Sadr and the Mahdi Army

Evolution, Capabilities, and a New Direction

Iraq still faces three major internal security risks: First, the resurgence of Al Qa’ida in Iraq; second, the risk that ethnic or sectarian tensions could turn violent, rather than be solved through political accommodation, and third, the risk that a substantial element of the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army or Jaysh Al-Mahdi (JAM) will try to use violence to achieve political power – possibly with Iranian support. This analysis focuses on the latter risk, and recent developments in the Sadrist movement and the JAM. The full report can be found here.

At this moment in time, that risk seems significantly lower than it did at the start of 2008. At the start of the year, the JAM seemed to be emerging as the most serious of the three remaining threats.  These threats precipitate violence which could prevent Iraq from finding a relatively peaceful path back to stability and development. That threat now seems significantly lower, and Muqtada al-Sadr appears to be concentrating on his political options.  

The key first step in reducing the threat from the JAM was the Iraqi government intervention in Basra. On March 25, al-Maliki and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) entered Basra in order to regain control of a situation often leading to violence.  Shi’a factions, the SIIC and the Da’wa, the Sadrist and JAM, and the al- Fadilah were fighting for control of oil facilities, control of the ports, and the lucrative business of smuggling. By March 30, al-Sadr and the Iraqi government had agreed to a ceasefire with the assistance of the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Qassem Suleimani.”   In total, 6,000 troops and U.S. air support was needed to reinforce 30,000 ISF troop already in Basra.  

Further progress then occurred in Baghdad and Sadr City. As troops entered Basra, JAM and “special group” militants started a barrage of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone.  In response coalition forces built a concrete wall in Sadr City, in an attempt to isolate the attacks while at the same time cutting off support.  What at first appeared to be the groundwork for a collision between ISF and the JAM ended with another Iranian brokered ceasefire allowing thousands of Iraqi troops into once off-limit areas of Sadr City.  Although ISF entered Sadr City without U.S. troops due to ceasefire preconditions, the U.S. is still required for both air support and as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF).

Prime Minister al-Maliki then continued to apply pressure on al-Sadr by targeting areas like Amarah, which has been a hub for Iranian weapons smuggling.  Once again, the JAM and “special groups” followed al-Sadr’s ceasefire.  Raids in Amarah led to discoveries of multiple weapons caches which included many Iranian made armaments. Pressure on the JAM has continued, and especially on the more radical and violent elements within it.

The JAM has not been defeated, however, and Muqtada al-Sadr has continued to explore ways to restructure the JAM and expand his political options. Al-Sadr has proven capable of maneuvering and heading in what seems to be a new direction.  On June 13, 2008, al-Sadr’s released a letter laying out a strategic shift in the way the JAM is to operate in Iraq.  Al-Sadr stated that he was dividing his Mahdi Army into two distinct wings.  The largest wing would be made up from most of his followers.  This group was designed to act as the “political” and “social services” wing.  The smaller group would be turned into new “special companies” of elite experienced fighters tasked with resisting the occupation.  

It is still far from clear how these  “special companies”  will be structured, how they will be used, how effective they will be, and how they will relate to  the more extreme JAM elements that the Coalition has called “Special Groups.” It is also unclear how much real paramilitary capability Sadr and the JAM have to build upon. While Sadr’s forces are called a “militia,” most seem to be little more than street thugs who are more skilled in sectarian cleansing and excoriation than actual fighting. Although some elements of the Sadr militia have had arms and training from the Iranian Al Quds force and other elements like the Hezbollah, the scale and success of that training is far from clear.

Most of the JAM seems to consist of young men with little training and discipline who could exploit a vacuum in security and governance in areas like Basra and Sadr City, but had no clear hierarchy, uncertain discipline, and limited war fighting capability. A number of cadres within the JAM seem more capable, but their current strength, the level of Sadr’s control, and their present willingness to fight sustained battles with Iraq’s growing security forces is unclear. It would be exceedingly dangerous to dismiss them, but equally dangerous to exaggerate their capabilities. The fact is that there is not enough empirical evidence to judge their present level of capability or Sadr’s success in transforming them into a more effective force.

Iranian involvement remains a key issue, and one with many uncertainties. Iran seems to be trying to find a careful balance between retaining influence over Sadr and the JAM and working with the Iraqi government and other Shi’ite parties. Iran seems to have played an important role in both the Sadr ceasefire in Basra and in Sadr City, but some of the most lethal technology used in IEDs, components for shaped charges, came from Iran.

Examinations of captured weapons caches also reveal a wide range of Iranian weapons which are identifiable through lot numbers with manufacturing dates within the last three years. These weapons include some of the rockets and mortars used in strikes against the Green Zone during the fighting in Sadr City before the ceasefire. The JAM has had Iranian advisors and the new direction al-Sadr appears to be taking in shaping the JAM does resemble the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah.

Finally, even though the Iraqi government so far appears to have come out on top in its clashes with al-Sadr and the JAM, much of the JAM survived the ISF attacks on Basra, Baghdad, and other areas by dispersing and hiding their weapons.  Most elements of the JAM that were involved in significant fighting managed to disengage from heavy fighting without having to disarm the Mahdi Army. Much depends, therefore, on both the future of the Sadrist movement and the Iraqi government’s success in winning sustained popular support from Iraq’s Shi’ites.

If Sadr is excluded from Iraq’s political process, feels the process is unfair, or chooses to mix politics with violence,  the JAM could again become a major threat. Sadr’s future strength will also depend heavily on how well the Iraqi government build’s on the success of the Iraqi security forces to provide local security, government services, and economic opportunity – particularly for the massive number of Shi’ite young men who are unemployed or underemployed.

It is also important to note that Iraq’s current Shi’ite political parties gained power in elections with closed lists of candidates and won largely on the basis of a sectarian coalition. None have really had to campaign for office on the basis of merit or clear policies and goals. None have had to be judged on the ability of their basis to serve a given constituency, and none have had to participate in open local and provincial elections.

This makes it very difficult to judge the future balance of power between leading factions like Al-Da’wa, the SIIC, and the Sadrists if honest elections are held with open lists of candidates. It makes it equally hard to judge what will happen if elections are not held or are not felt to be fair. It is equally difficult to look beyond the prospect of local elections in 2008 and national elections in late 2009, and judge how effective Iraq’s current and future central; governments will be in serving Iraq’s Shi’ites. So far, the central government has been as ineffective in meeting Arab Shi’ite needs as those of Arab Sunnis.

The unknowns shaping the balance of power in terms of violence,  are matched by those shaping the balance of power in terms of religious influence,  local and national politics, governance, local security and the rule of law, and economics. Intra-Shi’ite power struggles over all these issues are a certainty and will almost certainly play out over at least the need half decade. Whether this will lead to intra-Shi’ite violence, and how it will affect Iraq’s broader sectarian and ethnic tensions, is beyond any reasonable ability to predict. Only time can provide the answers.

Jose Ramos