Mahdi Army

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MahdiArmy.jpg
Members parade in Sadr City

The Mahdi Army, also known as the Mehdi Army or Jaish-i-Mahdi, is a militia force created by the Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June of 2003. The Islamist militants rose to international prominence on April 4, 2004 when it spearheaded the first major armed confrontation against the U.S-led occupation forces in Iraq from the Shiite community in an uprising that followed the banning of al-Sadr's newspaper and attempts to arrest him, and lasted until June 6. The group is armed with AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and other light weapons. The truce agreed to in June was followed by moves to disband the militia and transform al-Sadr's movement into a political party to take part in the 2005 elections; Muqtada al Sadr ordered fighters of the Mahdi army to go into a ceasefire unless attacked first. The truce broke down in August 2004, with new hostilities breaking out, but has remained largely peaceful since. National Independent Cadres and Elites party that ran in the 2005 Iraqi election was closely linked with the army.

Contents

Early history

The Mahdi Army began as a small group of roughly 500 seminary students connected with Moqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam City. The group moved in to fill the security vacuum in Sadr City and in a string of southern Iraqi cities following the fall of Baghdad to U.S-led coalition forces on April 9, 2003. The group initially dispensed aid to Iraqis and provided security in the Shiite slums from looters.

Gradually, the militia grew and was formalized by al-Sadr in June of 2003. Jaish-i-Mahdi grew into a sizeable force of up to 10,000 militia who even operated what amounted to a shadow government in some areas. Al-Sadr's preaching is critical of the US occupation, but he formerly withheld unleashing his militia on Coalition forces and joining the attacks already being waged by guerillas from the Sunni community.

Battles for the Shiite Heartland

Uprising Begins

Sadr's position changed dramatically, however, by the beginning of April. Following the closure of the Sadr-owned newspaper al-Hawza and the arrest of one of his senior aides, Sadr gave an unusually heated sermon to his followers on Friday, April 2, 2004. The next day, violent protests occurred throughout the Shiite south that soon spilled over into a violent uprising by Jaish-i-Mahdi militiamen, fully underway by April 4.

April hostilities

The Jaish-i-Mahdi forces began an offensive in Najaf, Kufa, Kut, and Sadr City, seizing control of public buildings and police stations while clashing with coalition forces. The militants gained partial control of Karbala after fighting there. Other coalition forces came under attack in Nasiriyah, and British forces also came under fire in Amarah and Basra. Najaf and Kufa were quickly seized after a few firefights with Spanish troops, and Kut was seized after clashes with Ukrainian troops soon afterwards.

After sporadic clashes, Coalition forces temporarily suppressed most militia activity in Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra. Mahdi rebels expelled Iraqi police from three police stations and ambushed U.S forces in Sadr City, killing seven U.S troops and wounding several more. U.S forces subsequently regained control of the police stations after running firefights with the fighters that killed dozens of Iraqis. Jaish-i-Mahdi members still maintained influence over many of the slum areas of Sadr City, however.

On April 16, Kut was retaken by Coalition forces, leaving the area around Najaf and Kufa along with Karbala still left left under the firm control of Sadr's forces. Sadr himself was believed holed up inside Najaf. Troops put a cordon around Najaf with 2500 troops, but reduced the number of forces to pursue negotiations with Jaish-i-Mahdi. At the beginning of May, coalition forces estimated that there were 200-500 militants still present in Karbala, 300-400 in Diwaniyah, an unknown number still left in Amarah and Basra, and 1,000-2,000 still holed up in the Najaf-Kufa region.

On May 4, coalition forces began a counter-offensive to eliminate Jaish-i-Mahdi in southern Iraq following a breakdown in negotiations. The first wave began with simultaneous raids in Karbala and Diwaniyah on militia forces, followed by a second wave on May 5 in Karbala and more attacks that seized the governor's office in Najaf on May 6. 76 militiamen were estimated killed in the fighting along with 4 U.S soldiers. On May 8, U.S forces launched a follow-up offensive into Karbala, launching a two-pronged attack into the city. U.S tanks also launched an incursion into Sadr City. At the same time, perhaps as a diversionary tactic, hundreds of Mahdi Army insurgents swept through Basra, firing on British patrols and seizing parts of the city. 2 militants were killed and several British troops were wounded.

On May 24, after suffering heavy losses in weeks of fighting, Mahdi Army forces withdrew from the city of Karbala. This left the only area still under their firm control being the Najaf-Kufa region, also under sustained American assault. Several hundred Mahdi Army rebels in total were killed (according to the US) in clashes with the far better trained and equipped American forces. Unfazed by the fighting, Moqtada al-Sadr regularly gave Friday sermons in Kufa throughout the uprising.

June truce

On June 6, 2004, Moqtada al-Sadr issued an announcement directing Jaish-i-Mahdi to cease operations in Najaf and Kufa. Remnants of the militia soon ceased bearing arms and halted the attacks on U.S forces. Gradually, militamen left the area or went back to their homes. On the same day, Brigadier General Mark Hertling, a top US commander in charge of Najaf, Iraq, stated "The Moqtada militia is militarily defeated. We have killed scores of them over the last few weeks, and that is in Najaf alone. [...] The militia have been defeated, or have left." June 6 effectively marked the end of Shiite uprising. The total number of Mahdi Army militamen killed in the fighting across Iraq is estimated at 1,500.

The return of Najaf to Iraqi security forces following the cease-fire left Sadr City as the last bastion of Mahdi Army guerillas still pursuing violent resistance. Clashes continued periodically in the district following the end of the Najaf-Kufa battles. On June 24, Jaish-i-Mahdi declared an end to operations in Sadr City as well, effectively ending militia activity, at least for the time being. Sadr appears to be planning to turn his faction into a political party, having gained a good deal of public support.

After the 4 June truce with the occupation forces, al-Sadr took steps to disband the Mehdi army. In a statement, he called on militia members from outside Najaf to "do their duty" and go home. US forces in Najaf were then replaced by Iraqi police. al-Sadr told supporters not to attack Iraqi security forces and set himself up to become a political force announcing his intention to form a party and contest the 2005 elections. He said the interim government was an opportunity to build a unified Iraq. Interim President Ghazi Yawer gave assurances that al-Sadr could join the political process provided he abandoned his militia. Iraqi officials also assured al-Sadr that he was not to face arrest. [1] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3811215.stm)

August 2004 hostilities

The June settlement was broken. US troops arrested Sadr's representative in Karbala, Sheikh Mithal al Hasnawi on 31 July [2] (http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2004/593/593p15.htm) and surrounded al-Sadr's home on 3 August, resulting in heavy gunfire, mortar shelling and grenade blasts. The apparent aim was to arrest al-Sadr and destroy his movement. [3] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3528992.stm), [4] (http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2004/08/08/iraqi_bid_to_arrest_al_sadr_fails/), [5] (http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/08/03/1359246), [6] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1278178,00.html) British troops in Basra also moved against al-Sadr followers, arresting four on 3 August. After the expiry of a noon deadline to release them on 5 August, the Basra militia men declared holy war on British forces. [7] (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/08/06/wirq06.xml)

On 5 August, via his spokesman Ahmed al-Shaibany, al-Sadr re-affirmed his commitment to the truce and called on US forces to honour the truce. He announced that if the restoration of the cease-fire failed "then the firing and igniting of the revolution will continue". [8] (http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=902792004) The offer was rejected by the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi ("There is no compromise or room for another truce") and US officials ("This is one battle we really do feel we can win"). [9] (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/08/07/wirq07.xml). However, the U.S military reported that the fighting began when Sadr's milita besieged a police station in Najaf and the local governor called for assistance. The most likely conclusion is that the Mahdi Army restarted the combat in response to a series of perceived provocations by the U.S Marines.

In the days that followed fighting continued around the old city of Najaf, in particular the Imam Ali shrine and the cemetery. The Mahdi army, estimated at 2,000 in Najaf, was outnumbered by some 2,000 US marines and 1,800 Allawi security forces, and at a disadvantage due to the vastly superior American firepower and air cover, such as helicopters and AC-130 gunships. On 13 August, the militia was trapped in a cordon around the Imam Ali shrine. While negotiations continued between the interim government and the Mahdi army, news came that al-Sadr had been wounded [10] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3560662.stm)

On 12 August, British journalist James Brandon, a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph was kidnapped in Basra by unidentified militants. A video tape was released, featuring Brandon and a hooded militant, threatening to kill the British hostage unless US forces withdrew from Najaf within 24 hours. Brandon was released after less than a day, following intervention by al-Sadr. At a press conference immediately after his release, Brandon commented on his treatment and thanked his kidnappers: "Initially I was treated roughly, but once they knew I was a journalist I was treated very well and I want to say thank you to the people who kidnapped me." A spokesman for al-Sadr said: "We apologise for what happened to you. This is not our tradition, not our rules. It is not the tradition of Islam." [11] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3560892.stm), [12] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3563032.stm) For more information information on the standoff in Najaf, see Iraqi insurgency.

Iraqi reactions

The uprising seemed to draw an ambivalent reaction from the Iraqi population, which for the most part neither joined or resisted the rebels. Many Iraqi security forces melted away, wishing to avoid confrontation. In a sign of Jaish-i-Mahdi's unpopularity in Najaf, however, which follows more traditionalist clerics, a small covert movement sprung up to launch attacks on the militants. The uprising did receive a good deal of support from the Shiites of Baghdad, however, who were galvanized by the simultaneous siege of the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah.

However, scores of Iraqi policemen joined the Mahdi Army, and many Iraqi Shiites took to the streets in support of the uprising.

Recent developments

Since August the Army and al-Sadr have not challenged coalition troops on a wide scale. The coalition has made no move to arrest al-Sadr and they have not challenged the Army's de facto control over a number of areas in southern Iraq. The Army continues to provide security in a number of southern cities. Loyalists to al-Sadr ran under the National Independent Cadres and Elites banner in the 2005 Iraqi election. Though a number of the movements supporters felt that the election was invalid. The party finished sixth overall in the election and will be represented in the transitional legislature. Another twenty or so candidates aligned with al-Sadr ran for the United Iraqi Alliance.

Name

The group's name, using the term Mahdi, has apocalyptic connotations.

In Islamic theology Al-Mahdi is an end-time figure who will assist the Al-Masih (the Messiah eg. Jesus of Nazarath) in defeating the Ad-Dajjal (Antichrist) and establish a just world-wide Islamic Caliphate in preparation for Al-Qayyam (Judgement Day).

In Shiite (specifically Jafari) theology, the Mahdi is a historic figure being indentified as the Twelfth Imam (Muhammad al-Mahdi) of the Jafari school of thought. He is believed to be present on earth, alive and in occultation, from whence he will emerge when the end-times approach. The Shiites further considered him to be the rightful ruler - or the Imam-e-Zaman (roughly "The Imam of (all) Eras") - of the Islamic ummah (community) at any given time.

See also

External links

nl:Mahdi-leger ru:Армия Махди zh:迈赫迪军

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