Over the space of several days in early June, Muqtada al Sadr has issued two consequential orders that will affect the future of his movement and that of Iraq. Sadr has ordered the reorganization of his infamous Mahdi Army and has forbidden the Sadrist movement from participating in the upcoming provincial elections.
Sadr’s first declaration addressed the organization and operations of the Mahdi Army, the military arm of the Sadrist movement. Sadr ordered his militiamen to halt the fighting and announced that a small, specialized unit will have the exclusive right to fight the “occupier.” The unit, ironically called the “special groups,” is forbidden to attack Iraqi security forces or government officials.
Sadr’s second declaration addressed how the Sadrist movement would participate in the upcoming provincial elections, tentatively scheduled for October of this year. In the second order, Sadr told his followers not compete directly in elections that take place under “occupation” but said the movement would support “technocrat and independent politicians” to prevent rival Shiite parties from dominating provincial governments.
The two orders show that Sadr is being forced to scale down both his political and military ambitions as the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces continue to pacify Mahdi Army strongholds during a series of offensives that started in Basrah at the end of March, and moved through Sadr City and the wider Shia South. Operations in Maysan, a Mahdi Army bastion, are currently in progress. The Maysan operations so far resulted in the capture of 354 wanted militiamen and the discovery of hundreds of rockets, artillery rounds, RPGs and surface to air missiles and various other weapons and munitions. More than two hundred militiamen also surrendered to the Iraqi security forces, according to Ministry of Interior spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf.
Through his decision to trim Mahdi Army, Sadr hopes to salvage some of Mahdi Army’s best trained and most loyal units, and put them under one command to operate in a secretive manner and, ostensibly, only against US targets. If Muqtada’s plan is to make his militia operate in manner akin to al Qaeda Iraq by keeping a low profile and using selective targeting of opponents and occasional spectacular attacks like the recent car-bombing in Hurriyah district, then Mahdi Army will continue to be a source of trouble; but not of the magnitude seen 2006 and 2007. However, the problem for Sadr is that al Qaeda Iraq itself is on the verge of being defeated; trying to copy the methods of a defeated power isn’t likely to lead Sadr to a better end.
Other possible rationales for Sadr’s decision to disband the larger Mahdi Army include:
• Shedding extra unnecessary “weight:” The current larger Mahdi Army has many thousands of poorly trained foot soldiers. Those were proven to be effective in paralyzing life and spreading fear in several cities over the last few years. However, Muqtada’s ability to deploy these mobs to take over the streets has been drastically compromised following the recent crackdowns by US troops and Iraqi security forces. Sadr may get rid of these soldiers simply because they are no longer suitable for his goals. These untrained mobs could easily act as a shadow army for the shadow government Sadr wanted to establish, but they are not qualified to be members of a professional guerrilla army.
• Leaderless resistance: Sadr’s announcement could be a trick: vowing to fight the occupier until victory or death, while concurrently giving this “honor” to a small, select group. He’s basically telling his followers that fighting is good, but you shouldn’t do it. The result would be that some or many of those followers will indeed go against his orders and continue fighting. In this case, Sadr gets the service he needs from those men, while maintaining the ability to claim that Mahdi Army is not responsible and those men do not represent him.
• Preventing infiltration by informants/Iraqi security forces: Sadr’s emphasis on secrecy in his letter may indicate that he’s trying to limit the number of people that have access to information concerning the planning, operations, structure, command and control, logistics, and other secretive information of the Mahdi Army in order to prevent any security breaches. Sadr’s advisors may have convinced him that the smaller the army, the less likely it will be infiltrated, and the less likely that civilian locals will be able to get information to relay to Iraqi security forces and US troops. Muqtada’s fear from infiltration may have been exacerbated by the formation of Awakening groups in his main stronghold of Sadr City; especially that many of the Awakening men are relatives or neighbors of Mahdi Army fighters, if not were themselves members of the Mahdi Army.
• Emulating Hezbollah: Since Hezbollah plays a significant role in training and organizing the Mahdi army, this decision may be an attempt to reform the militia and make it evolve into something similar to Hezbollah. It is common knowledge that Hezbollah maintains a force of 2-3 thousand well-trained, active fighters prepared for immediate duty. Thousands of others Hezbollah operative serve in the social, financial and other civil society networks of the group, in addition to a reserve paramilitary force. In fact, rebuilding the Mahdi army following Hezbollah’s example of a clear separation between the armed and civil wings is what Sadr literally said in his letter a few weeks back.
Whatever the rationale, it is clear that Sadr is scrambling to make adjustments to his plans. The results of the recent fighting with the Iraqi security forces and US troops rendered the Mahdi army incapable of sustaining Sadr’s Plan ‘A,’ forcing him to accept a new plan with a smaller army.
Withdrawal from politics
While reforming their military operation, Sadr and his followers have not entirely given up on politics. After all, this is what his war with the other Shiite parties has been about. Sadrists will be going “independent,” meaning that they will run under the guise of small existing parties (or even create new ones) to evade the government ban on the political participation of groups that maintain armed militias.
Sadr is thinking that if you can’t join them, confuse them. However, the downside of such maneuverings is that you can end up confusing not only your opponents, but also your supporters.
If this is what Sadr is planning, he’ll risk losing a significant amount of votes and influence. First of all, there is a high possibility that even loyal voters will not vote for Sadr’s men due to confusion. Since members of political groups that have armed militias are not allowed to run for office, Sadrists will have two options, and neither is good.
The first option would be to plant some lesser-known Sadrists in existing smaller parties so as not to draw the attention of authorities or be expelled by them. Second, Sadr could cajole those small political parties under his wing by offering them money and protection, in return for following his agenda after winning seats in provincial governments.
An electoral plan based on the above tactics, or anything similar, has one more major downside. Sadr had always portrayed himself and his movement as fearless and ready to openly confront the enemy at all costs. This hero image had been a key factor in his popularity, especially among poor Shiite communities. Relinquishing this asset, combined with his indefinite pulling away from the battlefield are likely to severely tarnish that image and shake the trust of his supporters.