NASARIYAH, IRAQ // Commanders of the Mahdi Army are still finalising plans for an elite resistance unit that will target US troops in Iraq. The leader of the Sadr movement, Muqtada al Sadr, announced more than two weeks ago that a specialised armed group would be set up to carry out guerrilla attacks on American troops. The rest of the movement's Mahdi Army militia - thought to number about 100,000 - were to put down their weapons and concentrate on political and spiritual resistance to the US presence in Iraq, he said.
Little is known about the force and it will remain highly secretive so that its fighters can evade capture by either the American military or Iraqi government forces. But Aaos al Khafagy, the general commander of the Mahdi Army in Nasariyah, a city 370km south-east of Baghdad, told The National the group was likely to contain "thousands" of men highly skilled in guerrilla warfare. "We are still in the process of deciding the exact framework and the final decisions are up to Muqtada al Sadr," he said. "The groups will work in every Iraqi city and we expect to need thousands, not hundreds, of fighters to do that."
The militia commander said Sadr would personally oversee who was selected for membership and would chose only the most capable, most loyal of his followers. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters are believed to have been trained in advanced guerrilla tactics either in Iran or Lebanon, according to intelligence and news reports. "The goal is to fight and expel the Americans from this land and we will be thinking of that every day," Khafagy said. "But it will be a fight that takes place at certain times and places, according to the right circumstances."
Khafagy said the reorganised Mahdi Army would be more effective than the full-strength Mahdi Army had been, despite the reduced numbers of men-at-arms. "People without experience in fighting should not have to fight - they are only likely to come to harm or to harm innocents and we want to avoid that," he said. "Everyone will still be involved in resistance to the American occupation, although it will not be armed confrontations, it will be at an intellectual, spiritual and political level. This is an important role of the Mahdi Army."
The change in strategy by the Sadrists comes as the Iraqi government has launched several military assaults on the movement and its militia, first in the southern port city of Basra, then in Baghdad and the ongoing operation in Maysan province. Iraqi army chiefs believe they have all but broken the Mahdi Army as a military entity, forcing the bulk of fighters to lay down their weapons and the remaining few underground.
Critics insist the government anti-militia drive is a political move, designed to cement power in the hands of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), which is a key part of the ruling coalition and arch-rival to the Sadrists for Iraqi Shiite support. Provincial council elections scheduled for the end of the year have brought the intra-Shiite contest into sharp focus, as the rivals jockey for position.
Khafagy said the Sadrists' change in strategy had come as a result of "experiences and lessons we have learned". "Some parts of the Mahdi Army have killed innocent Iraqis and were involved in sectarian violence and those are mistakes that we are trying to correct," he said. "We need to get the occupiers out of Iraq, but without causing any harm to Iraqi citizens." If the Sadrists want to retain widespread support - it is one of the few genuinely mass political movements in Iraq - it would have to hold the moral high ground, Khafagy said.
"Without losing sight of our goals, we must make sure that our reputation is clean and that we are known to be of good morals. The resistance must be something that all Iraqis can support with pride." After the Feb 2006 bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra, Iraq was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of sectarian violence in which the Mahdi Army was heavily implicated. Car bombings by Sunni extremists on Shiite civilians would be answered by kidnappings, tortures and executions by Shiite militants.
Mohammed al Basir, a district level commander for the Mahdi Army in Al Rouasah, in Baghdad's Ameen neighbourhood, admitted the militia had a tarnished image in Iraq after the bloodshed. He said a major reason was that the Mahdi Army had been heavily infiltrated by criminals or people working on behalf of the Americans to undermine the movement. "Those who acted badly, by harassing and killing people, polluted the reputation of the Mahdi Army and that only served the American occupiers," Basir said. The shake-up within the militia, he said, would see a core of "quiet, patient and strong" fighters who would follow Sadr's orders and not target civilians or any Iraqis.
In Kut, one of the southern cities where the Mahdi Army has been locked in a struggle for power against the SIIC, the decision to recast the Mahdi Army as a more concentrated, underground force was seen by militia fighters as a necessary response to new US and Iraqi government tactics. "The Americans are increasingly pushing the Iraqi Army out in front to do its work, and that meant Iraqis end up fighting Iraqis, something none of us wants," said Ra'ed al Shammari, a Mahdi Army militant. "We don't want confrontations with the Iraqi security forces but we do want to fight against the occupiers."
Shammari said he did not know what his own future would be when the reorganisation took place. "I hope to be in the combat brigades of the Mahdi Army so that I can directly hit the Americans," he said. "But it is not my choice and if I am chosen to work in the cultural wing then I will that, I will educate my people about the American plans and will resist in that way." He added that no Mahdi Army fighter would truly relinquish their weapon until all foreign troops had left Iraq. "We will keep our rifles to hand for use when necessary and we will only put them down when the US forces have withdrawn."