Iraq's Sadr uses lull to rebuild Army
Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia aims to return leaner, stronger.
For more than three months, the Mahdi Army has been largely silent. The potent, black-clad Iraqi Shiite force put down its guns in late August at the behest of Moqtada al-Sadr.Skip to next paragraph
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The move has bolstered improved security in Baghdad, even though the US says some Mahdi Army splinter groups that it calls "criminals" or "extremists" have not heeded Mr. Sadr's freeze.
Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south – from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.
Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah – a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.
"He is now in the process of reconstituting the [Mahdi] Army and removing all the bad people that committed mistakes and those that sullied its reputation. There will be a whole new structure and dozens of conditions for membership," says Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mahamadawi, a turbaned cleric who commands Sadr's operation in Karbala.
Sheikh Mahamadawi says each fighter would have to be vouched for by fellow fighters in good standing and would have to undergo a series of physical and character tests. "He must have high morals, strong faith, and above all, be obedient."
Sadr is also said to have created a special force called the "golden one" to cleanse the ranks of the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi in Arabic, from unwanted members, according to militia and police sources.
One Mahdi Army fighter, who did not wish to be named, says safe houses have been rented in Najaf for senior militiamen from neighboring Diwaniyah, where a joint Iraqi-US crackdown on the militia has been under way for months.
He says militiamen are spending their time carrying out good deeds like giving blood and sweeping streets to endear themselves again to the masses. The name of the Mahdi Army has, in many areas, become associated with killings, kidnappings, and extortion.
During the freeze, he says, he continues to be in contact with members of his unit but has returned to his day job as a hotel receptionist in Najaf, where he awaits instructions from his commanders. "There is just bound to be another war as long as the occupation remains. Our main enemy is America."
The Mahdi Army's next phase
In recent weeks, Sadrists – many dressed in black and donning white cloaks to symbolize martyrdom – have marched in Baghdad and the south. The largest rally took place in Najaf on Nov. 15, when tens of thousands of militiamen were bused in from all over Iraq to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the killing of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, their spiritual leader and Sadr's father.
They paraded through Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery, which was the scene of some of the worst fighting between the militia and the US in 2004. Celebrants flashed victory signs and shouted anti-American slogans. Those attending received a CD showing footage of purported roadside bombings planted by the militia against US forces and militiamen in training.
Mothers of Mahdi Army fighters killed since 2004 wept in a special section of the cemetery reserved for them. Like the Hizbullah cemeteries in Lebanon, hundreds of tombstones were festooned with artificial flowers and billboards praising the heroics of the so-called martyrs.
As for Sadr's intent, his spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, says: "We have new visions for what the Mahdi Army will do in the next phase."
Mr. Obeidi explains that most Shiite parties have embraced the political process wholeheartedly and accept the presence of US forces, while the Sadrists, who continue to oppose it, need to keep their Army as a "national resistance force."