Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement and the commander of the Mahdi Army, has ordered the extension of the cease-fire, anonymous senior officials in his movement have told Reuters. The cease-fire, which was put in place after a major clash in Najaf in August 2007, will be extended by six months.
“Sadr had issued a declaration to preachers to be read during midday prayers on Friday at mosques affiliated with the cleric,” Reuters reported. “The general idea is that there will be an extension,” an unnamed senior official in Sadr’s movement in Baghdad told the news agency. “Sayed (Sadr) has distributed sealed envelopes to the imams of the mosques to be read tomorrow. They cannot be opened before tomorrow.” Another senior official in Najaf said the cease-fire would be extended by six months.
Pressure on Sadr
Multinational Forces Iraq and the Iraqi government have conducted a concerted campaign to pressure Sadr to order his Mahdi Army to end the fighting, extend the cease-fire, and rejoin the political process. Multinational Forces Iraq began associating the actions of the Iranian-backed Special Groups terror cells with the Mahdi Army during the summer of 2007, and have executed numerous raids against the Special Groups in central and southern Iraq. At the same time, the Iraqi military began targeting Mahdi Army in the southern cities of Samawah, Al Kut, Diwaniyah, and Basrah.
Reporting on activities against the Special Groups and the Mahdi Army went fallow in January 2008, but US and Iraqi security forces began stepping up operations against the Special Groups in early February. Over the course of one week in mid-February, and average of three to four raids a day were conducted against Special Groups. The Iraqi government has also taken legal action against members of the Mahdi Army accused of using the Health Ministry to conduct sectarian kidnappings and murders.
US and Iraqi efforts to pressure Sadr to extend the cease-fire appears to have paid off. Sadr was due to make a decision on the truce extension on Feb. 23. Several senior Sadrist leaders and Mahdi Army commanders have lobbied to end the cease-fire due to Iraqi and US military pressure on the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist movement.
While the reporting has focused on the negative implications the US and the Iraqi government if Sadr ended the cease-fire, Sadr himself had his own problems if the truce was ended. After Sadr’s political movement withdrew from the government in early 2007, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had a greater freedom of movement to tackle Sadr and his Mahdi Army. Since then, the Iraqi military has repositioned itself to take on the Mahdi Army in the south.
The US and Iraqi security forces have demonstrated a willingness to strike at Sadr’s Mahdi Army, even in his purported stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad. General David Petraeus pressured Maliki at the onset of the surge to take on the extreme elements of Mahdi Army as well as al Qaeda in Iraq, and Maliki approved. If Sadr ends the truce now, the US military is still at its peek in the number of combat brigades available for use in tackling the Mahdi Army.
By calling off the cease-fire, Sadr risked reigniting the violence in Iraq, which has dropped dramatically since last summer. Sadr risked alienating Iraqis as well as exposing his real level of support in the Shia community. The Iraqi government had the option of declaring the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist movement as illegal groups, and barring Sadrist politicians from running for political office.
In addition, Sadrist Movement politicians have been renegotiating a return to Maliki’s government after it survived their April 2007 protest walk-out over long-term security agreements with the US. And Sadrist legislators had been lobbying for recently passed legislation that hastens provincial elections, believing they can challenge their Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rivals in southern Iraq through democratic means. Both of these political developments contradict and would be imperiled by any return to hostilities.
Sadr will now have to deal with the implications of extending the cease-fire within his political and military movements. Some Sadrist politicians and Mahdi Army commanders have warned they may break from Sadr and fight on.
The Special Groups, Iran, and the Mahdi Army
The Special Groups was created by Iran’s Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, to destabilize the Iraqi regime, strike at US and Coalition forces, and extend Iran’s sphere of influence in southern and central Iraq. Iran established the Ramazan Corps as a sophisticated command structure to coordinate military, intelligence, terrorist, diplomatic, religious, ideological, propaganda, and economic operations. The Special Groups falls under Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps.
Iran has co-opted elements of the Mahdi Army to form the Special Groups. Sadr is currently sheltering in Iran and is studying the radical Velayat-e-Faqih Shia strain of Islam that promotes theocratic rule and is the foundation for Iran’s form of governance. Special Groups leaders have been directly linked to Sadr. On Feb. 11, Multinational Forces Iraq captured a senior regional leader of the Special Groups who also has ties to the Sadrist movement and 10 others in Hillah. On Feb. 18, US forces reiterated Arkan Hasnawi’s role as a commander in the Mahdi Army and his role in attacks against US and Iraqi security forces in northern Baghdad.
Bill Ardolino contributed to this report.