Mahdi Army: Wikis

  
  

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Mahdi Army
(Jaish al Mahdi)
Participant in the Iraq War
Active 2003-2008
Leaders Muqtada al-Sadr
Headquarters Najaf, Kufa
Strength 60,000 (2007 U.S. intelligence estimate, current strength unknown)[1]
Opponents Iraqi security forces
Ansar al-Sunna
Islamic State of Iraq
Islamic Army in Iraq
United States, United Kingdom (and other coalition forces)
Battles/wars Iraq war, Siege of Sadr City, Battle of Najaf (2004), Battle of Diwaniya, Battle of Amarah, Battle of Karbala (2007), Siege of U.K. bases in Basra,Battle of Basra (2008), Iraq Spring Fighting of 2008

This page describes the Shia Mahdi Army of contemporary Iraq; for the Sunni Mahdi Army of Nineteenth Century Sudan, see Muhammad Ahmad.

The Mahdi Army, also known as the Mahdi Militia or Jaish al Mahdi (Arabic جيش المهدي), is an Iraqi paramilitary force created by the Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June 2003.

The group rose to international prominence on April 4, 2004 when it spearheaded the first major armed confrontation against the U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq from the Shi'ite community in an uprising that followed the banning of al-Sadr's newspaper and attempts to arrest him, and lasted until a truce on June 6. This truce was followed by moves to disband the group and transform al-Sadr's movement into a political party to take part in the 2005 elections; Muqtada al-Sadr ordered fighters of the Mahdi army to go into a ceasefire unless attacked first. The truce broke down in August 2004 after provocative actions by the Mahdi Army, with new hostilities erupting.

The Mahdi Army's popularity has been strong enough to influence local government, the police, and cooperation with Sunni Iraqis and their supporters. The group is believed to have recently been popular among Iraqi police forces. National Independent Cadres and Elites party that ran in the 2005 Iraqi election was closely linked with the army.

The group is armed with various light weapons, including improvised explosive devices, also called road-side bombs. Many of the bombs used during attacks on Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces have used infra-red sensors as triggers, a technique that was used widely by the IRA in Northern Ireland in the early to mid 1990s.[2]

Contents

Name

The name Jaysh al-Mahdī has apocalyptic connotations: in Shi-ite theology, the Mah'dī is an end-times figure who it is said will assist the Masīh(English = Christ) to destroy the Dajjāl and establish a global Islamic khilāfah in preparation for the Yaum al-Qiyāmah; in more common terms, it is believed that the Mahdī will come to help the Messiah (i.e., Jesus, referred to in Islam as `Īsā ibn Mariyam, "Jesus son of Mary") to defeat the Antichrist (literally, al-Masīh al-Dajjāl means "the Deceiving Messiah"), before establishing a just Islamic social order in preparation for Judgment Day.

In the Twelver school of Shia Islam, the Mahdī is believed to have been an historical figure identified with the Twelfth Imām, Muhammad al-Mahdī, and is therefore called al-Imām al-Mahdī. It is believed that he is still present on earth "in occultation" (i.e., hidden), and will emerge again in the end times. Those Shi`ites of this school believe that the Imām Mahdī is the rightful ruler of the whole Islamic community (ummah) at any given time, and he is therefore also called Imām al-Zamān, meaning "Imām of the Age/Time."

History

Early history

Created by Muqtada al-Sadr ( Shia resistance against the US occupation of Iraq ) and a small faction of Religious Shi'ite Islamists, the Mahdi Army began as a group of roughly 500 seminary students connected with Muqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam City. The group moved in to fill the security vacuum in Sadr City and in a string of southern Iraqi cities following the fall of Baghdad to U.S-led coalition forces on April 9, 2003. The group has been involved in dispensing aid to Iraqis and provided security in the Shi'ite slums from looters.

Gradually, the militia grew and al-Sadr formalized it in June 2003.[3] The Mahdi Army grew into a sizable force of up to 10,000 who even operated what amounted to a shadow government in some areas. Al-Sadr's preaching is critical of the US occupation, but he did not initially join the Sunni Islamist and Baathist guerrillas in their attacks on coalition forces.

2004 Shi'ite Uprising

Uprising Begins

Sadr's position changed dramatically, however, by the beginning of April. Following the closure of the Sadr-owned newspaper al-Hawza and the arrest of one of his senior aides, Sadr gave an unusually heated sermon to his followers on Friday, April 2, 2004. The next day, violent protests occurred throughout the Shi'ite south that soon spilled over into a violent uprising by Mahdi Army militiamen, fully underway by April 4, 2004.

April hostilities

The Mahdi Army forces began an offensive in Najaf, Kufa, Kut, and Sadr City, seizing control of public buildings and police stations while clashing with coalition forces. The militants gained partial control of Karbala after fighting there. Other coalition forces came under attack in Nasiriyah, Amarah and Basra. Najaf and Kufa were quickly seized after a few firefights with Spanish troops, and Kut was seized after clashes with Ukrainian troops soon afterwards.

After sporadic clashes, coalition forces temporarily suppressed most militia activity in Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra. Mahdi rebels expelled Iraqi police from three police stations and ambushed U.S forces in Sadr City, killing seven U.S troops and wounding several more. U.S forces subsequently regained control of the police stations after running firefights with the fighters, killing dozens of Mahdi militiamen. Mahdi Army members still maintained some influence over many of the slum areas of Sadr City, however.

On April 16, Kut was retaken by US forces, and several dozen Mahdi Army members were killed in the battle. However, the area around Najaf and Kufa along with Karbala remained under the control of Sadr's forces. Sadr himself was believed to be in Najaf. Coalition troops cordoned off Najaf with 2500 troops, but reduced the number of forces to pursue negotiations with the Mahdi Army. At the beginning of May, coalition forces estimated that there were 200-500 militants still present in Karbala, 300-400 in Diwaniyah, an unknown number still left in Amarah and Basra, and 1,000-2,000 still in the Najaf-Kufa region.

On May 4, coalition forces began a counter-offensive to eliminate Mahdi Army in southern Iraq following a breakdown in negotiations. The first wave began with simultaneous raids in Karbala and Diwaniyah on militia forces, followed by a second wave on May 5 in Karbala and more attacks that seized the governor's office in Najaf on May 6. 86 militiamen were estimated killed in the fighting along with 4 U.S soldiers. Several high ranking militia commanders were also killed in a separate raid by US Special Operations units. On May 8, U.S forces launched a follow-up offensive into Karbala, launching a two-pronged attack into the city. U.S tanks also launched an incursion into Sadr City. At the same time, perhaps as a diversionary tactic, hundreds of Mahdi Army members swept through Basra, firing on British patrols and seizing parts of the city. 2 militants were killed and several British troops were wounded.

On May 24, after suffering heavy losses in weeks of fighting, Mahdi Army forces withdrew from the city of Karbala. This left the only area still under their firm control being the Najaf-Kufa region, also under sustained American assault. Several hundred Mahdi Army militia in total were killed. Unfazed by the fighting, Muqtada al-Sadr regularly gave Friday sermons in Kufa throughout the uprising.

June truce

On June 6, 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr issued an announcement directing Mahdi Army to cease operations in Najaf and Kufa. Remnants of the militia soon ceased bearing arms and halted the attacks on U.S forces. Gradually, militiamen left the area or went back to their homes. On the same day, Brigadier General Mark Hertling, a top US commander in charge of Najaf, Iraq, stated "The Muqtada militia is militarily defeated. We have killed scores of them over the last few weeks, and that is in Najaf alone. [...] The militia have been defeated, or have left."[4] June 6 effectively marked the end of Shi'ite uprising. The total number of Mahdi Army militiamen killed in the fighting across Iraq is estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000.

The return of Najaf to Iraqi security forces following the cease-fire left Sadr City as the last bastion of Mahdi Army guerrillas still pursuing violent resistance. Clashes continued periodically in the district following the end of the Najaf-Kufa battles. On June 24, Mahdi Army declared an end to operations in Sadr City as well, effectively ending militia activity, at least for the time being.

After the June 4 truce with the occupation forces, al-Sadr took steps to disband the Mahdi Army. In a statement, he called on militia members from outside Najaf to "do their duty" and go home. US forces in Najaf were then replaced by Iraqi police. Al-Sadr told supporters not to attack Iraqi security forces and announced his intention to form a party and enter the 2005 elections. He said the interim government was an opportunity to build a unified Iraq. Interim President Ghazi Yawer gave assurances that al-Sadr could join the political process provided he abandoned his militia. Iraqi officials also assured al-Sadr that he was not to face arrest.[5]

August hostilities

After Sadr's militia besieged a police station in Najaf and the local governor called for assistance, the US military intervened again. US troops arrested Sadr's representative in Karbala, Sheikh Mithal al Hasnawi on July 31[6] and surrounded al-Sadr's home on August 3.[7][8][9][10] British troops in Basra also moved against al-Sadr followers, arresting four on August 3. After the expiration of a noon deadline to release them on August 5, the Basra militiamen declared holy war on British forces.[11]

On August 5, via his spokesman Ahmed al-Shaibany, al-Sadr re-affirmed his commitment to the truce and called on US forces to honour the truce. He announced that if the restoration of the cease-fire failed "then the firing and igniting of the revolution will continue".[12] The offer was rejected by the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi ("There is no compromise or room for another truce") and US officials ("This is one battle we really do feel we can win").[13]

In the days that followed fighting continued around the old city of Najaf, in particular at the Imam Ali shrine and the cemetery. The Mahdi Army, estimated at 2,000 in Najaf, was outnumbered by some 2,000 US troops and 1,800 Iraqi security forces, and at a disadvantage due to the vastly superior American tactics, training, firepower and air power, such as helicopters and AC-130 gunships. On August 13, the militia was trapped in a cordon around the Imam Ali shrine. While negotiations continued between the interim government and the Mahdi army, news came that al-Sadr had been wounded.[14]

On August 12, British journalist James Brandon, a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph was kidnapped in Basra by unidentified militants. A video tape was released, featuring Brandon and a hooded militant, threatening to kill the British hostage unless US forces withdrew from Najaf within 24 hours. Brandon was released after less than a day, following intervention by al-Sadr. At a press conference immediately after his release, Brandon commented on his treatment and thanked his kidnappers: "Initially I was treated roughly, but once they knew I was a journalist I was treated very well and I want to say thank you to the people who kidnapped me." A spokesman for al-Sadr said: "We apologise for what happened to you. This is not our tradition, not our rules. It is not the tradition of Islam."[15][16]

The fact that American troops surrounded the Shrine led to an impasse as the Mahdi army could not leave the shrine and US troops did not want to offend Islam by setting foot inside the shrine. The standoff did not end for three weeks until Sistani emerged from convalescence in London and brokered an agreement between the two forces.[17]

Iraqi reactions

The uprising seemed to draw an ambivalent reaction from the Iraqi population, which for the most part neither joined nor resisted the rebels. Many Iraqi security forces melted away, wishing to avoid confrontation. In a sign of Mahdi Army's unpopularity in Najaf, however, which follows more traditionalist clerics, a small covert movement sprung up to launch attacks on the militants. The uprising did receive a good deal of support from Shi-ite radicals in Baghdad, however, who were galvanized by the simultaneous siege of the city of Fallujah.

2005

Loyalists to al-Sadr ran under the National Independent Cadres and Elites banner in the 2005 Iraqi election. Though a number of the movements supporters felt that the election was invalid. The party finished sixth overall in the election and was represented in the transitional legislature. Another twenty or so candidates aligned with al-Sadr ran for the United Iraqi Alliance.

The movement is believed to have infiltrated the Iraqi police forces, and to have been involved in the September 2005 arrest of two British soldiers by Iraqi police.[18]

On December 4, 2005 Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was assaulted by a mob in Najaf, where the Mahdi army is influential.[19]

October 2006 battle

In mid October, a roadside bomb killed Qassim al-Tamimi, the chief of investigations for the provincial police force and a member of the rival Badr Organization. Badr fighters blamed the Mahdi Army for the killing and in response to this, the police captured a brother of the suspected bomber, who was a member of the Mahdi Army. Fighting began on October 17, when 800 masked members of the Mahdi army stormed three police stations in Amarah. Several firefights occurred between the militia and police over the course of the next four days.

By the morning of October 20, 2006, local leaders and residents said that victorious Mahdi fighters were patrolling the city on foot and in commandeered police vehicles and were setting up roadblocks. Sheik al-Muhamadawi stated early October 20 that "there is no state in the city. Policemen do not have enough weapons and ammunition compared with the militia, which has all kinds of weapons."[20] At least 27 people were killed and 118 wounded in the clashes.

The Mahdi Army eventually withdrew from their positions in Amarah following negotiations between local tribal and political leaders and representatives from the Baghdad offices of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. A battalion from the Iraqi Army sent from Basra then took control of the city.

The stunning and defiant display of militia strength underscored the weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces and the potency of the Mahdi Army, which has been able to operate virtually unchecked in Iraq. The Mahdi Army is widely accused of propelling the cycle of sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the country into all-out civil war.

August 2007-March 2008 ceasefire

In August 2007, during fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi police in Karbala, Muqtada al-Sadr called for a ceasefire and urged Mahdi Army members to stop fighting. The cease-fire has been credited with helping to reduce violence in Iraq between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi Army since August 2007.[21] Amid fears of the ending of the ceasefire in February 2008,[22], it has been extended for another six months by Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, on February 22. 2008.[23]

March 2008 Iraqi security forces crackdown

On March 25 2008 thousands of Iraqi troops carried out a military strike against the Mahdi Army in their stronghold of Basra. This operation, code named Operation Charge of the Knights, was the first of its kind since British troops withdrew from the city centre.

Fierce clashes took place between security forces and the militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr after a dawn military offensive in the southern city.[24] In Al-Sadr's headquarters of Najaf, the cleric ordered the field commanders of his Mahdi Army militia to go to 'maximum alert' and prepare "to strike the occupiers".[25].Gunmen also reportedly clashed with Iraqi police in the southern city of Kut.[26]

The Mahdi Army launched a nationwide civil disobedience campaign across Iraq to protest raids and detentions against the Mahdi Army. The discord also threatened to unravel al-Sadr's ceasefire, spark renewed sectarian violence, and prompt the United States to delay any troop withdrawals. Violent rivalries among Shiites had been predicted by many observers ahead of the Iraqi governorate elections, 2008, which were to be held by October 1, 2008.[27]

Concurrently, on April 6, Iraqi and U.S. forces moved into the southern third of Sadr City to prevent rocket and mortar fire from the area against the Green Zone. U.S. engineers began construction of a concrete barrier along al-Quds Street to seal the southern third of the city off and allow reconstruction to take place. Over the next month, the Mahdi Army launched a number of attacks on the troops building the barrier, but sustained heavy losses. On May 10, a ceasefire was ordered by Muqtada al-Sadr, allowing Iraqi troops into all of Sadr City. On 20 May, in an entirely Iraqi-planned and executed operation, six battalions of Iraqi troops, operating without the involvement of U.S. ground forces, pushed deep into Sadr City. The Iraqi Security Forces met little resistance in moving through Sadr City and took up positions outside key Mahdi Army positions, as well as the Imam Ali and al-Sadr hospitals and al-Sadr's political office.

In Baghdad alone, US and Iraqi forces killed 173 Mahdi Army fighters during the six days of fighting from March 25 up until the cease-fire. The fighting has not abated in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army-dominated neighborhoods in northern and eastern Baghdad. A total of 520 Mahdi Army fighters have been confirmed killed in and around Sadr City since March 25.[28]

Iran's influence

Although Muqtada Al-Sadr, through his ties to the Prime Minister's Islamic Dawa Party, has historically had close ties to Iran, he has generally opposed Iranian clerical and political influence in Iraq.[29] Unlike the Al-Hakim family, of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and many leaders of the Dawa party who fled to Iran following the Persian Gulf War and remained there in exile until the American invasion in 2003 Muqtada al-Sadr and his family remained in Iraq throughout Saddam's rule. The refusal to leave Iraq garnered the Sadr family much support during and after the collapse of Saddam's regime. Early 2006, al-Sadr pledged military support to Iran and other neighboring Islamic countries if they were to be attacked by a foreign nation.[30] Since then, however, Al-Sadr has opposed the Dawa Party, and in March 2008 Prime Minister Maliki ordered a major offensive targeting the Mahdi Army in Basra.[31]

Activities

Since August 2006 the Mahdi Army and al-Sadr has rarely challenged coalition troops on a wide scale. Neither the coalition or the Iraqi government has made any move to arrest al-Sadr and they have not challenged the Mahdi Army's de facto control over a number of areas in southern Iraq. The Army continues to provide security in a number of southern cities.

The Mahdi Army has participated in battles against Sunni insurgents and may be operating its own justice system [32].

One member of Iraqi intelligence has predicted that a new highly specialized incarnation of the Mahdi Army will number from 150 to 200 and carry out attacks against high profile leaders to resist the occupation.[33] Aaos al Khafagy, the general commander of the Mahdi Army in Nasariyah, meanwhile predicted the new group would consist of “thousands” of men highly skilled in guerrilla warfare.[34] Khafagy further stated that the Mahdi Army would resist occupation through the political process.[35]

Structure

When reporting on an early October 2006 clash between the Mahdi Army and Coalition troops in Diwaniyah, BBC news suggested that currently the Mahdi Army is not a homogeneous force, with local groups apparently acting on own initiative [36].

In September 2006, a senior coalition intelligence official had remarked to reporters how there were political fractures within Al-Sadr's organization in protest of his relatively moderate political course of action [37], with one coalition intelligence official claiming that at least six major leaders no longer answer to al-Sadr and as many as a third of the army was now out of his direct control [38].

See also

References and notes

  1. ^ Intensified Combat on Streets Likely - washingtonpost.com
  2. ^ Revealed: IRA bombs killed eight British soldiers in Iraq - This Britain, UK - Independent.co.uk
  3. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/15/iraq.iran
  4. ^ http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?archive=true&article=43036&section=104
  5. ^ Sadr orders militia to quit Najaf | BBC News
  6. ^ US troops violate Sadr ceasefire agreement - Green Left
  7. ^ Fighting flares around Sadr home -BBC News
  8. ^ Iraqi bid to arrest al-Sadr fails - Boston Globe
  9. ^ Headlines for August 3 - Democracy Now!
  10. ^ US troops kill 300 in Najaf raid - The Guardian
  11. ^ British troops face Iraq jihad | Telegraph
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ '300 die' in battle for holy city as Iraqi truce ends | Telegraph
  14. ^ Radical cleric 'wounded' in Najaf | BBC News
  15. ^ UK journalist kidnapped in Basra | BBC News
  16. ^ Kidnapped UK journalist released | BBC News
  17. ^ Al-Sadr militia swaps prisoners with Iraq | CNN
  18. ^ Sadr militia's new muscle in south | Christian Science Monitor
  19. ^ Ex-Iraqi leader claims assassination attempt | CNN.com
  20. ^ "Attack on Iraqi City Shows Militia’s Power". New York Times. 2006-10-20. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/20/world/middleeast/21iraqcnd.html?ex=1318996800&en=a542d37a1dff56f9&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss. Retrieved 2006-10-20.  
  21. ^ Al-Sadr calls for calm after Shiite militias clash in Karbala, Baghdad - CNN.com
  22. ^ Iraqi militia to hear Saturday whether to resume fighting - CNN
  23. ^ Al-Sadr extends Mehdi Army cease-fire | CNN
  24. ^ Al-Sadr urges 'civil revolt' as battles erupt in Basra | The Guardian
  25. ^ Iraqi troops, militias clash in Basra | USA Today
  26. ^ Iraqi forces battle gunmen in oil city | Reuters AlertNet
  27. ^ Iraqi raids anger Shiite militia | CNN
  28. ^ Iraqi Army presses into Sadr City - The Long War Journal
  29. ^ In Post-War Iraq, Placating the Shi'a is Paramount
  30. ^ Cleric says militia would defend Iran if attacked | Jerusalem Post
  31. ^ Radical Militia and Iraqi Army in Fierce Battle 29 August 2006
  32. ^ Iraq: Al-Sadr Militia Taking Law Into Own Hands | Radio Free Europe
  33. ^ [2]
  34. ^ The National: Elite Sadr unit hopes to vanquish US
  35. ^ Middle East Times:Medhi Army retooling, commander says
  36. ^ Battle rages in Shia Iraqi Town - BBC News
  37. ^ US:Iraq failing to tackle death squads - The Guardian
  38. ^ Cleric Said to Lose Reins of Parts of Iraqi Militia | New York Times

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