Thursday, March 22, 2007

Muqtada al Sadr and The Mahdi Army

Today the Associated Press reported that Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army may have split into several different groups. This story said that as many as 3,000 of these militamen are now financed directly by Iran and not even loyal to al Sadr. (News photo above is from May, 2004.)

The article (written by Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra of the AP) quoted two senior militia leaders who said that hundreds of these Iraqi fighters have crossed into Iran and are being trained by the elite Quds Force, part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. These same Iranian troops are believed to have directly trained Hezbollah in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan. This is further indication that the most dangerous foe in the war against terror continues to be Iran, a country with a long history of terror sponsorship.

In April, 2004, Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army conducted an uprising which resulted in the deaths of both American soldiers and Iraqis. I was in Baghdad at the time and I wrote the following as American military leaders began to realize the seriousness of the threat posed by the Mahdi Army:

“After the protesters marched across the Republican Bridge on April 3rd, the Stars and Stripes newspaper and the Washington Post reported that men from the Mahdi Army were in the crowd chanting “Just say the word, Muqtada, and we’ll resume the 1920 revolution”. They were referring to the uprising against British rule. The continued violence in Najaf was also associated with the Mahdi Army. Al Sadr’s remarks were interpreted by his followers as a call to arms and the violent members of his militia commenced their attacks on Coalition forces.

Remembering that some sixty per cent of Iraqis were Shiite, it was wise to note that Al Sadr and his followers were also Shiite. Although his father was a great ayatollah, Muqtada was just a low level cleric who didn’t even finish his formal religious training. With the family’s claimed lineage to the Prophet, Muqtada attracted a large number of highly fanatical and dedicated followers. Al Sadr appealed primarily to the younger Shiites who were less educated and easier to manipulate. As Americans later discovered, many of his followers were nothing more than common criminals who hitched their wagons to what they believed was a rising star.

An arrest warrant was issued for Muqtada al Sadr on April 5th. Some reports said there was military action in the area of his home. His venomous anti-Coalition rhetoric incited his Mahdi Army followers to engage in violence against us and he turned his militia members into nothing more than new branches of an increasingly vicious insurgent enemy. His speeches made him sound like a man who was laying the groundwork for a fundamentalist revolution like the one in Iran. If that ever happened, the streets would be filled with even more crazed Islamic fundamentalists looking to kill Americans.

By the 6th the news was filled with stories about the Sadr City-based violence. Three more soldiers were killed in that area and several Marines were lost in action in Fallujah. The Mahdi Army militiamen had their own uniform and they were usually dressed in black shirts and pants as well as green headbands with Arabic slogans on them. Their black outfits reminded some of us of the Viet Cong and their black “pajamas”. One of the running jokes was about hearing “gooks in the wire”, a comment left over from the Vietnam era which referred to the highly skilled Viet Cong sappers.

With only fifteen minutes notice on the 7th, we were ordered to escort one of our unit’s officers to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). On our way back, about two miles from the gate to the Green Zone, we saw about fifty Shiite demonstrators in the median of Route Irish. They were headed east toward the gate and they carried flags and signs. Some of the people were beating themselves with chains. These civilians were being herded like cattle by members of the Mahdi Army who wore their trademark black uniforms and green headbands.

At our high rate of speed, we passed them quickly and we didn’t see any overt display of weapons. I notified the officer on duty at the gate that the protesters were on their way. We drove only a short distance into the Green Zone when the QRF (quick reaction force) passed us. They reacted quickly to our report. The QRF met the group of Shiites outside the Green Zone and engaged in a firefight with the Mahdi Army members, killing several of the militiamen.

Later that same day, I was handed a document that said the Mahdi Army was declared a hostile force at 2355 hours the previous night. Since the members of the Mahdi Army were now officially enemy soldiers, they could be engaged upon that status alone, without regard to any overt hostile intent. If we had been given this valuable intelligence in a timely manner, we could have engaged the Mahdi Army members ourselves. Their new status was probably why the QRF was so anxious to make contact with them.”

The average soldiers in Iraq in 2004 knew that the Mahdi Army was being trained and funded by the Iranians. Al Sadr routinely made trips to Iran along with other Shiite leaders and his militia should have been taken out at that time. The failure to disarm all the militias will be remembered as one of the biggest mistakes of the Iraq war.

America’s leaders must remember that we cannot fight “half-wars”. Once the fight has commenced, anyone who opposes us must be decisively engaged and defeated. If we are going to wage war, we must do so until our enemies are forced to surrender or until they are destroyed – just as our fundamentalist adversaries promise to do to us…

SFC Chuck Grist


  1. I always enjoy your entries - they are honest and no-nonsence in a world that is rarely either. Thank you!

  2. I agree with you. It has been one of the outrages in my support for this war that they will not allow you to win it. We at home also know that Iran has been involved from the beginning.

    I could say I do not understand why things are not going smoother or better, but I'd be lying. It's government run...

    I will continue to pray for your men and you. That God will strengthen, guide, protect and grant you the victory over all enemies. Godspeed.