Sadr’s Mahdi Army Regrouping
Ann Scott Tyson of the Christian Science Monitor has a fine piece today on how Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia is regrouping and continuing to engage in vigilante practices. There is also an allegation that Iranians are helping re-arm the militia, though the numbers mentioned in Najaf (80) don’t seem to me to be significant. Moreover, one doesn’t know whether these are Iranian intelligence agents, Revolutionary Guards, or just jihadi volunteers (even pilgrims caught in Najaf when the fighting broke out who decided to take up arms with the Mahdi Army). I wouldn’t make too much of it. The Mahdi Army is overwhelmingly local, and it helps Iraqi Shiites politically to blame its excesses on Iran rather than admitting that Iraqi Shiites themselves are deeply divided and capable of squalid acts. Tyson writes:
‘ heavily armed Sadr militiamen are waging fear tactics, kidnapping local Iraqi police and family members, occupying buildings, and arresting Iraqis deemed critical of Sadr or in violation of Islamic law, residents and officials say.
Signs that the Sadr militia is regrouping after heavy losses in April and May come even as Iraqi leaders are attempting to nudge the firebrand cleric into the political arena. Uncertainty remains over whether the militia activity is unified and sanctioned by Sadr or primarily the work of factions of his lieutenants, the officials say. Both Iraqi and US officials are concerned about signs of significant Iranian influence with Sadr’s forces. ‘
Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder also recently did an interesting overview of the way in which the Mahdi Army has reasserted itself in the vast slums of East Baghdad (Sadr City). He writes:
‘ In any case, said Sadoun al Dulame, the head of an independent Baghdad think tank, “that city belongs to al Sadr.”
The area is one of Baghdad’s poorest. Originally designed to house 300,000, it now holds 10 times that number. At most, there are 12 hours of electricity a day — usually there’s half that amount — and sewage and garbage cover many side streets, where goats and donkeys graze.
Last month, the commander of the U.S. Army division in charge of the area, the 1st Cavalry Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, said he had been concentrating on reconstruction projects — not combat missions — in Sadr City, where he’s assigned a battalion of about 500 men.
“I’ve got a battalion in Sadr City, and there’s 3 million people in Sadr City,” he said. “I can’t fight 3 million people with a battalion.”
On Sunday, Mahdi troops walked down the road a few blocks from a group of U.S. military police attached to the 1st Cavalry, who were parked outside of a police station on the edge of Sadr City.
Members of the Mahdi Army direct traffic at most intersections of Sadr City while Iraqi police watch. At night, the streets are filled with militiamen who wear identification cards bearing al Sadr’s picture. They have been carrying out raids of suspected kidnapping and drug gangs in the neighborhood, and they either detain suspects or hand them over to the police.
In addition to its patrols, the group has been conducting blood drives and trash pickups, partly to compete with 1st Cavalry projects. ‘
Al-Zaman reports that Iraqi police in Najaf are now fighting, conducting inspections, and making arrests in various areas in the province. They are seeking out outlaw elements that have committed attacks on police. An atmosphere of caution prevails in the city in the wake of reports that the Shiite Establishment (al-Bayt al-Shi`i) has given up attempts to mediate between the followers of radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi police with regard to implementing the truce and disarming the Mahdi Army.
Al-Hayat: Meanwhile, the caretaker Iraqi government is attempting to outflank Muqtada politically by reaching out to rival leaders of the Sadrist tendency. (The Sadrists all revere Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980) and his cousin Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father, but not all follow Muqtada). Fuad Masoum, head of the commission that is preparing the national congress, maintains that the greater Sadr movement will be represented even though Muqtada and his followers are boycotting the congress. Among the Sadrists is the Da’wah Iraq Organization, a splinter group that broke off from the al-Da’wah Party and which reveres the two maryred Sadrs, a representative of which will attend. Masoum is also inviting individual prominent lieutenants of Muqtada, in hopes that some will attend so as to avoid political marginalization, and that this peeling away of his major followers will isolate Muqtada or force him to rethink his participation.
National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie distributed a letter recently to prominent Shiite personalities and parties in which he warned that Sunni parties were taking advantage of the recent fighting between the Americans and the Shiite Mahdi Army to improve their position. He said that Shiite influence in Iraqi politics would decline if Muqtada refused to cease confronting the US.
Hamza Hendawi reports on the rivalry for the leadership of Shiism between Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Which city wins will have a big impact on the religion, since Najaf tends to be quietist and opposes clerical rule.