Will Sadr’s Islamist Army Return to Iraq?

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On April 9 2011, eight years after American forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, followers of the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr held a demonstration in Baghdad to commemorate the end of the Baathist government and to demand an end to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Some protestors waved placards bearing slogans such as “Occupiers Out!” and “No America!” as they burned American and Israeli flags.

To the sound of wild cheers from the crowds, Salah al-Ubaidi, a spokesperson for the Sadrist movement, read a speech from the influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, affirming that any extension of the U.S. “occupation” beyond the end of 2011 will lead to an “escalation of military resistance work and the withdrawal of the order freezing the Mahdi Army.” However, the presence of U.S. forces beyond the official 31 December 2011 deadline is a real possibility in light of the belief echoed amongst Iraqi military officials that the country’s security forces will continue to need American assistance in training.

The day following the protest, a Sadrist leader claimed that a special military wing of the Mahdi Army, known as the “Promised Day Brigade,” was still undertaking operations to resist the presence of the U.S. military by “carrying out daily and qualitative strikes at [American] headquarters and the airplanes in different regions of Iraq.” He added that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was part of the occupation of Iraq, and that the Iraqi government should break off diplomatic ties with Washington.

Playing on anti-occupation sentiments has been an essential part of the Sadrist strategy since the invasion in 2003, and it has not been an unsuccessful tactic. For example, the International Crisis Group points out that the gargantuan U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad “is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country.” Indeed, extending over 104 acres (42 hectares), the embassy is ten times larger than the second biggest embassy complex (the U.S. mission in Beijing) and is only slightly smaller than Vatican City. However, some Iraqi politicians, such as Jalal Talabani and Hoshyar Zebari, have welcomed the embassy as a symbol of raw assertion of American power.

Following the march in Baghdad, reports emerged of militia activity. The National featured a story on Sadrist graffiti appearing in the Iraqi capital and the southern provinces, heralding the return of the Mahdi Army. In an interview, a former commander of the Shi’ite militia group said that Sadrist militiamen were preparing to fight the Americans by gathering firearms. It is yet to be seen if these reports can be verified.

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