Will Sadr’s Islamist Army Return to Iraq?

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The Mahdi Army was officially disbanded in 2008 after Sadr announced a ceasefire the previous year. Since early 2010, however, speculation has arisen on the revival of the Mahdi Army. In February 2010, the head of intelligence stated that the militia had been reformed. Likewise, in May, the U.S. general in charge of the southern provinces affirmed that the Sadrists were engaging in acts of intimidation and extorting money. It is also probable that militant followers of Sadr attacked American bases with indirect fire and utilized IEDs against convoys in order to claim responsibility for the drawdown of U.S. forces in August.

There are several reasons to think that the Mahdi Army will make a full-blown comeback. Having done fairly well in the 2010 elections, the Sadrists were able to act as kingmakers and gain the release of hundreds of their followers in return for giving Nouri Al-Maliki the support he needed to secure a second term as prime minister. In addition, Sadrists have gained positions in local police forces, and many fighters have returned to the country from Iran after the government launched a crackdown on the Mahdi Army and other Shi’ite “Special Groups” (e.g. the Iraqi Hizbollah) in 2008. Sadr, thus, has both leaders and recruits to draw upon, should he wish to revive the Mahdi Army. The approaching withdrawal deadline provides a public justification and grievance to rally his followers.

Nonetheless, Sadr is torn by conflicting interests. Despite wishing to draw support from the street in maintaining a populist, anti-American image of protecting Iraq against foreign occupation, he desires political power as well, which translates to joining the regular political process. In an attempt to balance these interests in 2005, he urged his followers to participate in the elections and joined Maliki’s first administration, but eventually boycotted the government, and consequently, his militia splintered, culminating in an armed conflict with Maliki’s security forces in 2008.

Sadr must also face the problem of on-going demonstrations against the lack of basic services, such as electricity and health care, as many of his politicians are now in charge of the ministries responsible for providing those services. Furthermore, a revival of the Mahdi Army and the threatening wave of attacks in Iraq at a time when the country is concentrating on economic and political development, could well prove to be a disastrous miscalculation in similar vein to his mistakes in 2005. Sadr’s recent actions could be part of mere rhetoric, but just as likely, another error on his part.

Unfortunately in Iraq, such errors come at an enormous price.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student of Iraqi descent at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His work has appeared at American Thinker, Hudson New York and Harry’s Place.


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