The Mahdi Army, the Shia militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, has recently undergone a significant transformation. On August 28, al-Sadr suspended the armed operations of the Mahdi Army (al-Jazeera, August 28). Al-Sadr’s latest statement on the Mahdi militia follows a similar call in early August when he announced new plans to reorganize the Mahdi Army into “a cultural and religious force,” charged with the responsibility of leading an intellectual jihad (IRNA, August 8). As outlined in that statement, such changes primarily involve the centralization of the command structure into a small, tight unit of loyalists, coupled with vigorous religious training for the militiamen. The new militia is called the “Mumahidun” (“those who pave the path”). The name was coined in reference to the devout followers of the Hidden Imam, who prepare the way for the Mahdi’s return, believed by Shias to culminate in the establishment of divine justice on earth.
Origin of the Reforms
The origin of the plan to remold the Mahdi militia into a cultural body dates back to August 2007, when clashes between the Badr Organization, representing the rival Shia Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Mahdi Army led to the death of several Shia pilgrims in Karbala. With the intervention of Najaf and Tehran, al-Sadr agreed to a truce and issued a decree to freeze the activities of the Mahdi Army, a ruling that was renewed in February 2008 to assure his Shia critics that he is sincere in bringing the unruly militia under his control. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s spring 2008 military offensive to drive the Mahdi Army from the city of Basra, and later from Sadr City, ended in a ceasefire agreement on May 10 (al-Awsat al-Iraq, May 11). Yet despite the truce, the Iraqi security offensive expanded into other cities like Amara and Diwanya as supporters of al-Sadr followed their leader’s call for restraint, showing no sign of major resistance (al-Jazeera, June 16; July 21).
Although there have been previous plans to reorganize the militia, al-Sadr’s latest repackaging of the Mahdi Army into a “cultural organization” is an indication of a major internal transformation (Aftab News [Iran], June 13). First, the change of the militia’s name from “Jaysh al-Mahdi” to “Mumahidun” reveals how the Sadrist movement is changing on the ideological level. Unlike its earlier form, the new militants are no longer the immediate, charismatic soldiers of the Hidden Imam, but a regular unit of organized fighters who merely anticipate the return of their savior. For the most part, al-Sadr seems no longer to consider his movement as the immediate embodiment of the Mahdi manifested in a perceived and present sacred time, but rather a mere prelude to what can be realized in a distant messianic future. The symbolic distinction between immediacy and anticipation is crucial here, since it brings to light how al-Sadr is slowly detaching himself and his movement from the earlier apocalyptic traits seen in the post-war period and moving toward a more standardized, institutionalized Shia-based millenarian position.
Structure and Strategy of the Mumahidun
In an organizational sense, the new Mumahidun militia signals a transition from a paramilitary unit, with a political and social presence on the street level, to a private “special force,” with specific military operational tasks. While the former Mahdi Army represented a united citizen militia of grass-roots background, the new elite force is divided into two operational factions: one elite unit of combatants and another unit to provide public service to the community (al-Jazeera, August 8). The latter force, designed for cultural activities, is yet to be formed (Etemad, August 13). As a former Mahdi Army militant explains, “the new army will be only loyal to Muqtada. You will not see any dissent in this new group” (Author’s Interview, Qom, August 10). Such renewed confidence underlines a self-promotional strategy designed to create a restored military unit operating on par with the Hizbullah of Lebanon (Etemad, August 13). But it also shows how in recent months al-Sadr has seriously sought to extricate himself from unruly elements within his movement.
The causes behind this organizational strategy are several, but one major factor is the likely influence of the Iranian regime, particularly the Revolutionary Guard, in taming al-Sadr’s militia. The early spring detention of al-Sadr at a residential house in Qom by the Revolutionary Guard highlights a major rift between the Sadrists and the hard-line establishment in Tehran (Tabnak News, May 17). Although the purpose of the arrest remains unclear, there seems to be a steady attempt by the Iranian regime to diminish the influence of al-Sadr in Iraqi politics in a way that will strengthen the Maliki government. This was probably done to ensure that Baghdad would thwart any American attempt to use Iraq as launch pad for military attacks against Iran. Likewise, just two weeks prior to al-Sadr’s arrest, Iranian officials accepted a request from Iraqi parliamentarian delegates, led by Abdul Aziz Hakim, to exclude al-Sadr from participation in a joint Iran-Iraq meeting in Tehran to discuss the militia problem in Iraq (Tabnak News, May 4). The move signaled a shift in the Iranian strategy to give full support to the Maliki government, partly in order to show the Americans Tehran can play a major role in the stability of Iraq – a central issue in the ongoing nuclear talks.
The Growing Influence of Najaf
It is important to note that al-Sadr’s recent restructuring of his militia is also linked to the growing influence of Najaf in Iraqi Shia politics. As the power of the Maliki government expanded after the Basra offensive (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 16), so did the influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani over the Shia factions, which had considerably declined after the February 2006 Samarra bombing that led to the escalation of Sunni-Shia violence. Since the March Basra offensive, Sistani and his representatives have discreetly moved to play a more active role to support the Maliki government in order to limit the al-Sadrist influence in Baghdad and the southern regions. In one of his more explicit political statements in recent months, Sistani directly challenged Shia militant factions by urging the Maliki government to maintain a military monopoly and disarm the militias loyal to factions outside of the government (al-Arabiyah TV, May 22). Sistani’s staunch opposition to the U.S.-Iraq security deal is a reminder of how the Grand Ayatollah still continues to wield major influence in Iraqi politics, especially over Maliki who continues to seek Sistani’s counsel (and at times approval) in major legal and political issues (Hamshahrionline, August 28)
Since the 2007 Karbala tragedy, al-Sadr has become increasingly dependent on Najaf for protection against former followers who oppose his decision to become an established figure in the Najaf clerical establishment. The origin of this shift goes back to a major meeting between al-Sadr and Sistani, when the young cleric expressed fear of death threats from his own militia. Sistani is reported to have advised Sadr: “You have two options: bear the consequences, on you and the Shias in general, or withdraw into a corner” (Newsweek, March 12). Following Sistani’s advice to leave the country and seek a scholarly path, al-Sadr traveled to Iran, where he was reported to be staying at his cousin’s house in Qom (al-Arabiyah TV, February 19, 2007). This meeting highlighted the initial dependence of al-Sadr on Sistani’s religious authority. For now, Sistani appears to have successfully tamed al-Sadr, especially by helping him become an active member of the Najaf-Qom clerical establishment. This intriguing development underlines how al-Sadr is gradually moving toward the traditional Shia authority based in Najaf, especially in his opposition toward the security pact (Hamshahrionline, August 28).
Sistani and Iran
The recent developments in Sistani-Tehran relations may have played a role in al-Sadr’s change of strategy. Since 2006 Sistani and Shahrestani, his representative in Qom, have increasingly grown closer to Tehran, especially toward certain conservative factions within Iran’s political establishment. The main reason for making such an unlikely alliance is that Sistani’s financial center is based in Qom, where Tehran has considerable control over the activities of religious centers run by high-ranking clerics. Sistani is fully aware of what the Iranian regime is capable of doing to those competing religious marjas (high-ranking scholars) who oppose Tehran’s policies. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, for instance, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1904-1985), a senior Shia cleric, publicly opposed Ayatollah Khomeini, who saw in his radical movement a deviation from true Shi‘ism. In response, the regime immediately stripped Shariatmadari of his religious authority and placed him under house-arrest, a major affront to a clerical establishment that had never before seen a high-ranking jurist deposed by another cleric.
Although Sistani refused to give an audience to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his March visit to Iraq, he welcomed the Iranian Speaker of the House, Ali Larijani, to his office in Najaf (Mehr News Agency, April 1). The meeting was a significant political event, since it provided a direct link of communication between Sistani and the pragmatic conservatives led by Larijani, who have grown weary of the hard-liners’ support for the Mahdi Army in recent years. Sistani and Tehran continue to grow closer through various formal events and family ties, such as the recent marriage between Sistani’s grandaughter and the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini (Shahrvand, May 31).
The late July string of attacks in central Baghdad and Kirkuk and the deadly August 8 bombings in the northern town of Tal Afar are grim reminders of the still unstable situation in Iraq (IRNA, July 28; al-Jazeera, August 9). Despite the presence of U.S. troops and a stronger Iraqi security force, post-Baathist Iraq continues to face the possibility of renewed violence on both inter-sectarian and intra-sectarian levels. It remains unclear what role the Mumahidun militia will play in a renewed conflict. What remains certain is that al-Sadr will continue to lead his dedicated followers and seek to expand his movement in order to consolidate power within the Iraqi Shia community.
In opposition to the long-term security agreement with the United States, al-Sadr can use the nationalist opposition to enhance his popularity and hence his legitimacy as a political leader, demonstrated by the fact that he demanded the Iraqi government reject the security agreement with Washington and stage demonstrations across Iraqi cities (Aswat al-Iraq, August 1; August 22). While retaining fierce support among impoverished Shias in southern regions and Baghdad, al-Sadr may use the U.S.-Iraq “Status of Forces” agreement to reignite his charismatic authority and reconstitute the Mahdi Army.
However, the most ominous implication in the transformation of the Mahdi Army lies in the proliferation of splinter groups that may appeal to the disgruntled followers of al-Sadr as an alternative Shia anti-occupation movement. Nevertheless, the point to observe here is how al-Sadr is seeking to shape himself into a political figure in light of the delays in the provincial elections and the latest frictions between centralist (led by Dawa and Sunni Arab nationalists) and federalist factions (Kurds and the ISCI) within the parliament. As tensions over the provincial election laws increase, Iraq may begin to see a new conflict between the Sadrists and the Kurdish peshmerga militia, who recently called the Mahdi Army an “outlaw” militia and challenged Iraqi forces over control of major governmental buildings in Kurdish territories (Azzaman [Baghdad], August 26). The main question is how al-Sadr’s followers will perceive the new Mumahidun Army and respond to the latest changes designed to shape the al-Sadr movement into a purely political force confined to the electoral process of Iraq’s fledging democratic order.