Mahdi Army leader leaves Iraq and goes to Iran for second time this year
Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Shia Mahdi Army and the Sadrist bloc in parliament, has left Iraq and is in Iran, military sources told Reuters. An anonymous U.S. military intelligence official and a military officer stationed in Iraq told The Long War Journal the Reuter’s report is accurate, but would not say when they believe Sadr left Iraq. Sadr’s flight from Iraq and return to Iran comes as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki issued an unusually strong statement calling for Sadr’s Mahdi Army to disarm, and Iraqi Security Forces continue to battle his Mahdi Army in southern Iraq.
“We have heard statements from officials in the Sadr movement that they are against using arms and that they condemn those who hold weapons,” a statement issued from the prime minister said, AFP reported. “This puts us in front of a fact we must face courageously: If those are Sadrists, then Sadrist leaders disavow clearly those who carry guns … Therefore, these gunmen are infiltrated Saddamist and Baathist gangs and robbers using this movement as a front,” Maliki said. Sadr’s aides have warned Prime Minister Maliki to back off from calling the Mahdi Army to disarm.
Iraqi, U.S., British and other Coalition forces have battled Sadr’s Mahdi Army inside Baghdad in Sadr City, as well as in the south in Diwaniyah, Samawa and Basra. Sadr’s Mahdi Army fractured into a radical Iranian backed element of about 3,000 fighters, and the “Noble Mahdi Army,” which has been working with the Iraqi government and Coalition forces. This was part of a year-long campaign to divide the Mahdi Army. Sadr lost control of the Mahdi Army when he fled Iraq with his paymasters and senior leaders, leaving the militia rudderless and without pay. It is believed he returned to Iraq to gain a measure of control over his fractured forces.
The “rogue” elements of Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been repeatedly attacked by Iraqi and U.S. Special Forces due to their relationship with the Iranian-backed “Special Groups” or “Secret Cells.” These Iranian backed cells are receiving arms, funding, training, and guidance from Iranian Qods Force.
Sadr first left for Iran in January shortly after the announcement of the Baghdad Security plan, and returned to Iraq on May 25, over four months later. Since his return, Sadr has attempted to position himself as a moderate, nationalist leader, but with little success. He has flirted with the Anbar Awakening movement, and negotiated with Sunni political parties. His Sadrist bloc withdrew from Prime Minister Maliki’s government, and abandoned its six cabinet level positions. The Sadrist bloc’s 30 members have also boycotted parliament.
Sadr held two rallies, both of which had poor showings, and had to cancel a July 5 march to Samarra to protest the attack on the Shia holy site of the al Askaria mosque. Sadr’s spokesman claimed the Iraqi government wouldn’t provide security, but based on the past poor showing of his demonstrations, there are questions that Sadr may have harmed his image with another poor showing.
Sadr’s return to Iran harms his image as an Iraqi nationalist. He has criticized the leadership of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) for sheltering in Iran in the past, only to accept aid, comfort, shelter and cash from Iran’s Qods Force.
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