Mahdi Army members
The Mahdi Army, the paramilitary wing of the Sadr Movement, was founded in the aftermath of the collapse of the Iraqi Ba’th in the spring and summer of 2003 and by the spring of 2004 reportedly had between six and ten thousand members and about 500 to 1,000 highly-trained elite fighters. Muqtada has been blamed for ordering the murder of Sayyid ‘Abd al-Majid al-Kho’i, a son of the late Iraq-based Iranian Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abu’l Qasim al-Kho’i and a mid-level cleric, who the U.S. hoped would win over Iraqi Shi‘i support for the U.S.’s post-invasion nation-building project. ‘Abd al-Majid was stabbed to death in Najaf on April 10, 2003 by a crowd angry about his appearance with Haidar Rafa‘i Killidar, the Ba’th-appointed custodian of the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf who was killed with al-Kho’i. Under pressure from the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada in April 2004. Muqtada has denied involvement in the murders of al-Kho’i and Killidar.
Although it did not formally participate in the December 2005 national elections, the Sadr Movement’s representatives won over 30 seats in the national parliament and gained control over four ministries, including the Ministry of Health. Despite allegations that Mahdi Army paramilitaries were carrying out sectarian attacks on Sunni Arabs, Muqtada was one of Iraq’s most popular leaders, among both Shi‘is and Sunnis who respected his resistance against continued U.S., British, and coalition occupation of their country. His popularity, however, was heavily damaged when his followers were blamed for carrying out widespread revenge attacks and killings against Sunni mosques and religious leaders following the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Shi‘i al-‘Askari shrine in Samarra, purportedly by al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, then headed by the Jordanian Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi before his assassination in June 2006 in a U.S. air strike.
The ensuing Iraqi civil war has made it difficult to determine which groups are actually a part of the Mahdi Army and which are independent groups operating outside of the Sadr Movement but who may still use Muqtada’s name because of his continued influence. Muqtada and his movement in Basra came under intense pressure in April 2008 when the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, launched a U.S.-supported campaign against “militias” in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra. The Iraqi forces used in this campaign were reportedly dominated by members of the Badr Corps, the paramilitary organization of Muqtada’s the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the party headed by his chief rival, Sayyid ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim. Despite claims to the contrary by al-Maliki, the campaign was directed almost solely against the Sadr Movement and Mahdi Army units in Basra. The government was reportedly attempting to weaken Muqtada’s movement before provincial elections, which are scheduled for 2009 and in which the Sadr Movement is expected to perform very well. In spite of the government’s campaign against him, Muqtada decided to renew a 2007 six-month ceasefire with U.S. and Iraqi government forces for another six months. He has announced that his movement will not run on its own ticket in the upcoming elections but will instead run on independent lists. He has also reportedly renewed his religious education in the hopes of advancing his religious clerical status, which in turn would increase his personal prestige and political authority among segments of the Iraqi Shi‘i community.
Amara.net, Sadr Movement web site. http://al3marh.net/news/.
Cockburn, Patrick. Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for
Iraq. New York: Scribner, 2008.
Cole, Juan. “The United States and Shi‘ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba‘thist Iraq.”
Middle East Journal 57 (2003): 543-566.
Jabar, Faleh A. The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi Books, 2003.
Nakash, Yitzhak. Reaching for Power: The Shi‘a in the Modern Arab World. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
al-Sadr, Muhammad Sadiq. Web site of the Martyr, al-Sadr the Second.
Visser, Reidar. The Sadrists of Basra and the Far South of Iraq: The Most Unpredictable
Political Force in the Gulf’s Oil-Belt Region?. Oslo: Norwegian Institute of
International Affairs, 2008.