The Sadrist movement said it will not disarm and disband the Mahdi Army unless senior Shia clerics order it. The announcement came two weeks after the Iraqi government said political parties with militias could not participate in the upcoming provincial elections.
“The Mahdi army will not allow anyone to disarm it and al Sadr could not disarm the Mahdi Army except if top Shiite clerics gave directives to do that,” Basem al Marwani, a senior leader in the Sadrist movement in Najaf told Al Hayat. Marwani also said the Mahdi Army would “continue its armed resistance against the foreign occupation” despite the cease-fire ordered by Muqtada al Sadr in late February.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior most Shia cleric in Iraq, has already said it was Sadr’s responsibility to disband the Mahdi Army, as he was responsible for forming the militia. Sistani said the militia should be disbanded as “the law is the only authority in the country.”
The head of the Badr organization, a rival militia whose forces have largely been incorporated in the security forces, compared the Mahdi Army to al Qaeda and said the Mahdi Army should disband. “No side raised weapons in the face of the state and government, other than the Mahdi Army and al Qaeda,” Hadi al Amiri, who is closely aligned to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a political rival of the Sadrist movement, told Voices of Iraq.
The political pressure comes as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has pressed the offensive against the Mahdi Army in their strongholds in Baghdad, Basrah, and the South. US and Iraqi troops have advanced through the southern one-third of Sadr City and have begun to distribute humanitarian aid. In Basrah, two of the five Mahdi Army strongholds have been cleared by Iraqi troops and operations are underway to clear three others.
Iraqi and US troops continue to conduct raids on Mahdi Army and Sadrist leaders. On April 16, the Iraqi Army detained the tribes’ official at Sadr’s political office in Basrah. “A number of wanted men, including Muayad al Abdi, tribes official at al Sadr’s office, were arrested after finding 51 bombs at his house,” an unnamed Army commander told Voices of Iraq. Sadr’s office denied Abdi was a member of the Mahdi Army.
Iraqi security forces detained 12 “suspected gunmen” north of Al Kut in Wasit province. In Diwaniyah, Iraqi security forces detained 25 fighters, including policemen, after roadside bomb targeted a US patrol in the city. Iraq’s Department of Border enforcement also seized a large shipment of roadside bombs, landmines, and explosives as it was smuggled from Iran into Iraq’s Diyala province.
The Mahdi Army appears to be striking back by targeting political and religious leaders in the Baghdad South. Over the period of two days, assassination attempts were carried out against the governor of Najaf province and a senior aide to Sistani in Wasit province.
The Mahdi Army has a history of targeting its political enemies. The Mahdi Army was especially active in August 2007 just before the battle against security forces in Najaf that led to Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire. On Aug. 5, 2007, the Mahdi Army attempted to assassinate Brigadier General Falah Hassan Kanbar, a Shiite commander in the Kazimiyah district in Baghdad. Kanbar has been described as “the cleanest guy you can find in Kazimiyah.” On Aug. 11, Khalil Jalil Hamza, the governor of Qadisiyah province along with newly appointed provincial police chief Khalid Hassan and three security guards were killed in a bombing as they returned from a funeral in a nearby town. Governor Hamza was a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, while Police Chief Hassan was considered a political independent. On Aug. 20, a roadside bomb killed Mohammed Ali al Hassani, the governor of Muthanna province, along with a bodyguard as they drove to the provincial capital of Samawa.
The recent assassination attempts may be retaliation for the murder of Riyad al Nouri, Sadr’s brother-in-law and a senior aide in Najaf. The Sadrist movement maintained the US killed Nouri, then switched its story and said its political enemies had Nouri murdered. But some Sadrists believe Nouri’s murder “may have been an inside job from within the Sadr ranks.”
A US military officer serving in Iraq who wishes to remain anonymous told The Long War Journal that Nouri may indeed have been killed by rival members of his Sadrist movement. It is rumored Nouri was pushing for the Sadrist movement to disband the Mahdi Army lest the party be shut out from the political process.