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Sadr Reconsiders Political Role, Mahdi Army

Tensions have boiled over between the Mahdi Army and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq near Baghdad, as the Sadrist movement re-evaluates its military wing and vies for greater political sway.
Supporters of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr wave Iraqi flags during a rally in Baghdad, February 9, 2012.  REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR2XJEL

The armed clashes between the Mahdi Army and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq that took place in east Baghdad at the beginning of August aroused concerns that armed conflicts might prevail in the streets once again.

On Aug. 3, 2013, in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, gunmen from both sides clashed following a verbal altercation between Jassem al-Hijami, a leader in the Mahdi Army, and Sami Salem, a leader in Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, a lieutenant from the Sadr City police forces, Sajad Abdali, said, “Sami Salem opened fire on Hijami, killing him on the spot. Later, militants from the Mahdi Army attacked Salem and took him to an unknown destination. The kidnapping of a leader from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq sparked clashes between the two sides, which ended in the death of a member of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.”

The news of the clashes in Sadr City reached westward toward the predominantly Shiite region of Hurriya, which is also home to supporters of the Mahdi Army and some advocates of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

Armed clashes broke out in Hurriya, but did not last long. They were settled according to tribal traditions, which impose financial payments known as “fedya,” or bloody money, to be paid to the families of the dead.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, led by Qais al-Khazali, is one of the groups that defected from the Sadrist movement. The group is at loggerheads with the Mahdi Army, which is seen as the military wing of the Sadrist movement.

The head of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, described Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as “a murderous group without any religion.” Meanwhile, Asaib Ahl al-Haq said that the movement’s accusations serve as “an attempt to carry out a political takeover.”

Reports claimed that on Aug. 5, 2013, Sadr closed his private office in the holy city of Najaf, located southwest of Baghdad, to protest the clashes.

However, in an official statement issued on Aug. 6, 2013, Sadr said he is withdrawing from political work as he “does not wish to be part of a conspiracy against the Iraqi people.” Sadr’s withdrawal suggests that controlling the Sadrist movement’s military wing has become a difficult task.

A former member in the Mahdi Army told Al-Monitor, “Some of the leading figures in the Sadrist movement issued a secret decision, after some al-Qaeda members were freed from Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons, requesting the Mahdi Army to protect the Shiite regions against unexpected violent attacks.”

“The decision caused sharp differences within the Mahdi Army and the political body of the Sadrist movement. Intensive calls have been made to prevent any move by the Mahdi Army, which would destabilize the situation,” he added.

The former member, who was active in the Mahdi Army between 2006 and 2008, added, “The army’s leaders are the most extreme and inclined to the use of arms. They believe that the Shiite-led Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to protect Shiites from attacks by Sunni extremists and that they have to do something about it.”

On whether the Mahdi Army possesses weapons or not — despite that back in 2009, Sadr declared that the army had been suspended — the former member said, “The army’s leaders have weapons. Lately, it became clear that they certainly have large quantities of arms, especially with growing talk about a possible war with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.”

The Mahdi Army has become a worrisome burden on the Sadrist movement, which seeks to become a political faction that does not work with weapons.

Nevertheless, the movement is likely to face great challenges in this quest, as many of its military wing’s leaders are characterized by a penchant for violence, sectarian sentiments and believe that the Shiite people are in constant danger, which compels them to be ready to fight.

This reality is weighing heavily on the movement’s political body, as those close to Sadr believe that the preparations for the parliamentary elections in 2014 require the exclusion of the Mahdi Army from the political scene.

Ali Abel Sadah is a Baghdad-based writer for both Iraqi and Arab media. He has been a managing editor for local newspapers as well as a political and cultural reporter for more than 10 years.

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