Eight years after American forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime on April 9, 2011, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's followers held a demonstration in Baghdad to commemorate the end of the Baathist government and to demand an end to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Some protestors waved placards bearing slogans such as "Occupiers Out!" and "No America!" as they burned American and Israeli flags.
Although Iraqi security officials have not publicly voiced a concern that Sadrist militants will fill a vacuum with the withdrawal of U.S. forces, it could well be on their mind. Muqtada Al-Sadr is not in fact a religious figure with high-level qualifications in the field of theology. His appeal partly arises from the renowned status of his family that claims descent from Mohammed, hence his title "Sayyid." He was reportedly studying to be an Ayatollah in Iran in 2008, but he has not been using such an honorific.
At the demonstration, to the sound of wild cheers from the crowds, Salah al-Ubaidi, a spokesperson for the Sadrist movement, read out a speech from the influential Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, affirming that any extension of the U.S. "occupation" beyond the end of 2011 will lead to an "escalation of military resistance work and the withdrawal of the order freezing the Mahdi Army," named after the expected Messiah in Shi'a Islam. The presence of U.S. forces beyond the official December 31,2011 deadline is a real possibility in light of the belief echoed among Iraqi military officials that the country's security forces will continue to need American assistance in training.
The next day, a Sadrist leader claimed that a special military wing of the Mahdi Army, known as the "Promised Day Brigade," was still undertaking operations to resist the presence of the U.S. military by "carrying out daily and qualitative strikes at [American] headquarters and at the airplanes in different regions of Iraq." He added that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was part of the occupation of Iraq, and that the Iraqi government should break off diplomatic ties with Washington.
There is no doubt that if Sadr and his militia were to seize power, they would model their government on Iran's theocracy. Sadr does not reject the Khomeinist principle of velayat-e-faqih, or guardianship of the jurists, a belief advocated by Khomeini and supported by Sadrists that "guardiuanship" extends to clerical involvement in politics, such as governing the country. Sadr also has much closer ties to Iran than, say, Iraq's current Prime Miniter, Nouri Al-Maliki. It was at Iran's insistence that Sadr and his allies joined Maliki's bloc to form the present coalition of losers that now constitutes Iraq's government.
Further, Sadr initiated ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad during the sectarian civil war there in 2006. He also forced Iraqi women in the southern provinces of Iraq, where the Sadrists are more influential, to wear the chador, or full black covering except for the face, the same as the Iranian government enforces. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani -- also in Iraq's southern provinces, but 43 years older than Sadr and in not in good health -- does not believe in the mix of religion with politics, or "mosque with state;" and although he recommends that women wear the hijab, or full head covering, he does not call for this to be made into law in Iraq.
There is also ample evidence the Sadr and his followers were behind the murder of the moderate Shi'ite cleric, Sayyid Abdul Majd Al-Khoei in April, 2003, in Najaf.
Playing on anti-occupation sentiments has been an essential part of the Sadrist strategy since the invasion in 2003, and it has not been an unsuccessful tactic. As the International Crisis Group points out, for example, the gargantuan U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad "is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country." Extending over 104 acres (42 hectares), the embassy is ten times larger than the second biggest embassy complex (the U.S. mission in Beijing), and is only slightly smaller than Vatican City. Although Iraqi politicians such as Jalal Talabani and Hoshyar Zebari (being part of what Daniel Pipes aptly terms a "kept government") have welcomed the embassy as a symbol of raw assertion of American power, it has been a mistake not to turn over the complex to Iraqis and relocate the U.S. embassy to a plot of duly purchased land.
Following the march in Baghdad, reports emerged of militia activity. The National featured a story, for instance, on Sadrist graffiti that appeared in the Iraqi capital and the southern provinces, heralding the return of the Mahdi Army. In an interview, a former commander of the Shi'ite militia group said that Sadrist militiamen were preparing to fight the Americans. These preparations reportedly included gathering firearms. Nevertheless, it is yet to be seen if these reports can be verified.
The Mahdi Army was officially disbanded in 2008 after Sadr announced a ceasefire the previous year. During the sectarian civil war that reached its peak in 2006, the Mahdi Army was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of many Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, changing the Sunni-Shi'ite balance in the city to a roughly 70% Shi'a majority today, complete with now largely segregated districts. Indeed, fear of further violence at the hands of the Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite militias was one of the main factors that led to the cooperation of Sunni tribes with U.S. and Iraqi forces against Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (Al-Qa'ida in Iraq) from 2007 with the advent of the surge. Since early 2010, however, speculation has arisen on the revival of the Mahdi Army. In February 2010, the head of intelligence stated that the militia had been reformed. Likewise, in May the U.S. general in charge of the southern provinces affirmed that the Sadrists were engaging in acts of intimidation and extorting money. It is also probable that militant followers of Sadr attacked American bases with indirect fire and utilized IEDs against convoys in order to claim responsibility for the drawdown of U.S. forces in August. Of course, given the Mahdi Army's history in Iraq, its revival greatly risks re-igniting sectarian tensions as insurgent attacks at present are still largely the work of Sunni Arab Islamist militants against Shi'a civilians.
There are several reasons to think that the Mahdi Army will make a full-blown comeback. Having done fairly well in the 2010 elections, the Sadrists were able to act as kingmakers and gain the release of hundreds of their followers in return for giving Nouri Al-Maliki the support he needed to secure a second term as Prime Minister. In addition, Sadrists have gained positions in local police forces, and many fighters have returned to the country from Iran after the government launched a crackdown on the Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite "Special Groups," such as the Iraqi Hizbullah, in 2008. Sadr thus has both leaders and recruits upon which to draw should he wish to revive the Mahdi Army. The approaching withdrawal deadline provides a public justification and grievance with which to rally his followers.
Nonetheless, Sadr is torn by conflicting interests. Despite wishing to draw support from the street in maintaining a populist, anti-American image of protecting Iraq against foreign occupation, he desires political power as well, which translates into joining the regular political process. In an attempt to balance these interests, in 2005, he urged his followers to participate in the elections and joined Maliki's first administration, but he eventually boycotted the government. Consequently, his militia splintered, culminating in an armed conflict with Maliki's security forces in 2008.
Sadr must also face the problem of ongoing demonstrations protesting the lack of basic services, such as electricity and health care, as many of his politicians are now in charge of the ministries responsible for providing these services. A revival of the Mahdi Army threatening a wave of attacks in Iraq when the country is concentrating on politics and developing the economy could therefore well prove a disastrous miscalculation in a similar vein to Sadr's mistakes in 2005. Sadr's recent actions could therefore be part of mere rhetoric, another likely error on his part - or the start of another attempt to attain power.