September 18, 2008


Muqtada reinvents himself (Babak Rahimi, 9/18/08, Asia Times)

Although there have been previous plans to reorganize the militia, Muqtada's latest repackaging of the Mahdi Army into a "cultural organization" is an indication of a major internal transformation. First, the change of the militia's name from Jaysh al-Mahdi to Mumahidun reveals how the Sadrist movement is changing on the ideological level.

Unlike its earlier form, the new militants are no longer the immediate, charismatic soldiers of the Hidden Imam, but a regular unit of organized fighters who merely anticipate the return of their savior. For the most part, al-Sadr seems no longer to consider his movement as the immediate embodiment of the Mahdi manifested in a perceived and present sacred time, but rather a mere prelude to what can be realized in a distant messianic future. The symbolic distinction between immediacy and anticipation is crucial here, since it brings to light how Muqtada is slowly detaching himself and his movement from the earlier apocalyptic traits seen in the post-war period and moving toward a more standardized, institutionalized Shi'ite-based millenarian position.

In an organizational sense, the new Mumahidun militia signals a transition from a paramilitary unit, with a political and social presence on the street level, to a private "special force", with specific military operational tasks. While the former Mahdi Army represented a united citizen militia of grassroots background, the new elite force is divided into two operational factions: one elite unit of combatants and another unit to provide public service to the community.

The latter force, designed for cultural activities, is yet to be formed. As a former Mahdi Army militant explains, "The new army will be only loyal to Muqtada. You will not see any dissent in this new group." Such renewed confidence underlines a self-promotional strategy designed to create a restored military unit operating on par with the Hezbollah of Lebanon. But it also shows how in recent months Muqtada has seriously sought to extricate himself from unruly elements within his movement.

The causes behind this organizational strategy are several, but one major factor is the likely influence of the Iranian regime, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in taming Muqtadar's militia. The early spring detention of Muqtada at his residential house in Qom by the IRGC highlights a major rift between the Sadrists and the hardline establishment in Tehran.

Although the purpose of the arrest remains unclear, there seems to be a steady attempt by the Iranian regime to diminish the influence of Muqtada in Iraqi politics in a way that will strengthen the Maliki government. This was probably done to ensure that Baghdad would thwart any American attempt to use Iraq as launch pad for military attacks against Iran.

Likewise, just two weeks prior to Muqtada's arrest, Iranian officials accepted a request from Iraqi parliamentarian delegates, led by Abdul Aziz Hakim, to exclude Muqtada from participation in a joint Iran-Iraq meeting in Tehran to discuss the militia problem in Iraq. The move signaled a shift in the Iranian strategy to give full support to the Maliki government, partly in order to show the Americans that Tehran can play a major role in the stability of Iraq - a central issue in the ongoing nuclear talks.

If it weren't tragic it would be funnier.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2008 6:48 AM
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