U.S soldiers encountered no resistance and found few weapons during recent patrols through the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City — all signs indicating that the powerful al-Mahdi militia originating there, at least for now, is on an indefinite vacation.
But while the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia may appear restrained in Sadr City, home to 2 million Iraqis in the heart of Baghdad, the cleric’s fighters are everywhere in the police force, the military and even the government.
Defense policy analysts said those militia members are just biding their time to return to some sort of legitimate, controlling authority when the moment is ripe.
“There are a number of favorable outcomes for (Sadr)” if he doesn't fight, retired Col. Thomas X. Hammes, who served in Iraq and is the author of The Sling and the Stone: On Warfare in the 21st Century. “The only people who win if (the Mahdi Army) fight us are the Sunni.”
“They made a decision not to confront us and to wait out the surge,” said Vali Nasr, Islamic scholar and professor of national security studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. “They in essence said, ‘If the U.S wants the responsibility for guaranteeing security, let them have it.'”
Al-Sadr may have cut a deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or else he saw the writing on the wall when President Bush announced his plan to increase U.S troop levels by 21,500. House-to-house searches conducted by U.S soldiers in this packed neighborhood were the first since the beginning of the war four years ago.
Once the site of vehement anti-American protests, the searches that began in early March were met with one peaceful protest outside a Sadr City mosque on March 16, reportedly spurred by statements sent by al-Sadr himself, who has been absent for weeks. Reports suggest he is in Iran, though many of his supporters refuse to believe it.
More recently at the request of Maliki, the U.S military last week released a major Sadrist leader, Sheik Ahmed Shibani, who had been in prison for 2 1/2 years. Observers note this is all part of the delicate dance all sides are doing to keep the peace and move toward a more permanent reconciliation.
Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.), who advanced counterinsurgency efforts nearly 40 years ago in Vietnam, is wary of the silence.
“Sure, those guys are going to get out of the line of fire,” he said of the Mahdi. "They'll wait and see what happens and then design a way to come back and attack the U.S. position with tactics more favorable to them.”
Yet the calm in Sadr City it is the first sign of an unofficial, albeit uneasy truce between the U.S military and the militia that first attacked American positions in 2004. Frederick Kagan, a military expert with the American Enterprise Institute who authored a blueprint for the surge into Baghdad earlier this year, said the latest sequence of events may be cause for optimism.
“We have not been allowing (the al-Mahdi Army) to lay low. We have been picking off the leaders in their senior organization. We have established a joint security station" in Sadr City, he said. “That means we are operating on their home turf and tripping their networks.”
Kagan said he believes al-Sadr is losing face with his people by not being there, creating opportunities for Shiite leaders who are more amenable to working with the central government and the United States.
One of those leaders, Sadr City Mayor Raheem Darraji, was almost killed in an assassination attempt on March 15. He was involved in the negotiations with Iraqi and U.S. military that cleared the way for American troops to come into the city.
Who Are the Mahdi?
With its origins in a small group of al-Sadr followers in Saddam City — now Sadr City — the al-Mahdi organization flourished after the 2003 fall of Baghdad, providing aid and security to Shiite Iraqis in Baghdad and other cities in southern Iraq. Often called the "rebel" cleric, al-Sadr is the son of the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al Sadr, who was allegedly murdered by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in 1999. Sadr City is this elder al-Sadr's namesake.
As his son sermonized against the U.S. occupation and rival Shiite groups began to scramble for authority, the al-Mahdi organization grew, and in June 2003 al-Sadr formalized the group into what is now the al-Mahdi Army. In April 2004, following the shutdown of his newspaper by the U.S. military, al-Sadr incited attacks on coalition forces in several Shiite cities.
After months of fierce fighting, the militia was defeated and forced to retreat from the cities it had managed to overtake.
Al-Sadr, who has close ties with Iran, then went into to politics, backing candidates who eventually won 30 seats in the new Iraqi parliament in 2005. Al-Sadr loyalists also hold six cabinet posts.
The militia, according to varying reports, has grown from a small cadre to 10,000 in 2004 to anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 today. It continues to provide social services to Shiite followers. Up until now it has also provided primary security for the city's Shiites and has been blamed for much of the systematic violence and displacement of Sunnis in Baghdad.
"The real problem is, three or four years ago, it was a rag-tag bunch of the poor and dispossessed," said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at AEI. "Now, around 40,000 have received basically professional training. … They have gone, been trained by the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, and come back. They are no longer amateurs. These are the ones we need to worry about."
In March, unnamed senior military officials told the Associated Press that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force were training Mahdi militiamen just over the border and splinter groups that were even more anti-American than their old boss had started to emerge. Recent reports say the Mahdi militiamen have engaged in gun battles with fighters from one of those groups in Basra.
On Wednesday, U.S officials announced that several Shiite militiamen were arrested in connection to the killing of five U.S soldiers in Karbala in January. There have been conflicting reports over whether they are Mahdi, or part of one of the splinter organizations.
Trouble on the Horizon?
Some analysts insist the Mahdi in Sadr City just melted more completely into their day jobs as policemen and even Iraqi soldiers. Some may now be working alongside the very American soldiers they once targeted.
Meanwhile, they are letting the Americans take the lead in fighting their Sunni rivals, and really have no interest in sharing power if and when stability finally comes to Iraq, said military author Bill Lind.
"They are in the catbird seat and they know it," said Lind, who believes the Shiites are using the Americans to destroy Sunni opposition for them.
Kagan said the Americans are not doing the Shiite militia's dirty work by destroying their Sunni opposition. Rather, "we are going after Al Qaeda," and in some places, local Sunnis are going after Al Qaeda too. Kagan did not deny that the Mahdi militia have infiltrated the police and military ranks. But, he said, "When they are operating alongside our military ... they are not out of control."
Mahdi fighters could disrupt coalition supply lines from Kuwait and have convenient support from their neighbors in Iran, Lind charged. But if they bide their time, they could play a bigger role in a new Shiite-dominated government that pays little or no lip service to the Sunni minority.
"The real question is, how much patience and restraint will Shia Arabs continue to exercise with the U.S. military presence?" asked retired Col. Douglas MacGregor, who led armored cavalry troops in the first Persian Gulf War. "No one harbors any illusion about the degree of distaste for the American occupation. The minute we turn our attention to serious action towards the Shia militias, all bets are off."
Hammes argued, however, that the increased American presence was a "huge step forward," and the "even-handed approach" to the mixed population in Baghdad, including Sadr City, is the right one. It's just going to take a long time, he said, predicting it will last well beyond the next year.
On the other hand, if Sunni insurgents in Baghdad continue to maim and kill Shiites, the Sadrists are going to get restless for the old Mahdi security, said Nasr.
"We still have the challenge of providing the protection the Mahdi Army was giving, and we are a long way from being able to make one or two incursions into Sadr City and being able to hold it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.