Shi’ite militia has revival in Iraq after elections
BAGHDAD — A once-feared Shi’ite militia that was crippled two years ago by defections and a US-Iraqi crackdown has quietly started to regroup, adding street muscle to the Shi’ite party that emerged strongest from Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
The revival of the Mahdi Army, loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, could be an ominous sign. A Sadr spokesman said the force is gearing up to ensure US forces stick to a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline to withdraw from the country — threatening attacks on American troops if they stay past the date.
In the near term, Sunnis fear the militia will turn its firepower against their community in vengeance after an uptick in militant violence against Shi’ites in recent months, a move that could revive the fierce sectarian bloodshed that nearly tore the nation apart in 2006 and 2007.
Sadr disbanded the militia in 2008. But his spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi, told the Associated Press that it has officially been revived.
The militia’s armed wing, called the Promised Day Brigade, will “prepare quietly to launch qualitative attacks against the occupiers [US forces] if they stay beyond 2011,’’ he said. “It will have a big role to play to drive them out of Iraq.’’
In a show of the movement’s new boldness, Sadr offered to help Iraqi security forces — who have almost no visible presence in their eastern Baghdad stronghold — protect Shi’ites after a wave of bombings April 23 targeted their places of worship. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not respond, and a top aide, Ali al-Adeeb, expressed doubt that the government would accept the offer.
So Sadr took matters into his own hands. Last Friday, his militiamen deployed at the sites of the weekly Muslim prayers organized by the Sadrists in Baghdad’s Sadr City — home to some 2.5 million Shi’ites — and across the Shi’ite south of Iraq, throwing a security ring around their mosques, searching worshipers and vehicles.
The Mahdi Army’s return comes during a dangerous political vacuum resulting from the inconclusive March 7 vote. No political bloc emerged with the parliamentary majority needed to form a new government, sparking wrangling between Maliki and his top rival, Ayad Allawi.