Iraqi government moves to sideline Sadrists, Mahdi Army

Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched Operation Knights’ Assault to clear the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backer militias in Basrah, the Iraqi government is moving to ban Muqtada al Sadr’s political movement from participating in the election if it fails to disband the militia. Facing near-unanimous opposition, Sadr said he would seek guidance from senior Shia clerics in Najaf and Qom and disband the Mahdi Army if told to do so, according to one aide. But another Sadr aide denied this.

The pressure on Sadr and his Mahdi Army started on Sunday after Maliki announced the plans to pass legislation to prevent political parties with militias from participating in the political process. “The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall,” Reuters reported on Sunday. “The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.”

Today, Maliki was explicit that the legislation was aimed at Muqtada al Sadr, his Sadrist movement, and the Mahdi Army. “Solving the problem comes in no other way than dissolving the Mahdi Army,” Maliki told CNN. “They no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mahdi Army.”

Maliki’s advisers have also been clear the Mahdi Army is the target of the legislation. “We want the Sadrists to disband the Mahdi Army. Just freezing it is no longer acceptable,” said Sadiq al Rikabi, a senior adviser to the prime minister. “The new election law will prevent any party that has weapons or runs a militia from contesting elections.”

The legislation is said to have broad support from the major Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia political parties, and is expected to quickly pass through parliament. The details of the legislation were outlined by the Political Council for National Security, which included the Kurdish president, the Sunni and Shia vice presidents, the prime minister, and the leaders from the major political parties. No political parties other than the Sadrist movement have opposed the recommended legislation.

The declaration caught the normally triumphant Sadrist politicians off guard. “We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament,” Hassan al Rubaie, a Sadrist member of parliament said the day the news broke. “Our political isolation was very clear and real during the meeting,” he said, referring to the meeting of the Political Council for National Security, where the legislation was announced.

Rubaie confirmed the Sadrists have now been isolated politically. “Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament,” Rubaie said. “We must go and explain to [Sadr] in person that there’s a problem.”

The Sadrist movement has been caught off guard by the government’s announcement, and is making conflicting statements. One aide said Sadr is rushing to consult senior Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran for guidance. Another aide backtracked. He denied Sadr was seeking advice from senior clerics and the decision to disband was Sadr’s alone.

“Muqtada al Sadr has ordered his offices in Najaf and Qom to form a delegation to visit [Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani] in Najaf and (other leaders) in Qom [in Iran] to discuss disbanding the Mahdi Army,” Hassan Zargani told Reuters on April 7. “If they order the Mahdi Army to disband, Muqtada al Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders.”

Sistani, who has resisted making political edicts, is said to have grown disillusioned with Sadr and his Mahdi Army after the waves of sectarian bloodshed during 2006. Sistani has promoted Shia unity but Sadr’s political movement has operated outside of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance.

But the Sadrist movement soon changed directions and claimed it would not seek advice from the senior Shia clerics to disband the Mahdi Army. “Shiite Cleric Muqtada al Sadr did not think of dissolving the Mahdi Army,” said Sheikh Salah al Ubeidi told Voices of Iraq on April 7. “We have no right to interfere in freezing or dissolving the Mahdi Army because it is an exclusive right of Muqtada al Sadr.”

Motivations for isolating the Sadrist movement

Some analysts have suggested that Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, is a driving force behind recent military and political efforts to isolate the Sadrists. ISCI currently dominates the regional governments in Southern Iraq after the Sadrists boycotted previous regional elections. The Sadrists are expected to do relatively well in upcoming provincial elections set into motion by the recent passage of the Provincial Powers Act. Thus, it has been widely anticipated that ISCI will try to find a way to diminish the Sadrist Movement prior to elections, and recent events fit nicely with that theory.

But the broad-based support for the isolation of the Sadrists among most of the country’s major parties and political blocs illustrates the limits of this theory. Sadrist ineptitude and obstructionism with the government, such as its use of the Health Ministry to conduct sectarian murders in 2006, as well as the criminality and violence associated with increasingly unpopular militias, have rallied a variety of political players across the political spectrum against the Sadrist Movement.

Iraqi, US militaries continue to pursue the Mahdi Army and Iranian-backed groups

The move to force Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army comes after the Iraqi military and police confronted the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Basrah and the South at the end of March. The Iraqi forces met stiff resistance in Basrah as the whole of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army rushed to fight the security forces. A brigade from the Iraqi Army apparently cracked during the offensive, and about 500 soldiers “underperformed or defected” along with about 400 police. The Iraqi brigade was only five weeks out of training; it is the Army’s newest formation.

The Iraqi military immediately began rushing forces into Basrah; about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, and SWAT units were moved to Basrah to join the fight. Meanwhile, Mahdi Army forces attacked in Baghdad and the wider South. US and Iraqi forces killed nearly 200 Mahdi fighters in Baghdad. The Iraqi security forces quickly restored security in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Al Kut, and Amarah with minimal US assistance.

Just as the new Iraqi forces began to arrive in Basrah and US and British forces were gearing up to augment the Iraqi military, Muqtada al Sadr, under orders from Iran’s Qods Force, called for his fighters to withdraw from the streets. Sadr issued a nine-point list of demands, which included that operations cease. Maliki refused and Iraqi and US forces continued to move into Basrah and conduct pinpoint raids against Shia terror groups. More than 200 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 700 were wounded, and 300 captured during the six days of fighting in Basrah alone.

Maliki has said the military will continue to operate against the Mahdi Army, and US and Iraqi forces have kept Sadr City and Shula in Baghdad under curfew. US and Iraqi forces fought pitched battles in Sadr City over the weekend. At least nine Mahdi Army fighters were killed by US helicopters after attacking Iraqi patrols in the city. Twenty Iraqis were reported killed and more than 50 wounded during the fighting.

Maliki has said the military would continue to operate in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad. “We have opened the door for confrontation, a real confrontation with these gangs, and we will not stop until we are in full control of these areas,” Maliki said on April 7.

Bill Ardolino contributed to this report. This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters, Voices of Iraq, and The Long War Journal.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Dan R. says:

    Thanks for the update, Bill. Boy, this sure doesn’t seem to fit with the mainstream media’s narrative of how Operation Cavalry Charge was a disaster that has only strengthened Sadr’s position while weakening Mailik, now does it?
    Looks like the professional “Talking Heads” have gotten it wrong … yet again. No surprise, really. By this time, anyone who takes the mainstream media’s reporting from Iraq at face value is truly living with their head in the sand.

  • anand says:

    There has been a backlash against Muqtada and JAM in particular by non Shia Iraqis, as well as Shia in Baghdad and Maysan (Sadrists did well in the 1.30.05 provincial elections in both provinces, and many locals blame them for poor governance.)
    However, there has also been a backlash against ISCI/Badr in most of the South.
    There is a backlash against Fadheela (virtue) Sadrists in Basrah.
    Muqtada will likely benefit from these later two backlashes in most of the south. Who else will benefit remains unclear. Perhaps more secular (tribal and national) groupings? Dawa to some degree? Fadheela Sadrists north of Basrah?
    The important point to remember is that Muqtada isn’t too concerned about what the 39% of Iraqis who are not Shia think of him. They are not going to vote for him anyway. Most non-Shia Iraqis dislike Muqtada. What matters to Muqtada is his support among Iraqi Shia. It remains far from clear how well Muqtada will perform in the provincial elections this October.
    From America’s point of view, Muqtada publicly pledging himself to disarm JAM (in return for many joining the ISF on an individual soldier/policeman by soldier/policeman basis rather than by units of JAM) is good news. If Muqtada does this, it doesn’t matter much to us Americans or the world if Muqtada wins Iraqi elections. Muqtada would be forced to behave responsibly to keep support from his coalition partners (Muqtada would need support from other Iraqi political parties to stay in power), and to get reelected in four years.

  • cjr says:


  • Neo says:

    The central irony in this is that Maliki was a compromise candidate forwarded by Sadr’s block to fill the prime ministers position. At the time Sadr’s block managed by one vote in parliament to block the primary ISCI candidates. Maliki comes from the Dawa party. The Dawa party has never had a militia and sat as one of the compromise parties between ISCI and Sadr’s block.
    Did Sadr get fooled about Maliki’s intentions? It’s hard to say what Maliki’s thoughts were before he took office, but prior to the formation of the government Sadr’s block had already taken to the streets against the Sunni’s and also against the foundation of an Iraqi central government. Sadr’s block had no interest in supporting anything that wasn’t immediately part of their political movement and set about to make governance impossible. Maliki found Sadr’s block violent and impossible to work with. Is it any surprise that Maliki gradually found himself on the at odds with Sadr’s block and eventually became its enemy. Sadr’s block has since the beginning waged a campaign of constant warfare, murder, political assassinations, graft, theft, kidnapping, bombings, intimidation, and terror. It now finds itself politically isolated, and on the outside of the government looking in at nearly unanimous hostility. Sadr’s people put themselves in this position.
    Yet we still have those people who will now hold up Sadr’s faction as the oppressed party. They’re having their political rights trodden upon. Of course such sentiments don’t amount to serious support for Sadr. The sentiment is pure schadenfreude where opposition to the Bush administrations project in Iraq takes any convenient form. Opposition to the new Iraqi government isn’t so much on principle as it is opposition to American policy in general. The Iraqi government was long portrayed an impossibly weak contrivance propped up by American power. That narrative is slowly giving way to the narrative of dictatorial infant terrible pounding out it’s political opposition. This narrative has been run against American policy so many times it has almost become clich

  • Marlin says:

    The updates from Baghad get ever more interesting.

    Aides to Muqtada al-Sadr say the anti-American Shiite cleric is calling off a mass rally in Baghdad Wednesday.
    Iraqi security forces are blocking al-Sadr’s followers from traveling to the capital from the southern Shiite heartland where he enjoys wide support.
    Two aides in al-Sadr’s office in the holy city of Najaf told The Associated Press that the rally had been canceled. They spoke on condition of anonymity pending an official announcement.

    Associated Press: Aides: Muqtada Al-Sadr Calls Off Rally

  • Marlin says:

    Here’s some more news on the negotiations taking place with al-Sadr in Tehran.

    The radical Shia cleric and leader of the Mahdi Army militia, Moqtada al-Sadr, is in the Iranian holy city of Qom, according to Mohammad Ali Mohtadi, the top expert on Middle Eastern policies in the Iranian foreign ministry.
    Meanwhile talks are continuing in Tehran to bring about an end to the clashes between followers of al-Sadr and Iraqi government forces.
    Talks are being held between two Iraqi lawmakers, Ali al Adib and Hadi al Ameri, and the commander of the elite Al-Qods brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Ghassem Soleymani.
    According to Iraqi sources, Soleymani is in-charge of Iranian intervention in support of the rebel forces in Iraq and in particular as the main supporter of the Mahdi Army.

    AKI: Iran: Radical Shia cleric in holy city of Qom, says expert

  • DaMav says:

    I couldn’t agree more with most of Marlin’s analysis. Juan Cole, the left, and most of the MSM is so desperate for an American defeat in Iraq as a means of going after Bush that everything going on there is being forced through that prism. This is a deliberate attempt to rewrite the news. Fortunately we have the Long War Journal and a few other brave outlets….

  • Marlin says:

    al-Sadr’s political allies are not ‘feeling the love’ at the moment. Seriously, more and more incidents are appearing that make al-Maliki look very serious about what he is undertaking.

    A Basra legislator from the Sadrist bloc, or Iraqis loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, accused the Iraqi government on Tuesday of banishing the Sadrists from important posts in Basra and other provinces.
    “There is political liquidation of the Sadrists, particularly those who occupy important administrative positions,” Aqeel Abdul-Hussein told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI).
    “A number of officials who belong to the Sadrist bloc were sacked from their posts like the assistant manager of the Basra ports, the advisor for the transport minister and the director of the southern zone electricity department,” said Abdul-Hussein.
    “We believe that the prime minister and his government are responsible for this course of action applied in a number of Iraqi provinces, including Karbala and Diwaniya,” he said, adding “the prime minister is applying the occupation (forces’) agenda”.

    Aswat al-Iraq: Lawmaker accuses govt. of “administrative liquidation” of Sadrists

  • Marlin says:

    More signs that al-Maliki is serious.

    Starting from tomorrow, Iraqi security forces will target gunmen in Basra province, who did not take advantage of the amnesty period to hand over their weapons with the end of the ultimatum, the Basra operations commander said on Tuesday.
    “Security forces will target gunmen who did not exploit the opportunity to hand over their weapons, and they will be punished according to law,” Major General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI).
    “Iraqi security forces have intelligence information regarding the location of weapons and gunmen in Basra,” he noted.

    Aswat al-Iraq: Basra operations commander: ultimatum ended

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/08/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • Michael says:

    thought I posted earlier, now I’m not sure. anyways, excellent post. I’m in agreement on the domestic issues. Its sad. It touches many other places, like Columbia for example.
    If not for blogs and sites like this, I’m not sure any of us would know half of what is happening and we’d be repeating history when their were few outlets for information that largely went untold.

  • scruffy says:

    Please accept my gratitude for providing news and analysis that the MSM fears. The media had put forth much puffery over US qualms regarding Maliki’s timing. It appears to me, though, that Malikis’s timing was superb. He effected a purge of Sadrist sympathizers in the Iraqi Army, when a thousand of them deserted. This could only lessen Iranian influence in the IA. The IA performed well, but I’m still missing something here. Could someone with more knowledge about the IA’s readiness and cohesion please elaborate?


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