x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mahdi Army plans show of strength in Baghdad

Shiite militia rally by thousands next week is signal to US from Sadrists: pull out troops from Iraq or we fight.

BAGHDAD // Thousands of Shiite militia loyalists will take to the streets of Baghdad next week in a show of strength aimed at reminding Washington that war will resume if US forces remain beyond the end of the year.

The Mahdi Army, which fought a series of bloody engagements with US troops and Iraqi government forces before calling a ceasefire in 2008, has arranged what it promises will be a massive public demonstration in the heart of the capital.

Baghdad authorities have approved the rally on condition that no one carries weapons. Organisers in the Sadrist movement - the Mahdi Army is its military wing - have promised it will be peaceful.

But the underlying message the brigades of black-clad militia fighters will carry is a mix of threat and promise: that they are preparing once again to take up arms to push US troops out.

"If the Americans don't leave at the end of the year, as they have agreed to do, then they have given us every right to fight them and to kill as many US soldiers as we can," said Abu Zahar, who leads a Mahdi Army unit in Baghdad.

He said he and his men had followed the instructions issued by Muqtada al Sadr, the Shiite cleric who heads the Sadrist movement, that they must not fight - yet.

But Abu Zahar said a ceasefire agreement would automatically lapse at the start of 2012 when, according to the terms of a status of forces agreement between the Iraqi government and Washington, all US military personnel should be pulled out of Iraq.

"We want to remind the Americans that we refuse their occupation, and that there will be consequences," he said. "We are ready to fight the invaders."

The Mahdi Army was formally disbanded by Mr al Sadr in 2008, having suffered heavy losses in a string of battles with Iraqi and US army units. In the intervening years the militia force has largely refrained from acts of violence, as the Sadrists moved firmly into the political arena, with a strong showing in last year's elections that gave them a powerful role in the current government.

However, Iraqi intelligence officers say the militia was put into hibernation rather than actually dismantled, and they have been tracking a concerted rearmament effort by the group in its strongholds throughout southern Iraq and eastern Baghdad.

Iraqi military officials also told journalists in Baghdad this week that as many 50 murders, carried out by assassins using silenced pistols and magnetic bombs during a five-month period, are largely the work of Shiite militants, not Sunni guerrillas or al Qa'eda.

Most of those killed have been government officials and senior security officers, including brigadiers and brigadier generals, from the ministries of defence and interior. There were four assassinations on Monday.

Shiite violence against the 46,000 US soldiers in Iraq has also been on the rise, with at least five US soldiers killed in bomb attacks in the Shiite heartlands of Babil, Wasit and Qadisiyah. It is unclear if the Mahdi Army proper or splinter groups are involved in these assaults but analysts say there are often no clear lines separating those working in Iraq's underworld.

Many ordinary Iraqis have also watched with alarm as the Sadrists' militia has apparently sought to make a comeback, with graffiti appearing on walls in the capital and elsewhere promising the Mahdi Army's return. Sadrist officials insist they have followed a political rather than military path and will continue to do so for the time being. But members of the organisation have made little secret that they are preparing for a renewed confrontation with US forces.

The leading Sadrist MP Amir al Kinani said: "The Mahdi Army has new battalions that are ready to fight the Americans until the last moment if it comes to that. Washington always says it wants to leave Iraq, so please leave us."

He said next week's show of muscle was not a "military parade", but simply a reminder to Washington that it is not welcome.

"It is a peaceful message to tell the Americans how many volunteers the Mahdi Army can call upon, and to tell them that the Iraqi people do not want the American military to stay here."

The question of extending a significant US military presence in Iraq is a highly sensitive political issue facing the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. He is under pressure from some in the military and political establishment, as well as some ordinary Iraqis - particularly outside the Shiite majority - to ask Washington to leave a strong training and transition force in place. At the same time, many Iraqis, including his parliamentary allies such as the Sadrists, have ruled out anything more than a normal US diplomatic mission in Iraq after the end of the year.

Mr al Maliki has said parliament must decide, and all groups must respect the collective will of Iraq's elected representatives whichever way a vote goes.

US military officials have said a final decision must be taken by the end of August to give them enough time to shut bases and withdraw if they are told to leave.

Foad al Araji, a professional footballer, expressed the feelings of many Iraqis when he said: "If the Americans go, or if they stay, we have reasons to be afraid. If the Americans stay and the Mahdi Army goes back to war it will be civilians who end up paying the price. If the Americans leave we expect the Mahdi Army will be strong and will carry out revenge attacks and again it will be the civilians who suffer.

"Either way, I'm worried that next year will be a bad year."

nlatif@thenational.ae