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Mahdi Army - Growing Iranian Influence

In 2005, Moqtada al-Sadr established secret JAM cells to serve as his professional hit squads. Direction of the secret cells was taken over by Qays al-Kha-zhli (who was later taken into U.S. custody) and Akram al-Kabi of Najaf who turned to Iran for financing and training. Once in Iran, the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) was able to assert influence over the secret cells, which it employs as an anti-Coalition force. It also began to recruit JAM cells from other areas of Iraq, particularly Basrah, the Coalition's stronghold on its southeastern border and Iraq's economic center.

Iranian agents recruit JAM cell leaders in Basrah first by making a religious appeal based on common Shi'a beliefs, followed by offers of money, according to multiple sources. If a cell leader resisted switching loyalties, then threats were used. If the obduracy continued, a relative of the cell leader would be assassinated, and ultimately the cell leader himself was taken out. Similar recruitment and intimidation methods were applied to sheikhs, teachers and other members of society.

Many members were young, disenfranchised Shi'a attracted by the cleric's charisma and firebrand style of preaching. For instance, the extent of Mahdi Army influence on dense urban and sparse rural populations in Maysan Province remained in dispute. Most evidence pointed to an elected and JAM-dominated provincial government controlling Maysan's urban centers balanced against tribal leaders controlling populations in outlying, rural areas. A contingent of young, unemployed males in both urban and rural areas were aligning with Iraqi Police, militias, criminal elements posing as militias, and organized criminal elements. This complex mixture was further complicated by increasing Iranian activity in the province.

JAM also sought to emulate Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, purporting to defend the interests of the poor and downtrodden, such as orphans and widows. Its support base is centered in urban slums, such as the Hayanniyah and Jumhurriyah districts of Basrah. Most of the residents in these districts were the so-called "Marsh Arabs," who were displaced after Saddam drained the marshes, and those who migrated in search of jobs. The levels of education and income in these areas are low; unemployment is high and educated Basrawis look upon these residents with contempt.

The extent of JAM's largesse was much less than it claimed. If a JAM militant was arrested, then the organization would provide support for the militant's family while he was incarcerated, but systemic community programs did not exist. JAM proved adept in creating public relations opportunities. For instance, under Operation Sinbad, British forces rehabilitated schools throughout Basrah. After completion of the work, JAM members would invariably move in, post JAM propaganda, and claim credit for the renovations.

While JAM purported to be the protector and benefactor of the downtrodden, in reality, it was a decentralized amalgamation of cells that wreak terror throughout Basrah and engage in criminal activity - "thugs and thieves." JAM's modus operandi was to terrorize citizens into submission and carry out attacks against the Coalition. Despite its weak power structure and the incoherency between cells, by 2007 it had evolved into the most notorious and probably the most powerful militia in Basrah, primarily through its Iranian benefactors. Its fighters were effective in supporting each other in the urban war that has engulfed the city. For example, if a militant was arrested at a police checkpoint, his comrades would intimidate the director of the detention facility into releasing him. After the release, gunmen would go to the checkpoint where the arrest was made and kill the policemen. In one instance, JAM militants captured a group of Iraqi Army officers and shaved their heads. Such tactics effectively terrorize well-intentioned policemen and soldiers from acting to defend public security.

Some JAM cells sought to impose Taleban-like restrictions throughout Basrah. For example, barbers were assassinated because they cut hair in a modern, un-Islamic style; produce vendors were threatened for displaying bananas or tomatoes and cucumbers together due to perceived sexual connotations; ice vendors were killed by gunmen who proclaimed that the Prophet Mohammad did not drink cold water; taxi drivers were forced from their vehicles because the Prophet did not drive; and owners of tire repair shops had their air compressors riddled with bullets by gunmen who said air was provided by God who intended it to be free, not bottled up in tanks. These acts were antithetical to JAM's nationalistic objectives and reflected more of a Wahabi-style fundamentalism, despite their claim to be committed Shi'as.

Estimates of JAM's hard-core members in Basrah by 2007 ranged from 300-400 to 1500-1700, with perhaps as many as 10,000 to 15,000 sympathizers in Basrah. They hailed from urban slums, such as the Hayanniyah and Jumhurriyah districts. Ironically, these neighborhoods where JAM draws its recruits were the most boisterous in welcoming the Coalition forces in 2003. Most are unemployed and uneducated. Although JAM rhetoric brimmed with Islamic references, religious belief had little to do with JAM's appeal. Rather, by joining JAM, young men achieved a sense of self-worth and belonging and a chance to make money. The lower echelons of JAM were comprised of local, unskilled operatives who were reported to earn between $100-250 for each rocket or mortar attack they launch at Coalition targets.

The leadership of the JAM was concentrated in the hands of a youthful, dynamic and "angry" group, who were mostly under 30 years old. Abu Qadir, the most recent Basrah commander was only 23 years old when he was killed during a firefight with Iraqi and British forces on 25 May 2007. His predecessor, Sayid Naji, who was captured by Coalition forces in December 2006, was about 26. These younger Basrawi commanders are becoming increasingly independent of Muqtada al-Sadr. Various cells were operating under the JAM banner, but receive direction and financial and material support principally from Iranian sources.

The increasing Iranian influence over JAM created a split in the organization between what some described as "nationalist" JAM and "external" or "militant" JAM. Muqtada al-Sadr was reportedly angered that his best teams had been annexed by Iran, and nationalist JAM leaders are wary of this budding rival with better equipment, training, and resources. While nationalist elements in Basrah proclaim loyalty to Muqtada al-Sadr, it was evident that this loyalty was not steadfast, and it appeared the nationalists in Najaf were growing concerned about this wayward franchise.

Operation Charge of the Knights, ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in March 2008, turned the tide in the city. Before the operation, militias controlled large parts of the city. Militia leaders, many under control of Iran, intimidated the populace and turned the city into a crime empire. Basra is key to Iraqs success, with oil fields, the port of Umm Qasr and the international airport being economic engines for the region. Since Operation Charge of the Knights began, Iraqi Security Forces reasserted their authority over the city. Following the Iraqi crackdown on Iranian-supported Sadrist militias in Basrah during the "Charge of the Knights" operation in March 2008, Iran calibrated its operations in Iraq to encompass more "soft power" (economic, religious, educational) support and investment as part of a broader "hearts and minds" campaign.

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