In recent months, Moqtada al-Sadr's forces have fiercely battled Iraqi and US troops in Basra and Sadr City. But this time, in the southern Iraqi city of Amara, the Shiite cleric ordered a tactical retreat.
A major Iraqi-US mission to clear Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army out of one of its last supposed sanctuaries began here late last week but was met with no resistance.
Sadr – and his most trusted lieutenants, who visited Amara last week – called for restraint. He announced that an elite faction of his militia will still fight US troops while the rest would dedicate themselves to the betterment of society through peaceful means.
"This will preserve the [Mahdi] Army's pristine reputation and ensure that the resistance continues," said Sadr in a statement before the beginning of the operation, in effect altering the terms of an earlier freeze on the activities of his militia.
Sadr appears to be resorting to a strategy that has served him well in the past and kept everyone guessing about his true motives, say analysts.
"He's playing the survival game," says Mustafa al-Ani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, a nonprofit think tank. "He understands there is no sympathy for the undisciplined members of his group."
These maneuvers have been seen before in previous battles with US troops and when Sadr's movement was bogged down in sectarian warfare and intra-Shiite struggles or itself besieged by infiltration and divisions. It involves backing off and regrouping to preserve his resources and most important asset: support of the Shiite masses. But Sadr appears to be going back to basics to recapture the essence of a movement that relies on the poor, dispossessed, and oppressed in the south and in the slums of Baghdad and those who are resolutely against the US presence in Iraq.
"They may control the provincial governments but for sure they will never win over the hearts of the people, which are with us," says Sheikh Adnan al-Silawi, Sadr's top representative in Amara, referring to the movement's archrival the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and its affiliate, the Badr Organization. "They say they were shocked when we fought in Basra; now they will be shocked by our peaceful reception in Amara. Ultimately they will be the losers."
The Mahdi Army faithful
On Friday in Amara, hundreds of men, including some Mahdi Army fighters, braved the stifling heat and laid their prayer mats on the sunbaked asphalt outside a mosque to listen to Sheikh Silawi's instructions and a sermon by one of his aides. Some kept towels over their heads to protect them from the sun.
"I do not want to hear about anyone responding to a transgression [by Iraqi forces].… This is how your true essence shines through and whoever retaliates is not one of us," Silawi told the rapt audience.
Silawi echoes what the majority of Sadrists view as an onslaught by SIIC and Badr, who are the force in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition, that has accompanied the US surge in troops at the start of 2007 to diminish or even finish off Sadr's movement ahead of crucial provincial elections tentatively scheduled for October.
"They say that they have come to cleanse Amara of its bad elements … but ultimately the Iraqi government follows whatever America and [President] Bush orders," asserts one of Sadr's followers attending the prayers held in the neighborhood of Hay al-Hussein, who gave his name as Abu Zahra al-Mussawi.
Indeed, many in this southern city see the new campaign as being orchestrated by the US in the name of supporting Mr. Maliki's government and Iraqi forces. There are indications already that SIIC and Badr are seeking to replicate in Maysan Province and its seat, Amara, what they have accomplished in other southern provinces, which is to purge local security forces of all Sadrist influence.
In Baghdad's Sadr City, where the US Army had to lead the fight against the militia, US soldiers are hunkered down in the southern quarter after a mid-May cease-fire, trying to chip away at Sadr's sway through civil affairs and projects.
Everything indicates that Sadr's decision not to fight in Amara was preplanned and tactical.
Mr. Ani of the Gulf Research Center says he believes it is not Sadr's full strategy to fight the occupation but it does gain him much sympathy in Iraq and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, especially in Iran.
The movement vacated its main offices in the city, formerly the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, before the start of the operation. Members of the national police now guard the empty building. A sign bearing the name of Sadr's movement is spray-painted white.
The movement also purged its ranks and distanced itself from individuals who have committed crimes or were involved in extortion and burglary rackets in the name of the Mahdi Army, according to Silawi.
Some of the worst culprits, according to one resident, were members of a splinter group calling themselves the "People of the Cause" that believes that Sadr himself is the incarnation of the long vanished Imam Mahdi – the messiahlike figure of Shiite faith.
Hamid al-Khazaali, the Mahdi Army chief in Maysan, along with most of the senior fighters in the province, has long gone underground. There is talk that they are sheltering in neighboring Iran, which shares a relatively porous border with Maysan, which has been the refuge of rebels throughout history. The US military has continuously accused Tehran of supporting the so-called "Special Groups" (SGs) of the militia.
Until late April, Mr. Khazaali was involved in several rounds of negotiations with tribal leaders and officials from other parties including rival Badr aimed at convincing him to meet Maliki's demands that he hand over his weapons and a number of wanted militiamen, according to several people who took part in these talks.
Sheikh Ali al-Fartousi, a local tribal leader who was among those attending the meetings, said that the main sticking point was Khazaali's refusal to hand over many on the list because in his view they were legitimate fighters who resisted US-led coalition forces.
"He was very polite and nice but kept saying, 'We have the right to resist the occupation,' " says Sheikh Fartousi.
Driving out the outlaws
Abu Muntazar al-Bakhati, the head of Badr in Maysan, denies that his group is aiming to oust the Sadrists from the province and describes the problem as being that of outlaws who have flourished because of a weak local police and government – both happen to be dominated by the Sadrists.
Mr. Bakhati says the entire police force, estimated at 13,000 to 16,000, has to be replaced. Already a new chief has been appointed while 20 policemen have been arrested along with Amara's mayor and the governor's private secretary.
A giant billboard of Sadr next to Badr's main offices in the Hateen intersection has been dismantled.
Fartousi, who supports SIIC and its head, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, says a new pro-government tribal council will be formed in Maysan and that he and other tribal elders have agreed to provide lists of recruits they would personally vouch for to join the restructured and expanded local security forces.
But despite the absence of any reaction from the Mahdi Army in Amara, Maliki's government is flexing its muscles while hoping it will not be faced with a repeat of the Basra experience when hundreds of its soldiers deserted the fight and the battles ended in an Iranian-brokered truce with Sadr.
It has sent a force of several thousand national policemen and soldiers to Amara. The US military has also dispatched an undisclosed contingent of ground troops and special forces and is providing air cover for the operation, according to Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf of the Ministry of Interior, who has also come to Amara.
US fighter jets have been roaring through the skies of Amara, and Humvees and armored trucks can be seen occasionally on city streets, but most American soldiers are stationed at a military airbase on the outskirts.
General Khalaf says the focus is on seizing weapon and ammunition caches and apprehending the hundreds of militants on a government wanted list topped by Khazaali, the Mahdi Army commander.
Most Amara residents have mixed feelings about the operation, with many fearing an inevitable backlash by the Sadrists.
"The situation was bad and required the intervention of the central government," says Rahim Hussein Musa, assistant dean of the local law school. "But I fear more intra-Shiite fighting down the road because the Sadrists feel they are being targeted and finished off."
Muhammad Saadoun, a young man working at a cellular-phone shop, sums up the power of Sadr's appeal all over the impoverished south: "He's one of us. He's Iraqi, not Iranian. He has lived with us, eaten our food, and shared our misery."
Parties like SIIC and Badr continue to be dogged with the stigma associated with having been based in Iran during Mr. Hussein's rule and the public perception especially in the south of having "returned to Iraq on the back of US tanks."