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What is the Mahdi Army?

Latest update : 2008-05-02

Created in 2003, the Mahdi Army is led by the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. What is this militia and what are its objectives?


What is the Mahdi Army?


Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr established his movement’s military branch, the Mahdi army, in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.


The militia soon developed its own structure after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is particularly well implanted among the poorer segments of Iraq’s Shia population. With approximately 60,000 fighters in black uniform, it is today one the country’s most powerful militias.


The army is named after the twelfth Shia imam, “Al Mahdi,” who disappeared at the end of the 9th century. Upon his return, Shias believe he will restore justice and truth on Earth.


The stronghold of Sadr’s followers is a poor neighbourhood in the northeast of Baghdad known as SadrCity, where some two million people are crammed in dire living conditions. Once called SaddamCity, the area was renamed in 2003 as a tribute to the family of Moqtada al-Sadr. Yet, the Mahdi Army is also powerful in several southern Iraqi cities, including the country’s main oil port Basra.



Who is Moqtada al-Sadr?


The young radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is the scion of a powerful religious dynasty. His father, Mohamed Sadeq Sadr, was an immensely popular Shia leader and a formidable foe of Saddam Hussein. The former dictator had him murdered in 1999. Two decades earlier, Saddam Hussein had already ordered the killing of one of Sadr’s uncles, a leading Shia thinker.


Today, Moqtada al-Sadr has picked up the family struggle, with a view to achieving the “social revolution” his father had fought for. His declared aim is to defend Iraq’s Shia community, long repressed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime.


With the former dictator now gone, Sadr has become a leading opponent of the US presence in Iraq. While leading the Mahdi Army, he also presides over a vast social organisation. Sadr spends most of his time in Koufa, close to the holy city of Najaf, where he was born.


Inversely, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate and powerful Shia religious leader in Iraq, opposes military resistance against the Americans.



What are the Mahdi Army’s objectives?


Sadr sees himself as the representative of the disadvantaged and claims to seek justice for all. His language is conservative, populist. He wants to restore security and essential public services to the country, things the government has yet to deliver.


His top priority, which he reemphasized at the end of March 2008 on the Qatar-based television channel Al Jazeera, is “the expulsion of the occupying forces in Iraq.”


The Mahdi Army is popular among the Shia population but has been accused of many “sectarian murders.” At the end of 2007, the Iraqi police accused the Sadr militias of “hundreds of murders” in the city of Karbala over the past four years. According to local police, the Mahdi Army “has tried to impose Sharia (Islamic law)” and the militias have perpetrated “tortures and kidnappings” in this holy Shia city in the center of Iraq. 


What kind of political weight does the Sadr movement have?


In 2004, Sadr’s militiamen tried to confront the American military in the holy city of Najaf. The militia was defeated but this failure allowed the Mahdi Army to establish its reputation. Moqtada al-Sadr then turned his attention to political resistance, but continued to refuse to dismantle his “army”. Today the Sadrist political movement has 32 out of 275 seats, the largest representation in the Parliament.


Contrary to the other Shia factions in the Parliament, the Sadrist movement opposed a project aiming to establish federalism in Iraq in 2006.


Moqtada al-Sadr wants to establish his political legitimacy more strongly. While he helped Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reach his position, today he disputes the legitimacy of al-Maliki’s government.


Six Sadrist ministers were part of Maliki’s government before leaving it in 2007, accusing him of “collaborating” with the enemy. His parliamentary faction also withdrew its support for the government.


Are the Shia groups united?


The Shia groups are engaged in a merciless political and military struggle for power, exacerbated by the approaching local elections which are to be held in October. All of these movements, Sadr’s included, want to control the Shia’s parliamentary majority.


Among the groups opposing the Sadrist movement are Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and its allies the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) which has its own militia, the Badr Organisation.

Date created : 2008-04-11