What Direction for the al-Mahdi Army after the Basra Offensive?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 13

As Moqtada al-Sadr orders his Mahdi Army militia to lay down their arms in return for an exchange of prisoners and cessation of government raids against his followers, the six-day Iraqi-U.S. military offensive in Basra has reached its final stage (Al-Arabiyah, March 30). For the most part, the violence sparked by military operations against the Mahdi Army in the oil-rich city of Basra marked the most potent armed offensive to rid southern Iraq of Moqtada’s influence since 2004. The operations appear to have forced the Mahdi Army to relinquish control over territories in Baghdad, Kut and, most importantly, Basra, where a number of Shiite militias compete for domination over the oil industry.

In military terms, the offensive has been decisive and consistent, with raids ranging from Basra to the impoverished Sadr City where Moqtada maintains a popular base (Aftab, March 28). Even in the face of harsh reaction from the political wing of the movement in the Iraqi parliament, which publicly denounced the Nuri al-Maliki government for its aggressive policy in the south (Al-Arabiya TV, March 26) and a call from Moqtada for Arabs to rally behind his militia (Al-Jazeera TV, March 28), the Iraqi forces continued to crack down on the Mahdi Army by means of various urban-combat operations, aimed at driving the militia out of key Shiite regions in the south. Moqtada’s movement appears to have suffered a major military defeat, similar to what happened in 2004 when his followers unsuccessfully clashed with U.S. forces and lost many men.

But this time things are different. The six-day-old operation has failed to achieve two of its main objectives: weaken the Mahdi Army and undermine Moqtada’s political influence in regions where the Maliki government seeks to gain control with the support of the U.S. armed forces. In fact, what the six-day offensive may demonstrate is the bolstering of Moqtada’s status as a nationalist figure and the successful establishment of a grass-roots social movement, which most political factions in Baghdad lack at this crucial stage in Iraqi political history.

The purpose of the recent military operation has been described by some as an attempt to bolster state centralization and help the Maliki government expand its authority against the militias in light of the forthcoming provincial elections in October. In reality, however, the causes behind the Basra fighting have less to do with state centralization than intra-Shiite party factionalism directed at the Mahdi Army’s territorial dominance in the south. The Maliki government, with the help of the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and its Badr Corps militia, has engaged in a systematic attempt to marginalize the Sadrists in the absence of Moqtada, who is currently keeping a distance from politics while he pursues his theological studies (see Terrorism Focus, March 25). In doing so, Maliki has sought to reassert the influence of his Dawa faction—which has no militia—with the support of an unlikely ally, the SIIC, whose Badr Corps is the most formidable armed rival of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad and other regions in the south.

The other main cause of the Basra fighting is the U.S.-Iraqi military “surge.” As the U.S. military presence in Baghdad increased, seriously jeopardizing the expansion of the Mahdi Army’s territorial control in the capital, the Sadrists began to expand southward into cities beyond the reach of U.S. forces. Basra provided an ideal place for the reorganization of the Mahdi Army, free from U.S. intervention. The British withdrawal in fall 2007, coupled with the Badr Corps’ failure to secure popular support in the city, allowed the Mahdi Army to expand its territorial control in Basra with the help of the police force, which some Sadrist militants have been infiltrating since 2004.

While the redeployment of the Mahdi Army from Baghdad and the Karbala-Najaf regions to the southern provinces provided an opportunity for the Mahdi Army to recuperate from internal divisions, the Maliki government has simultaneously sought to undermine the Sadrists. The move south was prompted by heightened tensions between the Sadrists and Maliki after Moqtada’s followers in Parliament withdrew their support for the Shiite prime minister in April 2007 to challenge Maliki’s support for the U.S. surge. As Maliki grew closer to the SIIC, the Sadrists began to perceive him as another agent of the occupation, whose objective as a formerly-exiled politician would be to secure his personal rather than national interests. The tensions only increased when Maliki described the Sadrists as thuggish remains of the Baathist regime in July 2007.

Amidst the factional conflict, Iran’s strategy has remained clear—to remain out of the fighting so all Shiite factions can seek the support of Tehran for their particular political interests. By staying out of the conflict, Iran also plays the role of a big brother whose absence offers consent to the Maliki government to weed out the splinter groups of the Mahdi Army while keeping Moqtada and his militia close to Tehran as a potential ally in case of a U.S. attack on Iran. Tehran’s objective is to see the Sadrist movement weakened through military operations, but help keep it strong enough to potentially serve as an asset for Iranian interests in Iraq.

The problem with the Basra offensive is that it only adds complexity to the already fragmented state of Iraqi politics. First off, the military operation can intensify intra-Shiite conflicts, exacerbating the factionalism that has dominated Iraqi politics since the December 2005 elections. While the United States openly backs other Shiite militias like the Badr Corps and helps organize and arm Shiite tribal forces in the Awakening (sahwa) movement, the Sadrists will only be motivated to reinforce their military operations against perceived American threats. Since most of the Shiite militias are class-based military organizations, the SIIC-Maliki-backed military attacks on a Mahdi Army supported by the urban poor will only bolster class tensions in a country that is already fragmented by tribal divisions (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 28). The irony here is the way in which the expansion of factionalism and militia politics is occurring under the very surge strategy aimed at suppressing militia power in order to jump-start the political process, a key to achieving security in Iraq. Oddly, the renewed political process has only added to a conflict-ridden political situation that has poured fuel on the flames of militia rage in the southern regions.

Secondly, the Basra fighting may in fact enhance the military prestige of the Mahdi Army among the urban poor and certain tribal regions. As a nationalist, Moqtada can strategically use the Basra affair to bolster his leadership credentials and emerge stronger than before as an anti-occupation leader whose appeal may transcend beyond the Shiite community. But the most problematic feature of this military operation is how the recent events have in fact reduced the opportunity for the Sadrists to become a fully legitimate political movement with non-violent operational activities. The most problematic aspect of the recent fighting is the possible reversal of the five-year process that saw the gradual incorporation of Moqtada and his followers into mainstream Iraqi politics.

The Maliki government may jeopardize its authority by comparing the Sadrists to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda as a justification for its military attacks (al-Hayat, March 28). Insurgent groups like al-Qaeda lack the grass-roots support and the political will to engage with the Iraqi government. The Sadrists, however, are a genuine political organization, though with a sizable militia force. It is through political negotiation that the movement’s military wing can be tamed and possibly eliminated in the due course of time. A military effort without a political purpose will only strengthen the movement as an anti-occupation and anti-establishment force. In fact, any attempt to marginalize the Sadrists will only lead to greater competition between the Shiite groups. As recent events demonstrate, the Basra fighting marks a political awakening that can only lead to increased factionalism and uncertainty for a state still in the making.