New Delhi: The US strike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on 3 January is set to have major repercussions in West Asia, as both countries are now openly threatening military action against each other.
But another fallout of the Donald Trump administration’s decision, one that many did not anticipate, is the revival of the dreaded Mahdi Army led by the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.
In a tweet after Soleimani was killed, al-Sadr expressed his condolences to Iran as well as to the Shia-majority country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and said the Mahdi Army is ready to “protect Iraq” should American forces attack Iran’s next-door neighbour.
In an effort to remind the world that he is alive and kicking, the 45-year-old al-Sadr even visited Soleimani’s home in Tehran.
Meanwhile, pre-empting a retaliation by Iran and attack on the 6,000-strong US military contingent in Iraq, US President Donald Trump has said America will attack 52 important sites in Iran “very fast and very hard”.
What is the Mahdi Army?
After the fall of Iraq’s strongman Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the US forces have always seen the Mahdi Army as the biggest threat in Iraq. The Mahdi Army was founded by al-Sadr in the June of that year with the objective of throwing away American forces.
It began with the recruitment of nearly 500 young students from various madrasas in Sadr City area of Baghdad, which used to be Hussein’s power centre.
According to Patrick Cockburn’s book, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, the cleric’s only claim to fame was the family he belonged to. Both his father and father-in-law were revered as Shia martyrs as they were killed by Hussein and his men.
It was reiterated in this New York Times piece in May 2008. “Sadr’s overarching objective is to live up to the legacy of the martyred male relatives to whom he owes his current status.”
After Saddam was overthrown by US forces in 2003, al-Sadr believed it was his time to rule Iraq, but that never came to be. Al-Sadr, however, continued to keep tensions alive in the country through his Mahdi Army.
It was a force that came to be identified with “death squads and sectarian cleansing”, Cockburn says in his book, adding this is one of the reasons why his movement failed and he could not rule Iraq.
In 2008, al-Sadr disbanded the Mahdi Army, only to revive it in 2014. The Mahdi Army has also fought under different names such as Asaib al Haq, which was led by Sadr’s lieutenant Akram al Kaabi from 2007 to 2010, and Qais al Khazali from 2010 (Kaabi now controls another militia, Harakat al Nujaba, an offshoot of Asaib al Haq), according to the Long War Journal.
Al-Sadr also changed the nomenclature of his Mahdi Army to ‘Saraya al Salam’ and revived it in 2014 to fight ISIS.
In 2016, as the militias and Iraqi security forces prepared to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, Sadr threatened to attack U.S. troops with his militia if additional soldiers weren’t deployed to aid in the fight.
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