Al-Sadr’s Weakening Grip on the Mahdi Army

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 39

Moqtada al-Sadr

In recent weeks, Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army continues to be blamed for the sectarian killings that are plaguing Iraq. Al-Sadr, however, has repeatedly called on his followers to show restraint and not be provoked into violence. Yet the killings continue, and this has led al-Sadr and other Iraqi Shiite politicians to claim that they are carried out by “rogue” elements of the Mahdi Army who are not under al-Sadr’s command. Rumors that the Mahdi Army is splintering are circulating, leaving some wondering what this means for the demobilization of the Mahdi Army and the future of sectarian conflict in Iraq.

While Moqtada al-Sadr has moderated his aggressiveness somewhat by virtue of his participation in parliament, many of his followers have not. According to coalition officials, sections of the Mahdi Army have splintered off and have formed freelance gangs that are engaged in sectarian revenge killings and criminal activity to finance their operations. Coalition officials have also hinted that these breakaway elements are receiving sponsorship and funding from Iran.

It has been especially difficult for al-Sadr to control his followers in Basra. Basra, a majority Shiite province, is flooded with various Shiite political parties with changing loyalties and compositions. Al-Sadr does not hold exclusive sway over Basra’s Shiites. He has struggled to find proper leadership for his party in Basra, and he has even temporarily shut down his office in the city; however, local leaders tended to ignore him and act on their own accord.

Diwaniya, another majority Shiite province, has also been difficult for al-Sadr to exert discipline over his followers. In mid-August, fighting erupted between the Mahdi Army in Diwaniya and the Iraqi military. Through al-Sadr, the Iraqi government engineered a truce and al-Sadr called on his fighters to cease attacks. He blamed the initial attacks on the “individual acts” of Mahdi Army members “not instructed by him” and had to personally go down and meet with Saheb al-Ameri, the head of the al-Sadr office in Diwaniya. Even after al-Sadr’s personal intervention, however, the Iraqi defense minister soon called the truce void when 13 Iraqi army personnel were executed by al-Sadr’s militia the following day (Azzaman, August 29). Al-Sadr’s Diwaniya office was brought under temporary control a few weeks later when they issued an announcement saying that they would halt fighting because of al-Sadr’s order. Al-Ameri denied that the sectarian killings were the Mahdi Army’s doing: “The Mahdi Army has nothing to do with these things. There are other groups who do such things and then point the finger at us” (Aswat al-Iraq, September 3).

This is not the first time that al-Sadr has desperately called on his followers to cease fighting. After the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, al-Sadr joined Shiite leaders in calling for an end to retaliatory killings. Yet, while the attacks have slowed, they still persist. In a recent interview on al-Iraqiya television, al-Sadr stressed his call for national unity and an end to violence—once again appealing to his followers to heed his call. “We must rebuild Iraq,” he advised. “Iraq is passing through a very difficult phase and we must overcome it [so that there will be security]. I ask all noble Iraqis to renounce all these things, like abduction and the expulsion of people.” Yet while he denied involvement in recent sectarian killings, he also said this regarding Mahdi Army members: “I advise them, they are not faultless, they may do wrong and they may do right, to be perfect and increase their services to the Iraqi people.”

One notorious rogue member of the Mahdi Army is a man known by his nom de guerre, Abu Dera, or “the Butcher.” He is thought to be responsible for the killings of Sunnis around Baghdad. It is believed that he operates out of Sadr City and many think that he is linked to the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr and his senior aides publicly disavow him, saying, “He is not Mahdi Army and he never was.” While he may not be a member of the Mahdi Army now, it is likely that he was once affiliated with the group in some way and broke off to form his own gang. Abu Dera uses the fact that he has a brother in a leadership role in al-Sadr’s organization to emphasize his connections to the Mahdi Army for prestige.

Abu Maha, another so-called rogue element of the Mahdi Army, freely admits to killing and kidnapping Sunni “terrorists” and detailed plans for a forthcoming attack in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood in Baghdad. Abu Maha stated that he received orders from the Mahdi Army’s Shula office (a neighborhood abutting Sadr City), which in turn reports to the Sadr City headquarters.

Abu Bakr, a high ranking officer in the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, says that he and another man named Abu Haider traveled to Najaf to receive orders directly from al-Sadr and relayed them to the regional headquarters. He confided that al-Sadr recently sent a list of names to Sadr City of members that should be removed for “abusing their power.” Although Sadr is trying to firm up his command, Abu Bakr also made clear that the killings of Sunnis would not stop and praised Abu Dera by saying, “He is the Mahdi Army’s first member. He kills many terrorists and we like him” (

It is still difficult to assess whether elements like Abu Dera are indeed rogue or if they do the Mahdi Army’s dirty work but are denied public affiliation with al-Sadr. Al-Sadr and his senior aides could be stating that rogue elements are to blame for sectarian killings in order to evade responsibility. According to one coalition intelligence official, “There are probably elements that are not rogue, but are deniable.”

On the other hand, al-Sadr is also a nationalist and has come out against regionalization plans put forward by other Shiite elements like SCIRI because he fears it will lead to the break-up of Iraq. As a nationalist, it is not in his interests to see Iraq fall apart because of sectarian strife. Another possible explanation is that his organization is going through internal purges of undesirable elements that no longer mesh with his moderated stance. While these elements were previously part of the Mahdi Army, al-Sadr may have recently decided that it is no longer in his interests that they remain.

In previous instances where coalition forces conducted operations against the Mahdi Army, they were met with fierce resistance and strong denunciations by al-Sadr. Lately, al-Sadr has been tightlipped about the latest arrests of Shiite elements that claim to be affiliated with the Mahdi Army. It is rumored that al-Sadr and his aides have even cooperated to some extent with coalition forces in their arrests because it is in his equal interests that they are removed. The coalition has been careful not to say that recent operations against the Mahdi Army were indeed against al-Sadr elements, but that they were aimed at stopping “criminal gangs” involved in killing (Gulf News, September 13).

It is also quite possible that analysts have exaggerated the extent of his jurisdiction over those he inspires. Perhaps much of what is happening is beyond or outside of al-Sadr’s control. It is also certainly true that there are Shiite free agents who may be inspired by the Mahdi Army but are not operationally linked to the group; these agents claim affiliation to enhance their prestige, much in the same way Sunni insurgents are inspired by al-Qaeda. For many Iraqis, Sunni Arabs in particular, the term Mahdi Army has become a generic term for Shiite death squads which adds to the confusion of trying to sort out operational linkages and lines of command.

Al-Sadr is still quite powerful and has become more so because of his political standing. He has, however, lost a degree of influence over some elements of the Mahdi Army who are frustrated with the pace of politics. This does not mean that the movement as a whole is splintering, but that some of his followers are emotionally and/or criminally motivated and engage in sectarian killings. Al-Sadr is looking to consolidate his rule and flush out those elements, and he may be looking to the very army who he once fought for assistance.