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    Middle East
     Apr 30, 2010
Muqtada unleashes new, improved army
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Muqtada al-Sadr has been on everybody's radar for six years, especially after emerging victorious in the March elections in Baghdad, winning 40 of the 70 seats taken by the Iraqi National Alliance. His victory was testimony that those who preach political Islam are not yet completely defeated in Iraq, although politicians with similar programs, like the Iran-backed Ammar al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) have suffered a severe reversal of fortunes, loosing approximately 70 seats in parliament, and eight out of 11 provinces.

Muqtada's approval will now ultimately make or break any incoming prime minister, just as it did with Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki in 2005-2006. Coinciding with his recent political


victories, Muqtada last week announced that his Mahdi Army, which has been frozen for nearly two years, is back in full operation.

His words sent shivers down the spine of seculars and Sunni radicals, vibrating throughout Washington, which was never too fond of the Sadrists, whom it never could fully grasp or control. Ambitious Muqtada wannabes within the Shi'ite community were also not pleased at the news, although members of the Mahdi Army, estimated at anywhere between 10,000-20,000 men, were jubilant.

Muqtada's decision came after a wave of deadly bombings struck the Shi’ite community in Iraq, targeting popular mosques, killing 30 people and wounding over 200. It is generally believed that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, in response to the targeting of its two top commanders last week. Muqtada seemed to be telling authorities: "If you cannot protect ordinary Iraqis, then make way for somebody who can."

The Mahdi Army, which led an uprising against the Americans in April-June 2004, has been frozen for two years after having been implicated in sectarian civil war in 2006-2007. When Maliki first came to power in May 2006, it helped polish his image in the slums of Baghdad and within strongholds like Mosul, Basra and Karbala.

Mahdi Army affiliates were given influential government posts, like the ministries of health, education and commerce, along with 30 seats in parliament, and a gentleman's agreement to be excluded from any persecution by government authorities for their public carrying of light arms.

In exchange they pledged to uphold Maliki, legitimizing him among young Shi'ites who saw him as a political nobody at the time, drumming up support for him in rallies and at public demonstrations against his enemies. The honeymoon between Maliki and the Mahdi Army came to an end in the summer of 2007 over the prime minister's refusal to call for a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Since then, although persecuted periodically by government authorities, the Mahdi Army has kept a remarkably low profile, invisible on the streets in places other than Sadr City, for example. Muqtada then came out to call on them to freeze all paramilitary activity for a renewable six-month period, hinting at a truce with the central government.

Many predicted that Muqtada had unwillingly called on his men to give up their arms, so he can better assimilate with the post-Saddam Hussein order, realizing that arms alone, with no diplomatic conduct, would never liberate Iraq from occupation.

A better explanation unravels a totally different story. Muqtada, by all accounts, is not a creation of Iran and nor was he ever on the payroll of the Iranians, as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of SIIC had been in the 1980s. When Hakim and his team went to Tehran to flee Saddam's dragnet, Muqtada and his family refused to leave Iraq and paid a heavy price for that position.

Hakim was always fiercely criticized for having his men - known as the Badr Brigade - fight alongside the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), accused of being more of a Shi'ite patriot than an Iraqi one. He died in 2009, however, and his successor lacks real authority over Badr.

Additionally, the Hakim militia is old and ailing, and many have serious question marks about its past, due to its overt affiliation with the Iranians. The Iranians, eager to empower their allies in the Arab world, see that the days of the Badr Brigade are numbered - if not over and done with. They also feel that their other ally, Hezbollah in Lebanon, is becoming over-immersed in Lebanese domestics - no longer carrying out the duties originally mandated to them in 1982.

Rather than fight the Israelis, Hezbollah, whose actions are now restricted by United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, is now concentrating on empowering itself through parliament and government, obtaining maximal political concessions from the pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The future of Hezbollah is also worrying from where the Iranians see things, especially with all the talk about a new war with the Israeli Defense Forces next summer. The more it Lebanonizes and gets distracted within the complex game of Beirut politics, the more a need arises to find alternatives for the Iranians in the Arab world.

This alternative has to be armed, indoctrinated and empowered to protect the Shi'ites and export the Iranian revolution of 1979, while nevertheless, be dedicated to combating the occupation, be it American in Iraq or Israeli in Lebanon. With Badr crossed off the suitability list, and Hezbollah in doubt, the best viable alternative would be the Mahdi Army.

All the ingredients that led to the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 exist in Iraq today. There are Shi'ites, plenty of arms available for everyone, political and security chaos, a weak central government and occupation to justify the carrying of arms.

Muqtada has been working hard for two years to transform the Mahdi Army into another Hezbollah, personally inspired by Hassan Nasrallah. That is why he froze all activities of the Mahdi Army, so he can take a long hard look at membership and filter out the undisciplined, the reckless and the corrupt (of which there were plenty in 2003-2007).

That is why he went back to the seminary, so he could elevate his academic credentials and rise from the rank of sayyed to that of an ayatollah (which enables him to issue fatwas) and grants him greater authority within the Shi'ite community at large. And that explains why, against all odds, he has insisted on refraining from any sectarian rhetoric, copying the Nasrallah model in Lebanon, who always speaks of Lebanon, not of Shi'ites.

Muqtada also copied Hezbollah's massive charity network, monopolizing education, hospitals and fund-raising within the Shi'ite districts of Iraq to make sure that no family goes to bed hungry and all receive a monthly stipend from the Mahdi Army. Much like a modern Robin Hood, Muqtada is suiting himself to become spokesmen, defender and leader for the poor of Iraq.

Now is the time to unveil the new Mahdi Army. It will look, sound and act like Hezbollah. No more street violence or sectarian tension triggered by the Sadrists. On the contrary, the Mahdi Army - this time with strong Iranian support - will replace the failed state of Maliki. It will extend an arm to the Sunnis and Kurds willing to work with it, making sure that no prime minister is brought to power, without full consent of Muqtada.

The young leader - aged 37 - refuses to endorse Maliki as prime minister for a second term. For his part, Maliki is dying for another round at the premiership, throwing his full weight behind a government-mandated committee that disqualified two candidates from parliament - both being members of the Iraqi List of his prime contender, Iyad Allawi.

The Justice and Accountability Commission announced that the pair was being barred from holding office - along with 52 others - because of ties to the disbanded Ba'ath Party. One of those disqualified deputies is Ibrahim al-Mutlak, the brother of secular Sunni chief Saleh al-Mutlak (who was disqualified in late 2009 by the same committee). The disqualification, if it passes, will bring Allawi's list down to 89, making it a draw with Maliki. It is not clear if the law will prevent new elections from taking place for the vacant seats, thereby bringing down the number of seats to 323 instead of 325.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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