June 13, 2008 | Weekly Standard

Sadr’s Special Groups

In the past month, Iraqi and coalition forces have succeeded in their fight against the Mahdi Army’s “special groups.” On May 3, the U.S. military destroyed a special groups command center in Sadr City, killing a wanted leader in the attack. On May 25, Iraqi special operations forces captured a mid-level special groups leader in the al-Shuala area of Baghdad. And on May 31, Iraqi special operations forces captured another special groups “criminal” in Baghdad who was suspected of indirect-fire attacks on coalition forces. The frequency with which the term “special groups” has been thrown around in recent months (stretching back to the fighting in Basra that flared up in late March) highlights the confusion that exists over what these groups really are.

Much of this confusion has been created by the U.S. military. In a July 2007 press conference, for example, Major General Kevin Bergner identified the special groups as secret cells of “militia extremists, funded, trained, and armed by external sources.” Bergner explained during the press conference that the special groups had “evolved over the past three years into what are largely rogue elements” that operate separately from the core Mahdi Army.

Under this analysis, which has been repeated by various military spokesmen and widely accepted by the mainstream media, these special groups operate largely independently from Mahdi Army leader Moktada al-Sadr. The U.S. military maintains this narrative for tactical and political reasons. The problem with the claim is that it obscures Sadr’s actual role in some of the most important events transpiring in Iraq.

The Mahdi Army, known as Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) in Arabic, was created in the summer of 2003 and is led by the radical Iraqi cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Iraq expert Toby Dodge of the University of Warwick has said that JAM’s membership is comprised mainly of “those young and desperate Shia in Iraq’s urban slums who have not seen any benefit to their lives from liberation.” In November 2006, the Pentagon’s quarterly report Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq stated that the Mahdi Army had “replaced al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq.”

The Mahdi Army’s activities are often compared to those of the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. The comparison is apt: The late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh likely played a substantial role in the Mahdi Army’s founding, and JAM members claim to have traveled to Lebanon to train with Hezbollah (an assertion confirmed by the U.S. government). In August 2007, Moktada al-Sadr publicly confirmed JAM’s relationship with Hezbollah, stating: “We have formal links with Hizbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries . We copy Hizbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other and we are getting better through this.” Further proof of this relationship can be seen in the United States’s capture of Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative who was in Iraq to help establish new JAM units along the lines of Hezbollah.

Sadr himself is something of an anomaly. On the one hand, Newsweek has described him as “one of the most popular leaders in the country,” uniquely dangerous because “he has the means to wage political or actual war against any solution that is not precisely to his liking.” On the other hand, he is viewed as an ineloquent and uninspiring public speaker. A profile of Sadr in Cairo’s Al Ahram Weekly states:

The sentences he utters are awkward and incomplete, and somehow lacking in conviction–hardly what one would expect of a man for whom the spoken word is his stock in trade. The black-turbaned clergymen of Iraq are masters of rhetorical eloquence, yet it would appear that the young Moqtada does not excel in this domain. His turn of phrase is alien to his surroundings, prone to collapse into casual speech and slang. As a public speaker, he fails to rise even to the level of the average literate Iraqi.

Sadr failed to finish his seminary education. In The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr notes that “as a youth he was better at playing video games than dealing with the intricacies of Shia law and theology (in his seminary days he was nicknamed Mulla Atari, after the maker of electronic amusements).” Despite this, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Sadr’s influence among Iraq’s Shias–and to underestimate the degree of control he is capable of exerting over the Mahdi Army’s disparate factions.

Recent fighting in Basra, Baghdad, and other areas has brought the question of the Mahdi Army’s “special groups” to the fore. The Iraqi government launched an operation against the Mahdi Army in the militia-controlled city of Basra on March 25. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki clearly labeled the Mahdi Army as the target of the operation, but the U.S. military insisted the fighting was against the “rogue” special groups. Fighting soon spread throughout the southern cities, and into Mahdi-controlled neighborhoods in Baghdad.

The public source information about the degree of division within the Mahdi Army is sparse and often contradictory, with many assumptions built upon little evidence. However, the best reading of the situation is that although Sadr frequently gives the special groups autonomy over their local actions, he maintains the ability to control them when he chooses.

There are numerous reasons that information about the Mahdi Army’s special groups is contradictory, but the biggest culprit has been the U.S. military’s public statements. The military has taken a carrot-and-stick approach with Sadr and the Mahdi Army, encouraging Sadr to maintain the ceasefire that he declared in August 2007. As a result of this approach, the American military sees two strategic purposes behind trumpeting divisions between Sadr and the special groups. First, it is a face-saving tool. The military is able to save face by not labeling Sadr a terrorist, and thus maintaining its ability to engage him. Sadr in turn is able to save face before the Iraqi public: Whenever he quells the special groups’ violent actions, he won’t be seen as backing down before the U.S. because (according to this narrative) he did not initiate the violence in the first place. Second, the military hopes to drive an actual wedge between Sadr and some of the more violent Mahdi Army factions through this rhetoric.
To be sure, there are legitimate tensions within the Mahdi Army, including with respect to the splinter groups. One intelligence source told The Observer’s Peter Beaumont in September 2006: “Certain parts [of JAM] are now operating like old-fashioned mobs. In the last year or so power has been given to certain individuals. They have created their own small armies which have gained power by controlling rackets around petrol stations, and thefts from people they kidnap and kill.” This is an indication of increasingly localized power, which diminishes Sadr’s role in day-to-day Mahdi Army affairs. There is also bitterness toward Sadr within some Mahdi Army ranks due to his involvement in the political process, however halting. As a senior coalition intelligence official told reporters during Beaumont’s time reporting from Iraq, “[t]here are fractures politically inside Sadr’s movement, many of whom don’t find him to be sufficiently radical now that he has taken a political course of action.”

Despite these tensions, Sadr still exercises a significant degree of control over JAM activities, including those of the “splinter groups.” This was recently illustrated when, after the flare-up in Basra, Sadr called for a ceasefire on March 30 as the Iraqi army started to bring in reinforcements. In response, the fighting in Basra stopped. The fighting also decreased significantly in Baghdad–but then picked up on Sadr’s cue, when the Iraqi and U.S. military began constructing a barrier to isolate the southern neighborhood of Sadr City and Sadr threatened a new uprising in response. Though the Iraqi government ultimately negotiated a ceasefire with the Sadrist movement, the “splinter groups” have apparently followed Sadr’s instructions not to turn their weapons over to the government.

As you move away from the official pronouncements of military spokesmen, American soldiers on the ground see little distinction between the Mahdi Army and the special groups. Captain Ron Underwood, an intelligence officer with the unit responsible for southeastern Sadr City, told the Washington Post that “the special groups all have direct communication with OMS [the office of Moktada al-Sadr].” Colonel John Hort, commander of the brigade fighting in Sadr City, told the Post: “Of course we’re fighting JAM. There are hundreds of them throughout Sadr City.”

Another place where the special groups narrative breaks down is the U.S. military’s identification of special groups leaders. For example, the U.S. military calls Mahdi Khaddam Alawi al-Zirjawi the top special groups leader in Sadr City. But Sadr and his political movement have never denounced Zirjawi’s activities nor expelled him from the Mahdi Army. Zirjawi “fits in the organization,” Major Bryan Gibby, the intelligence officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, which battled the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, told the Post. “I think OMS leaders are comfortable with him.”

In addition to Sadr, Iran has great influence over the special groups. Iran’s efforts at cultivating ties with Sadr and the Mahdi Army have been evident from the time of the militia’s creation. These efforts have come in two forms: direct engagement with Sadr and his senior commanders, and (in Robert Dreyfuss’s words) “reaching deep into Sadr’s JAM militia.” Iran has maintained a constant line of communication with Sadr. In fact, a senior U.S. intelligence source told us that while Sadr controls JAM, he is in turn “controlled by Iran through religious channels.” Mullah Atari, having never finished seminary, depends heavily on Iranian clerics for religious support.

The U.S. military is not necessarily wrong for looking for ways to engage Sadr, and creating a narrative that allows this to happen. The considerations that produced this course of action are entirely reasonable. But analysts and commentators who do not peer below the surface are likely to misread the situation in Iraq, and the complex role that Sadr plays.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Bill Roggio, a former U.S. Army infantryman, is the editor of The Long War Journal and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Both Gartenstein-Ross and Roggio have been to Iraq as embedded reporters.