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The Mehdi Army are one of the most important political and military forces in Iraq and are likely to have a massive influence on the country's future, even if they seem rather quiet at the moment. We all know that U.S. forces cannot possibly remain in Iraq for ever and already they are just one of the armed groups that will determine the country's future. For a long time it has been U.S. policy to develop non-sectarian, neutral security forces controlled by the state which are supposed to be able to overwhelm and make obsolete all other armed groups; but in reality non-state forces like the Mehdi Army are much more significant, and will likely remain so. And over the next few months, as its unilateral ceasefire is set to expire, you're going to be hearing a lot more about these guys.

We in the west have an understandable tendency to focus on the role of the U.S. military in Iraq; and no doubt they are very influential. But a narrative which makes them the be all and end all has perhaps suited our own perceptions rather than corresponded to reality. The Americans will come and go and ultimately pass from the pages of Iraq's history, but Sunni and Shi'ite will remain and are themselves busy determining the course of the future as we speak. One of the groups that has been instrumental in this is the Mehdi Army.

What is essentially happening in Iraq now, under the nose of U.S. forces, is that the Iraqis are preparing for the ultimate withdrawal of the Americans. And they have spent the last several years preparing for this by arming and organizing against one another. The legacy of Saddam Hussein is total mistrust by the two sectarian groups of one another - the Sunnis are worried by the apparent emergence of a Shi'ite state, and the Shi'ites are motivated by a desire to revenge crimes past and prevent their former tormenters from returning to power. The situation is decidedly not one of "resisters" against U.S. "occupiers"; the U.S. can be co-opted and used by any of these groups via an alliance, and no-one actually wants the U.S. to leave until they're in the best position vis-a-vis their Iraqi opponents.

The simple fact is that Iraqi armed groups fear one another much more than they fear the U.S. The U.S. is leaving one day, and whoever controls Baghdad and the most guns when they do is going to rule Iraq - forget the democratic process. And there are more immediate reasons for their priorities. The U.S. does not turn up in your neighbourhood, kidnap all the young men, and dump their twisted bodies back on your doorstep. And the U.S. will never be able to do anything more to this flow of violence than to occasionaly dam and redirect it; there is no way to actually arrest the process. But I digress, for I have written about this in general terms elsewhere. One of the main forces that are going to determine the future of Iraq once this whole infernal civil war really gets underway is the Mehdi Army. So, best to understand a bit about them.

Who are the Mehdi Army?

The Mehdi Army are a Shi'ite political and military group whose leader is Muqtada al-Sadr, son of a famous Shi'ite religious scholar killed by Saddam Hussein. They have their origins in Sadr City, an area of Baghdad which was named for the father and contains a large part of the capital's Shi'ite population. When U.S. forces removed Saddam Hussein's regime, they created a power vacuum which Sunnis and Shi'ites have been vying over ever since. The Mehdi Army got its start when Sunni groups, especially Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), began bombing Shi'ite neighbourhoods.

The Army's core of support comes from young, often unemployed, poor Shi'ites in Sadr City. Shi'ism has a tradition of quietism - staying out of politics - that is embodied in the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, Iraq's main Shi'te religious figure. Sistani's message is: chill out and wait for the Americans to leave, and co-operate with the state. But this message rang increasingly hollow as the battle of Baghdad got underway in earnest in 2004. What has been happening since then and has only recently come to an apparent conclusion or at least lull is the sectarian division of Baghdad through brutal ethnic cleansing; and the Mehdi Army was the prime mover of this on the Shi'ite side, both protecting their own neighbourhoods from Sunni attacks and engaging in what they plainly describe as a war of territorial conquest to gain control of all of Baghdad and drive Sunnis away.

The Mehdi Army gained an awful lot of respect in Baghdad, way outside of its normal social base, by being able to so effectively defend Shi'ites from Sunni attack and because of its tremendous efficiency at the ethnic cleansing of Sunni areas of the city. These are not nice people. The brutal torture and execution of Sunnis which was so common in years past was largely down to them. They would assassinate prominent Sunni civic figures and businessmen to destroy the social fabric of Sunni neighbourhoods; they would move into a suburb of Baghdad, set up roadblocks, and kill every Sunni they stopped until Sunnis didn't come through there anymore. And in the process the young thugs of the Mehdi Army got guns, respect, women, and lots and lots of money.

They got their fingers in all sorts of pies - extortion, kidnapping, protection rackets and the redistribution of wealth from Sunni bourgeoisie to poor Shi'ites and themselves. The Army has a huge income which it uses to provide pensions to the families of those killed fighting the Sunnis and the Americans and to run social services in Sadr City, increasing its popularity. Ethnic cleansing is a profitable business because it allows the perpetrator to seize the goods of the killed and displaced and to move his own supporters into their houses, hence strengthening the grip of Shi'ites throughout Baghdad.

There is hence a very strong element of the sheer will to power by a traditionally disadvantaged group in all of this. Once the old social order of Iraq - Sunni at the top, poor Shi'ite at the bottom - was removed and everything came down to the law of the gun, a youth on the hard streets of Sadr City was suddenly a rather good preparation for advancement in Iraqi life - through brutality. These young men gained respect and admiration for defending their community, and nurtured an ideology of hatred towards their former rulers and the Sunni terrorists who further brutalized them through horrific bombings.

Why should we care? The Mehdi Army and the Surge

There's something that we all really need to understand about the recent surge of U.S. forces, which is seemingly so successful. All of the indicators of violence are down, but this is only partially due to the presence of more American forces. Decisions and actions taken by the Mehdi Army have been instrumental in this period of relative calm. One reason that Baghdad is so calm at the moment is because such a large proportion of the ethnic cleansing which was going on has actually been completed; so this fact is in part due to a failure of U.S. forces, not their success. Secondly, at the end of August 2007 the Mehdi Army declared a unilateral ceasefire - a ceasefire that could break down very soon.

After Baghdad was split between the sects, the Mehdi Army began to a lose bit of their reason for being. They got overstretched. There were so many militiamen and so many local commanders who had the run of the city, and the security forces couldn't do anything about it. The police is infested with the Sadr movement's followers and the military is afraid of them; so is the Iraqi government. And as the young thugs of the Sadr militia continued to have their own way, they began to piss people off. There was always a significant criminal element in the Mehdi Army, and this began to really come to the forefront through 2007.

The movement had gotten too big and hard to control, and the random violence began to alienate much of Baghdad's Shi'ite population and make it increasingly difficult for the Americans and Iraqi security forces to be indifferent. And the movement began to clash with its arch-enemy, the other main Shi'ite party in Iraq - the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an Iranian-backed group. They argued over who got to control the religious shrines and who was the real representative of Shi'ite interests. The Council is seen by lower-class, young Sadrists as representing the interests of the rich, the old, and the traditional movers and shakers; and they are seen as only too happy to sell out Iraq to the occupiers or the Iranians. As the Mehdi Army increasingly began to fight their fellow Shi'ites, they became robbed of legitimacy.

And so in August 2007 - at the height of the surge - the movement's leader decided to call a ceasefire - he unilaterally declared that his organization would cease attacks on coalition forces, Sunnis, and fellow Shi'ites while it was cleaned up from the inside. Muqtada has already accomplished one of his key objectives: he has been instrumental in driving Sunnis from Baghdad and extending his own power throughout the city and into the state. Now he needs to transform his movement into a legitimate political one which can continue to be a vehicle of his own power; because violence is not power.

The work of the violence is largely done, and now Muqtada needs a tight, disciplined organization which is cleansed of its criminal and corrupt elements and so can gain legitimacy with the entire Iraqi Shi'ite population. The Mehdi Army is currently in what Hamas like to call a hudna, a period of temporary truce which is allowing it to rebuild its strength - in this case its strength to act as a unified, coherent organization. When this beast awakens, it can be expected to resume its previous policies - it aims at nothing less than the total control of Iraq. The movement's young men are getting fed up - the ethnic cleansing process gave them money and power, and they are having to see their old enemies come back and their friends in the movement handed over to the security services for corruption and the violence that they were earlier encouraged to carry out.

The ceasefire is expected to be rescinded any day now.

American policy

The chance of a conflict between American forces and the Mehdi Army is high. It is very tempting for the Iraqi state and the Americans to deliver the death blow to the organization, as the ceasefire is interpreted as a sign of weakness. The state favoured the Mehdi Army over the Sunnis, but is more aligned with the upper-class Council in internal Shi'ite matters.

But taking down the Mehdi Army may be impossible. It is not like Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group of foreigners with no social base whose brutality could not be interpreted as protecting anyone. The Americans are trying to confront the Mehdi Army in the same way they took down the Sunni terrorists, by arming local defence committees to allow them to take back their own turf. But the Army grew out of particular communities and now effectively rules those communities, and it will be nearly impossible to uproot them from there. Meanwhile, the Mehdi Army know this is an attempt to destroy them and cannot be expected to acquiesce for much longer; meanwhile, this policy is increasing the number of armed actors in the country rather than seeing security become the preserve of the state.

Meanwhile, the Iranians are flirting with the Sadr movement. The Iranians have traditionally supported the Supreme Council, but the military organization constructed by the Sadrists is of immense interest to them because it gives them leverage against the Americans in case of a U.S. attack on Iran. This is one reason that an attack on Iran is almost inconceivable - Tehran could flood the Mehdi Army with advanced weaponry to be used against the U.S. in days. And they could do the same if the Sadr movement's existence is threatened. The U.S. will have to reach some sort of accomodation with the Sadr movement and recognize its position as an important power-broker in Iraq. And this important power-broker will be Iranian-backed.

When American forces leave, what's going to matter is who has the guns. The Mehdi Army has the guns and the backing of a powerful neighbouring state. And it has a radical plan to transform the country into a Shi'ite dominated, socially transformed nation which will likely include elements of theocracy; for the Mehdi Army have morality brigades, something else they learned from the Iranians. And you can expect to see the Americans having to give in to this reality unless they are to continue spilling blood there for a hundred years; and, after all, don't the Sadrists oppose Iraq's al-Qaeda terrorists?

Some democracy.

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