Al-Mahdi Army / Active Religious Seminary / Al-Sadr's Group
Hujjat al-Islam Muqtada al-Sadr says that the Mahdi would soon return, in Iraq. This rumor, touching the core of Shi'i faith and eschatology, is being spread by Sadr's preachers. In the Shia tradition, the Mahdi is the 12th Imam, who is in occultation. Muktada al-Sadr says the Americans were aware of the impending reappearance, and that the Americans invaded Iraq to seize and kill the Mahdi. His supporters chant Sadr's name at rallies to imply that he is the "son of the Mahdi." Sadr has stated that the army "belongs to the Mahdi" as an explanation of why he cannot disband it, as has been required of other private militias. Although the reappearance of the Mahdi central to Shia thought, it is unusual to raise claims of the imminence of this event, and other Shiite clerics have avoided the messianic ecstasy that such claims can induce.
One Iraqi Shi'a religious family which opposed working with the US-led occupation [and trying to get control from the al-Hakim family] is the al-Sadr family, which calls itself "The Active Religious Seminary". Until recently it was headed by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated along with two of his sons by presumed agents of Hussein in Al-Najaf in 1999.
The loyalty of many of his supporters passed to another son, Hojatoleslam Muqtada al-Sadr, a mid-level cleric about 30 years of age. Unlike his father, Muqtada had little formal religious standing to interpret the Koran, and relied for religious authority on an Iran-based Iraqi exiled cleric, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who was a student of Bakir al-Sadr. Muqtada al-Sadr formed the Jama'at al-Sadr al-Thani (Association of the Second al-Sadr) as the key organization of the al-Sadr family network.
Various observers have suggested that al-Sadr has staked out an anti-Iranian position by raising the issue of the "foreign origin" of key Iraqi Shiite clerics, notably including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is of Iranian origin. Other observers contend that al-Sadr is a proxy for Iranian interests, since he receives theological backing from the Iraqi Ayatollah Kadhim Hussayni al-Ha'iri, who resides in Tehran. It is clear that al-Sadr's rival, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], enjoys the support of the Iranian government [before the downfall of Saddam, SCIRI was based in Tehran]. But Iran may lend some support to any element working to hasten the departure of the Americans from Iraq, and would probably seek to develop a working relationship with all major factions.
Formation of the Mahdi Army
The militia wing of the movement, known as the "Mahdi Army," was created in 2003 following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government. As of early 2004 it was estimated to consist of about 500-1000 trained combatants along with another 5,000-6,000 active participants. According to another US Department of Defense (DOD) estimate, as of 01 April 2004 the Mahdi Army was estimated to consist of about 3,000 lightly armed devotees of Sadr before operations against the group started. It was a small group on the margins, and while it was unknown how large the group is, it had been degraded.
On 04 June 2004 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that the Al-Mahdi Army consisted of 6,000 to 10,000 combatants.
Some younger Shiites have contended for power with the more traditional Shiite Muslims in the city and region. Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr and his young followers have sought to replace more traditional factions as the voice of Iraq's Shiite majority. The al-Sadr family portrays themselves as the ones doing the most to redress decades of suppression by Sunni Muslims under the Saddam's rule.
The al-Sadr group drew charges of involvement in attacks and intimidation in Al-Najaf that have highlighted political differences among Shi'a political organizations. The most notable of those attacks was a mob killing of a pro-US cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoi(Khoei), shortly after his return from exile in London on 10 April 2003. Al-Khoi was himself the son of another extremely powerful former grand ayatollah, Abolqassem al-Khoi. Al-Khoi was murdered as he emerged from the city's Imam Ali Mosque in a gesture of reconciliation with the mosque's custodian, who was popularly considered to have collaborated with Hussein's regime. The custodian was killed along with al-Khoi and it is unclear whether al-Khoi was an assassination target or was struck down because he tried to defend the other man.
Immediately after al-Khoi's murder, supporters of al-Sadr surrounded the house of another grand ayatollah in Al-Najaf, Ali Sistani, in what was taken to be a gesture of intimidation. Sistani -- who has said that Shi'a leaders should limit themselves to religious questions and stay out of politics -- went into hiding and only re-emerged after tribesmen loyal to him raced to Al-Najaf.
Al-Sadr's group denied it had anything to do with the April 2003 attempted murder against the elder al-Hakim, and said Hussein loyalists were to blame. But in 2004, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the killing of Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi in 2003.
One of Muqtada al-Sadr's aides, Mustafa Al-Yaqubi, was detained on April 3, 2004 in connection with the April 2003 murder of al-Khoi. An Iraqi judge issued a warrant for Mr. Yaqubi's arrest as a result of an Iraqi criminal investigation and indictment. He was taken into custody at his home in An Najaf.
Uprisings Against Coalition Forces, 2004
In early April 2004, Muqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army attempted to interfere with security in Baghdad, intimidate Iraqi citizens and place them in danger. The militia attempted to occupy and gain control of police stations and government buildings. During this attack, this illegal militia engaged coalition and international security forces with small arms fire and RPGs. Coalition forces and Iraqi security forces prevented this effort and reestablished security in Baghdad. Coalition troops fought gun battles with members of the militia in the southern cities of Al-Nassiriyah, Amara, and Kut. Clashes between al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army and coalition troops south of Baghdad tested the resolve of the United States' partners in Iraq.
By 07 April 2004, US-led coalition forces were involved in the most widespread fighting in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year before. Troops battled Shiite militias in half a dozen Iraqi towns and cities from near Kirkuk in the north to Basra in the south.
As of 08 April 2004, the Mahdi Army had taken full control of the city of Al-Kut and partial control of Al-Najaf. Residents of Al-Kufah said militiamen had some control of that city as well. In Karbala, Polish and Bulgarian troops fought Al-Mahdi Army militants as hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites were gathering ahead of a religious festival. The Polish Army said commanders were meeting with moderate Shi'ite clerics after radicals demanded the withdrawal of coalition forces.
Hundreds of loyalists to Moqtada al-Sadr attacked British troops on 08 May 2004 in the center of Basra, south of Baghdad. The violence erupted a day after a cleric in Basra told worshippers he would offer cash rewards for the killing or capture of British and American troops. He also said anyone who captured female soldiers could keep them as slaves. The cleric, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, said his offer was in response to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. Al-Bahadli is the Basra representative of hard- line Shiite leader Muqtada al- Sadr. The militants assaulted the governor's offices and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the coalition headquarters. The British sent in reinforcements, tanks and armored vehicles to secure the area. Several Iraqi insurgents were killed in the gun battles.
In early June 2004, Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said that most of the country's powerful militias had agreed to disarm. Their members would either join state-controlled security services, or return to civilian life.
The first week of August 2004 witnessed a cycle of growing violence which culminated with fierce clashes across central and southern Iraq between the Mahdi Army and US, British, and Italian forces. It was the heaviest fighting since al-Sadr's forces agreed to a truce in June, and it was unclear if the truce had completely collapsed or if the violence was merely a flare-up. In the southern city of Al-Nasiriyah, Iraqi fighters attacked Italian patrols with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. At least 20 Iraqis and one US soldier were reported killed on 5 August in Baghdad, Al-Najaf, and Al-Basrah. Militants brought down a US helicopter in Al-Najaf, though the US military recovered the crew unharmed.
On 07 August 2004, the interim Iraqi prime minister signed a limited amnesty law that pardoned insurgents who had committed minor crimes but had not killed anyone. Iyad Allawi said insurgents had 30 days to turn themselves in to Iraqi security forces in order to qualify for the amnesty. The prime minister offered an olive branch to Moqtada al-Sadr. Allawi particularly offered al-Sadr a chance to distance himself from the actions of his followers and begin taking part in the political process. Allawi said "I have been having positive messages from Moqtada al-Sadr. That is why we don't think that the people who are committing the crimes in Najaf and elsewhere are his people. We think they are people using his name. We invite, and I invite from this platform, Moqtada al-Sadr to participate in the elections next year." Previously, Moqtada al-Sadr has rejected invitations to participate in a national conference and national council, and had not indicated any willingness to take part in the elections scheduled for January.
Fighting between al-Sadr's supporters and US forces continued in Baghdad and Najaf through the beginning of August, though initial reports suggested the battles had lessened in intensity. By August 7th as many as 400 militants had been killed in Najaf alone, the highest single-day death toll among anti-coalition forces since the end of Major Combat Operations in 2003. Two US Marines were also killed in the fighting in Najaf. Tensions in Najaf were diffused on 27 August 2004 when Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was able to broker a deal with Moqtada al-Sadr's forces. Later that month al-Sadr ordered a ceasefire and announced that he was prepared to enter the political process in Iraq.
The Rise of Sectarian Violence and the Baghdad Security Plan, 2006-2007
Aggressive actions and policies by the Mahdi Army since 2005 have left relations between it and British and U.S. forces severely strained. Between mid-2006 and the end of April 2007, at least 40 British soldiers died in suspected attacks by Mahdi forces in southern Iraq. This included an incident in May 2006 in which a British helicopter was shot down, and an incident in August 2006 when a British base near the city of Amarah was shelled. The latter of the two reportedly influenced the British decision to vacate the site, and possibly contributed to the announcement in February 2007 that Britain was prepared to reduce its force in Iraq of 7,100 by 1,600 men by July 2007. Many analysts surmised that this would merely lead invigorate the Mahdi Army and increase its assertiveness in the region. Throughout the month of April 2007 elements of the militia were accused of taking part in the deaths of an additional 11 British soldiers in southern parts of Iraq.
The primary political base of Muqtada al-Sadr and a main concentration of strength for the Mahdi Army has been Sadr City, a heavily populated Shiite district in Baghdad. Despite the fact that the militia had been involved in sectarian killings throughout the country, elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki repeatedly blocked coalition attempts to reign down on the Mahdi Army and Sadr City since he relied heavily on the population and Muqtada al-Sadr for political support. By the start of 2007, however, in what was perceived as an attempt to communicate solidarity with President Bush's latest security directive, Maliki announced that he would no longer prohibit operations Mahdi forces or in Mahdi neighborhoods. Maliki even went on to state that Iraqi security forces had arrested upwards of 600 Mahdi fighters within the past several months.
With a new sense of operational flexibility granted to them U.S. forces wasted no time in taking action. On 8 February 2007 they arrested Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, a well-known supporter of al-Sadr, for allegedly funneling money to forces within the Mahdi Army engaged in sectarian violence and killings. As the Baghdad security operation commenced on 14 February 2007, U.S. forces began to pressure the Mahdi Army and patrol Sadr City. It was reported that Sadr, in response to these actions, demanded his forces to not take up arms and stop operations. Sadr relocated to Iran, perhaps temporarily, where he has remained through May 2007. In April 2007, however, al-Sadr called upon Iraqi militias and the Iraqi Security Force to unite and fight the U.S. "occupation" forces. Earlier that month sporadic fighting occurred between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces in the city of Diwaniyah.
A report from the Iraq Study Group in December 2006 stated that the strength of the Mahdi Army could have possibly swelled to upwards of 60,000 fighters. In addition, it was concluded that a significant number of those forces infiltrated the Facilities Protection Service, a security force of 140,000 appointed to protect critical infrastructures and buildings throughout the country. As of 27 April 2007 the latest "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" report released by the Department of Defense declared the Mahdi Army "has replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq."
As of April 2007 Muqtada al-Sadr's political element belonged to the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and controlled 32 seats in parliament as well as the Ministries of Agriculture, Health, and Transportation. A U.S. briefing in Baghdad on 11 February 2007 accused the Qods (Jerusalem) Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard of supplying Iraqi Shiite militias, including the Mahdi Army, with weapons and explosives. U.S. officials alleged that Sadr's political power and significant following, in addition to his anti-American outlook, made the leader and the Mahdi Army an attractive ally to the Iranians. Iran has repeatedly denied the charges that it has supplied or trained Iraqi combatants and militias.
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