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Al-Mahdi Army / Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM)
Active Religious Seminary / Al-Sadr's Group

Thousands of fighters loyal to powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr paraded in Baghdad on 21 June 2014 in a show of force amid rising sectarian tensions. The fighters marched through the streets of Baghdad's Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City carrying grenade launchers and accompanied by heavy equipment. Similar parades were held in several southern cities on June 21, including Basra, Najaf, and Kut. The show of force by supporters of al-Sadr came amid a continuing offensive by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Sunni militants who had seized swates of territory in northern Iraq.

Sadr called his fighters the peace brigades, saying they are a nationalist force not a sectarian one and it is ready to defend all religious sites in Iraq. Sadr was believed to have command of more than 10,000 fighters, most of whom had volunteered to fight alongside Iraqi security forces against Sunni rebels led by the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Sadr seemed keen to emphasize that his fighters would only serve as a defensive force to protect Baghdad, but there were fears of a reestablishment of the Mahdi Army, which was supposedly disbanded in 2008 [a supposition belied by the good order in which Sadr's militants paraded].

Sadr kept an offshoot of the al-Mahdi Army, "Promised Day Brigades, as an armed wing of his movement that continued to fight American forces in Iraq until the US' withdrawal. Muqtada al-Sadrs Promised Day Brigades is an indigenous organization, although it receives significant monetary and logistical support from Iran. Since the withdrawal of United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) in December 2011, Shia threat groups -- Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), and Kataib Hizballah (KH) and the Promised Day Brigades -- have ceased mass casualty attacks and have not attacked U.S. interests while pursing political ambitions. Nonetheless, these organizations may maintain the military capability to target U.S. citizens in Iraq, including commercial and non-governmental officials.

In 2003, Hujjat al-Islam Muqtada al-Sadr said that the Mahdi would soon return, in Iraq. This rumor, touching the core of Shi'i faith and eschatology, was spread by Sadr's preachers. In the Shia tradition, the Mahdi is the 12th Imam, who is in occultation. Muktada al-Sadr said the Americans were aware of the impending reappearance, and that the Americans invaded Iraq to seize and kill the Mahdi. His supporters chanted Sadr's name at rallies to imply that he is the "son of the Mahdi." Sadr stated that the army "belongs to the Mahdi" as an explanation of why he cannot disband it, as was 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 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.

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Page last modified: 26-06-2014 18:45:22 ZULU