x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Sadr Movement militants in government open to picking up arms again

A deal between the Iraqi PM and Muqtada al Sadr has freed many former Mahdi Army fighters who remain loyal to Sadr, which observers fear has sown the seeds for long-term upheaval.

The Mahdi Army disbanded in 2008 with the Sadrists insisting they were leaving violent opposition to US forces. Above, militiamen patrol a street in Basra.
The Mahdi Army disbanded in 2008 with the Sadrists insisting they were leaving violent opposition to US forces. Above, militiamen patrol a street in Basra.

BAGHDAD // Two years ago, Jalal Kadhim, a fighter with the feared Mahdi Army militia, was arrested in Baghdad. As he freely admits, he had been heavily involved in the guerilla war that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, planting roadside bombs that were intended to kill US soldiers and Iraqi troops and civilians.

Earlier this month Mr Kadhim was released from jail, one of unknown numbers of Mahdi Army members given their liberty as part of a political deal between the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and the Sadr Movement, the militia's political wing.

Now a free man and working once again as a government employee, he is unrepentant about his years of violence and unaggrieved about his imprisonment. He insists he would do it all again if directed by the group's Shiite nationalist clerical leader, Muqtada al Sadr, who is currently studying in Iran.

"I was happy to be in jail for Muqtada," he said in an interview last week, shortly after his release. "It was part of our battle. We now have an important role in the government. Now we are waging a peaceful resistance against our enemies, not a military war, but I am ready to return to [violent] resistance at any moment if Muqtada asks me to."

Mr Kadhim's release from prison and the Sadr Movement's return to the forefront of Iraqi politics is a testament to its enduring influence as a rallying point for many in Iraq's majority Shiite community.

During his first term as prime minister, Mr al Maliki campaigned to quash Sadrist militants, with Iraq's security forces arresting and killing hundreds in a series of battles and counterinsurgency operations carried out alongside US troops between 2005 and 2010.

But after the inconclusive March election left the prime minister without a parliamentary majority, he desperately needed the support of the Sadrists in order to win a second four-year term.

After months of political deadlock, he eventually won that backing and, last week, named his new government as a result. However, the price for Mr al Sadr's support was an influential role in his new administration, a strong presence in Iraq's provincial councils and, crucially, freedom for some of the 2,000 Sadrist militants held in Iraq's prisons.

Mr Kadhim, more commonly known as Abu Muqtada - he named his first son after the movement's leader and says he plans also to call his unborn second son Muqtada - was one of those given his liberty.

"I was captured in Sadr city, the Americans had a tip-off from a traitor that I'd been planting bombs," Mr Kadhim said in an interview, in Baghdad's al Ameen neighbourhood, where he lives.

Like other Mahdi Army fighters detained by the US military and later handed over to the Iraqi authorities, Mr Kadhim, 30, said American forces had treated him humanely in prison and tried to pull him away from the radical Shiite group by offering a more liberal religious education.

"The Americans were good to us in prison. They treated us well, they were nice, which was all part of a trick," he said. "They had a dirty purpose. They wanted to brainwash us with lessons about 'clean' Islam and turn us against Muqtada.

"They didn't come out and say Muqtada was wrong, but the lessons they gave us tried to show us in a more subtle way that he was bad."

Those efforts failed, Mr Kadhim insisted, and his loyalty to the Shiite preacher remains undimmed.

"What came in one ear, went out of the other," he said of the US re-education efforts. "We had God over our heads to protect us, and we had the teachings of Sadr about the dirty American snakes in our minds."

There has been little in the way of official acknowledgement about the al Maliki-al Sadr deal on prisoners. Iraqi security forces and Iraq's human rights ministry both said they had no details about who or even how many Sadrist prisoners had been now freed.

The Mahdi Army formally disbanded in 2008 with the Sadrists insisting they were leaving violent opposition to US forces and, instead, following a political path. So-called special groups, including suspected Mahdi Army fighters - possibly breakaway rebels from the Sadrists - are believed to have continued insurgent operations since then, however.

Amir al Kinani, one of the Sadr movement's 30 MPs, insisted the release of former militants posed no threat to Iraq's fragile stability.

"These prisoners are not going to go back to military operations, they are going to take their place in peaceful civilian life," he said. "They are going to teach religion, not extremism, just peaceful Islam."

Mr al Kinani said no dangerous men had been freed as part of the amnesty.

"The violent criminals who pretended to be with the Mahdi Army are still in jail, only the innocent Mahdi Army members who did nothing wrong have been released."

However, the prisoners' unflagging loyalty to al Sadr and their violent pasts have unnerved many Iraqis, even those who favour national reconciliation efforts and accept the Sadr movement's grassroots popularity that resulted in its strong ballot box performance.

"We all thought these insurgents would be in prison for a long time," said Ahmed al Bahadili, an independent political analyst in Baghdad who specialises in Iraq's militant groups. "They are dangerous men and now al Maliki has released them they seem more ready than ever to fight for Muqtada."

In striking a deal with the Sadrists over the prisoners, Mr al Maliki had found a short-term solution for Iraq's political impasse but has sown the seeds for long-term upheaval, Mr Bahadili said.

"There will be negative repercussions to this, there will be a heavy price to pay," he said. "You cannot control these militants, they will either join the militia again, or will become part of criminal gangs."

However there are indications that years in prison, and US rehabilitation efforts, have won over some former Mahdi Army members.

"I believed every word Muqtada said, and I did everything they told me but now I see he is just a liar," said one former Mahdi Army member, who asked only to be named as Abu Islam. Released as part of the amnesty, he spent three and half years in jail, after being arrested for aiding the insurgents in his job as an official inside a government ministry.

"For my loyal service [to the Sadr movement] they promised to look after my family while I was in prison," he said. "They broke that promise and now I don't believe them any more. All I found [when I was released] is my wife and six children living in hunger and poverty. Three of my sons have dropped out of school because we had no money."

Abu Islam, 45, said he had undergone religious re-education while held in US custody, in Baghdad's Camp Cropper, and that these lessons, as well as unexpected good treatment in US hands, had played a part in him changing his mind about the group.

"I will spend the rest of my life begging forgiveness from God and from the families of the Americans and Iraqis I helped to kill," he said. "Muqtada and his leadership have a magic way of influencing the young and naive, people with pure hearts and fragile minds, they misled us."

Even unrepentant Mahdi Army prisoners say they have, at least for now, turned their backs on violence.

"I will always be ready to follow Muqtada's orders, my life is for him and I'm ready to fight the Americans again," said Abu Sadiq, 28, recently released after two years in US and Iraqi custody. He admitted he had been captured for planting bombs.

Although liberal Islamic re-education efforts while in prison had apparently failed in his case - he dismissed them as US brainwashing - he said he now laid down his weapons.

"I now sell clothes to shops in Baghdad," he said. "I'm proud to fight for Muqtada and for Iraq. We won the battle in the streets and the battle in the jails. Now the Americans will leave [Iraq] and all of the problems they brought with them will go. We'll have peace and stability and will be able to build the country again."