The Mehdi Army, a Shiite Iraqi militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, reportedly is undergoing changes to become a legitimate political group. This move is an expected outcome of progress in U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq. Bringing militiamen affiliated with the radical al-Sadrite movement into the mainstream, however, could increase intra-Shiite tensions.
IraqSlogger, an online news service, reported Nov. 14 that the Mehdi Army — the armed wing of the radical Iraqi Shiite movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr — is in the process of being revamped into a mainstream organization. A key element in this process is the institution of an entrance exam testing potential members' Islamic knowledge. The tests will be administered by senior Mehdi Army officials in the Shiite city of An Najaf. The report adds that the al-Sadrite bloc's high command has ordered Mehdi Army militiamen to refrain from interfering in public affairs, leaving the issue of law and order to police. The move to refurbish the Mehdi Army, which comes after al-Sadr ordered the group to halt its activities, is part and parcel of the recent progress made in U.S.-Iranian back-channel discussions. The United States, Iran and the Iraqis — especially the Shia, and particularly the al-Sadrites — all see it in their interest to bring both the political and military wings of al-Sadr's movement into the political mainstream. Given a choice, the United States and Iraq's minority communities would much rather see the end of the al-Sadrites. But given the movement's size and position within the Iraqi Shiite landscape, this is not possible. The only remaining option is integration into the Iraqi political system. After benefiting immensely from the militancy the al-Sadrite fighters carried out for some four years, the Iranians need to get the Mehdi Army to behave in such a way that Tehran can consolidate its gains in Iraq — a goal that would be served by integrating the Mehdi Army into the mainstream. Iran's policy of backing a host of different Iraqi Shiite groups with contradictory objectives has led to the hyper-fragmentation of not just the Shiite community but the al-Sadrite movement itself. Al-Sadr himself lost control over a large number of commanders who had gone rogue. Therefore, bringing the movement into the mainstream also is in his interest because it will allow him to regain control and enhance his political position. This is where the process of testing potential members' ideological knowledge could come in handy for al-Sadr. The process is designed to sustain membership in the Mehdi Army. A real test gauging a potential member's secular faculties could lead to a significant decline in membership, as al-Sadr's constituents come from lower classes, where illiteracy is a problem. The approach to streamline the Mehdi Army follows the model of the Badr Organization (formerly the Badr Corps or Badr Brigades), the military wing of the most powerful Iraqi Shiite movement, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). The SIIC, led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, was integrated into the Iraqi security forces and converted into a youth wing of sorts during the days of the interim Iraqi government. But the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization, though both Iraqi Shiite Islamist paramilitary groups, are two different entities. The latter is highly disciplined, with far greater resources at its disposal and a staunchly pragmatic outlook, whereas the former has a ragtag, radical nature. This is why it is unlikely that the Mehdi Army's makeover attempts will succeed. The al-Sadrites entry into the mainstream would create a challenge for the SIIC, which would not want to share power with its principal rival. Also, Iran would not want the al-Sadrites to create problems for the SIIC, which is Tehran's principal proxy. The al-Sadrite-SIIC rivalry could eventually play out in the form of rival security forces as the Mehdi fighters are brought into the police, paramilitary and military ranks. Therefore, an intra-Shiite power-sharing agreement will remain an elusive goal. This ultimately will serve as an obstacle for Iran as it tries to solidify its influence in Iraq. There are reports of U.S. dealings with certain elements within the al-Sadrite movement, which could give Washington leverage in its efforts to limit the scope of Iranian influence in Iraq.