Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen slowly resurface
After two years, ex-militiamen are being seen again in Baghdad neighborhoods. Officials fear the shadowy group could take advantage of Iraq's festering political crisis and U.S. troop withdrawals.
June 28, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Baghdad — Mohammad and his gang are back. There may not be a Glock semiautomatic strapped to his waist anymore, but the terrifying mystique of the Mahdi Army still shrouds the Shiite Muslim militiaman like the menacing black uniform he once wore.
Civil servant Haidar Naji remembers how Mohammad used to strut around his east Baghdad neighborhood like a mob boss, ordering himnot to wear Bermuda shorts, too immodest and Western for his Islamic tastes
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Tyler Hicks/The New York Times Updated: Jan. 18, 2011
From 2004 to 2008, the most powerful force on the streets of Iraq after the American military was the Mahdi Army, known in Arabic as the Jaish al-Mahdi. The group began as a small group of fighters who were fiercely loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite imam, and grew rapidly in the months after the American invasion.
The group's name reflected its religious roots -- for Shiites, the Mahdi is a messianic figure. They lost their grip on the southern city of Basra and large swaths of Baghdad after Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a former Sadr ally, launched military operations against those strongholds with the help of American forces in the spring of 2008.
Mr. Sadr performed a remarkable turnaround in 2010. From his self-imposed exile in Iran, he turned his movement into a political party that made striking gains in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. He then used the leverage from those 40 seats first to block Mr. Maliki's return to power, only to suddenly make the deal that assured the prime minister of another term. In return, his followers were assured of important posts in the new government. Secure in his standing, Mr. Sadr returned from Iran in January 2011.
The first time most of the world heard of the Mahdi Army came in April 2004, when Mr. Sadr threw militia members into a fight against American troops in the city of Najaf and elsewhere across the Shiite south. It was a burst of self-assertion that took U.S. commanders by surprise and increased the group's stature.
At the time, the fighters doubled as neighborhood helpers, bringing cooking gas and other necessities to needy families. Mahdi Army members were also widely seen as the chief bulwark for Shiite areas as bombings, shootings and kidnappings by Sunni insurgents drove Baghdad and its environs deeper into chaos.
The militia in Baghdad, always loosely organized, swelled with recruits after a bombing of a Shiite shrine in February 2006. The change disrupted the organization and injected it with angry young men, some with criminal pasts, who were thirsty for revenge.
As Shiites struck back and began to get the upper hand in the struggle with Sunnis, death squads made up of Mahdi Army members played a prominent role. The price for used cars plummeted as militiamen sold vehicles that had belonged to their victims. A Sadr City sheik issued a religious edict permitting the confiscation of the property of Sunni militants who see Shiites as heretics.
But many took it as a blank check to seize property, as long as the victim was Sunni. By 2007, the militia had effectively taken over vast swaths of the capital; its membership was estimated by the Iraq Survey Group to be roughly 60,000.
The years of fighting reshaped the militia. Many of its original members left violence behind, taking jobs in local and national government, while others plunged deeper into organized crime. Even the demographics changed, in part as a result of an aggressive campaign begun by the American military in late 2006 in which many senior commanders were arrested, leaving behind a power vacuum and directionless junior members. Meanwhile, in the Shiite south, the Mahdi Army was only one of several militias competing for power.
Facing an American crackdown and a loss of control over rogue elements, in the summer of 2007 Mr. Sadr ordered a six-month ceasefire. Many observers believed the ceasefire played a major role in the drop off in violence in Baghdad in late 2007. Mr. Sadr renewed the ceasefire in February 2008 for another six months. But tensions remained, and on March 23 Mr. Maliki ordered a surprise assault on Mahdi Army positions in Basra.
Mr. Sadr had originally helped place Mr. Maliki in power, but had turned against him as being too close to the United States. Mr. Maliki's bold move initially stumbled, and a truce was negotiated in Basra by Iran after American forces came to the aid of the Iraqi army.
But in the months that followed, the central government regained control over Basra, and in a far larger and better organized operation, the Iraqi and American forces worked their way through Sadr City, the vast slum that was the Mahdi Army's stronghold. After a short period of fierce resistance, the Mahdi fighters allowed American tanks in, and their hold on the city was broken