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.
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