The Mahdi Army: New Tactics for a New Stage
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 13
Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a statement describing a new strategy for attacking Coalition forces (alkufanews.com, June 13). The statement follows a year of intense military pressure against his Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia and a series of confusing and sometimes contradictory decisions. The hard-line cleric, who has not been seen in public for months, issued orders to reorganize his militia into a civilian branch and a small but select armed wing commissioned to fight Coalition forces. Only three months earlier al-Sadr had announced his retirement and admitted failure in his efforts at “liberating Iraq” (see Terrorism Monitor, May 1).
Muqtada’s statement was proclaimed in the mosques by his aides during the weekly prayer of his followers on Friday, June 13 (almanar.com, June 13). A written copy—signed the previous day—was published on a pro-Sadr web site: “Everyone knows that we will not abandon the resistance against the occupiers until liberation or death, but you individuals in Jaysh al-Mahdi should know, and this is an obligation on you, that the resistance will be restricted to a group which will be authorized by a written statement by me soon. Those will be people with experience, management, awareness and sacrifice. They would have a prior permission—firstly from the religious ruler through their appointed command and secondly from the supreme command—through secret and private structures. Hereby weapons will be only for them and they will direct the weapons to the occupiers only, every other usage of weapons will be prohibited. The other part of Jaysh al-Mahdi with its thousands and millions will struggle against western secular ideology and emancipate the heart and minds from domination and globalization. They will be under a cultural, religious and social title and will be prohibited from carrying and using weapons…” (alkufanews.com, June 13).
Since the foundation of the militia shortly after the invasion in 2003, the fighters of JAM have not hesitated to fight in large formations and initiate confrontations in their strongholds. They were involved in severe clashes with the U.S. military in major uprisings inside the poor Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and southern Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The fighting against Iraqi forces in Basra last March provided a clear example of JAM tactics. JAM also has the ability to recruit thousands when necessary and sometimes shows them in military parades. Until the government intensified its crackdown against JAM starting in late 2007, Iraqi Sunnis were complaining of JAM’s coordination with Iraqi security forces to commit acts of sectarian violence. As part of the al-Sadr movement, JAM was a popular organization rather than a secret one, with regional offices in every Shiite neighborhood. These features are about to change in Muqtada’s reorganization.
The announcement of the new strategy came after JAM suffered successive setbacks in the continuing crackdown by the Iraqi government, but al-Sadr had also launched a protest movement against the security pact now under negotiation between the American administration and the Iraqi government. Al-Sadr called his followers to rally against the agreement, which aims to legalize and organize the American military existence in Iraq after its UN mandate ends in 2008. Al-Sadr called on Iraqis to “protest against the deal every week after the Friday prayer until the agreement is called off.” He announced in a statement that the protests will continue until the government agrees to hold a public referendum on the American military existence in Iraq. In response to his call, thousands of al-Sadr’s followers marched in Baghdad, Basra and other parts of southern Iraq protesting the long-term security agreement. American flags and an effigy of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were burned (al-Jazeera, May 31).
New Tactics for a New Stage
Dr. Asma’a al-Mossawi, a senior member of al-Sadr’s political movement, explained the link between the new tactics and the U.S.-Iraqi security pact. In an interview one day after al-Sadr announced the new plan she said:
“It is not a reaction—Muqtada’s new order—but a new strategy to deal with the current situation in Iraq considering the pressures that will lead to the signing of the security agreement with the American forces without the approval of the Iraqi people… We believe that in the coming period of time there will be new moves against the American forces. During the last five years there were painful operations against them while they were among the Iraqi people. [In] the next period the American forces will be in their bases—this requires preparing a trained force from al-Mahdi Army, a force that should be experienced and works secretly guided by intelligence information to execute tasks quickly and return.”
Dr. Mossawi did not rule out coordination between other insurgent groups and the new JAM military wing which will be chosen and led by Muqtada (Asharq al-Awsat, June 14).
A Way around the Ban
In a sign that they insist on having their own militia, the followers of al-Sadr announced that they would not participate in the regional election that is supposed to be held later this year, but they would support other candidates: “We will not contest [the election] as an independent party but we will coordinate with other parties that serve the same national goals… it will be impossible to bar us from the election, we have plenty of options on how to participate.” The Sadrists have been negotiating lately with former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, who was expelled from the Dawa Party of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki after forming his own National Reform Movement. The Sadrists went further and said that they might even support their old opponent, former secular Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the upcoming poll (al-Hayat, June 16). Last April Nuri al-Maliki offered the Sadrists the choice of disbanding their militia or being denied participation in the election and political life (see Terrorism Monitor, May 1).
The Beginning of the Campaign
It seems that the propaganda campaign of al-Sadr has started in the province of Babil, south of Baghdad, where leaflets are distributed daily urging people to store weapons and fight the U.S. army. The local police believe that in addition to JAM other insurgent groups are involved. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and the extremist Shiite cult of the “Soldiers of Heaven” are among the suspect groups (see Terrorism Monitor, February 22). The leaflets carry slogans like: “The national resistance is the only choice for the Iraqi people to drive out the occupiers and their agents.” They also urge people to store ammunition, follow what is published on the internet about “the armed Iraqi revolution” and get ready for the zero-hour (al-Hayat, June 23).
Babil province is one of the areas where the Iraqi forces have not yet launched any major operation against the JAM. Shiites are the majority there, except in the northern part adjacent to Baghdad where there is a concentration of Sunnis. The Sadr movement has grown further from the governing Shiite coalition and looks more open to coordinate with non-sectarian parties. Many former members of the pro-Saddam Fidayeen militia are believed to have infiltrated JAM after the fall of Saddam, providing the possibility of coordination against the common enemy, the Iraqi government.
Iran and many Iraqi Shiites, especially Ayatollah Kadhum al-Ha’iri—an influential pro-Iran cleric and patron of al-Sadr—have condemned the prospective security deal between Washington and Baghdad (iraqshabab.net, May 21; see also Terrorism Focus, June 18). Al-Sadr and his followers will most likely concentrate their efforts against any kind of U.S.-Iraq agreement; after a year of setbacks they will try to gain a new momentum based on the legitimacy of the support of senior Shiite clerics. In this way and by claiming to restrict their attacks on the Coalition forces only they will try to gain national support. To succeed, the long-term security deal must be handled by both the American and Iraqi governments carefully and not overshadow the recent security progress in Iraq. With the Kurds supporting the agreement and the Sunnis saying it is necessary, the big mission is to convince the Shiite majority. Unlike Iranian religious leaders, influential Iraqi Shiite clerics like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have not put a veto on the deal in principle. After meeting al-Sistani, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), said that the Grand Ayatollah indicated that the agreement should consider four points:
1. Recognition of the national sovereignty of Iraq
3. The formation of a national consensus
4. Ratification by the Iraqi parliament (Elaph.com, June 4).
Sistani’s blessing for any major political deal has become a must in post-war Iraq, let alone a situation like the current one where Iran and many leading Shiite clerics are openly against the agreement. Sistani’s position appears to be negotiable, but the parties involved will need to work to gain his approval. On the other hand, August 22 will mark the renewal date for al-Sadr’s six-month suspension of JAM’s military activities. This might provide a suitable benchmark for al-Sadr and his reorganized JAM to launch a new page of the insurgency.