Mahdi Army Transforming into Salvation Army?

The Mahdi Army might soon be the Iraqi equivalent of the Salvation Army, Gina Chon reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Radical Shiite cleric and a chief of the Mahdi Army militia, Muqtada al-Sadr, addresses his followers after Eid al-Fitr prayer in Najaf, in this Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006 file photo. Loyalists within Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia network call it the "martyrs list," and it's long and growing: At least three dozen senior members killed in slayings or fighting since last summer and nearly 60 others detained. (AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani)Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — long a thorn in the side of the U.S. military and Iraqi government — intends to disarm his once-dominant Mahdi Army militia and remake it as a social-services organization.

The transformation would represent a significant turnabout for a group that, as recently as earlier this year, was seen as one of the most destabilizing anti-American forces in Iraq. For much of the past several years, the Mahdi Army, headed by Mr. Sadr, a Shiite cleric, controlled sizable chunks of Baghdad and other cities. Its brand of pro-Shiite activism had the side effect of pitting Iraqis against each other, helping to stir worries of civil war.

Recently, however, the group has been hit by a largely successful Iraqi military crackdown against militia members operating as criminal gangs. At the same time, Mr. Sadr’s popular support is dwindling: Residents who once viewed the Mahdi Army as champions of the poor became alienated by what they saw as its thuggish behavior.

A new brochure, obtained by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by Mr. Sadr’s chief spokesman, Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, states that the Mahdi Army will now be guided by Shiite spirituality instead of anti-American militancy. The group will focus on education, religion and social justice, according to the brochure, which is aimed at Mr. Sadr’s followers. The brochure also states that it “is not allowed to use arms at all.”

This would be a wonderful development if true.  I fear, however, that this will be merely one arm of a larger organization, following a model successfully pioneered by the likes of Hamas.

Spencer Ackerman agrees. Noting that we’ve seen predictions of Sadr’s demise before, he writes, “An alternative explanation would hold that Sadr is making yet another of his endless tactical retrenchments and is embedding his movement ever deeper within the fiber of Shiite Iraqi society, establishing an alternative infrastructure to Maliki’s failed governance, and retaining his military option for future use.”

AllahPundit is skeptical too, asking, “[W]hat’s a jihadi to do when he can’t wage jihad? Simple. Wage inner jihad.”  He continues, “Sounds like they’re playing nice for now and rebuilding their popular/religious legitimacy while they build a Hezbollah off-premises, presumably for a surge of their own when conditions allow.”

Could well be.  Or, just perhaps, he’s decided that he doesn’t need violent means to achieve his political aims at this stage.  Maybe he figures he can run as a candidate in the next election — whenever it turns out to be — and win the thing.

And, as Ackerman notes, he wouldn’t have to give up anything. So long as he’s got followers, he can pull out the guns whenever he wants.

AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    It’s worth noting, too, that there’s a precedent for Sadr’s actions–he’s doing EXACTLY what Hamas did in Palestine.

  2. Bobbert says:

    Bell ringers outside of Walmart during Ramadan?

  3. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Especially plausible when you consider that all of the series of detailed ABC/BBC polls of Iraqis — the most recent in February — show that 3/4 of them want us to get lost in the pretty near future. Which, no doubt, is what’s also motivated al-Maliki to back Obama’s deadline; he been feeling al-Sadr breathing down his neck in that election for a long time.

    (This, by the way, is one reason why the Surge — when it comes to actually having the power to keep Iraq from blowing to kingdom come in the near future — has really done very little, and never could have. The other is that our Dear New Sunni Friends are surprisingly open nowadays in telling reporters and US military men both that they’ll return to fighting the government and the US unless they get bribed a lot more, and that they’re planning anyway to simply wait us for us to leave and then start using all those nice new weapons they bought with our money against the Shiites. What the Surge HAS done is kick the whole problem down the road for the next President to deal with, relieving Bush of any responsibility to deal with the explosion.)

  4. Michael says:

    Its brand of pro-Shiite activism had the side effect of pitting Iraqis against each other, helping to stir worries of civil war.

    That seems an inaccurate description of Sadr’s movement. His was one of the only groups that reached across religious lines, providing aid to Sunni Iraqis during the US siege of Falluja. His militia activities have been mostly concentrated against rival Shia factions like Badr, who were the ones (alones with AQI) who were stirring things up for a civil war.