Mahdi Army

FormedApril 2003
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackApril 4, 2004: Members of the Mahdi Army carried out simultaneous attacks in Baghdad, Najaf, Kufa, and Amara, targeting American, Spanish, Salvadoran, and Iraqi coalition forces. Most of the casualties were the result of a clash between Mahdi Army militiamen and the Spanish garrison outside Najaf. (35 killed, 200+ civilians, Mahdi Army fighters and coalition troops wounded) [1]
Last AttackSeptember 3, 2014: According to Peace Brigades Military Spokesman Ahmed al-Akili, the Peace Brigades (the successor organization to the Mahdi Army) and Iraqi Army soldiers killed over 30 Islamic State (IS) militants while retaking the Albu-Hasan district near Amerli. (30+ killed, unknown wounded) [2]
UpdatedJuly 24, 2015

Narrative Summary

The Mahdi Army, also known as Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), was formed by Muqtada al-Sadr in June 2003 in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  [3] [4] Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who founded the prominent Sadrist Movement in the 1980s, a vehemently nationalist political movement popular among Iraq’s Shiite lower class. Sadr the elder was assassinated in 1999, presumably by the Hussein regime. Despite being only 29 years old, his son Muqtada al-Sadr succeeded him as the leader of the Sadrists as well as one of the most powerful and respected Shiite clerics in Iraq. [5] [6] [7] Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, Sadr called upon the Sadrist to join his new militia, the Mahdi Army, with the goal of expelling the U.S. coalition from Iraq and establishing an Iraqi Shiite government. Some of the group’s initial three hundred fighters were recruited in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and together with their Iraqi counterparts were sent to Hezbollah camps in Lebanon for training. [8] [9] 

The Mahdi Army remained relatively unknown until April 2004 when Mahdi Army fighters and American troops clashed in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. [10] During the uprising, the Mahdi Army took control of Kut, Najaf, and parts of Basra before agreeing to a ceasefire with coalition forces in May 2004. [11] [12] However, by August the Mahdi Army had once again begun to target coalition forces. [13] Over the following years, the group came to be viewed as even more dangerous than Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in many areas of Iraq and as second only to the U.S. in military strength.  [14] [15] 

Although the Mahdi Army continued to focus its efforts on expelling U.S. troops from Iraq, Sadr also quietly backed several candidates in the 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections. Sadr instructed the elected Sadrists to join the Iraqi Union Alliance coalition with the Daawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).  The Sadrists’ participation was crucial to the success of the coalition and ultimately resulted in the ascension of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. [16] [17] Sadr and Maliki, however, were often at odds, and by 2006 Sadr and the Mahdi army had begun to openly oppose the Iraqi government. [18]

During the period from roughly 2004 to 2007, accusations began to surface that the Mahdi Army was targeting Sunni Iraqis and stoking sectarian violence. [19] Although Sadr has always denied running “death squads” targeting Sunni civilians, the Mahdi Army, or at least rogue elements within it, was reportedly very active in the sectarian violence of 2006-2007. [20] [21] 

Despite an increase in popularity following the Golden Mosque bombings, the group’s provocation of a series of bloody skirmishes in early 2007 tarnished the Mahdi Army’s reputation among even its Shiite supporters, eventually forcing Sadr to re-orient the group. This turning point occurred in August 2007 following a violent clash in Karbala between the Mahdi Army and another Shiite militia, the Badr Brigades, in which 50 Shiite pilgrims were killed. [22] [23] The Mahdi Army was blamed for the casualties and, in light of the group’s already tainted reputation as an instigator of sectarian violence, Sadr ordered his supporters to lay down their arms. [24] However, not all Mahdi Army members followed Sadr's order, and individual units began to operate independently. [25] Thus, the Mahdi Army split into the "noble” Mahdi Army and the "rogue” Mahdi Army.  The noble Mahdi Army obeyed Sadr’s ceasefire command and continued to obey his orders, while the rogue Mahdi Army became known as the "Secret Cells" or "Special Groups” and continued to fight despite Sadr’s orders. [26] [27] It is unclear what became of the “rogue” Mahdi Army, although there is some evidence to suggest that it fragmented and merged with other, existing militant organizations. Sadr’s inability to control his own organization was not a completely new phenomenon.  As early as 2004, many Mahdi Army commanders had begun to self-finance when Sadr’s funding from his Iranian mentor, Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini Haeri, had ceased. [28] Additionally, in 2006 Qais al-Khazali, the leader of a military unit within the Mahdi Army, split from the larger organization and restructured his unit into Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).  AAH remained a prominent radical Shiite militant group in Iraq through January 2012 and was closely tied with the Iranian Quds Force, from which it received the majority of its funding. [29]

In late 2007 or early 2008, Sadr went into self-imposed exile in Qom, Iran, where he resumed his clerical studies while also continuing to direct the Mahdi Army from afar. [30] [31] On Sadr’s orders, the group resumed military action in February 2008, provoking a massive Iraqi Security Force offensive against Mahdi Army elements in Basra on March 26, 2008. Over 30,000 Iraqi Security Force troops were involved in the operation and over 600 civilians and combatants were killed within the first few days of hostilities alone.  As the fighting ground to a bloody stalemate, Sadr finally agreed to an Iran-brokered ceasefire agreement on March 31, 2008. By the time hostilities ceased, over 2,000 Mahdi Army fighters had been killed. [32] [33] [34] 

Following the 2008 ceasefire, Sadr shifted the Mahdi Army’s focus away from military operations to the provision of social services. To do so, he created a new non-violent branch called the Mumahidoon, to which he reassigned the majority of the Mahdi Army’s members. Despite its official name change, the organization continued to be referred to colloquially as the Mahdi Army. [35] The Mumahidoon provided a wide range of services to Shiite communities in the suburbs of Baghdad and throughout Southern Iraq that included Koranic lessons, organization of soccer teams, neighborhood reconstruction, and trash collection. [36] [37] Despite the Mumahidoon’s peaceful aims, its members remained willing to take up arms again if ordered by Sadr. [38] [39] Although the majority of the Mahdi Army was reassigned to the Mumahidoon, Sadr also retained a small elite military branch called the Promised Day Brigades (PDB). The PDB was prohibited from attacking Iraqi citizens or Iraqi troops, but did continue to assail U.S. forces through 2011. Credible information on the PDB’s attacks on American forces is sparse; however, it is clear that the frequency of the attacks increased in the lead up the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. [40] [41]

In preparation for the 2010 national elections, Sadr shifted the Mahdi Army’s focus yet again, this time towards politics.  From Iran, he reassigned the majority of Mumahidoon members to positions in his Iraqi National Alliance Party, the main Sadrist party running in the 2010 parliamentary elections. [42] In doing so, Sadr greatly weakened the social service provision capacity of the organization.  Regardless, the elections were a relative success for the Sadrists, with the Iraqi National Alliance party winning 40 out of 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament. [43] [44] At the urging of Iran, Sadr and his Iraqi National Alliance party agreed to enter Maliki’s coalition, even though they had violently opposed him from 2006-2008.  [45] [46] The party's support for Maliki ensured him a second term as Prime Minister and the Sadrists 8 out of the 32 cabinet seats in the new government. [47] [48] With a newfound stake in the Maliki regime, Sadr, who returned to Iraq in January 2011, prohibited his followers from joining anti-government protests in February 2011. [49] [50] [51]  [52] However, by September 2011 Sadr had become fed up with what he viewed as Maliki’s divisive policies and tyrannical tendencies and began holding small anti-Maliki rallies. By December 2011 Sadr had reverted to openly opposing the Maliki government and called for new elections. [53] [54] 

On August 6, 2013, Sadr shocked his supporters and critics alike when he announced that he would retire from political activity and dismantle the Mahdi Army.  It remains unclear what precipitated this proclamation. However, despite the Mahdi Army’s official demobilization, its members continued to follow Sadr and the Sadrist movement remained prominent in Iraqi politics.  [55] After the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, Sadr called upon his supporters once again, reforming the Mahdi Army under a new name, the Peace Brigades. [56] The first public appearance of the Peace Brigades occurred on June 22, 2014, when hundreds of former Mahdi Army fighters outfitted in fatigues and brandishing assault rifles paraded down the streets of Sadr City. [57] 

At its inception, the Peace Brigades had two main aims: the defeat of IS and the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. [58] The latter of these goals was accomplished in the summer of 2014 when Maliki was replaced as Prime Minister by Haider al-Abadi, to whom Sadr quickly pledged his support. Since al-Abadi’s ascension to power, the Peace Brigades has worked closely with the ISF in the fight against IS. [59] Together they recaptured much of the Jurf al-Sakhar region and secured the city of Samarra in the Salah Ad Din province against an IS offensive in the winter of 2014-2015. [60]  [61] [62] However, after several incidents of Shiite militias massacring Sunni civilians in February 2015, Sadr withdrew the Peace Brigades from the front lines.  There is no evidence, however, that the Peace Brigades participated in the sectarian killings. In March 2015, Sadr once again deployed the Peace Brigades, this time to aid government soldiers in their offensive to retake Tikrit from IS. [63] 

Although the Peace Brigades are allied with the Iraqi Government and hence indirectly with U.S. forces in the fight against IS, tensions still exist between the Peace Brigades and U.S. forces.  For example, in September 2014 Sadr ordered the Peace Brigades to withdraw from the front lines if the U.S. continued to intervene in the conflict.  [64] [65] The U.S. ignored Sadr’s warning and the Peace Brigades nevertheless remained at the front. [66] Again in May 2015, Sadr threatened the U.S., this time warning that the Peace Brigades would attack U.S. personnel inside Iraq if the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing direct aid to the Kurdish Peshmerga. The bill was passed but there have been no reports of attacks on U.S. forces by the Peace Brigades. [67]

Leadership


  1. Hazim al-Araji (Present to Unknown): Araji is a senior aid to Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr appointed him to be one of the leaders of the Mumahidoon when it was created in 2008.[68]
  2. Muqtada al-Sadr (June 2003 to Unknown): Moqtada al-Sadr is one of the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq and is the founder of the Mahdi Army. He has led the Mahdi Army since forming it in June 2003 and has been the architect of organization’s many reorganizations and goal changes. He is also the leader of the Sadrist political movement and enjoys widespread personal support among Iraq’s Shiite lower class.[69]

Ideology & Goals

The Mahdi Army is a Twelver Shiite organization.  In Islamic theology, the Mahdi is an apocalyptic figure who will assist Christ in preparing the world for the Yaum al-Qiyamah, or Judgment Day. [70] [71] While Sunnis and other Shiite schools of Islam believe that the Mahdi has yet to arrive, the Twelver school of Shiite Islam believes that the Mahdi is a historical figure already on earth. [72] [73] According to this theology, the Mahdi was the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared in 873 but who still lives unseen among us, waiting to reappear at the end of days. [74] [75] 

In addition to its strong Shiite identity, the Mahdi Army is vehemently nationalist and populist. [76] It was formed in large part as a response to the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 and fought primarily against coalition forces until their withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. [77] 

The goals of the Mahdi Army have evolved as the political landscape of Iraq has shifted over the past decade. The original goal of the organization was the expulsion of coalition troops from Iraq. [78] However, after its 2008 ceasefire with the coalition forces and Iraqi government, Sadr created the Mumahidoon and reoriented the group towards social service provision. [79] Prior to the 2010 elections, Sadr again redefined the group’s mission, this time focusing its efforts on building mainstream political support for his nationalist Shiite agenda. [80] [81] Despite winning a prominent place in the Maliki Government in 2010, Sadr’s disillusionment with the Maliki government grew throughout 2011 and eventually Sadr called for new elections and Maliki’s resignation. [82] [83] With the rise of IS and the ouster of Maliki in 2014, the Mahdi Army again switched its aim, this time to defeating IS. [84] [85]

Name Changes

As the mission of the Mahdi Army has changed and evolved over the last decade, the group has taken on a series of different names. The Mahdi Army is also frequently referred to by its Arabic name, Jaysh al-Mahdi, or its acronym, JAM. While the names listed below represent the official name changes of the group as stated by its leadership, it has also been known as the Mahdi Army/JAM throughout its existence. [86]

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

The Mahdi Army is not designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, United Nations, or European Union.

Resources

Although some of the initial recruitment for the Mahdi Army took place in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the vast majority of the Mahdi Army’s members are Iraqi. [105] In the group’s early days, recruiters targeted young men near Shiite mosques, telling them that they would be helping to defend their country against American invaders. [106] The group was particularly successful in attracting young, unemployed men who had seen no benefit from “liberation,” and if anything were less secure than prior to the 2003 invasion. [107] The Mahdi Army saw a significant increase in their recruitment success after the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed in February 2006. [108] They were able to use the incident to portray themselves as the defenders of the Shiite faith in Iraq. [109] 

Although Sadr has denied receiving Iranian aid, U.S. intelligence has always suspected that the Iranian Quds Force has supplied the Mahdi Army with weapons and financing. [110] [111] [112] [113] At the very least, Iran harbored Sadr in Qom, allowing him to run Mahdi Army operations from their territory from 2008-2011. [114]  Additionally, the Mahdi Army has received significant funding from individual Iranian patrons, most notably Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini Haeri, a mentor of Sadr’s.

The Mahdi Army also uses extortion, car theft, weapons trafficking, armed protection of businesses, and kidnapping to finance its operations. [115] [116] In the past, in areas where the group had a strong presence, they had a hand in everything from the housing market to power distribution. [117] They used the revenue from these practices to build a surprisingly sophisticated weapons arsenal. In the two weeks following the 2008 ceasefire, the Iraqi Army found nearly 100 weapon caches belonging to the Mahdi Army. [118] 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." [119] There were 251 devices classified as either medium or heavy weaponry. [120]

External Influences

Although Sadr has studied in Iranian seminaries at several points in his life, his relationship with Iran is strained at best. [121] [122] Unlike the Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, and the so-called “special groups,” the Mahdi Army has largely rejected Iranian influence (although not always their aid). [123] [124] [125] This largely because the Sadrists, who form the base of the Mahdi Army, believe that Iraq’s Shiite Arabs, rather than the “Persian interlopers,” are the rightful leaders of the Iraqi Shiite community and thus assert that Iraq’s government should put Iraqi interests first, regardless of the wishes of their ideological brethren to the east. [126] Nevertheless, Iran has likely helped train, supply, and finance the Mahdi Army at various points in the group’s history. [127] For instance, Iran harbored Sadr in Qom, allowing him to run Mahdi Army operations from their territory from 2007/2008-2011. Additionally, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard may have assisted Sadr in his efforts to reorganize the Mahdi Army during his exile. Sadr in turn acquiesced to Iran’s insistence that he back Maliki in the 2010 parliamentary elections. [128]  

There is also evidence that Hezbollah helped to train Mahdi Army fighters during the first years of its existence. [129] According to the U.S. military, 1,000-2,000 Mahdi Army troops visited Lebanon for extensive training with Hezbollah operatives in 2003. [130] The relationship between these two groups was largely facilitated by Iran, although Syrian officials may also have played a role. [131] 

Geographical Locations

The Mahdi Army operates entirely within Iraq, mostly in Shiite districts within Baghdad and to the south. [132] Its historic strongholds include Sadr City, Najaf, and Basra. Since its re-formation in 2014, the Peace Brigades has extended its operations further to the west and north in order to combat IS. Specifically, they have fought IS in Jurf al-Sakhar in the Babil province and Samarra in the Salah Ad Din province. [133] [134] [135]

Targets & Tactics

From 2004 to 2011, the Mahdi Army focused its attacks on coalition forces, hoping to compel them to withdraw from Iraq. [136] Although the majority of Mahdi Army fighters were equipped only with AK-47s and generally poorly trained, the group was adept at using Explosively Formed Projectiles/Penetrators (EFPs) and Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortars (IRAMs). [137] Their most effective weapons, however, were Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs); in the period from January 2007 to June 2008 alone there were over 1,500 Mahdi Army IED attacks on coalition forces. [138] These devices ranged from simple homemade explosives to sophisticated mines that used infra-red sensors as triggers—an innovation originally used by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). [139]

Although Sadr has always denied the Mahdi Army’s participation in sectarian violence, the group reportedly often attacked Sunni Iraqis, especially in the period from 2004-2007.  Although it appears that the Mahdi Army largely targeted Sunni militant groups, there were also reports of Mahdi Army fighters beating, raping, and killing Sunni civilians. [140] After capturing territory, the Mahdi Army often forced Sunni residents to relocate and dumped bodies of Sunni fighters in Sunni neighborhoods as a fear tactic. [141] In places where Mahdi Army territory remained a mix of Sunni and Shiite citizens, Sunnis were often denied resources, such as gasoline.[142] There is also evidence that the Mahdi Army sponsored death squads during the sectarian civil violence in 2006-2007 that targeted Sunni neighborhoods in and around Baghdad, apparently with the aim of driving the Sunni civilians from their land. [143] [144] However, it is unclear whether top Mahdi Army commanders actively sponsored this sectarian violence or whether it was the work of rogue commanders outside Sadr’s control. [145] 

After the creation of the Mumahidoon in 2008, the Mahdi Army moved away from armed resistance and instead focused on social service provision. The Mumahidoon provided local Shiite populations with Koranic lessons, organized recreational soccer teams, neighborhood reconstruction, and trash collection. [146] [147] At the same time, Sadr also ran the Promised Day Brigades, which was a more highly trained and better-equipped military force than the regular Mahdi Army had been. [148] Sadr asserted strict control over the Promised Day Brigades, limiting their targets to the coalition forces and enacting strict punishments attacks on civilians or Iraqi Security Forces. [149] Like the Promised Day Brigades, the rebranded Peace Brigades appears to have a higher level of training than the original Mahdi Army. [150]

Political Activities

The Mahdi Army has roots in the Sadrist Movement, a nationalist Shiite political movement started by Muqtada Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, during the Hussein regime. [151] [152] Moqtada al-Sadr succeeded his father as the movement’s leader in 1999, and the Sadrists have been closely tied to the Mahdi Army since its formation in 2003. [153] Despite his previous opposition to Shiite parties such as the Daawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Sadr choose to join these groups in the United Iraqi Alliance coalition for the 2005 elections. [154] The Sadrist bloc’s support was crucial to the coalition’s victory in the election. [155] In return for supporting Nouri al-Maliki in the coalition, Sadr ensured that his followers received several powerful positions in the cabinet. [156] However, tensions between the Maliki Government and Sadr quickly arose, culminating in the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) 2008 offensive against the Mahdi Army in Basra. By this time Sadr had already fled to Iran, from where he reorganized the Mahdi Army first into social service provision group and subsequently into a political party focused on the upcoming 2010 parliamentary elections. [157] In order to do so, Sadr reassigned many Mahdi Army members to political roles in his Iraqi National Alliance party, the main Sadrist party in the 2010 election. [158] The Iraqi National Alliance party won 40 out of the 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament, making it a key coalition building party. [159] [160] Although Sadr toyed with the idea of supporting Maliki’s opposition, at the urging of Iran he allied with Maliki, winning Maliki the premiership and Sadrists 8 of the 32 cabinet seats.  [161] However, by 2011, Sadr once again began to oppose Maliki and called for the dissolution of the parliament and new elections.  [162] 

On August 6, 2013, Sadr surprised many when he announced that he was retiring from political activity. [163] Although the Mahdi Army was officially disbanded, the Sadrists continued to play a prominent role in the government and signaled their readiness to rearm if Sadr called upon them to do so. Sadr did just this following IS’s conquest of Mosul in June 2014. Returning from retirement, Sadr announced the remobilization of the Mahdi Army, now called the Peace Brigades, in June 2014. [164] 

Major Attacks

  1. April 4, 2004: The Mahdi Army coordinated attacks in Sadr City, Najaf, Kufa, and Amara, killing at least 35 coalition troops and wounding over 200 more. This was the first major attack by any Shiite militia against the American-led coalition. (35 killed, 200+ civilians, Mahdi Army fighters and coalition troops wounded).[165]
  2. August 13, 2004: Mahdi Army members kidnapped an American journalist and his Iraqi translator in Nasiriyah, the capital of the Dhi Qar province. The two hostages were released nine days later. (No casualties).[166]
  3. November 2004: The group engaged in a three week battle against American forces over an important Shiite shrine in Najaf. (200+ killed, unknown wounded).[167]
  4. October 27, 2005: A group of Mahdi Army militiamen set several homes northeast of Baghdad on fire. (20 killed).[168]
  5. August 28, 2006: The Mahdi Army clashed with Iraqi soldiers in Diwaniya. (28 killed, 70 wounded).[169]
  6. October 20, 2006: The group attacked Iraqi police stations in Amara following the arrest of a senior member of the Mahdi Army. (15 killed, 90 wounded).[170]
  7. May 16, 2007: Mahdi Army fighters attacked the Nasiriyah mayor's office with mortars and explosives and launched rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) at a police officer's home nearby. The attacks followed the arrest of two Mahdi Army militiamen the night before. (12 killed, 75 wounded).[171]
  8. June 2007: The Mahdi Army launched a series of attacks targeting Sunnis in Baghdad in an effort to force Sunni citizens to relocate away from predominantly Shiite neighborhoods. (Casualties unknown).[172]
  9. August 2007: Mahdi Army members engaged in a firefight in Karbala against the Badr Brigade, resulting in the deaths of 50 Shiite pilgrims and injuring over 200 more. Over 300 militants were arrested in conjunction with the violence and the Mahdi Army was largely blamed for the incident. (50 killed, 300 wounded).[173]
  10. August 2007: According to the Iraqi government, the Mahdi Army was responsible for the deaths of the governors of the Muthanna and Qadisiyah provinces, who were killed in two separate roadside bombings. The group denied any culpability. (6 killed, Unknown wounded).[174]
  11. October 2007: Following the assassination of a Mahdi Army commander, the group clashed with the Iraqi military and police in Basra. The Mahdi Army was in full control of the city and had captured 50 soldiers and police officers by the time fighting ceased. (4 killed, 10 wounded).[175]
  12. October 28, 2007: A brigade within the Mahdi Army took 11 Sunni and Shia tribal leaders hostage in northern Baghdad. The hostages were freed by the Iraqi Army in the following days. (No casualties).[176]
  13. March 2008: Over the course of several weeks, Iraqi Security Forces attempted to wrest control of Basra from the Mahdi Army. There were retaliatory attacks by the Mahdi Army in Sadr City and throughout Baghdad. Ultimately the Iraqi Security Forces were successful in taking control of the city from the Mahdi Army and largely disarming the group in the region. (2000 Mahdi Army members killed, 1000+ wounded).[177]
  14. June 17, 2008: The Mahdi Army detonated a car bomb in a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad. AQI was initially blamed for the attack. (51 killed, 80 wounded).[178]
  15. January 2, 2010: A Promise Day Brigade sniper shot a U.S. soldier, as seen in a video released by the group. (1 killed, 0 wounded).[179]
  16. September 3, 2014: According to Peace Brigades Military Spokesman Ahmed al-Akili, the Peace Brigades and Iraqi Army killed more than 30 IS militants while retaking the Albu-Hasan district near Amerli. (Casualties unknown ).[180]

Relationships with Other Groups

The Mahdi Army has been tied to Hezbollah since its inception. In April 2003, many of the initial members of the Mahdi Army were sent to Hezbollah camps for training. [181] On August 21, 2007, in an interview with The Independent, Sadr admitted to working closely with Hezbollah. [182] He stated “we have formal links with Hezbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries." [183] The following day, Sadr's spokesman claimed the interview was fabricated, although he did not deny the connection with Hezbollah. [184]

Despite sharing a common ideology, the Mahdi Army has often politically and militarily clashed with the other major Shiite group in Iraq, the Badr Brigades, which is closely affiliated with Nouri al-Maliki and his government. [185] [186]  The most notable instance of violence between the two groups occurred in October 2007, when a firefight between Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades troops in Karbala resulted in the death of 50 Shiite pilgrims. [187]  However, the groups have also experienced short periods of cooperation.  For example, the Sadrists were a key component of Maliki’s coalition following both the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections and were crucial to its success in both cases.  [188] However shortly after both the 2005 and 2010 elections, Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Maliki’s Badr Brigades reverted to open hostilities.  [189] [190]

Although occasionally at odds, the Mahdi Army, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Katai’b Hezbollah have had generally good relations.  They released a joint statement against further U.S. intervention in Iraq on September 15, 2014 and have often coordinated their efforts to protect Shiite neighborhoods. [191] But whereas Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Katai’b Hezbollah are heavily financed and influenced by Iran and the Quds Force, the Mahdi Army is more nationalist and largely rejects Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.  [192] [193] [194]

The Mahdi Army has a history of conflict with AQI and its successor group the Islamic State (IS). [195] This opposition is not surprising given IS’s hatred of Shiites and its brutal treatment of Shiite civilians.  Thus following the IS takeover of Mosul, Sadr resurrected the Mahdi Army, now called the Peace Brigades, in order to combat IS. [196]

Community Relationships

The Mahdi Army for the most part has had a positive relationship with the Iraqi Shiite population because of social services it has provided to them.  Even before the establishment of the Mumahidoon in 2008, the Mahdi Army was engaged in public service provision.  [197] For example, in 2004 in the areas they controlled, the Mahdi Army provided religious courts for resolving disputes, police patrols, and town councils for gaining popular input on social program planning. [198] 

The Mahdi Army has always been particularly popular in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad named for Muqtada al-Sadr’s father. [199] In Sadr City the group gained even greater popularity when it helped coordinate and execute reconstruction programs funded by the over $41 million grant given to the city by the Shiite government in 2007. [200]  As one resident of Sadr City put it, the 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.” [201] 

However, as security in Iraq slowly improved over time, some communities began to grow disillusioned with the corruption and “thug-like behavior” of the Mahdi Army. [202] The group became known for its "crime, robberies, murders, and rapes," as well as for kidnapping both Sunnis and Shiites for ransom. [203] In one Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, residents were forced to pay over 3,000 Iraqi dinars to the local Mahdi Army in return for its protection. [204]  As sectarian violence escalated, many citizens felt they were paying for protection from a problem of the Mahdi Army’s own making. [205]

Other Key Characteristics & Events



References

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