Mahdi army parade raises further questions, no answers, on US troops

Last week’s huge display of populist power by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad makes the delicate balancing act by Iraq’s parliament around the issue of US troop withdrawal, even more difficult.

According to Baghdad security forces, around 35,000 supporters of the cleric, who is vehemently opposed to ongoing US troop presence in Iraq, paraded in the streets in military style for six hours last Thursday. Some sources estimate the numbers on the streets in Sadr city, a suburb of Baghdad mostly populated by Shiite Muslims, as much higher, possibly even close to 100,000 people. Calls of “No to Israel” and “No to the USA” were repeated by the marchers.

The supporters were unarmed and the parade was billed as a demonstration of Iraqi national unity. But the message was clear.

Al-Sadr has previously threatened to put his supporters, in the armed force known as the Mahdi army, which is currently mostly demobilized, back into military action should US troops not withdraw as planned later this year. The parade of unarmed men, enacted with military precision by some groups of marchers, sent the message that if he wanted to, the young cleric could do exactly as he said.

As senior Sadrist aide, Hazim al-Araji, put it: “the Mahdi army is a time bomb, which can be used at the appropriate time if necessary.”

During the height of the conflict in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003, Sadr and his armed Mahdi army were blamed for much of the violence against American troops that nearly plunged Iraq into a sectarian, civil war. However over the years, after various episodes of fighting and state crackdowns followed by ceasefires, the Sadrist movement has been incorporated into the current government.

In 2008 al-Sadr gave a ceasefire order, telling his supporters to disarm and demobilize, and in January 2011 he himself returned from several years of exile in Iran.

Last week’s parade showed that despite the arrests of leaders, al-Sadr’s exile in Iran and conflicts inside the movement due to al-Sadr’s more moderate course of late, that support for the outspoken Shiite cleric is still very strong.

Speaking anonymously, one of the Sadrist movement leaders told NIQASH that, “the show of power was intended and pre-planned. Al-Sadr wanted to send a message: that is, that freezing the army did not undermine it. And that his army will be ready to act whenever he gives the orders”. However, the leader also said, “the display of power was not meant to scare other [Iraqi] political parties. The message to them was simply: ‘Despite the past, we are still strong and present’.”

One of al-Sadr’s supporters on the street, Haider Mohammed Ali, said that he was proud of the display. “The Mahdi Army did not carry weapons,” he told NIQASH. “But the number of people who took part in the demonstration, and the high quality of organization is a symbolic weapon in itself.”

The young man, whose brother is a member of the militia, added that, “when I saw my brother in the demonstration I felt so proud. We have an army to protect us when we need protection.”

The parade was state sanctioned. Where once the Iraqi army had been dispatched to fight the Sadrist forces and to arrest its leaders, now Iraq’s current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki owes a vital part of his parliamentary power to members of the Sadrist bloc who support him. Indeed, al-Maliki could not have won a second term without the support of the Sadrists.

Last week the huge, unarmed crowds were watched over by security forces from the Iraqi army who had been assigned to protect the parade. And some high ranking military officials did not hesitate to give a military salute to Sadr army cadres. Where once they might have been threatened with arrest, Mahdi army leaders appeared comfortable and confident.

Member of parliament Adnan al-Danbous, a prominent member of the Iraqiya bloc, which is led by al-Maliki’s main rival Iyad Allawi, was critical of the state sponsored reception of the parade. “By patronizing this show, al-Maliki has publicly shown that he has abandoned his former views of the Sadr movement as outlaws,” al-Danbous said. “This show of power by the Sadrists has undermined the state. It is the price that the prime minister has been obliged to pay to stay in power for a second term.”

Other analysts said that the display of power by the Mahdi army may actually have the opposite effect from that which was intended. “The Iraqi government is still weak,” researcher Rahim al-Shammari explained. “And until now it has been unable to build a strong army capable of handling national security properly. The leaders of the security forces admit this themselves.”

This in itself could justify the ongoing presence of US troops in Iraq. “The US has always perceived al-Sadr as a threat to the country’s security and as an extension of Iran’s influence,” al-Shammari continued. “The display of power by Sadrist forces has further reinforced this.”

The Sadrists however believe the opposite. The parade “showed the US that resistance is still strong and that it is right to push for an early US withdrawal,” Amir al-Kanani, an MP for the Sadrist bloc, who is reputedly a close adviser to the bloc’s leader, told NIQASH. “Anyway the US does not need the Mahdi army as a pretext for staying in Iraq. If it wanted to prolong its presence, it has plenty of other excuses.”

Clearly the Mahdi army parade last week has raised even more questions about US troops’ potential withdrawal. Such a display of power, made with the apparent blessing of the current government, combined with the threat of military, armed action in a fledgling democracy that has been trying to institute the rule of law, also raises questions about Iraq’s future political success.

One imagines that the Iraqi government might have some answers to these kinds of uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately they don’t appear to be prepared to make any kind of official reply to them.