Here is an Iraq War riddle: Is Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army acquiescing to the invasive Baghdad Security Plan because the army is not the plan’s primary target? Or is the Mahdi Army not the primary target because it has acquiesced to the security plan?
Answer: Mostly the former. The confidence of the Sadr Movement leadership to choose a muted response to the presence of US and Iraqi national forces stationed throughout Baghdad, including in its home base of Sadr City, indicates the former. The leadership is likely basing its decision on two key assumptions: the existence of the Mahdi Army is not threatened; and the agenda of the Sadr Movement is not inhibited.
However, should certain redlines be crossed, the Mahdi Army will be drawn into conflict with US and Iraqi national forces. The first redline is a concerted, brutal, and lasting campaign of Sunni insurgent attacks on the Shiite population or an attack on a target of significant Shiite symbolism. The second is a change in the direction of the government’s security plan, where the Sadr Movement’s long-term political or military power is directly threatened.
Of Two Minds
Despite its billing as an impartial crackdown on Sunni and Shiite perpetrators of sectarian violence, the initial implementation of the security plan assured the Sadr Movement leadership of its benign intentions. US and Iraqi military representatives negotiated their forward operating presence in Sadr City with Sadr officials ahead of deployment, a stark difference to the combative standoff between US Forces and the Mahdi Army in Najaf, Iraq in 2004.
Nor is the security plan’s goal of targeting Sunni insurgents – specifically radical Islamic groups associated with the Islamic State of Iraq – at odds with the Sadr Movement’s agenda. With members and sympathizers of the Mahdi Army operating in the national police and security forces, the security plan is actually enabling Shiite sectarian violence, albeit in a more targeted manner and with official cover.
Even the security plan’s targeting of certain Shiite militants is not inimical to Sadr’s goals. The Mahdi Army is a loose conglomerate of destitute Shiites with a weak centralized command and control structure (source). Often, loose affiliates commit the most brutal sectarian attacks without authorization in the Mahdi Army’s name; they act as criminal gangs with no loyalty to the central Sadr Movement leadership. By targeting these types of Shiite militants, US and Iraqi forces are in effect doing Sadr’s own dirty work, ridding the movement of its uncontrollable fringe element.
Two recent high-profile developments are indicative of the shared aims among the Sadr leadership, Iraqi national government, and US forces. On March 21, 2007, US forces released Sheikh Ahmed Shibani, a senior cleric of the Sadr Movement, at the direction of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Shibani was arrested in Najaf in 2004 under suspicion of carrying heavy weapons. His release was widely acclaimed within the Sadr Movement and the US military stated (perhaps through gritted teeth) that Shibani could play a “potentially important role in helping … foster reconciliation in Iraq” (source).
Several days later, the US military arrested Qais Khazaali, a former Sadr spokesman wanted in connection to a sophisticated 2007 raid on an Iraqi-US forward outpost in Karbala that killed five US soldiers. Khazaali had split with Sadr after 2004 and was reportedly the commander of a breakaway faction of the Mahdi Army that was directly financed by Iran (source). Khazaali’s arrest, along with his brother and other top conspirators, was a coup for US forces and likewise removed a threat to Sadr’s centralized leadership.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s identity, and that of his surrounding leadership, is tied to his role as populist leader and physical defender of lower class Shiites. This aggressive identity juxtaposed against the restrained leadership of Ayatollah Sistani and the Shiite clerical elite of Najaf has won Sadr a popular base.
In the event US and Iraqi national forces are unable to prevent a sustained and brutal campaign of Sunni insurgent attacks against the Shiite populace, Sadr will deploy the Mahdi Army to protect Shiite neighborhoods. He will act similarly if a devastating attack occurs on a holy Shiite site, as occurred after the February, 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari mosque. Sadr’s identity as ‘defender’ requires such an action, though it may place the Mahdi Army in direct conflict with the primacy of US-Iraq national forces in the Baghdad Security Plan.
The future success of the Sadr movement lies in the maintenance of political and military strength. Both are necessary in the inevitable post-occupation struggle for power among competing Shiite factions. Should the security plan change course and challenge either – employing US forces aggressively against the Sadr network or removing ministerial positions from the Sadr political bloc – the Mahdi Army would likely be deployed in response. However, given Sadr’s heavy political representation in the governing Shiite coalition, such a development is unlikely.