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The Mahdi Army, also known as the Mahdi Militia, Mahdi Army or Jaish al Mahdi (Arabic جيش المهدي) , is a militia force created by the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June of 2003. The Islamist militia rose to international prominence on April 4, 2004 when it spearheaded the first major armed confrontation against the U.S-led occupation forces in Iraq from the Shiite community in an uprising that followed the banning of al-Sadr's newspaper and attempts to arrest him, and lasted until June 6. The group is armed with AKM (Kalashnikov) assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, Strela anti-air missiles, and other light weapons. The Mahdi Militia also utilizes IEDs (improvised explosive devices, also known as road-side bombs) during their attacks on Iraqi civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces. The truce agreed to in June was followed by moves to disband the militia and transform al-Sadr's movement into a political party to take part in the 2005 elections; Muqtada al Sadr ordered fighters of the Mahdi army to go into a ceasefire unless attacked first. The truce broke down in August 2004, with new hostilities breaking out. The Mahdi Militia currently operates in an intimidation role towards Iraqis, using their illegal weaponry to influence local government, infiltrate the police, and terrorize Sunni Iraqis and their supporters. The militia is believed to have infiltrated Iraqi police forces and to be involved in vigilante activities. National Independent Cadres and Elites party that ran in the 2005 Iraqi election was closely linked with the army.
 Early history
The Mahdi Army began as a small group of roughly 500 seminary students connected with Muqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam City. The group moved in to fill the security vacuum in Sadr City and in a string of southern Iraqi cities following the fall of Baghdad to U.S-led coalition forces on April 9, 2003. The group initially dispensed aid to Iraqis and provided security in the Shiite slums from looters.
Gradually, the militia grew and was formalized by al-Sadr in June of 2003. Mahdi Army grew into a sizeable force of up to 10,000 militia who even operated what amounted to a shadow government in some areas. Al-Sadr's preaching is critical of the US occupation, but he did not initially join the Sunni Islamist and Baathist guerrillas in their attacks on the Coalition forces.
 Iran's influence
Moqtada Sadr has close ties with the Islamic Dawa Party,<ref>Radical Militia and Iraqi Army in Fierce Battle 29 August 2006</ref> and "He desires a theocratic government similar to that in Iran."<ref>How Bush Created a Theocracy in Iraq 2 December 2005</ref>
 Battles for the Shiite Heartland
 Uprising Begins
Sadr's position changed dramatically, however, by the beginning of April. Following the closure of the Sadr-owned newspaper al-Hawza and the arrest of one of his senior aides, Sadr gave an unusually heated sermon to his followers on Friday, April 2, 2004. The next day, violent protests occurred throughout the Shiite south that soon spilled over into a violent uprising by Mahdi Army militiamen, fully underway by April 4, 2004.
 April hostilities
The Mahdi Army forces began an offensive in Najaf, Kufa, Kut, and Sadr City, seizing control of public buildings and police stations while clashing with coalition forces. The militants gained partial control of Karbala after fighting there. Other coalition forces came under attack in Nasiriyah, and British forces also came under fire in Amarah and Basra. Najaf and Kufa were quickly seized after a few firefights with Spanish troops, and Kut was seized after clashes with Ukrainian troops soon afterwards.
After sporadic clashes, Coalition forces temporarily suppressed most militia activity in Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra. Mahdi rebels expelled Iraqi police from three police stations and ambushed U.S forces in Sadr City, killing seven U.S troops and wounding several more. U.S forces subsequently regained control of the police stations after running firefights with the fighters that killed dozens of Mahdi militiamen. Mahdi Army members still maintained some influence over many of the slum areas of Sadr City, however.
On April 16, Kut was retaken by US forces, and several dozen Mahdi Army members were killed in the battle. However, the area around Najaf and Kufa along with Karbala remained under the control of Sadr's forces. Sadr himself was believed holed up inside Najaf. Coalition troops put a cordon around Najaf with 2500 troops, but reduced the number of forces to pursue negotiations with Mahdi Army. At the beginning of May, coalition forces estimated that there were 200-500 militants still present in Karbala, 300-400 in Diwaniyah, an unknown number still left in Amarah and Basra, and 1,000-2,000 still holed up in the Najaf-Kufa region.
On May 4, coalition forces began a counter-offensive to eliminate Mahdi Army in southern Iraq following a breakdown in negotiations. The first wave began with simultaneous raids in Karbala and Diwaniyah on militia forces, followed by a second wave on May 5 in Karbala and more attacks that seized the governor's office in Najaf on May 6. 86 militiamen were estimated killed in the fighting along with 4 U.S soldiers. Several high ranking Militia commanders were also killed in a separate raid by US Army Special Operations units. On May 8, U.S forces launched a follow-up offensive into Karbala, launching a two-pronged attack into the city. U.S tanks also launched an incursion into Sadr City. At the same time, perhaps as a diversionary tactic, hundreds of Mahdi Army insurgents swept through Basra, firing on British patrols and seizing parts of the city. 2 militants were killed and several British troops were wounded.
On May 24, after suffering heavy losses in weeks of fighting, Mahdi Army forces withdrew from the city of Karbala. This left the only area still under their firm control being the Najaf-Kufa region, also under sustained American assault. Several hundred Mahdi Army rebels in total were killed (according to both the US Military, and various news agencies.) in clashes with the far better trained and equipped American forces. Unfazed by the fighting, Moqtada al-Sadr regularly gave Friday sermons in Kufa throughout the uprising.
 June truce
On June 6, 2004, Moqtada al-Sadr issued an announcement directing Mahdi Army to cease operations in Najaf and Kufa. Remnants of the militia soon ceased bearing arms and halted the attacks on U.S forces. Gradually, militamen left the area or went back to their homes. On the same day, Brigadier General Mark Hertling, a top US commander in charge of Najaf, Iraq, stated "The Moqtada militia is militarily defeated. We have killed scores of them over the last few weeks, and that is in Najaf alone. [...] The militia have been defeated, or have left." June 6 effectively marked the end of Shiite uprising. The total number of Mahdi Army militamen killed in the fighting across Iraq is estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000.
The return of Najaf to Iraqi security forces following the cease-fire left Sadr City as the last bastion of Mahdi Army guerillas still pursuing violent resistance. Clashes continued periodically in the district following the end of the Najaf-Kufa battles. On June 24, Mahdi Army declared an end to operations in Sadr City as well, effectively ending militia activity, at least for the time being. Sadr appeared to be planning to turn his faction into a political party, having gained a good deal of public support.
After the 4 June truce with the occupation forces, al-Sadr took steps to disband the Mahdi Army. In a statement, he called on militia members from outside Najaf to "do their duty" and go home. US forces in Najaf were then replaced by Iraqi police. al-Sadr told supporters not to attack Iraqi security forces and set himself up to become a political force announcing his intention to form a party and contest the 2005 elections. He said the interim government was an opportunity to build a unified Iraq. Interim President Ghazi Yawer gave assurances that al-Sadr could join the political process provided he abandoned his militia. Iraqi officials also assured al-Sadr that he was not to face arrest. 
 August 2004 hostilities
After Sadr's milita besieged a police station in Najaf and the local governor called for assistance, the US military intervened again. US troops arrested Sadr's representative in Karbala, Sheikh Mithal al Hasnawi on 31 July  and surrounded al-Sadr's home on 3 August, with heavy gunfire, mortar shelling and grenade blasts. , , ,  British troops in Basra also moved against al-Sadr followers, arresting four on 3 August. After the expiry of a noon deadline to release them on 5 August, the Basra militia men declared holy war on British forces. 
On 5 August, via his spokesman Ahmed al-Shaibany, al-Sadr re-affirmed his commitment to the truce and called on US forces to honour the truce. He announced that if the restoration of the cease-fire failed "then the firing and igniting of the revolution will continue".  The offer was rejected by the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi ("There is no compromise or room for another truce") and US officials ("This is one battle we really do feel we can win"). .
In the days that followed fighting continued around the old city of Najaf, in particular the Imam Ali shrine and the cemetery. The Mahdi army, estimated at 2,000 in Najaf, was outnumbered by some 2,000 US marines and 1,800 Allawi security forces, and at a disadvantage due to the vastly superior American firepower and air cover, such as helicopters and AC-130 gunships. On 13 August, the militia was trapped in a cordon around the Imam Ali shrine. While negotiations continued between the interim government and the Mahdi army, news came that al-Sadr had been wounded 
On 12 August, British journalist James Brandon, a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph was kidnapped in Basra by unidentified militants. A video tape was released, featuring Brandon and a hooded militant, threatening to kill the British hostage unless US forces withdrew from Najaf within 24 hours. Brandon was released after less than a day, following intervention by al-Sadr. At a press conference immediately after his release, Brandon commented on his treatment and thanked his kidnappers: "Initially I was treated roughly, but once they knew I was a journalist I was treated very well and I want to say thank you to the people who kidnapped me." A spokesman for al-Sadr said: "We apologise for what happened to you. This is not our tradition, not our rules. It is not the tradition of Islam." ,  For more information on the standoff in Najaf, see Iraqi insurgency.
 October 2006 battle
The Mahdi Army eventually withdrew from their positions in the southeastern city of Amarah after clashes with local police and members of a rival Shiite militia and ceded control of the city to an New Iraqi Army batallion sent from Basra. Negotiations between local tribal and political leaders and representatives from the Baghdad offices of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki continued late into the evening. The stunning and defiant display of militia strength underscored the weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces and the potency of the Mahdi Army, which has been able to operate virtually unchecked in Iraq. The Mahdi Army is widely accused of propelling the cycle of sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the country into all-out civil war. According to Sheik Abdul Kareem al-Muhamadawi, Amara’s most prominent political leader, the latest dispute between the Shiite militias began after Qassim al-Tamimi, the chief of investigations for the provincial police force and a member of the Badr Organization, was killed in a bombing. Badr fighters blamed the Mahdi Army for the killing. The police then arrested the brother of the local Mahdi Army commander, officials said, though it was unclear whether the arrest was related to the bombing. Mahdi fighters responded with the assault on the city, which began October 17 2006 afternoon. By October 20 2006 morning, victorious Mahdi fighters, clad in black and carrying Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, were patrolling the city on foot and in commandeered police vehicles and were setting up roadblocks, local leaders and residents said. At least 8 people were killed in the clashes, and 75 were wounded, according to health officials in Amarah. Sheik al-Muhamadawi stated early October 20 2006 afternoon that there is no state in the city. Policemen do not have enough weapons and ammunition compared with the militia, which has all kinds of weapons.<ref>"Attack on Iraqi City Shows Militia’s Power", New York Times, 2006-10-20. Retrieved on 2006-10-20.</ref>
 Iraqi reactions
The uprising seemed to draw an ambivalent reaction from the Iraqi population, which for the most part neither joined or resisted the rebels. Many Iraqi security forces melted away, wishing to avoid confrontation. In a sign of Mahdi Army's unpopularity in Najaf, however, which follows more traditionalist clerics, a small covert movement sprung up to launch attacks on the militants. The uprising did receive a good deal of support from Shiite radicals in Baghdad, however, who were galvanized by the simultaneous siege of the city of Fallujah.
 Recent developments
Since August the Army and al-Sadr have not challenged coalition troops on a wide scale. Neither the coalition or the Iraqi government has made any move to arrest al-Sadr and they have not challenged the Army's de facto control over a number of areas in southern Iraq. The Army continues to provide security in a number of southern cities. The movement is believed to have infiltrated the Iraqi police forces, and to have been involved in the September arrest of two British soldiers by Iraqi police. Former Prime Minister Allawi was assaulted by a mob in a town where the Mahdi army is influential. The Mahdi Army has also participated in battles against Sunni insurgents and may be operating its own justice system.
Loyalists to al-Sadr ran under the National Independent Cadres and Elites banner in the 2005 Iraqi election. Though a number of the movements supporters felt that the election was invalid. The party finished sixth overall in the election and will be represented in the transitional legislature. Another twenty or so candidates aligned with al-Sadr ran for the United Iraqi Alliance.
The Mahdi Army has also recently pledged military support to Iran if Iran were to be attacked by Western forces , and participated in attacks allegedly murdering innocent civilians in hospitals .
When reporting on an early October, 2006 clash between the Mahdi Army and Coalition troops in Diwaniyah, BBC news suggested that currently the Mahdi Army is not a homogenous force, with local groups apparently acting on own orders.
The name Jaysh al-Mahdī has apocalyptic connotations to a Muslim's ear: in Islamic theology, the Mah'dī is an end-times figure who it is said will assist the Masīh to destroy the Dajjāl and establish a global Islamic khilāfah in preparation for the Yaum al-Qiyāmah; in more familiar terms, it is believed that the Mahdī will come to help the Messiah (i.e., Jesus, referred to in Islam as `Īsā ibn Mariyam) to defeat the Antichrist (literally, al-Masīh al-Dajjāl means "the Deceiving Messiah"), before establishing a just Islamic social order in preparation for Judgement Day.
In the Twelver school of Shi`ite Islam, the Mahdī is believed to have been an historical figure identified with the Twelfth Imām, Muhammad al-Mahdī, and is therefore called al-Imām al-Mahdī. It is believed that he is still present on earth "in occultation" (i.e., hidden), and will emerge again in the end times. Those Shi`ites of this school believe that the Imām Mahdī is the rightful ruler of the whole Islamic community (ummah) at any given time, and he is therefore also called Imām al-Zamān, meaning "Imām of the Age."
 See also
- Moqtada al-Sadr
- Badr Organization A rival Shia militia operating in Southern Iraq.
- Ismail al-Lami
 References and notes
 External links
- BBC - Who are Iraq's Mehdi Army?
- International Crisis Group - Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?
- Ellen Knickmeyer. "'Shiite Giant' Extends Its Reach", Washington Post, 24 August 2006.
- Ellen Knickmeyer. "Sadr's Militia and the Slaughter in the Streets", Washington Post, 25 August 2006.
- Ellen Knickmeyer. "Disavowed by Mahdi Army, Shadowy 'Butcher' Still Targets Sadr's Foes", Washington Post, 25 August 2006.ar:جيش المهدي