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Story Publication logo October 1, 2008

Mahdi Army Bides its Time


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"Iraq: Death of a Nation" examines how the U.S. invasion and occupation created a multi-faceted...

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Ali approaches me at a Friday prayer service in Sadr City. He wants to talk. A U.S. missile, he says, hit his house in May and killed his two sisters and badly wounded his mother. He is a member of the Mahdi militia and can no longer return home for fear the Iraqi army will arrest him. He is careful not to be seen talking to me, since unauthorized contact between us could get him in serious trouble with the militia. We quickly arrange to meet a few hours later at my hotel, and then he shakes my hand and walks away, disappearing again in the crowd of thousands of worshippers.

Like the bulk of the Mahdi militia, Ali has gone to ground. He abides by the cease-fire that Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered, but he chafes at the presence of Iraqi troops, who patrol Sadr City.

"We've had three Saddams. The first is gone. The second wears the clothes of a cleric. The third wears sunglasses," Ali says, referring to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), a rival Shiite political party, and Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.

The Iraqi army has taken up positions on Schwader Street, where thousands have prayed outdoors each Friday since the U.S. military deposed Hussein. The presence of the army at Friday prayers has heavy overtones of the previous government, which forbade such gatherings entirely. In parts of southern Iraq, the Iraqi military has shut down many of the Sadrists' mosques and arrested hundreds.

On a recent Friday, men from Sadr's local office linked arms to prevent young worshippers from confronting the army.
"We are waiting for the cease-fire to stop so we can show the Iraqi army what we will do to them," Ali says.

At my hotel, Ali says the militia moved its heavy weaponry well before the Iraqi army arrived. He puts in a video of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) he says he is waiting to use. The bombs, he explains, are set off with anything ranging from a cell phone to a modified television remote control. He sets aside a quarter of his bus driver's salary, less than $20 a day, to pay for the weapons.

He is unapologetic about the campaign of sectarian cleansing the militia engaged in.

"We displaced families that were collaborators with the Americans and we displaced families that were Sahwa," he said, referring to the Sunni militiamen who have made a marriage of convenience with the United States.

"They are collaborating with the Americans," Ali says. "But who are the Sahwa? They are Sunnis. They are Al Qaeda."

In the U.S. press, Sadr is usually depicted as a firebrand or an upstart. His first two names in English are evidently "Radical Cleric." But to understand what he and his followers are up to, it's necessary to talk with people like Ali. And at the moment, it looks like they're just biding their time.

Sadr City, where I met Ali, is commonly referred to as a slum in the U.S. media, but by Third World standards, it is not so bad. There is some running water and electricity and most of the standing piles of sewage that were common four years ago are gone. But it is still one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baghdad, and its more than two million inhabitants are more densely packed than in most other neighborhoods. It comprises the major base of support for Sadr. Since 2003, his militia, Jaish al Mahdi (literally, "Mahdi Army"), ruled Sadr City, and Tayyera Sadrieen, the political party that is linked to the militia, controlled almost every level of the government and provided basic services.

That was until May, when the U.S. assault forced the militia out of the neighborhoods. The militia put up fierce resistance, but were little match for U.S. air power and armored vehicles. The Iraqi military built a three-mile-long wall across the southern portion of Sadr City and put up other walls all over the area, effectively controlling all traffic in and out. Sadr City was the last neighborhood in Baghdad to be ghettoized in this manner, and residents say that entire buildings were destroyed in order to neutralize single snipers.

Sadr himself now spends most of his time in Iran. Nonetheless, he is still arguably the most popular political figure in Iraq. That is because, since the beginning of the occupation, he has steadfastly demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

If the Iraqi government doesn't make good on that demand, Sadr will probably remain the voice of the opposition. If it does, he can say he was partially responsible for pressuring the government to make the call.

Sadr has proven himself a canny political actor who can exercise pressure on the Iraqi government from within and without. His promise in August to disband the militia entirely if the U.S. agreed to a timetable for withdrawal is an excellent example. In some ways, he can't lose.

Will he reactivate the militia? The best answer is that if he wants to, he can. And that would make Ali happy. But for now, it appears that a full-scale armed confrontation is out of the question. A move toward Hezbollah-style cadres, better trained and well armed, appears more likely.

ASadr spokesman, Salah al-Obaidy, arrives for a scheduled interview in a light grey dishdasha rather than his cleric's robes. Many of the group's officials are moving undercover. I had arranged to meet al-Obaidy at the Sadr office in Kadhimiya, a neighborhood that is home to a Shiite shrine and heavily guarded by Iraqi army and police. When we arrive at the checkpoint to enter the neighborhood, the police ask where we are going. They emphatically inform us that there is no longer a Sadr office in Kadhimiya. A few minutes later, al-Obaidy calls and gives us directions to an alternate location.

Al-Obaidy explains why Sadr ordered the cease-fire, but he suggests it may not last forever.

"The Americans have started to think of reducing their troops and pulling out of Iraqi cities," he says. "They have started to change their thinking, and we have to change our thinking. We have made the decision to freeze Jaish al Mahdi, but still, as long as there are occupying troops, we have to keep some people working for the opposition, because we are afraid U.S. troops would return to Iraqi cities. This period of calm will give us some time to rediscipline them. We hope that negotiations between the Iraqi government and the American government will reach a timetable and we will not be in need of these groups."
He addresses the issue of the group's links to Iran.

"We have the right to cooperate with anyone who can help us here and there, including the Iranians. But we are not the followers of the Iranian" line, he says. "Our agenda is working against the occupation."

He is careful to point out that the Iraqi political party with the closest links to Iran is SIIC, which he also says is using the cover of law and order to disenfranchise Sadrieen across the country ahead of the next round of Iraqi elections, which aren't likely to happen until early 2009.

The office of Tayyera Sadrieen in Sadr City is emptier than I have ever seen it. Since 2003, it has been a place people would come to offer support or seek assistance. But during multiple visits in July, aside from a writer and a photographer working for The New York Times, I observed only one other visitor besides myself: a woman who came in complaining that her neighbors, recently moved in next door, were prostitutes. She pleaded with the men in the office to do something about it.

"Go ask the army," the men told her. "We're civilians now."

In most of Baghdad's other neighborhoods, it is clear the militia is not missed, and that if walling in Sadr City is what had to be done, then so be it.
"It is like a zoo," one of my friends says, smiling, as we arrive at a nightclub ten minutes' drive from Sadr City. The club opened at the beginning of July. When I ask the owner what changed, he smiles broadly.

"No more Jaish al Mahdi," he says.

Even though at Friday prayers, a Sadrist preacher demands that Baghdad's liquor shops be shut down, people are drinking again in public in Baghdad for the first time since 2003. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which now controls most of Baghdad and is nominally fundamentalist, has decided, at least for the time being, that pragmatism is the best approach.

To ignore the class element of the Sadrist resistance is to fail to tell the story accurately. The differences are obvious at Buratha mosque, where Jalal al-Deen al-Saghir, one of the SIIC's leaders, preaches almost every Friday. While the Sadrieen pray in a dusty street than can burn your feet through a pair of tennis shoes, Buratha has air conditioners and a simulcast for those who cannot fit in the main prayer hall. The Sadrieen represent Iraq's traditionally disenfranchised, while SIIC represents the country's shrunken middle class and leaders who had the ability to leave Iraq during Saddam's reign.

SIIC is careful not to engage the class issue. It prefers to paint Sadr's supporters as a bunch of hotheaded youths who don't know any better.

"Those who support Tayyera Sadrieen are young and they support using weapons," says Jenan al-Obaidy, a member of parliament with the SIIC. "Of course, there are older and more educated people in the Sadr movement, but they saw what happened when they tried to fight."

Al-Obaidy and other SIIC members deny the government is using the military politically.

"We are prosecuting the outlaws even if they are in the mosques," al-Obaidy said. She also dismissed the need for a timetable for American withdrawal.
"The American troops cannot leave until the army is ready," she said.

South of the wall in Sadr City, where the U.S. military continues its operations against the militia, soldiers proudly guide journalists through markets where merchants can once again operate without paying taxes levied by the militia.

"Their capabilities are severely, severely degraded," says Captain Andrew Slack of the First Armored Division. "They have talking power—threats, graffiti—but they don't have the means to contest coalition forces right now."

One of Slack's translators, a young Iraqi medical student from Sadr City, isn't so convinced the war is over. He still covers his face when he works with the Americans, and one evening, out of earshot of U.S. soldiers, he approaches me with a desperate plea.

"The Jaish al Mahdi will come back," he says. "I need to find a safer job. Can you help me?"


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