Mahdi Army

FormedApril 2003
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackApril 4, 2004: Members of the Mahdi army coordinated attacks in the Iraqi cities of Sadr City, Najaf, Kufa, and Amara, killing Americans, Spaniards, Salvadorans, and Iraqis. (35 killed, 200 wounded). Most of the casualties came from a clash between armed militiamen and a Spanish-held garrison. [1]
Last AttackJanuary 2, 2010: A Promise Day Brigade sniper shot a US soldier, as seen in a video of multiple attacks released by the group (1 killed). The Promise Day Brigade is affiliated with the Al-Sadr Trend, to which the Mahdi army is also loyal. [2]
UpdatedFebruary 18, 2012

Narrative Summary

The Mahdi Army was formed by Moqtada al-Sadr and Imad Mugniyah in April 2003 following the end of Saddam Hussein's regime. Three hundred recruits were found in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and then sent to Lebanon to be trained by Hezbollah.[3] The group remained relatively unknown until April 2004 when it came into the spotlight during a violent battle against American forces in Najaf. This battle was the first major attack by a Shiite militia against the coalition forces in Iraq. After this battle and as late as 2008, the Mahdi Army was regarded as "the most powerful force on the streets of Iraq after the American military."[4] In addition to having a powerful military presence, the group has members serving in the Iraqi police, army, and government.[5] In 2007, the group was viewed as more dangerous than AQI in many areas.[6] 

In August 2007, following a violent clash between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade in Karbala during a Shiite pilgrimage, Sadr ordered a "freeze" of the group. During this period, the group underwent a reshaping. Militiamen underwent tests to prove their character and physical ability, and the structure within the group was overhauled.[7] 

However, not all members followed Sadr's order. In fact, as early as 2005 the group may not have been as organized as was popularly believed. Instead, individual units of a few hundred members may have operated independently. [8]  The group was viewed as having been split into the "noble Mahdi Army" and the "rogue Mahdi Army."  The rogue Mahdi army is also called the "secret Cells" or "special Groups." The noble Mahdi Army is the portion of the Army which obeyed the cease-fire and cooperated with the government and security forces; the rouge Mahdi Army consisted of members who worked with Iranians, killed civilians, and embezzled funds.[9] The 'special Groups" were known to carry out attacks mimicking AQI in order to garner support for the militias from the Shiite community.[10]

In November 2008, after 18 months of effective separation, the US military classified both factions as part of the same group.[11] 

Starting in early 2008, the Mahdi Army began to lose its strongholds in Iraq. Some of the first were Basra and large portions of Baghdad, both of which were taken in a joint operation between the Iraqi and American forces in March 2008.[12] 

Between June and August 2008, Sadr restructured a portion of the Mahdi Army, creating an armed wing and a social wing. More wanted to join the armed wing than could be trained, but they did not want to join the old social wing. As a result, Sadr announced a third wing in early 2010, Al-Munasirun, to focus on the social actions the group embraced during its first few years.[13] 

Though the group had little public activity following the 2008 restructuring, Sadr announced the restoration of the Mahdi Army in April 2010, following his bloc winning 40 out of 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Much of his success in the election stemmed from the fact that "al-Sadr was able to present himself and his followers as the primary political force to defend the Shiite population."[14] Following the elections, the group has reactivated, retaliating for attacks against Shiite communities in Baghdad and trying to educate the youth of the city.[15][16] 

Since early 2010, the Mahdi Army has been recast as the Mumahidoon, meaning "to pave the way."[17] This group has a social focus, although members stated they would take up arms if Sadr issued a new decree.[18] The Mumahidoon provides Koranic lessons, organizes soccer teams, provides circumcision for the poor, collects trash after pilgrimages, and teaches computer literacy.[19] 

With the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. troops, Mumahidoon is viewed as one of the possible paths Sadr may take. Most "believe Mr. Sadr's overarching goal is to create a state-within-a-state like Hezbollah until he can take power in Iraq."[20]Sadr kept his followers from joining political protests in February 2011, protecting "Mr. Maliki from an Arab Spring-like uprising."[21] Sadr, however, in September 2011 issued his own complaints against the government and held short rallies.[22]Recently, the group's activities in the capital were suspended as a property dispute between rival factions of the group resulted in burning several homes, demonstrating that internal strife within the group does exist.[23]

Leadership

In 2003, Moqtada al-Sadr and Imad Mugniyah, a senior commander within Hezbollah, formed the Mahdi Army. Since then, Moqtada al-Sadr has been the leader of the group. Sadr is an anti-American Shiite cleric, and though he was relatively unknown prior to 2003, he has since been heralded as "one of the most important Shiite leaders" in Iraq.[24] However, from summer 2007 until at least the end of 2008, some questioned his authority as many "rogue" members led attacks despite Sadr's request for a cease-fire.[25][26] 

Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, an important Shiite cleric during the Gulf War and into the 1990s. From 2007 to 2010, Moqtada al-Sadr studied at a seminary in Qom, south of Tehran to become a mujtahid, which would allow him to issue religious decrees.[27]

  1. Moqtada al-Sadr (2003 to Unknown): In 2003, Moqtada al-Sadr and Imad Mugniyah, a senior commander within Hezbollah, formed the Mahdi Army. Since then, Moqtada al-Sadr has been the leader of the group.

Ideology & Goals

In "Divine Evolution of Al-Mahdi Army," an editorial published in an Iraqi newspaper in November 2004, the group presented an outline of itself. In its "first phase," the group went through two events: "Preparing for the "Holy Defence"" and "Fulfilling the "Holy Defence"." Preparation included training and organizing brigades, enlightening the Mahdi Army religiously and morally, and preparing for the defense of Islam. Fulfillment consists of going to "war against the infidel army." The Mahdi Army's main goal is "to provide solutions to secure the independence of Iraq and the social solidarity of the Iraqis."[28]

Size Estimates

Resources

While many believe the Mahdi Army is funded and supported by Iran,[37][38],[39] officials in the group deny anything more than religious cooperation.[40] The group is financed in part by extortion, stealing cars, weapons trafficking, armed protection of businesses, and kidnapping.[41][42] In areas where the group has a strong presence, it often has control over much of the business and utilities. Examples include power distribution, gasoline, and housing.[43]


One of Sadr's aides reported that the members are not given pay nor are they provided with weapons.[44] Military equipment is said to be so prevalent in Iraq that foreign supply is unnecessary.[45] 

In the two weeks following the Sadr City cease-fire negotiated in May 2008, the Iraqi Army found nearly 100 weapon caches belonging to the Mahdi Army. Equipment found included "deadly explosively formed projectile roadside bombs, explosives, mortars, land mines, rockets, anti-aircraft rockets, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades, mortar tubes, rocket launchers, AK-47s, sniper rifles, ammunition, and other bomb making materials and weapons." There were 251 devices classified as either medium or heavy weaponry.[46]

External Influences

Iran has been accused of training, supplying, and financing the Mahdi Army,[47] though aides to Sadr deny such claims.[48] Training is said to be assisted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.[49] 

In addition to Iran, Syria is believed to have cooperated in helping link the Mahdi Army to Hezbollah in Lebanon.[50]

Geographical Locations

The group exists and operates entirely within Iraq, mostly in Shiite districts within Baghdad and to the south. Some training is carried out in Iran.

Targets & Tactics

The Mahdi Army is a Shiite group and has committed many acts against Sunni Muslims. Some crimes committed include violently driving out Sunnis from many areas in Baghdad, and denying them of many services and resources (gas and hospital services, for example).[51] In the months following the bombing of the Samarra mosque in 2006 (believed to have been carried out by AQI), over 10,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence.[52] In May 2007, however, Sadr explicitly denounced sectarian violence and attacks.[53] 

The group focuses on attacking American forces as well as those that work with Americans, including the Iraqi police and other foreign militaries. However, sectarian violence has also been carried out by the group on multiple occasions despite it being condemned by Sadr. 

Tactics used by the group include improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombs, and kidnappings.

Political Activities

Sadr and his followers supported the election of Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister of Iraq in April 2006. As of late 2006, it was believed that "Maliki relies on Sadr, who controls a large bloc of parliamentary seats, for political support and can ill afford to alienate his religious and conservative base."[54] 

On April 9, 2007, Sadr organized a rally protesting American presence in Iraq. Though Sadr did not attend, he issued a statement which was read to the tens of thousands who filled the streets of Najaf. There was no violence reported on the day associated with the rally. Experts believed Sadr's intention was to show the extent of his support in the community.[55] 

On May 25, 2007, Sadr explicitly denounced sectarian violence and attacks.[56] 

In August 2007, Sadr commanded a halt in the activities of the Mahdi Army following violent attacks in Karbala during a pilgrimage. Though there were reports that the group would resume in February 2008, Sadr announced an extension of the "freeze" at least until August 2008.[57] Many leaders within the Mahdi Army requested an end to the suspension, but Sadr opposed, drawing on the fact that militiamen were continuing to receive poor treatment from local authorities following the attacks. The group issued a statement dissociating itself from any members who ignored the suspension, but soon created a group that would carry out armed attacks.[58] 

During the election in March 2010, Sadr's bloc won 40 out of 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament.[59] 

During the Arab Spring of February 2011, Sadr kept his followers from joining in anti-government protests.[60]

Major Attacks

  1. April 4, 2004: Coordinated attacks in Sadr City, Najaf, Kufa, and Amara, killing at least 35 people (American, Spanish, and Salvadoran soldiers as well as Iraqis) and wounding about 200 more. This was the first major attack by any Shiite militias against the American-led coalition (35 killed).[61]
  2. August 13, 2004: Kidnapped an American journalist and an Iraqi translator in Nasiriyah, capital of the Dhi Qar province. The two were released nine days later (0 killed).[62]
  3. November 2004: The group engaged in a three week long battle against American forces in which the Mahdi Army fought from a shrine in Najaf (hundreds killed).[63]
  4. October 27, 2005: A group of Mahdi Army militiamen set several homes northeast of Baghdad on fire and engaged in a fight afterwards (20 killed).[64]
  5. July 9, 2006: Attacked several neighborhoods in Sadr City (11 killed, 32 wounded).[65]
  6. August 28, 2006: Engaged in a battle in Diwaniya against Iraqi soldiers (28 killed, 70 wounded).[66]
  7. October 20, 2006: Attacked Iraqi police stations in Amara following the arrest of a Mahdi Army senior member (15 killed, 90 wounded).[67]
  8. May 16, 2007: Among various attacks, militants attacked the mayor’s office with mortars and explosives and launched RPGs at a police officer’s home in An Nasiriyah. The attacks followed the arrest of two Mahdi Army militiamen the night before (12 killed, 75 wounded).[68]
  9. June 2007: Coordinated attacks in Baghdad with the intention of pushing Sunnis out of the city (Casualties unknown).[69]
  10. August 2007: Fought street battles in Karbala against the Badr Brigade during a Shiite pilgrimage. More than 300 were arrested in conjunction with the violence (50 killed, 300 wounded).[70]
  11. August 2007: The governors of the Muthanna and Qadisiyah provinces were killed in separate roadside bombings which the Mahdi Army was believed by Iraqi police to have been behind. The group denied connection (6 killed).[71]
  12. October 2007: Following the killing of a commander, the Mahdi Army retaliated against the Iraqi military and police in a violent clash. The Army “fully controlled the city” of Basra and had captured 50 soldiers and police officers by the end of the battle (4 killed, 10 wounded).[72]
  13. October 28, 2007: One brigade within the Army in northern Baghdad captured 11 Sunni and Shia tribal leaders. Most of leaders were freed by the Iraqi Army in the following days (0 killed).[73]
  14. March 2008: Over the course of several weeks, Iraqi military forces attempted to gain control of Basra, ¬which was being defended by the Mahdi Army. There was retaliation by the Mahdi Army in Sadr City and throughout Baghdad. (2000 Mahdi Army members killed, thousands wounded, 3000 fled to Iran).[74]
  15. June 17, 2008: A car bomb in a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad was set off by the Mahdi Army. The attack was initially believed to have been carried out by AQI (51 killed, 80 wounded).[75]
  16. January 2, 2010: A Promise Day Brigade sniper shot a US soldier, as seen in a video of mulitple attacks released by the group. (1 killed).[76]

Relationships with Other Groups

The Mahdi Army has been tied to Hezbollah since its inception. In April 2003, the initial members of the Army were trained by small Hezbollah cells inside Iraq.[77] On August 21, 2007, in an interview with The Independent, Sadr "clearly and proudly admitted to working hand in hand with Lebanese Hezbollah." He said, ""we have formal links with Hezbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries.""[78] The following day, Sadr's spokesman claimed the interview was fabricated, though he did not deny the connection with Hezbollah.[79] 

Since the start of the drafting of Iraq's new constitution, Sadr and the Mahdi Army have clashed with other Shiite parties, especially the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).[80] In December 2005, the rivalry between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, SCIRI's armed wing, was described as being so great "that it has come to shape local politics and society." The disagreements between the groups have more to do with the personalities of the leaders and with politics than with ideological differences.[81] Following four years of fighting, Sadr and Abdul Aziz Hakim of SCIRI agreed to a cease-fire on October 6, 2007.[82] 

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), following the push by the Mahdi Army to control the west bank of the Tigris, issued a statement on June 8, 2007 calling for Sunnis to help fight against the Army.[83] 

After Sadr's command for a cease-fire in 2007, some smaller groups splintered from the Mahdi Army with the intention of continuing to fight. Many of these groups have been referred to as the 'special Groups" and the 'secret Cells" and have been trained in Iran. One of the most notable groups is the "League of the Righteous."[84] 

Between June and August 2008, Sadr restructured a portion of the Mahdi Army, creating an armed wing and a social wing. It was believed this new wing would consist of the members of the Mahdi Army who, backed by Iran, continued to carry out attacks during the requested cease-fire by Sadr (the 'special Groups" and 'secret Cells").[85] This armed wing, made up of trained combatants who would fight only foreign troops, was called the Ilyoom Al Mawoud, or the "Promised Day Brigade" (PDB).[86] Clerics loyal to Sadr requested that Sadr's followers who were not recruited for the PDB instead join the new social wing associated with the Mahdi Army, the Momahidoun, or "those who pave the way."[87] At the start of 2010, as more wanted to join the PDB than could be trained but did not desire to be a part of the Momahidoun, Sadr announced a third wing, Al-Munasirun, to focus on the social actions the group embraced during its first few years.[88]

Community Relationships

Initial recruitment for the group took place in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, following the elimination of the regime of Saddam Hussein.[89] After these initial few were trained, recruiters targeted young men near mosques in Iraq. The recruits were told they would be helping defend their country and their Shiite faith against the Americans. The group's major appeal has been to ""those young and desperate Shiite in Iraq's urban slums who have not seen any benefit to their lives from liberation.""[90] The group saw an increase in recruitment success in Baghdad in February 2006 following the bombing of a Shiite shrine.[91] 

The Mahdi Army is known for the services it has provided to Shiite members of the community, especially during the first few years of the insurgency when it was trying to win popular support. In 2004, the group provided "religious courts for resolving disputes and punishing criminals; Mahdi Army police patrols; and even Mahdi Army town councils for planning social programs."[92] In 2006, Shiites felt the Mahdi Army provided security not available from the American or Iraqi forces.[93] In February 2007, the Mahdi Army in Sadr City was viewed in a positive light. Members offered protection and security to the community, enforced the law, and helped rebuild using the $41 million from the Iraqi government for reconstruction.[94] 

In one Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, residents paid 3,000 Iraqi dinars monthly in 2007 to the local Mahdi Army. In return, the members helped with trash collection and with housing refugees.[95] As late as April 2008, one resident of Sadr City claimed, this group ""is an army of volunteers… They are clerics at night and heroes during the day. […] This army is a helping society. They clean the streets, protect our schools and distribute fuel and gas.""[96] 

Although much of the surrounding population supported the Mahdi Army in 2004, some felt the group was excessive in its "thug-like behavior and looting."[97] Many Shi"ite leaders called upon the Mahdi Army to withdraw from certain areas and remove its weapons from shrines as early as 2004.[98] 

The Mahdi Army's appeal to the Iraqi people had been its disconnect from the government. Members of the community felt the politics going on were not relevant to their daily lives, but the services provided by the Army were wholly relevant.[99] However, with security improving from the government and military forces in 2008, the Army saw a decrease in popularity. People became tired of the corruption seen amongst the members including "crime, robberies, murders, and rapes," as well as kidnappings of both Sunnis and Shiites simply for the money they"d receive as ransom.[100]

Other Key Characteristics & Events

In January 2007, Maliki and the Iraqi officials arrested dozens of senior members of the Mahdi Army as well as hundreds of other militiamen.[101] This marked the first major move Maliki made to separate himself from Sadr, who had initially helped push him into office. 

From March through June 2007, one Mahdi Army-controlled district saw 157 roadside bombs and 491 gunfire attacks.[102]


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