Militia Takes Control
In the months following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Al-Mahdi Army fighters wrested control from police in a number of Shi'ite cities, including Al-Kut, Al-Kufah, and Al-Najaf. Police in these cities abandoned their stations or stood aside as the gunmen roamed the streets. Following the Al-Mahdi Army's occupation of Al-Najaf in August 2004, makeshift courts containing "mutilated bodies and torture machines" were discovered (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 September 2004).
Since that time, al-Sadr's militia appears to have solidified its control over some Shi'ite cities through it's militia's presence on the ground and its infiltration of local police forces (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 28 March 2005). Moreover, the militia has carried out dozens of arrests in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, Karbala, Al-Kut, and Al-Musayyib, according to published Iraqi media reports. In reality, the figures may be much higher.
While some of the militia's activities appear aimed at increasing grassroots support for the cleric, there is much to fear from a militia that increasingly believes in its right to level its own brand of justice outside the rule of law. A number of recent incidents testify to this activity.
Militia As Police Force
On 27 October, police responded to a gun battle that erupted when Al-Mahdi militiamen tried to free a hostage held by insurgents. Twenty-five people were killed in the fighting, including two policemen, and nearly 20 were wounded.
On 5 October, "Al-Huda" reported that the Al-Mahdi Army had arrested a gang in Karbala that it accused of plundering the people's funds.
On 2 October, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the Al-Mahdi Army freed Abd al-Jabr Sulagh, the brother of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a day after he was kidnapped in the capital.
On 18 September, "Al-Bayyinah" reported that the militia asked permission from the Bani Tamimi tribes to seek revenge for the killing of 17 tribe members in Al-Taji. The newspaper also reported that the militia arrested a terrorist who was driving a booby-trapped car in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City.
On 13 August, "Al-Manarah" reported that the militia had released one Iraqi and three Syrian hostages from a terrorist safe house in Baghdad.
Battling The British In Al-Basrah
On 19 September, Iraqi police arrested two British soldiers and took them to a local police station. A British unit dispatched to retrieve the soldiers on 20 September was attacked outside the police station and forced to retreat.
A larger force was then sent in, and discovered that the soldiers had been moved to a nearby building controlled by Al-Mahdi militiamen. The soldiers were retrieved, but not before police accused them of plotting to carry out a terrorist attack against Iraqi civilians. The soldiers were allegedly disguised in traditional Arab clothing when they were arrested.
The kidnapping of the two soldiers by the Al-Mahdi Army appears to have come as revenge for the arrest of Sheikh Ahmad al-Fartusi, an Al-Mahdi Army leader who, along with his brother, was detained by British forces in September on suspicion of organizing terrorist attacks against multinational forces. The incident also points to collusion between al-Sadr militiamen and police in the city.
Al-Basrah police chief General Hassan al-Sade reportedly told London's "The Guardian" newspaper in May that he had lost control of over three-quarters of his officers, to militias that infiltrated the police and used their positions to carry out political assassinations, the daily reported on 31 May.
Al-Sade said that half of his 13,750-member police force secretly worked for political parties, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and al-Sadr's militia. Other officers remained politically neutral, but had no interest in policing or following his orders, he said. "The militias are the real power in [Al-Basrah] and they are made up of criminals and bad people," he said. "To defeat them I would need to use 75 percent of my forces, but I can rely on only a quarter."
Peaceful For Now
This spring, in the southern town of Samawah, al-Sadr loyalists began stirring up discontent by protesting the presence of Dutch and Japanese forces. (The Dutch pulled out of Iraq in March, and 800 British and Australian forces took over security operations in the governorate.)
Months earlier, al-Sadr's Samawah office, estimated to number between several hundred and 2,000, steadily increased its negative rhetoric and threatened in December 2004 that its "peaceful protest" against multinational forces in the governorate would become "another kind of protest" should multinational forces fail to withdraw.
In January, some 300 al-Sadr supporters marched on the governor's office during a demonstration and handed a petition to Governor al-Hasani demanding better services and complaining of government corruption. The demonstrators reportedly carried a banner that read: "Today we have a peaceful demonstration and tomorrow [we will protest with] RPGs and guns."
Police battled insurgents in Samawah in February, but it is unclear whether they were from al-Sadr's group or from opposing Sunni Islamists. In April, insurgents attacked a residence in the city, injuring one resident. Media reports indicated that similar attacks had taken place against locals who were involved in the illicit sale of alcohol. Comparable attacks in Baghdad have been attributed to al-Sadr's group.
...And The Shi'a Everywhere
Relations between al-Sadr and rival Shi'ite parties have always been contentious. The cleric, whose father and two brothers were assassinated by the Hussein regime, views SCIRI and Al-Da'wah as illegitimate parties that fled Iraq rather than face the regime, only to return "riding on the back of American tanks" once Hussein was toppled.
The fighting that broke out in August between al-Sadr militiamen and Badr Forces loyal to SCIRI appeared as a concerted effort by al-Sadr and his supporters to thwart the constitutional process, particularly after some 21 parliamentarians and the health and transport ministers suspended their work and threatened to resign in protest against what they deemed as attacks against al-Sadr and his followers (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 16 August 2005).
In Al-Najaf, clashes erupted after local residents objected to the reopening of the Martyr Al-Sadr office, closed a year earlier after Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani put an end to al-Sadr's standoff against U.S. and Iraqi forces in the holy city in August 2004.
Demonstrators reportedly set fire to al-Sadr's office on 24 August, and the clashes spread to other cities -- with al-Sadr militiamen setting fire to SCIRI and Al-Da'wah offices in Baghdad and Al-Amarah. Clashes also erupted in Al-Basrah, Samawah, Al-Diwaniyah, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Hillah on 24 August; and in Ba'qubah on 25 August, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported.
Smaller-scale clashes continued between Badr Forces and the Al-Mahdi Army in September. In Al-Basrah, al-Sadr supporters destroyed the municipality building used by SCIRI as a headquarters in the city, and set fire to a SCIRI newspaper office.
Meanwhile, former Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan contended in a June interview with elaph.com that Iranian fighters were found inside the Imam Ali Shrine in Al-Najaf after the 2004 clashes between al-Sadr militiamen holed up there and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
Militia Refuses To Disarm
Despite numerous attempts by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the subsequent interim and transitional Iraqi administrations, al-Sadr's militia -- potentially the most dangerous militia in Iraq -- refuses to disarm. Al-Sadr aide Sheikh Hasan al-Zarqani presented the movement's position on its militia in slightly different terms, telling Al-Arabiyah television in a 20 June interview: "We proved our position by the sacrifices we made and the martyrs we offered. Sacrificing one's self is the greatest form of generosity," adding that al-Sadr was eager to preserve the blood of Iraqis -- purportedly blood in danger of being spilled at the hands of the "occupation."
Al-Sadr political adviser Abbas al-Rubay'i told "Al-Zaman" in an interview published on 31 October that the militia will not disband until the occupation comes to an end. "[All] the militias' refusal to dissolve, whether they are against or for the occupation, is not patriotic. I believe that the Al-Mahdi Army is not a mere armed militia. It is actively involved in social activities, helping people who incurred damage and participating in clean-up campaigns and other social and public services."
Indeed, al-Sadr has followed in his late father's footsteps and oversees a slew of charitable activities, from caring for orphans and widows to seeking medical care for the injured, to lobbying on behalf of those believed to have been wrongly detained. By giving money, food, and other assistance to Iraqis in need, the cleric has established himself among his followers as a humanitarian who cares for the people's needs. The distinction is not missed by many living on the edge of poverty, who claim that the current government, led by leading figures from SCIRI and Al-Da'wah, has done little in terms of raising the quality of their lives.