violence and calls from his followers could not be ignored, and led Sadr to sharply criticize Abu Dura. Two months later, Sadr still seems concerned about him, which led to Dura being singled out on Sadr’s website. At the heart of the matter is that Sadr is trying to reform his image. Currently, he wants to be seen as a political, social, and religious leader. He has secured a number of ministries in the new government, is in Iran for religious training, and continues to provide social services through his offices. He is also the most vocal opponent of the continued U.S. presence in Iraq. That has led to attacks upon the Americans, but he does not want to see attacks upon his followers, which could disrupt his other work, and damage his new look. It is so serious that Sadr even quoted the shoot out with Lami’s men as one reason why he would not bring back his Mahdi Army even if the Americans get to keep their troops in Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal deadline, and then demanded that his followers sign a code of conduct so that they did not act improperly like Abu Dura’s men.
Abu Dura on the other hand, is trying to make do in the new Iraq. Lami grew up in Sadr City. He later joined the Iraqi army under Saddam, and became a non-commissioned officer. He ended up deserting in 2000, and returned to his home. After the 2003 invasion, he took part in the looting in the capital, and later started assassinating former Baathists and army officers. He ended up joining the Mahdi Army, and became a brigade commander. He made a name for himself fighting the Americans in Baghdad, and later during the Sadr uprising in Najaf in 2004. Shortly afterward, he broke away from the Mahdi Army, and created his own militia in Sadr City. During the sectarian civil war of 2005-2007, Abu Dura became known as the Shiite Zarqawi. He said he wanted to cleanse the capital of Sunnis, and was blamed for hundreds of killings. He became infamous for using an electric drill upon his victims. He was also blamed for some high profile operations including the killing of Saddam Hussein’s lawyer, running ambulances to abduct Sunnis, kidnapping a member of parliament, and snatching workers from the Ministry of Higher Education. These led the Sadr movement to publicly chastise him, and declare that he was no longer part of the movement. In 2008, Abu Dura ended up fleeing to Iran during Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s crackdown on militias. He stayed in Qom, and received aid from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, while keeping in contact with his fighters back in Iraq. In August 2010 there were reports that Abu Dura had returned to Iraq. Others said that he had joined the League of the Righteous, and was carrying out attacks again. Later stories questioned those two claims, and had him running a small gang in Baghdad. Lami was one of many commanders to split from Sadr. Beginning in 2004, many of his top leaders began to move in and out of the militia. The first cause was Sadr’s cease-fire with the Americans after his initial uprising, which angered more militant members of his Trend. Later, others wanted their own groups, while some became gangs to exploit their own communities for profit. Lami was motivated by all three factors. Today, he seems to be struggling. He has either joined a larger organization, the League of the Righteous, become a criminal, or is in exile in Iran. The new Iraq has little room for vicious militiamen like Abu Dura, so he has to either rely upon the goodwill of Iran, or prey upon people of Sadr City.
Moqtada al-Sadr is trying for the second time to join the Iraqi establishment. Today, he is emphasizing his role in politics and society. The return of Abu Dura complicates this effort, especially when the two groups got into a shoot-out in Sadr City. Seeing gun battles again in the capital undermines what Sadr is trying to do. It is for that reason that Sadr has made such an issue of Abu Dura even though his impact is very limited in Iraq overall. It is for that reason that Sadr wants to nip this in bud by aggressively condemning Abu Dura before more incidents occur, which could give Sadr a bad name.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq’s Sadr calls to punish rogue militia members,” 6/20/11
- “Iraq’s Sadr says Iran will not hand over militant,” 8/10/11
- “Radical anti-US Iraqi cleric issues code of conduct,” 7/28/11
Cochrane, Marisa, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2009
Fayad, Ma’ad, “Iraq: Notorious Shiite Warlord Returns to Baghdad,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 8/18/10
Karim, Ammar, “Iraqi cleric Sadr will not revive anti-US militia,” Agence France Presse, 7/10/11
Knights, Michael, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, November 2010
Al Rafidayn, “Sadr calls on the government to deter the followers of Abu Dura in Sadr City,” 6/20/11
Al-Sabah, “Sadr: Iran is home to Abu Dura and refuses to return him to Iraq,” 8/10/11
Swain, Jon, “Is this Iraq’s most prolific mass killer?” Sunday Times of London, 1/21/07