Sadr's militia may live to fight again

All over Baghdad and southern Iraq, supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shia cleric, are harassed, on the run or in jail. The black-shirted gunmen of his Mehdi Army militia no longer rule in Shia parts of Baghdad, Basra and Amara where once their control was total.

A great survivor of Iraqi politics, Mr Sadr is living in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he is studying to elevate his position within the Shia religious hierarchy. It was from there, to the dismay of many followers, that he ordered his Mehdi Army fighters to go home and allow the Iraqi army to penetrate their strongholds.

"Muqtada has acute political instincts but he is a terrible organiser," said an Iraqi secular politician who knows him well. "He is a complete anarchist," he added, with a laugh. "But the government is not going to succeed in destroying his movement, though his prestige has been damaged."

Mr Sadr owes his authority to the reverence with which his family of Shia clerics is regarded by millions of poor Iraqis. This is because his father and two brothers were murdered by Saddam Hussein's gunmen in 1999 and his father-in-law was executed in 1980. Before his father died, he built a movement based on Islamic revivalism, Iraqi nationalism and social populism, which Mr Sadr has inherited.

The Iraqi government is doing its best to liquidate orcripple this Sadrist movement before the provincial elections in October. An American military intelligence assessment this year suggested that Mr Sadr's followers would win 60 per cent of the vote in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

They are unlikely to do so now. Though the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to Mr Sadr, when he ordered his gunmen off the streets, that it would not persecute his movement, anybody who belonged to the Mehdi Army in Sadr City is liable to arrest. In Basra, shops that used to sell CDs with songs in praise of Mr Sadr now sell gypsy music and have been told by soldiers to throw their old stock away.

Many Mehdi Army members blame Mr Sadr for letting them down when his men were holding their own. They also wonder why he did not set up monitoring committees to ensure the government implemented the terms of the ceasefires.

Iraqi politicians speculate about whether withdrawal is permanent. "Remember, Muqtada's men were not militarily defeated," warned one Iraqi leader.

A Shia politician said: "The main Mehdi Army bastions in Baghdad were Sadr City, with a population of 2.4 million people, and in al-Hurriyah and al- Shu'ala districts, with a further 1.1 million. That is more than half the people in Baghdad, and I suspect the Mehdi Army could take back these areas in 48 hours' fighting."

Leaders from Sadr City are more sceptical. Bashir Ali and Ahmed Mohammed, both sheikhs, say the Mehdi Army has become too unpopular to return, owing to its violence and corruption.

But Bashir Ali added: "We cannot express our views publicly because we would be killed. They would shoot us down when we go to the mosque." He thought the Mehdi Army and the Sadrists were "too deep- rooted in Sadr City after five years in control to be uprooted". He added: "Maybe if the government had acted two years ago it could have been done, but not now."

He did not think the Sadrists were able to stage an uprising because of their unpopularity and because, although "they still have their Kalashnikovs and pistols, they have lost their heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers".

Ahmed Mohammed said the only good thing the Mehdi Army had ever done was as a local defence force during the sectarian civil war in Baghdad in 2006-07. "When one Shia was kidnapped, they would go and kidnap two Sunni," he said. With the ebbing of sectarian strife, the Shia in the capital feel less need for militiamen to rule their streets. Mr Sadr's decision not to fight to the finish against the Iraqi army offensives in the first half of the year was motivated by two reasons. Ever since his militiamen suffered heavy losses fighting US marines in Najaf in 2004, he has tried to avoid fighting the US Army directly, or his Shia rivals when backed by the Americans.

And Mr Sadr learnt during the fighting that Iran was supporting Mr Maliki. The Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, said: "The idea in the government was to fight outlaws. This was the right of the government and the responsibility of the government." Without Iranian support, Mr Sadr's militiamen were bound to lose; even with it they would have had no answer to US firepower.

The Iraqi army by itself was getting nowhere in Basra and Sadr City before it was backed by the US military. Even in Amara today, there is a US battalion waiting to support Iraqi military forces. Nobody knows how the mainly Shia, 500,000-strong Iraqi security forces would respond if ordered to fight a resurgent Mehdi Army without US support.

Suggested Topics
News
Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress and 100 others on 'master list' after massive hack
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PPC Co-Ordinator – Permanent - West Sussex – £24-£30k

£24000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Are you a Marketin...

Senior Asset Manager

£70000 - £75000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Katie Robinson +44 (...

IT Support Analyst (2nd Line Support) - City, London

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare: Ashdown Group: IT Support Ana...

KS1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: KS1 Teaching Specialist Leic...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor