Just one day after major clashes between Iraqi Security Forces and the Mahdi Army during a Shia religious celebration in Najaf, Muqtada al Sadr has ordered the Mahdi Army to halt all attacks in Iraq, including attacks against Coalition forces. The fighting in Najaf resulted in 52 killed and over 300 wounded, according to reports, and have harmed Sadr politically while placing him in the crosshairs of US and Iraqi forces.
Sadr’s aides were out in force, calling for the Mahdi Army to lay down its arms. “We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months starting from the day this statement is issued,” said Sheik Hazim al-Araji, an aide of Sadr, while reading a statement from Sadr on Iraqi state television. The statement was backed up by Sadr’s spokesman. “It also includes suspending the taking up of arms against occupiers as well as others,” said Ahmed al-Shaibani, Sadr’s spokesman.
The major fighting in Najaf broke out on Tuesday, after police and Shia pilgrims clashed the previous day. “Gunmen believed [to be] from the Mahdi Army began firing on security forces and the Badr guards,” security officials told the Associate Press. A curfew was declared in Karbala, and the religious festival marking the anniversary of Imam Mahdi, the “12th Imam,” was canceled. Mahdi Army fighters are still said to be occupying the center of the city.
The police in the area are believed to be loyal to the Badr Brigades, the political opponents of the Sadrists. A Sadrist member of the Karbala city council denied the Mahdi Army was behind the attacks, and even blamed the attacks on “pro-Iranian groups among security forces that guard the Karbala shrines.” Shaibani, Sadr’s spokesman, also denied the Mahdi Army was involved in the Karbala fighting. The timing of Sadr’s call for a cessation of Mahdi Army activity calls these statements into question.
Muqtada al Sadr’s backdown from attacks exposes problems with his confrontational approach to both the Iraqi government and Coalition forces, as well as a weakening of his political position inside Iraq. Since Sadr fled to Iran in January, he has quickly lost operational control over elements of his Mahdi Army, which in reality is an amalgamation of criminal and ideological elements. And with this loss of control, Iran has begun to exercise more direct control over some Mahdi commanders — the Qazali brothers and the Sheibani Network, for instance — rather than control them by proxy Sadr. The elements of the Mahdi Army can be roughly described as follows.
The Mahdi Loyalists: These are the true followers and believers of Muqtada al Sadr. They receive support from Iran.
Iranian-back Mahdi Army: These groups are what Multinational Forces Iraq describes as the “rogue” Mahdi Army. As Sadr lost operational control, Iran’s Qods Force stepped in and took over direct control. The rogue Mahdi Army (along with the Special Groups, who are often one in the same) receive funding, weapons, training, and operational guidance from Qods Force, and in some cases cells are led by Iranians. The rogue Mahdi Army and Special Groups are essentially Iraqi Hezbollah.
Mahdi Criminal Elements: These are criminal gangs that fight under the guise of the Mahdi Army. This provides the criminal gangs with political cover, and Sadr the ability to inflate his ranks and wield more power.
Mahdi Nationalist: These are the nationalist, anti-Iranian elements of the Mahdi Army which largely support Sadr due to loyalty to his father. The Nationalist elements form “Noble Mahdi Army,” which have agreed to work with the Iraqi government and Coalition forces.
Allied Shia: These are Shia groups that allied with the Mahdi Army as they feared violence from al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents. These groups turned to the Mahdi Army for protection due to distrust in the Iraqi Security Forces or a lack of a security presence. Some of these allied groups have been pressed into service by the Mahdi Army. Elements of the Allied Shia are part of the “Noble Mahdi Army.”
The US has been working to divide the Mahdi Army for well over a year, and have conducted numerous operations against the extremist elements of Muqtada al Sadr’s militia — the rogue Mahdi Army, criminal elements, and elements of the loyalists. These elements have been targeted at every opportunity by US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad, Diwaniyah, Samawa, Karbala, Basra, and throughout the South.
Sadr’s call for the cessation of Mahdi Army attacks follows a recent spate of backtracking from violence in the South and involvement with the Iranians. Sadr recently denied taking part of the assassinations of the governors of Muthanna and Qadisiyah provinces. Sadr also denied conducting an interview with The Independent, where he admitted his Mahdi Army was training alongside Hezbollah. Also, despite denials of sheltering in Iran, Sadr has yet to be seen in public since the US reported Sadr fled to Iran in early July.
Sadr has a very real image problem to deal with concerning the Mahdi Army. Today’s statement calls for an end to violence in order “to rehabilitate [the Mahdi Army] in a way that will safeguard its ideological image.” The fighting in Karbala, the violent opposition to the Shia-led government, the criminal activity, and the assassinations of Shia governors are causes of great concern for Sadr. These activities are no longer being tolerated by the greater Shia community.
With the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly SCIRI) and large elements of the Badr Brigades breaking away from the Iranian sphere of influence, they have a greater motivation to fight Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The actions of the Mahdi Army are giving the Iraqi government and Coalition forces greater license to target the elements of the Mahdi Army deemed as “rogue.” Sadr does not want to fall into the rogue classification.