x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Mahdi army may be poised to make comeback

Iraqi militia insists that it merely wants to support government security forces, which are struggling to stave off attacks by al Qa'eda.

Followers of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr march in Baghdad's Sadr City neighbourhood.
Followers of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr march in Baghdad's Sadr City neighbourhood.

BAGHDAD // As Iraq's security forces struggle to stave off attacks by al Qa'eda, there are increasing signs that a once-feared Shiite militia group might be making a comeback. The Mahdi army, the military wing of the Sadr movement, was one of the main players in Iraq's sectarian civil war between 2005 and 2007. Despite its involvement in death squad killings, it gained a level of acceptance in poor Shiite neighbourhoods because communities saw it as their only real defence against Sunni extremists.

In 2007, the militia froze its activities, with Iraq's security forces more capable of providing protection and al Qa'eda weakened by resurgent Sunni tribes. The Mahdi army had also had its wings firmly clipped by Iraqi government offensives against it, led by the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. Today, however, Iraq is once again gripped by deep political uncertainty, and with the security forces failing to prevent recent attacks by al Qa'eda on Shiite areas, the conditions that once incubated the Mahdi army appear to be returning.

In the aftermath of deadly mosque bombings on April 23 that killed 72 people, Muqtada al Sadr, the movement's clerical leader, offered to mobilise his followers in support of government troops, implying that official forces were not equal to the task. As mourners buried their dead the following day, few government troops were visible on the streets of Sadr City, the movement's stronghold. Witnesses said it appeared to have been policed by the Sadrists - albeit unarmed.

Abu Zarah, a Sadrist and commander in the Mahdi army before it was disbanded, said the military faction had been reformed at Mr al Sadr's request, although with major differences compared with previous incarnations, when it had battled US and Iraqi government troops. "Our forces are prepared for zero hour, when Muqtada al Sadr calls on us to protect the people," Abu Zarah said in an interview in Sadr City. "We are ready. We will just defend our houses and our mosques. We will not patrol, we will work with the Iraqi armed forces, the army and the police.

"We will only carry weapons on Friday during prayer time when al Qa'eda is going to try to attack." Abu Zarah insisted the group did not want to ignite another Sunni-Shiite war and was, on the contrary, working to prevent such a conflict breaking out again. "We do not want sectarian violence, we do not want the country to be divided," he said. "We are working for security, we are working to make sure that al Qa'eda does not rise again. We will do this until the government and the security services are strong again and do not need our assistance."

Despite the assurance that in their new form the Sadrist forces posed no threat, there is a distinct unease about the reappearance of former Mahdi army fighters. Last week in Wasit province, south of Iraq, Mahdi army figures who had stayed out of sight for months - some going into temporary exile in Iran - were visible again. They were not armed. Yet members appeared to be making an effort to return to their once powerful role in Shiite-dominated communities.

One former militia member said the group intended to set up small units to protect mosques and Husseiniya, Shiite places of worship. "We will not have weapons with us, but we'll have groups to protect people praying where they might be attacked," he said. The sight of former militia fighters returning to the streets has alarmed residents. "We voted for Nouri al Maliki because he stood against these militias before," said a shopkeeper, who asked not to be named. "People are worried to see these men back. We don't want them; security is better without them here."

Calls for a return of the Mahdi army, at least in Sadr City, the teeming slum of north-eastern Baghdad that is their main power centre, are not in themselves new. After previous al Qa'eda attacks in the Iraqi capital, Sadr City residents complained about the failure of government forces, and looked back with fondness on the security once provided by the militia. What makes this latest incarnation more serious is that it was invoked by Mr al Sadr himself - although he did stop short of mentioning the Mahdi army by name, referring instead to "believers" who would help defend Baghdad's vulnerable neighbourhoods.

Mr al Sadr is studying Islam in Iran, where critics say he has fallen under Tehran's control despite his credentials as a hardline Iraqi nationalist. "Iran is using al Sadr to put a check on Sunni power after the election. They are warning us that they can send Iraq back into a sectarian civil war," said Marwan al Tikriti, an independent political analyst from Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and a heartland of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, long hostile to the Sadrists.

"The message is clear: just as the Sunnis are returning to political power, Muqtada [al Sadr] brings back the same militia that killed thousands of Sunnis and forced thousands more to leave their homes." Results of Iraq's national elections on March 7 are still in dispute, with provisional counts giving Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc a narrow and far from decisive victory. Iraqiyya won support from Sunnis and has been accused of harbouring pro-Saddam Baathists.

"The Mahdi army is a highly sensitive issue," said Mohammad al Khafarji, an independent political analyst from Baghdad. "This adds to the impression of insecurity and may actually worsen the situation even more, if there is a Sunni backlash. It is a positive development only for those with an interest in seeing things get worse in Iraq." Ali al Adeeb, a key ally of Mr al Maliki, emphatically dismissed any chance a reformation of the Mahdi army would be permitted by the government. He said all Iraqi's political groups, regardless of sect, were "worried" about the militia's possible return.

"The Iraqi people support our forces, we do not need to create any militias or any armed factions to work inside or alongside the official security forces," he said in a telephone interview. "The Iraqi constitution is clear on this matter. Only government forces are allowed to carry weapons." @Email:nlatif@thenational.ae