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.
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."
In his latest statement last week, Sadr said: "I tell the evil Bush, leave our land, we do not need you or your armies.… I tell the occupiers … you have your democracy and we have our Islam; get out of our land."
And using language that could have been torn right out of the fiery speeches of Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he urged the Mahdi Army to continue to abide by his freeze order for now.
The cleric warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against extending the mandate of US-led multinational forces. He blasted Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party and its allies, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr Organization, for targeting Sadrists. And he chided Iraqi security forces, many of them beholden to ISCI and Badr, for taking part in those anti-Sadrist operations.
The early history of Hizbullah, too, involved bloody internal fighting with a rival Shiite group and training by Iran before it became a skilled guerrilla group.
"Iran is definitely interested in having its own proxy political and military force in Iraq, just like Lebanon. Iran may try to wait a bit now to see who will emerge as the more dominant force," says Riad al-Kahwaji, a Dubai-based military expert on Iran. "All the indications so far are that [Iran] has invested a great deal in the Mahdi Army."
But, he adds, "it has been a bumpy start. The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah."
Shiite rivals do battle
The Mahdi Army freeze grew out of fierce battles in late August between ISCI and its affiliate, Badr, both headed by Sadr's archnemesis Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, in Karbala. In two days of fighting, more than 50 people were killed at the city's shrines during an important pilgrimage. The outside wall of the revered Imam Hussein mausoleum still bears the scars of the fighting.
Video footage of the clashes provided by Sadr's aides in Karbala shows black-clad men loyal to the cleric taunting guards, who are largely made up of Badr partisans, and then hurling shoes at them for refusing them entry into the shrine. Later, these guards are seen firing directly at throngs of pilgrims.
Mr. Maliki himself came down to Karbala at the time and gave police chief Brig. Gen. Raed Shaker, carte blanche to go after the Mahdi Army.
About 500 people were arrested at the time, including several provincial council members loyal to Sadr. General Shaker also declared publicly that the Mahdi Army was responsible for the assassination of at least 400 people in Karbala since 2004. "These are only the bodies that we found," he said in an interview. "This is all documented. I am not doing this for any political agenda."
Umm Bassem says the Mahdi Army killed her son Bassem Hassoun, an Iraqi Army officer. She says they crippled her second son, Haidar.
"It's the fault of Sayyed [honorific] Moqtada; he encouraged them and armed them," says a tearful Umm Bassem, a nickname that means "mother of Bassem," as she clutches a portrait of her late son.
Mahamadawi, Sadr's aide in Karbala, says there may have been bad apples in the ranks of the Mahdi Army.
"We are not saying they are all angels, they are humans that can make mistakes; we have punished some and kicked out others," he says, adding that there is an intent by the government to sully the image of the Mahdi Army and finish it off. He also accuses the Karbala police of committing unspeakable crimes against the Sadrists including the killing of two children of a wanted militiaman in October and the torture of prisoners.
The assault on Sadr supporters
Anger against the police force, mixed with vows of revenge, reigns among the Daoum tribe in their village fiefdom on the outskirts of Karbala. Sixty-five of their members were among those arrested in the aftermath of the August events.
Muhammad Miri, who has been released since, lifts up his shirt to show scars on his back from what he says are from torture with wire cables. He says at least 22 prisoners were also sexually abused by police interrogators.
A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says his claims are true. Widely circulated video footage also shows Hamid Ganoush, a Sadrist provincial council member, blindfolded and on his knees as he is being hit on the head with a shoe by interrogators who press him on the whereabouts of Ali Shria, a Karbala Mahdi Army leader, believed to be in Iran now.
The risk now is that these ever-deepening intra-Shiite feuds may also take on a tribal aspect.
A Baghdad-based US Department of Defense intelligence analyst, who tracks the Mahdi Army and who spoke on condition of anonymity, says intra-Shiite feuds in Iraq have always managed to sort themselves out, adding that he believes Sadr will maintain his freeze despite the rhetoric, as his paramount concern is political survival.
"It's working well. It's serving Sadr's interest well because it's solidifying his position as the clear leader … and satisfying our desires to eliminate rogue criminal elements," he says. "I am not seeing any evidence that there is [a danger] that this is going to unravel."
Echoing recent remarks by top US military officials, he says that while there has been a decrease in roadside bombs – using Iranian armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) – against US troops, the militia's rogue elements still operate.
He blames recent bombings in Baghdad and mortar attacks on the Green Zone on Thanksgiving Day on these rogue elements. He also says a "massive" cache of Iranian-made arms was found in Diwaniyah recently, and on Dec. 1 a dealer of Iranian weapons was arrested in the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
"The guy was a major mover of lethal aid in his area," he says.
Some of these so-called rogue groups have also been blamed for the kidnapping of five Britons in May from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad. A group calling itself the "The Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq" released video footage of one of the hostages on Dec. 4 accompanied with a written statement demanding British troops leave Basra within 10 days.
Britain has pulled out from inside the city in September and now has only 4,500 soldiers left at an air base outside the city. The pullout of the bulk of this force is expected soon, leaving the Mahdi Army as the strongest armed group among its rivals in Basra.
Top US officials in Iraq have made no secret of their concern over Iranian plans to turn the Mahdi Army into another Hizbullah-like organization, pointing to their capture of a Hizbullah operative in March in Basra.
"His sole purpose in life was to come to Iraq to try to make JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi] a mirror image of Hizbullah," the Defense analyst says.
A senior official in Sadr's rival party, the ISCI, which is very close to the Iranian government, says Mr. Hakim received assurances from Iran at the highest level that they would rein in the hard-line factions within the Islamic Republic who might be supporting Sadr's militia.
"The events in Karbala embarrassed the Iranians," says the official, who requested anonymity, referring to the sanctity of the shrines to Shiite Iran. "There is a nationalist current in Iran, though, that does not want to see stability in Iraq ... this keeps us worried."
The Sadrists have long distanced themselves from Iran publicly and sought to portray themselves more as Arab nationalists.
Sadr's spokesman Obeidi says while the movement admires Iranian-backed Hizbullah, the Mahdi Army is different.
He says the US military and the Mahdi Army's Shiite rivals are trying hard to force the dismantling of Sadr's militia forming tribal councils across the Shiite south, much like the Americans did in Sunni parts of the country to combat Al Qaeda.
But, the spokesman says, this strategy isn't going to work in the south, where many of the tribesmen's sons are Mahdi fighters.