Wednesday, August 29, 2007

al-Sadr Suspends Militia Activity for Six Months

Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered a six-month suspension of military activities by the Mahdi Army:

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered a six-month suspension of activities by his Mahdi Army militia in order to reorganize the force, and it will no longer attack U.S. and coalition troops, aides said Wednesday.

The aide, Sheik Hazim al-Araji, said on Iraqi state television that the goal was to "rehabilitate" the organization, which has reportedly broken into factions, some of which the U.S. maintains are trained and supplied by Iran.

"We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months starting from the day this statement is issued," al-Araji said, reading from a statement by al-Sadr.

In Najaf, al-Sadr's spokesman said the order also means the Mahdi Army will no longer launch attacks against U.S. and other coalition forces.

"It also includes suspending the taking up of arms against occupiers as well as others," Ahmed al-Shaibani told reporters.

Asked if Mahdi militiamen would defend themselves against provocations, he replied: "We will deal with it when it happens."

Elrod at The Moderate Voice helps us understand what's behind this announcement:
Today comes a report that Sadr is suspending his Mahdi Army militia for six months to “rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image.” This follows up on the utter chaos surrounding the Shi’ite pilgrimage to Karbala. The violence between Sadrist Mahdi militiamen and the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council (SIIC)’s Badr Corps in Karbala reflects similar intra-Shi’ite violence taking place in Basra. After an emergency meeting of top Shi’ite leaders, Sadr decided to pull his militiamen back so he can purge his rogue elements and restore some sense of ideological purity.

This is not the first time Sadr has found himself trying to control a militia fragmenting into dozens of uncontrollable factions. Past efforts to reign in rogue elements have failed, as the logic of the streets encourages ad hoc militia activity and not centralized military action. My guess is that this latest effort to gain control over the militia - by declaring cessation of all military activities - is an effort to identify who really is a rogue element and then try to purge them. Those continuing to attack the Badr Corps, the Iraqi Army (which is often just Badr Corps militiamen in Iraqi uniform) or US troops will be revealed as rogue elements. It’s a test of discipline, then: who’s still with Sadr and who’s just using the Mahdi brand to carry out their own agenda.

The larger story, of course, is one of deep intra-Shi’ite rivalry that threatens to (and already has in some places) completely destroy Southern Iraq. There are real ideological differences between SIIC and Sadr: the SIIC is more loyal to Iran than Sadr’s militia (though Sadr has received some help from Iran as well in recent years), SIIC is more supportive of the US (in spite of its Iranian heritage and support), Sadr’s forces are more fanatic in their religious orientation, Sadr’s supporters are generally poorer than those of SIIC, Sadr’s base is East Baghdad while SIIC’s center is around Najaf. The struggle between these Shi’ite forces has already engulfed Basra and threatens to destroy the ruling Shi’ite majority in Parliament. If Sadr cannot reign his militia in, he will likely find himself faced with an even more militant rival. The question, though, is whether or not it is too late for Sadr to try to take control of the Mahdi Army. Only time will tell.

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