NEWS

Iraq disbands what used to be known as the "Mahdi Army"

The paramilitary wing of influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr on Dec. 11 agreed to disband its forces and hand over its cache of weapons to the Iraqi government, making it the first Shia militia to lay down its arms in the aftermath of Islamic State's defeat in the country.


During a televised speech Dec. 11, Mr. al-Sadr called upon the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to allow members of his militia, known as Saraya Al-Salam, to join Iraqi security forces or take positions within the federal government. He also demanded Baghdad "look after the families of the martyrs" who were killed during the three-year war against ISIS via compensation and support.

Other Shia paramilitaries, such as the Iranian-backed Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba', a militia force of roughly 10,000 fighters, vowed last month to turn over any heavy weapons it had to Iraqi security forces once Islamic State had been driven from the country. Despite such promises, Mr. Sadr's forces remain the only Shia militia under the Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF banner to hand over its arms to government forces.

Soldiers from B Co., 3/15 Infantry hand out hard candy to kids in Sadr City, Iraq, Feb. 28, 2003. An ominous stencil of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr looms in the background.

At its height during the fight against ISIS, Saraya Al-Salam held sway over 2,000 square kilometers of Shia-dominated territory in northern Iraq, mostly in Nineveh province. Militia spokesman Safaa al-Timeemi told the Washington Times last September that the group would acquiesce to Baghdad's control — but only if Mr. Sadr made the order.

"We commit to the direction and orders of [Muqtada al-Sadr]," Mr. al-Tameemi said during an interview in Baghdad at the time.

"If he says we should be part of this new organization, then we will. If not, then we will not," he said, adding the militia "are not a replacement for the [Iraqi] army but we are in support of the army," he said.

Read More: This 'El Sal' corporal attacked the Mahdi Army with a switchblade – and won

The Sadr group's decision to disarm comes as other Iranian-backed paramilitaries with the PMF, with the direct backing of military commanders in Tehran, gained more popular support in Shia enclaves newly liberated from ISIS control.

That expanding support has allowed Iran to lock in so-called "Shia Crescent" of influence across the heart of the Middle East, assembling a network of Tehran-backed proxy forces now spanning from nation's border with Iraq all the way to Lebanon. And in Iraq "the PMF is the guarantor" of the land bridge tying Tehran to the Mediterranean, Sarhang Hamasaeed, the head of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Times earlier this month.

Muqtada al-Sadr. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Sadrists battled U.S. and coalition forces in Najaf and Sadr City during some of the worst fighting of the American occupation of the country in mid-2000. A known Shia hardliner, Mr. Sadr's position had begun to soften as other Iranian-backed paramilitaries with the PMF gained more popular support in Shia enclaves newly liberated from ISIS control.

A September meeting between Mr. Sadr and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was seen as an effort by Riyadh to hedge its bets against increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Mr. Sadr was reportedly invited at the time by the crown prince and Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to Iraq Thamer al-Sabhan, to the country for "discussions of common interest" between the kingdom and Iraq.

It was the first visit back to Saudi Arabia for the controversial Iraqi Shia cleric since 2006, al Jazeera reported at the time. Saudi Arabia officially reopened its embassy in Iraq in 2015, after a 25-year diplomatic absence in the country, according to the report.