Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, the young, staunchly anti-American firebrand of the Iraqi Shi‘a community, has been largely absent from view for more than a year, but the tense anticipation with which decision-makers in Baghdad and Washington awaited his expected announcement at the end of February showed his continued importance to Iraq's political scene and its future. The announcement concerned whether or not he would extend the truce that the Mahdi Army militia had declared six months ago, and his known penchant for the sensational and melodramatic increased the element of suspense. The declaration, made in a statement that was read out during the Friday prayers' khutbas on February 22 at mosques affiliated with his group, had been sent earlier to imams who follow Muqtada al-Sadr in sealed envelopes, with instructions that they not be opened until the time came for the announcement to be made.
On February 20 Shaykh Salah al-‘Ubaydi, the spokesman of the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri), said that both options, namely extending or not extending the truce, were open, adding that if Sadr does not issue a statement, “then that means the freeze is over.” On the eve of the announcement the Mahdi Army held a military parade in its stronghold of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad to commemorate the fourth anniversary, according to the Hijri calendar, of the fighters who were killed fighting American and Iraqi troops in the first Sadrist uprising in April 2004.
The statement said that the cessation of hostilities will be extended for another six lunar months, ending on the 15th day of next Sha'aban which is likely to fall on August 16. “I cannot support the crimes of criminals or the sins of sinners, and I created this army on the principles of the household of the Prophet (as),” the statement said. “I will give you another opportunity to pursue perfection as I had given it to myself before you.”
The extension of the freeze on the Mahdi Army's military activities was welcomed by the American military. “Those who continue to honour al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's pledge will be treated with respect and restraint,” said a statement issued by the US command. “Those who dishonour the Sadr pledge are regrettably tarnishing both the name and the honour of the movement.” The statement went on to say: “This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honour to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens,” adding that the US command “also welcome[s] an opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadr Trend and all groups who seek to bring about reconciliation in building the new Iraq.”
The ceasefire, which includes a unilateral suspension of attacks on US troops, Iraqi forces and rival armed groups, has been credited for the recent sharp reduction of violence in Iraq. The Mahdi Army was responsible for far more attacks against US troops than any other armed group in Iraq, including al-Qa'ida. Other contributory factors cited by US commanders include a 30,000-strong US troop “surge” and the declining fortunes of al-Qa'ida as the Sunni Arab tribes, who form the backbone of the insurgency, have had their fill of the intolerant fanaticism and nihilistic violence of their former salafist jihadist allies. US military sources in Iraq estimate that the overall level of violence has dropped by 60 percent since last June.
Sadr called the unilateral ceasefire on August 29 after members of the Mahdi Army were accused of involvement in clashes with Iraqi security forces and gunmen of the rival Badr Organisation, the militant arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) of Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, in the city of Karbala. The clashes broke out during the Shi‘a ziyarah occasion of Sha'aban 15. After the clashes, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki gave local security forces full authority to go after the Mahdi Army, root and branch. Hundreds of Sadr loyalists, including several provincial council-members, were arrested. Many of them have been subjected to torture by their police interrogators; there have also been allegations of sexual abuse. Sadr's ability to enforce the ceasefire amid the crackdown is remarkable in the light of the Sadrist Trend's previous reputation as a highly decentralised mass movement to the extent of being virtually uncontrollable.
Standing down the Mahdi Army has enabled Sadr to purge unruly and dissident elements from its ranks. In fact, he has been using the truce to restructure the Mahdi Army into a proper standing military force, free of rogue elements. Before the ceasefire, the militia had shown ominous signs of splintering into disparate factions over which Sadr had an increasingly tenuous grip. In the process of reconstituting the Mahdi Army, Sadr is putting in place a new structure and procedures to vet new members, which include endorsement by fellow fighters who are already in good standing. New members also have to pass a host of physical fitness and character tests. A special “Golden” force has also been set up to cleanse the ranks of the Mahdi Army of members accused of atrocities and crimes.
On February 21, Sayyid Hazim al-A'araji, a Sadrist leader in the predominantly Shi‘a neighbourhood of Kadhimiyyah in northern Baghdad, told Agence France Presse: “We have isolated bad elements and we have prevented them from infiltrating the militia.” Despite the freeze, the Mahdi Army now controls vast areas of southern and south-central Iraq, including at least half of Baghdad. In a recent incident, a mere threatening telephone call from Shaykh Abbas al-Rubay'i, a local Sadrist leader in Baghdad, was enough to secure the immediate release of ten Mahdi Army fighters who had been arrested by Iraqi security forces in Palestine Street. In many of the areas controlled by the Mahdi Army, the militia has assumed the role of local government, overseeing the provision of basic services to residents.
Paradoxically, Sadr's efforts to restructure the Mahdi Army have taken advantage of the US military drive to train and equip Iraq's army and police forces, which are heavily infiltrated by Sadr's militiamen. In some cases, US troops have handed over control of areas in the Iraqi capital to units of the Iraqi security forces dominated by Sadr's group. Infiltrating Iraqi security forces involves a crafty use of the guerrilla tactics of using popular support to trump a superior military force. It allows Sadr's militiamen to receive military training and salaries, as well as free meals, equipment, supplies and other services. Unlike other rival Shi‘a groups, namely Hakim's Badr Organisation, who have concentrated their efforts on dominating Iraqi intelligence bureaux, Sadr has focused his efforts mainly on the Iraqi army and police forces, as well as the Facilities Protection Force, which was set up shortly after the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to guard government offices.
The unilateral freeze on the Mahdi Army's military activities was also aimed at freeing the armed group from its reputation of being a medley of criminal bands and death-squads posing as a sectarian militia defending the Shi‘a community against attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents. Elements in the militia were blamed for fuelling the cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence with Sunni Arabs after the bombing of the ‘Askariyyah shrine in Samarra in February 2006. They staged concerted efforts to cleanse Sunnis from several areas of western Baghdad. Taking Mahdi Army fighters off the streets, along with the recent setback suffered by al-Qa'ida, have contributed to a precipitous fall in sectarian killings since last year. According to Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a US military spokesman in Iraq, the number of civilian deaths in Baghdad fell from 1,087 in 2007 to 178 in January of this year, a drop of some 85 percent.
Sadr's decision to renew the ceasefire came despite mounting feelings of bitterness and resentment among Mahdi Army militiamen, Sadrist political leaders and rank-and-file members, many of whom had been calling for an end to the unilateral truce. They argue that they have received nothing in return for the ceasefire. Pressure on Sadr to issue another call for arms has also come from his grassroots supporters living in mixed neighbourhoods in Baghdad, who had, as a result of the decision to freeze the Mahdi Army's military activities, become easy targets for some Sunni Arab elements of the Awakening Councils (Majalis al-Sahwah) that had been trying to drive them out. The Sadrist Trend accuse American troops and Iraqi security forces of exploiting the truce to detain its activists, particularly in southern Iraq, where the Mahdi Army fought pitched battles with Iraqi forces dominated by Hakim's Badr Organisation. Sadrist leaders estimate that more than a thousand activists have been detained, especially in Diwaniyyah, Karbala and Baghdad, since the freeze was declared. They also say that some 300 Sadrist families have been expelled from Diwaniyyah. Since the launch in February 2007 of Operation “Imposing Law” (Fard al-Qanun), the security plan whose implementation coincided with the US “troop surge”, American troops have also been staging repeated raids against Sadr City as part of the intensification of their security operations in the Iraqi capital. Interestingly, the US troops' crackdown on the Sadrists is carried out under the pretext of targeting splinter elements of the Mahdi Army.
In the days preceding the extension of the ceasefire there was an increase in military activities by Shi‘a groups, signaling the growing dissatisfaction of Sadr's followers and of armed groups sharing his anti-US agenda with the truce. For instance, four British troops were injured on February 21 in a roadside bomb-blast outside the British military base in al-Shu'aybah (north ofBasra). Fierce clashes between gunmen and Iraqi police forces erupted throughout Basra after the blast. The clashes were triggered by the entry of a British patrol into the centre of the city, which was seen by some local anti-coalition groups as a violation of the terms according to which the British handed control of the city back to the Iraqi government in December.
Sadr hopes that the renewal of the ceasefire will enable him to continue to regroup the Mahdi Army. A resurgent Mahdi Army will be able to inflict heavy losses on American forces in Iraq. For instance, it could seriously disrupt the long and fragile supply-lines from Kuwait that pass through predominantly Shi‘a southern Iraq. In the meantime, the Sadrists will continue to concentrate on making political gains, reflecting the power Sadr's movement wields in parliament through its 30-seat bloc. Although joining the political process has had mixed results for the Sadrists, it does not necessarily mean that a renewed call to arms is the only option available to them. Other non-violent options include organising a strike or other civil disobedience, which would bring Baghdad and other major urban centres in southern Iraq, such the country's second-largest and oil-rich city, Basra, to a standstill The Sadrists will also continue to make grassroots gains by mobilising their extensive network of social, cultural and religious organisations, providing much-needed assistance to impoverished families, and religious and ideological instruction to Sadr's mostly simple and poorly-educated followers. Such efforts will certainly augment the Sadrists' grassroots support in a country where a recent report by aid-agencies estimated that 43 percent of the people live in “absolute poverty.”
For their part, US commanders in Iraq are hoping that the renewal of the ceasefire will enable them to forge ahead with a “drawdown” of forces from Iraq. Last summer, General David Petraeus, the overall US forces commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Baghdad, recommended the incremental withdrawal of five of the 20 US combat brigades stationed in Iraq this year, eventually bringing the number of US forces down to its level before the “troop surge” that started in February 2007. But the renewal of the Mahdi Army's suspension of armed activities could also be ill-omened for the US-led coalition. It would provide Sadr with another window of time to further restructure his militia and turn it into a leaner, better-trained and stronger force. Whenever Sadr decides to end the ceasefire and reactivate the well-motivated Mahdi Army fighters in the future, the lull in his militia's attacks against coalition troops will evaporate. When this day of reckoning comes, it is doubtful that any increase of troop levels will do the US forces in Iraq much good.