Analysis: Sadr movement, Mahdi Army shrink under pressure


Muqtada al Sadr. Click to view.

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.



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READER COMMENTS: "Analysis: Sadr movement, Mahdi Army shrink under pressure"

Posted by Alex at July 3, 2008 3:06 AM ET:

This guy is going to be a thorn in the side of the Iraqi government for a long time. Comparisons of him to Pablo Escobar seem more apt every day, from going from seen as a brave and bold protector of the masses from FARC and M-19 to being realized that he's just another thug. Even if all US troops were out tomorrow, Sadr will still claim that he is "resisting" and that the Iraqi government are puppets of the Zionist Crusader Infidel Forces of America, or whatever.

Fortunately, he seems to be running out of sympathy--and without Sadr City and Basra, also likely running out of money. But then again, Iran has a big checkbook thanks to their oil wells.

Posted by anand at July 3, 2008 3:44 AM ET:

Interesting Omar. My best estimate is that Muqtada will get 20 % to 40% of the Shia vote during the provincial elections.

Posted by Jesus Reyes at July 3, 2008 4:25 AM ET:

Enemy advance, we withdraw
Enemy rest, we harass
Enemy tires, we attack
Enemy withdraw, we pursue

Posted by Neo at July 3, 2008 11:53 AM ET:

I don't think Sadr and the Iranian's trust the militia anymore. What good does it do to pay militia members lots of money only to have them scatter in the face of any real pressure. It also seems that current militia has been compromised to the point that loyalty is doubted and operational security is impossible.

This isn't a new development but is the result of long process of degradation. To begin with the Mahdi Army was never much more than a large group of rabble and outright criminal enterprises without strong central leadership. The organization fed upon public sympathy within the Shiite community and swelled it's ranks with neighborhood people as constant pressure by Sunni extremists force people to look for ways to protect themselves. Sadr's militia benefited from the wave of Shiite anger in the immediate aftermath of the Summara shrine bombing. At that point the police and even members of the army were sympathetic. This support started to soften as the "surge" brought some stability to Baghdad and the Shiite led Iraqi government gained legitimacy.

Active support for the Mahdi Army proved to be brittle once much of the direct AQI threat on Baghdad was lifted in the Spring-Summer of 2007. Failures surrounding moves against Karbala in August 2007 show that Sadr's organization had already lost much of the momentum they had the previous year. In the Fall-Winter of 2007 relentless operations by US and IA forces continued to degrade key elements within the Mahdi Militia. I think the level of degradation was much more profound than recognized at the time.

In the March 2008 Basra campaign the game changed. The Mahdi Militia was no longer up against a largely defensive Iraqi Army. The development of the Iraqi Army had progressed to the point where they could sustain a full multi-brigade offensive over a period of weeks. Against the newly capable Iraqi Army the Mahdi Militia hasn't got a chance and knows it. The Iraqi Army now commands respect and Sadr's Militia has lost face with much of the local population.

A similar phenomena happened around the time that the "Awakening" movement among the Sunni population took hold. Once AQI lost support among the local population, US forces suddenly had a flood of accurate actionable intelligence on the whereabouts and movements of AQI insurgents. Once AQI operations became transparent, their operations quickly collapsed throughout much of the north.

I suspect that loss of public support, severe degradation, operational security problems, and a general distrust of the loyalties of Mahdi members all have a role to play in the collapse. Let there be no doubt that this is a collapse. The Mahdi Militia can no longer function in its current form. Both Iran and Sadr's people recognize this. I suspect what they are looking for is a more thorough transformation rather than a retrofit. The new model will be built on the much more ideological Islamic revolutionary model. They will seek to recruit from a much more radicalized segment of the population. I would expect to see more targeted assassinations, terrorism bombings, sabotage, and accompanying Islamist rhetoric.

Posted by MattR at July 3, 2008 12:16 PM ET:

One more explanation: He's trying to save face. "No, I never really did want power, I just want what is good for Iraq." Things have changed and he's trying to adapt. He's recognized that his military power is all but done and he has to move into politics. "I'm getting rid of the bulk of my army because ... my army has lost, and I'm keeping a token portion and spinning a nice name and mission for it because ... then it looks like things haven't changed."

Posted by Alex at July 3, 2008 1:55 PM ET:

With Amarah coming under control and with Sadr City and Basra already under control, this also means that the IA and IP can spend more time training, recruiting, and getting equipment rather than fighting.

What other hot zones are there left? How are Mosul and Salahadin going?

Posted by DubiousD at July 3, 2008 1:58 PM ET:

"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."

Is the government ban now in effect? I'd read that such legislation had been proposed but wasn't sure whether the Iraqi parliament had voted on it yet.

Posted by GM Earnest at July 3, 2008 2:00 PM ET:

It sounds like informed observers (on this blog and elsewhere) recognize Sadr's political currency in Iraq. I have to admit I always get a chuckle to hear CNN, New York Times, and other media journalists (no doubt this title is written into their Stylebooks) refer to him as "Radical Shiite Cleric Muqtada al Sadr," an obvious respectful deference.

But I've heard others say this demagogue should have been taken out years ago. And now that his so called "army" is in disarray, why not eliminate him altogether? The backlash would be short; and if credited, say, to Iraqi Special Forces, the Maliki government would rise in stature. Yes, I know he's hunkered down in the "Holy City of Qom" in Iran. All the more reason to send him to heaven.

Or should we keep hearing about this thug for years to come as he plots murders and ethnic division?

Posted by Alex at July 3, 2008 2:50 PM ET:

GM Earnest,

Now that he has been weakened, I do think that this is a good time to get rid of Sadr. There are a lot of historical examples of when not fully defeating an enemy has come back to be a problem. While I'd rather see him hauled out on national television Enron style since that would have a huge amount of symbolism for victory, a "shoot-out with National Police where officers had to act in self-defense" also works.

Posted by DJ Elliott at July 3, 2008 4:01 PM ET:

Alex:

What other hot zones are there left? How are Mosul and Salahadin going?

- The PM has already stated that they are going to do another offensive in Diyala.
- Salahadin has put out a deadline for turning in weapons, etc. Indicating they are about to go hot there.
- Ninawa is still in progress.

Note: I expect them to do a final clearance of Wassit and Babil before they go PIC as well.
It is normal for a major op 2-3 months before a province goes PIC. Wassit and Babil are currently scheduled for Nov08.

As to Sadr, His father is the martyr of the family and the only reason this flunky has a position. Making him a martyr would be a fools gambit.
Let him keep destroying his own position by hiding under his Iranian handler's bed.

Posted by Steven Den Beste at July 3, 2008 4:51 PM ET:

I think it's been clear for a long time that Sadr has been trying to position himself to be the de facto replacement for Sistani once he dies.

As to his current behavior, I think it's a case of trying to make a virtue of weakness. With a much diminished force, he praises those who remain as being elite, so as to keep morale up.

Posted by Batman at July 3, 2008 8:02 PM ET:

For a long time, I thought Sadr should be taken out, but I must admit, the way it has worked out has been much better. Instead of a martyr, now he's just a loser.

Posted by Private Finch at July 4, 2008 8:38 AM ET:

It is possible Iran will decide that Sadr has become a liability to them and try to find the best way to end the problem with this inept idiot. Making him a martyr and blaming the U. S. would be a happy way of ending this problem. It is possible Sadr might meet his end the same way his father and older brother did; a car bomb. Then blame it on the CIA and make Sadr into a hero. Happy Independence Day.

Posted by SoldiersDad at July 4, 2008 10:27 AM ET:

"I think it's been clear for a long time that Sadr has been trying to position himself to be the de facto replacement for Sistani once he dies"

That's kind of like saying the Rev Jessie Jackson is trying to position himself to replace the Pope. The Shiite religion
is hierarchal. One needs to be the equivalent of a cardinal before one can become the equivalent of a pope.

Mookie hasn't finished his studies for the equivalent of the priesthood yet.