Will Sadr’s Islamist Army Return to Iraq?

Followers of the radial anti-American cleric flex their muscles.

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.

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.