Mahdi Army Riding the Surge Out

The problem with running a war on a timeline is that it allows the enemy to know when he’s safe. It appears that Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army are content to lay low and wait for the American “surge” to pass.

TIME’s Charles Crain reports they “seem to have decided that, for now, the best defense against the American troop surge is no defense.”

U.S. officials have painted the surge as a temporary step, some hinting that it may last only a matter of months. That’s not a long time in the outlook of an organization that must consider its position in Iraq in terms of decades. If political support for the U.S. presence in Iraq collapses, or if the military simply cannot sustain a meaningful increase in troop strength, the Mehdi Army will have won a victory without ever joining the battle.

Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers paints a picture that’s even more grim, noting that the Iraqi government and its force are so badly infiltrated by Sadr’s forces that a temporary surge could make matters worse.

Amid recurring reports that al-Sadr is telling his militia leaders to stash their arms and, in some cases, leave their neighborhoods during the American push, U.S. soldiers worry that the latest plan could end up handing over those areas to units that are close to al-Sadr’s militant Shiite group.

“All the Shiites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they’ll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It’ll be called the `Day of Death’ or something like that,” said 1st Lt. Alain Etienne, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “They say, `Wait, and we will be victorious.’ That’s what they preach. And it will be their victory.”

Blake Hounshell of Foreign reads between the lines and thinks it quite likely that the recent arrests of 600 of Sadr’s men was “a public relations charade, and that the Sadrists are in fact laying low, waiting to take over in earnest once the Americans leave. It also suggests that the Mookster may have been throwing the Americans a bone by not putting up too much of a fuss over the arrests.”

It could be. Given the maddening tendency of Iraqi officials to suddenly un-arrest people, it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice. Crain is ultimately right when he observes that, “The Mehdi Army’s most important stronghold may not, in fact, be Sadr City as such, but rather its legion of supporters inside government ministries, army units and police stations.” Unless that’s fixed, no amount of killing insurgents is going to matter in the long run.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Is “fixing it” a contradiction in terms? The Iraqi government is the Shi’ite factions of which the Sadr group and the Badr group are just two, albeit the largest.

    Given the numeric superiority of Shi’ite Arabs in Iraq isn’t the ascendance of these factions inevitable? Perhaps the meltdown could have been stemmed in 2004 if the Sunni Arabs hadn’t been determined to cozy up to “the insurgency” and Al-Qaeda, but they chose that path, Zarqawi pursued his strategy of fomenting sectarian discord, and it worked. The Sunnis are paying a price for that now.