Thursday, August 30, 2007


Al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army

(AP) - A look at Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, which he said Wednesday would "freeze" operations for up to six months.
MUQTADA AL-SADR: The radical Shiite cleric commands influence as both a political force and leader of the Mahdi Army, a network of militiamen and other factions involved in community services. Based in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, al-Sadr is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq in the late 1990s. He was killed in a 1999 ambush that his followers blame on the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The younger al-Sadr launched two major uprisings against U.S. and coalition forces in 2004. He maintained his anti-American stance, but later agreed to work with the Washington-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In April, five of al-Sadr's followers resigned from al-Maliki's Cabinet to demand a resolution setting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. Al-Sadr disappeared from public view at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad in February. U.S. officials claimed al-Sadr was hiding in Iran, but al-Sadr never confirmed his whereabouts. He returned to the public stage in May with a fiery anti-American sermon to thousands of followers.
MAHDI ARMY: The militia faction was formed in the turbulent months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 by fighters loyal to al-Sadr. It has grown into one of the most powerful armed groups in Iraq by offering both protection to Shiites and providing needed community outreach such as clinics and welfare services. The Madhi Army — often known by its Arabic name Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM — mobilized the two uprising against U.S.-led forces in 2004 and turned al-Sadr into a major figure in post-Saddam Iraq.
The Mahdi Army began to fragment this year with some factions suspected of forging closer ties with Iran while breaking away from al-Sadr's grip. Mahdi militiamen have recently intensified battles with the Badr Brigade — the private army of Iraq's main Shiite political group — for control of areas across oil-rich southern Iraq.
The number of Mahdi members is unclear. Some estimates range as high as 50,000 to 60,000 hardcore fighters, but others have set the figure lower. There are also many non-militiamen who are sympathetic to al-Sadr and his movement. It takes its name from a messianic figure central to Shiite Islam: the Mahdi, or so-called Hidden Imam, who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shiites believe he will return one day to bring justice to Earth.

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