Mahdi Army Still Factor Anthony Shadid

Mahdi Army still a Factor

Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post continues his world-beating coverage of Iraq with an article on the reemergence of the Mahdi Army in the south, in places like Nasiriyah and Basrah.

Look, if all the Mahdi Army amounts to is angry young men with guns persuaded to support puritanical morality and to give their political loyalty to Muqtada al-Sadr, then it can never be “defeated” by the US military. It is just an urban social movement. You’d have to change the character of the Shiite slums to make an impact on it, which won’t happen tomorrow.

The US military thought that it had defeated the Mahdi Army by late May 2004. Then when fighting broke out again in August, the militia fought tenaciously in Najaf and seemed to come from nowhere. One reporter told me that the US generals in Iraq were frantically trying to discover how Muqtada had recruited so many new fighters in only a couple of months. But that’s easy. The fighters in August were the angry cousins of the ones killed in May. In Iraq you can’t let a thing like foreigners killing your cousin pass without action. Young men who had been on the fence now picked up guns and rpg launchers. Their lack of professional fighting skills ensured their military defeat, but by holing up in the shrine of Ali they gained political capital outside Najaf itself. If Sistani had not intervened, and had Allawi gone ahead with plans to invade the shrine of Ali, it could well have provoked a Shiite social revolution against the interim government and against the Americans. Mahdi Army militiamen are easy to kill, hard to defeat.

So far the Badr Corps militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has gotten a pass from the Americans, on the whole. But its fighters can be just as thuggish and intrusive as Sadr’s.