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]
UpdatedAugust 11, 2014

Narrative Summary

The Mahdi Army was formed by Moqtada al-Sadr and Imad Mugniyah in April 2003. Initially, around three hundred recruits from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were sent to Lebanon where they were trained by Hezbollah. [3] The group remained relatively unknown until April 2004 when it engaged in a violent battle against American forces in Najaf. This battle represented the first major attack by a Shiite militia against coalition forces in Iraq.[4] By 2007, the group was viewed as more dangerous than AQI in many areas. [5]  The Mahdi Army was regarded by some experts as second in military strength only to the US military. [6] In addition to having a powerful military presence, some of the group’s members also served in the Iraqi police, army, and government. [7]

In August 2007, following a violent clash between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, Sadr signed a ceasefire agreement. [8] However, not all Mahdi Army members followed Sadr's order, and individual units began to operate independently. [9] Thus, the Mahdi Army had split into the "noble Mahdi Army" and the "rogue Mahdi Army."  The noble Mahdi army obeyed the cease-fire; the rogue Mahdi Army, also known as the "secret Cells" or "special Groups," consisted of those members who disregarded Sadr’s ceasefire order, [10] continuing to carry out attacks in order to garner support for the militias from the Shiite community. [11]

Following an Iraqi Security Force crackdown on the Mahdi Army in Basra, al-Sadr acquiesced to another cease-fire agreement on May 10, 2008, and fled Iraq shortly thereafter; however, he was able to orchestrate a massive restructuring of his organization from a seminary in Qom, Iran. [12] Al-Sadr wanted to shift the focus of the Mahdi Army away from military operations to the provision of social services and religious edification. Thus, he again restructured his organization, creating a non-violent branch called the “Mumahidoon” and reassigning the majority of Mahdi Army members to it. This new branch’s name translates as “those who pave the path.” [13] The Mumahidoon provided a wide range of services including Koranic lessons, organization of soccer teams, neighborhood reconstruction, and trash collection after pilgrimages. Despite the Mumahidoon’s social purpose, its members stated they would take up arms if ordered by al-Sadr. [14] [15] However, Sadr maintained a small, highly-trained military branch called the Promised Day Brigade. In order to bring al-Sadr’s vision of reduced military operations and increased social work to fruition, control over members of both the Mumahidoon and the Promised Day Brigade was extremely strict, with severe punishments for unauthorized attacks. [16]

However, al-Sadr’s focus on gaining mainstream political power led to the decay of even this newly restructured and reoriented Mahdi Army. In April 2010, Sadr’s followers won 40 out of 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Much of his success stemmed from the fact that he was able to brand himself as a defender of Shiite interests. [17] Al-Sadr found even greater political success in late 2010 when he and his party, the National Alliance party, decided in a last minute deal to support the al-Maliki government; although al-Sadr had previously expressed his discontent with al-Maliki, the move won him and his followers a significant position in the coalition government, even including ministry positions. [18] [19] With a new-found stake in the al-Maliki government, Al-Sadr prohibited his followers from joining political protests in February 2011. [20] However, in September 2011, al-Sadr issued his own complaints against the government and held short rallies. [21] By December 2011, al-Sadr had reverted back to a policy of opposition to the al-Maliki government as he and his coalition called for the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament and new elections. [22] As al-Sadr shifted his focus completely to mainstream political activity in 2012, it seemed that the Mahdi Army had discontinued its militant operations. It is likely that Mahdi Army members were transferred to political roles in al-Sadr’s National Alliance party.

 On August 6, 2013, al-Sadr released a statement stating that he would retire from political activity. [23] However, immediately following the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s takeover of Mosul, al-Sadr announced the resurrection of the Mahdi Army, now called the “Peace Brigades.” The first public showing of the Peace Brigades came on June 22, 2014, in Sadr City, a district in Baghdad. [24] On June 25, 2014, he issued another public statement, calling for the creation of a new national unity government that would rectify al-Maliki’s marginalization of Sunni Iraqis. Al-Sadr seems to have revived the Mahdi Army under a new strategy of direct, armed opposition to ISIS and the eventual overthrow of the al-Maliki government. [25] Despite al-Sadr’s continued opposition to the al-Maliki government he did not rule out some cooperation between the Peace Brigades and the Iraqi Security Forces in order to drive ISIS out of Iraq. [26]

Leadership

In 2003, Moqtada al-Sadr and Imad Mugniyah, a senior commander within Hezbollah, formed the Mahdi Army. Since then, Moqtada al-Sadr has led the group. Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, an important Shiite cleric during the Gulf War until he was assassinated in 1999, presumably by the Hussein regime. [27] [28] 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. [29] 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. [30] [31] 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. [32] After al-Maliki cracked down on Mahdi Army presence in Basra in 2008, al-Sadr fled to Iran, maintaining his leadership from abroad; by 2011, he was back in Iraq and had resumed his direct role in leading Mahdi Army operations. [33]

He has been greatly involved in Iraqi politics. Despite his general opposition to the al-Maliki government, he has supported it when it suited his political ambitions. [34] On August 6, 2013, al-Sadr announced that he would retire from political activity. However, on June 25, 2014, he issued another public statement arguing for the creation of a new unity government in Iraq and announcing the resurrection of the Mahdi Army, now the Peace Brigades, under a new strategy of direct, armed action against ISIS. [35] 

  1. Hazem al-Araji (Unknown to Unknown): Acted as aide to al-Sadr and leader of Mumahidoon starting in 2008. [36]
  2. 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

Early in its history, the Mahdi Army had a two-step goal: First, it would prepare the “holy Defense” and then fulfill the Holy Defense. The first stage of preparation included training and organizing armed brigades, enlightening the Mahdi Army religiously and morally, and preparing for the defense of Islam. Fulfillment consisted of going to war against perceived infidels. Overall, the Mahdi Army’s main goal was "to secure the independence of Iraq and the social solidarity of the Iraqis."[37] After an Iraqi Security Force crackdown in 2008, the group’s goal shifted to the provision of social services and building a strong base of popular support for its increasing political activities. [38] By 2011, it seems to have been completely converted to supporting al-Sadr and the National Alliance party. [39]

However, following the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the Mahdi Army’s leader, al-Sadr, called for the creation of a new national unity government that would reverse al-Maliki’s marginalization of Sunni Iraqis. Thus, he resurrected the Mahdi Army as the Peace Brigades under a new strategy of direct, armed opposition to ISIS and the overthrow of the al-Maliki government. [40] [41]

Name Changes

Due to the reorganization of the Mahdi Army, it has taken on different names. While it has been known as the Mahdi Army throughout its existence, the names listed below have also been used to describe this group at different stages in its development. 

Size Estimates

Resources

It is widely believed that the Mahdi Army has been funded and supported by Iran. [53][54],[55] In particular, al-Sadr likely became highly dependent on Iranian aid following the splintering of the Mahdi Army into the noble Mahdi Army and rogue Mahdi Army factions in 2007. This significant financial and military support was also likely tied to al-Sadr’s decision to use the Iranian seminary in Qom as a hideout during his absence from Iraq. [56]

In addition the group has been financed in part by extortion, car theft, weapons trafficking, armed protection of businesses, and kidnapping. [57][58] In areas where the group had a strong presence, it often exerted control over much of the business and utilities. Examples include power distribution, gasoline, and housing. [59]

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. [60]

External Influences

Iran has likely trained, supplied, and financed the Mahdi Army,[61] The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security likely helped administer training. [62] Iran provided financial and military support to al-Sadr when the Mahdi Army was splintering in 2007, and harbored him when he fled from 2007 to 2010. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard may also have provided assistance in administering the Mahdi Army and facilitating its restructuring during al-Sadr’s absence. However, it is likely that such in-depth assistance ceased in 2009 due to unrest in Iran surrounding its elections. [63]

Syria may have also cooperated in helping link the Mahdi Army to Hezbollah in Lebanon. [64]

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 has been known to target Sunni Muslims by driving them from many areas in Baghdad. Fighting with Sunni militants took the form of traditional military conflict, focusing on capturing territory and resources, such as hospitals and gas stations. After the Mahdi Army took control of an area, it sold gasoline and social services at a discounted price to Shia civilians; Mahdi Army forces discriminated against Sunnis, even denying them access to essential resources, in order to solidify control and drive Sunni populations out of Mahdi-controlled areas. Intimidation tactics, such as dumping the bodies of Sunni militants in Sunni-majority neighborhoods, were also employed by the Mahdi Army. [65] Thus, it seems that armed attacks against civilians was low, however sectarian violence against Sunni militants was high, despite al-Sadr’s explicit denouncement of sectarian violence in May 2007. [66] 

During the coalition’s operations in Iraq, the Mahdi Army focused on attacking coalition forces in an attempt to compel their withdrawal from Iraq [67] While the majority of Mahdi Army members were equipped only with AK-47s, the group successfully used Explosively Formed Projectiles/Penetrators (EFPs), and Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortars (IRAMs) against coalition forces. In particular, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), represented the majority of attacks, with at least 1,500 instances of IED use by the Mahdi Army from January 2007 – June 2008 alone. [68]

However, following an Iraqi Security Force crackdown on the Mahdi Army in May 2008 Al-Sadr shifted focus away from military operations to the provision of social services and religious instruction. [69] [70] The new social branch of the Mahdi Army, the Mumahidoon, provided a wide range of services including Koranic lessons, organization of soccer teams, neighborhood reconstruction, and trash collection after pilgrimages. [71] [72] Nevertheless, Sadr maintained a small, highly-trained military branch called the Promised Day Brigade. [73]

However, al-Sadr’s focus on gaining mainstream political power led to the decay of even this newly restructured and reoriented Mahdi Army. [74] As al-Sadr shifted his focus completely to mainstream political activity in 2012, it seemed that the Mahdi Army discontinued its militant operations. 

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 al-Maliki relied heavily on the support of al-Sadr and his National Alliance party. [75]

In April 2010, Sadr’s followers won 40 out of 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament. [76] Al-Sadr has both supported and opposed the al-Maliki government to serve his own political interests, using his political party, the National Alliance. [77][78] As al-Sadr shifted his focus completely to mainstream political activity in 2012, it seemed that the Mahdi Army discontinued its militant operations. It is likely that Mahdi Army members were transferred to political roles in al-Sadr’s National Alliance party.

Immediately following the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s takeover of Mosul, al-Sadr announced the resurrection of the Mahdi Army, now called the “Peace Brigades.” The first public showing of the Peace Brigades came on June 22, 2014 in Sadr City, a district in Baghdad. [79] On June 25, 2014, al-Sadr issued a public statement calling for the creation of a new national unity government that would rectify al-Maliki’s marginalization of Sunni Iraqis. Al-Sadr seems to have revived the Mahdi Army under a new strategy of direct, armed opposition to ISIS and the eventual overthrow of the al-Maliki government. [80] 

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).[81]
  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).[82]
  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).[83]
  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).[84]
  5. July 9, 2006: Attacked several neighborhoods in Sadr City (11 killed, 32 wounded).[85]
  6. August 28, 2006: Engaged in a battle in Diwaniya against Iraqi soldiers (28 killed, 70 wounded).[86]
  7. October 20, 2006: Attacked Iraqi police stations in Amara following the arrest of a Mahdi Army senior member (15 killed, 90 wounded).[87]
  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).[88]
  9. June 2007: Coordinated attacks in Baghdad with the intention of pushing Sunnis out of the city (Casualties unknown).[89]
  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).[90]
  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).[91]
  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).[92]
  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).[93]
  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).[94]
  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).[95]
  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).[96]

Relationships with Other Groups

The Mahdi Army has been tied to Hezbollah since its inception. In April 2003, small Hezbollah cells in Iraq trained its first members. [97] On August 21, 2007, in an interview with The Independent, al-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.’”[98] The following day, Sadr's spokesman claimed the interview was fabricated, though he did not deny the connection with Hezbollah. [99]  

During the drafting of Iraq's new constitution, Sadr and the Mahdi Army clashed with other Shiite parties, especially the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). [100] 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 had more to do with the personalities of the leaders and with politics than with ideological differences. [101] Following four years of fighting, al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz Hakim of SCIRI agreed to a cease-fire on October 6, 2007. [102] 

The Mahdi Army has a history of conflict with AQI and its predecessor ISIS. [103]  Following the ISIS takeover of Mosul, al-Sadr announced the resurrection of the Mahdi Army, now called the “Peace Brigades.” [104] According to al-Sadr’s statements, his aim to oppose ISIS operations in Iraq and work for the eventual overthrow of the al-Maliki government. The ultimate goal is the creation of a new national unity government that will be more inclusive of Sunni Iraqis. [105] 

Community Relationships

Initial recruitment for the group took place in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, following the elimination of the regime of Saddam Hussein.[106] 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.""[107] The group saw an increase in recruitment success in Baghdad in February 2006 following the bombing of a Shiite shrine.[108] 

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."[109] In 2006, Shiites felt the Mahdi Army provided security not available from the American or Iraqi forces.[110] 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.[111] 

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.[112] 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.""[113] 

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."[114] Many Shi"ite leaders called upon the Mahdi Army to withdraw from certain areas and remove its weapons from shrines as early as 2004.[115] 

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.[116] 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.[117]

Other Key Characteristics & Events



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