The Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM, جيش المهدي) militia emerged in 2003 as a security guarantor in Sadrist-dominated neighborhoods. The militia also defended Sadrist political institutions and Muqtada’s interests.
The 2004 Uprisings
The militia became prominent in 2004 when it fought against U.S. forces in Najaf and Sadr City. When Coalition Forces shut down the main Sadrist newspaper, al Hawza, on March 28, 2004 and arrested prominent Sadrist aide, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, several days later, JAM fighters mobilized and launched major uprisings in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, and Kufa.1 U.S. forces initiated major operations against the Mahdi Army fighters. While the militiamen were overall poorly trained, they took tactical positions in and around the holy shrines of Karbala, Kufa and Najaf, complicating the ability of Coalition Forces to use heavy firepower — and enhancing the militia’s ability to control access to these shrines and the revenue they generated. The fighting lasted for nearly two months. Ultimately, JAM fighters were no match for U.S. airpower, artillery, and armor. The shrines suffered minimal damage, but the militiamen suffered heavy losses in the fighting.2
The first conflict between the Coalition and JAM ended in late May 2004. The ceasefire brokered between Coalition officials, Iraqi politicians, and Sadrist leaders was short-lived. A second uprising broke out in Najaf in August 2004,3 after JAM fighters attacked a U.S. Marine patrol in Najaf which they believed was coming to arrest Muqtada al-Sadr.4 The conflict escalated as JAM clashed with Coalition Forces across Najaf.5 Militia fighters operated in and around the holy shrines and the main cemetery — some of the most sacred places in the Shi’a tradition — which they used as sanctuary. U.S. tanks and helicopters continued their precision assault.6
Attempts to negotiate an end to the ongoing fighting stalled until August 26, 2004, when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani returned to Najaf from receiving medical treatment in London.7 Sistani brokered a truce with Muqtada al-Sadr that contained several demands: the removal of JAM fighters from the sacred Imam Ali shrine and the city of Najaf; the withdrawal of Coalition Forces from the city; the creation of a demilitarized zone in Najaf and Kufa; the appointment of the Iraqi Security Forces to guard the cities and the shrines; and compensation for citizens whose property had been damaged in the fighting.8
JAM Expansion in Baghdad
By late 2006, at the height of sectarian violence, the Sadrists were a formidable military force. In the wake of the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra (one of the holiest Shi’a shrines) and frequent attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq, JAM positioned itself as a security guarantor for the Shi’a. However, the organization also spawned death squads responsible for sectarian cleansing.9 By mid-2006 these militias were engaged in a violent campaign of expansion into Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shi’a neighborhoods. JAM soon controlled large areas of Baghdad and they increasingly relied upon corruption, intimidation, and extortion to enhance their wealth and power.
As sectarian violence raged in Baghdad, an increasing number of local JAM commanders began to splinter from the movement. JAM had always functioned as a loosely organized movement. Many JAM commanders largely financed themselves after the Haeri funding stream ceased in late 2004.10 JAM groups operated criminal rackets in Shi’a neighborhoods across Baghdad to generate funding, intimidate the local population, and maintain power.11 The rapid growth in the movement from 2004 to 2006 and the subsequent emergence of a mafia-like system undermined Muqtada al-Sadr’s control over his commanders. As local commanders grew more powerful and financially independent, they became less likely to follow orders from Muqtada al-Sadr and the clerical leadership in Najaf.12 Likewise, growing Iranian support for different elements of Muqtada’s movement further undermined centralized control. As JAM leaders became less responsive to his demands, Sadr reportedly tried to discipline the movement by reprimanding or firing insubordinates, albeit to little effect.13 By late 2006, the Sadrist political and religious leadership had little control over the disparate groups operating under the JAM banner.
JAM During the Surge
In early 2007, Coalition and Iraqi forces prepared for the Baghdad security offensive, Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Enforcing the Law), which was launched on February 14, 2007. They moved into neighborhoods across the city to conduct systematic clearing operations. The strategy emphasized population security and the holding of previously-cleared terrain. The targets of Fardh al-Qanoon included both Shi’a and Sunni extremists in all areas of Baghdad. Prime Minister Maliki also ensured that there would be no political interference in the operation, which meant that the Sadrists were no longer under his protection.14 Hence, Coalition Forces were permitted to conduct operations in Sadrist-controlled neighborhoods and target JAM during the security crackdown.15
In the summer of 2007, JAM and Badr were violently contesting several cities across the south, particularly Diwaniyah, the capital of Qadisiyah province.16 Badr was a rival Shi’a organization which had once been the militia of the Supreme Council (SCIRI, then ISCI) but had largely been incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces. Several high-profile assassinations of ISCI and Sadrist figures in July and August increased the tensions between the two groups throughout the shrine cities in the mid-Euphrates.17 On the evening of August 27, 2007, fighting erupted near the Imam Ali shrine in Karbala between JAM militiamen and the shrine guards, who were members of the Iraqi Security Forces affiliated with Badr.18 The area was filled with pilgrims, who were celebrating the Shi’a festival of Shabaniyah near the shrine. As the fighting escalated and continued into the next day, these worshipers were caught up in the machine gun, mortar, and grenade fire.19 More than fifty civilians were killed and 200 wounded in the firefight.20 It seems plausible that JAM attempted to wrest control of the shrine as both a reprisal attack on Badr and an attempt to claim the control over the religious revenues, but the cause for the outbreak was disputed. Regardless, many witnesses quickly blamed JAM fighters for sparking the conflict and attempting to seize control of the shrine.21
This incident in Karbala further tarnished the image of the Sadrist Movement. It echoed the 2004 uprisings, during which JAM fighters were seen as endangering the holy shrines by attracting a violent reprisal from Coalition Forces. Sadrist leadership acted quickly to limit the fallout. The next day, Sadr issued a statement, which was read by aides Hazem al-Araji in Baghdad and Ahmad al-Shaibani in Najaf, declaring a six-month suspension of all militia activities, during which time his movement would purge all rogue factions and reorganize.22 The statement also included a ban on attacking Coalition Forces.23 The factions of JAM reacted differently to Sadr’s ceasefire. Some leaders and members respected his demands and ceased their militia activities.
As the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq diminished in the second half of 2007, Coalition Forces accelerated their operations against these Shi’a enemy groups. Since the beginning of the Surge, Coalition Forces decapitated much of the JAM leadership—including those still responsive to Sadr and Sadrist leadership in Najaf as well as those operating outside independently.24 As militia leaders were captured or killed, Sadr’s remaining command and control eroded. Additionally, as U.S. troops moved into the neighborhoods of Baghdad, they denied JAM criminal networks the ability to extort and intimidate the local populations, depriving them of a major source of wealth and power. As a result, many JAM militiamen turned to Iran for support. By late 2007, it was clear that Iranian-backed groups were the primary driver of violence in the capital.25
The Basra and Sadr City Offensives
The problem of militia control in Basra was becoming especially clear. In the wake of the premature British withdrawal from the city center and transition to an overwatch capacity in late 2007, Basra became a haven for militia and criminal activity. Rival militia factions and criminal gangs were vying for control of the city’s lucrative infrastructure and resources, namely shipping and oil. Iranian-backed militias known as Special Groups, mafia-style gangs, and other militias — many of which were operating under the JAM banner — dominated the city. Iraqi and British forces were unable to maintain security and became frequent targets of attacks. In an effort to stem the attacks, British troops made an agreement with JAM that stated no British soldier could operate in Basra without the permission of the British Defense Secretary.26 While the pact was intended to encourage the militia to enter the political process, it effectively allowed JAM and other groups to operate in Basra unchecked. And while U.S. troops recognized the deterioration of security in Basra, the main effort of their operations in early 2008 was targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents in northern Iraq, particularly the city of Mosul.
Prime Minister Maliki launched an offensive in Basra to retake control of the city, prompted by these security concerns, combined with personal political calculations. Iraq Reports 9 and 11 document the Basra offensive and subsequent operations against JAM and Special Groups in Sadr City and Amarah.28
Many JAM fighters who had up to then abided by the ceasefire believed that the movement was being unfairly targeted in the operation.29 Special Groups took advantage of this sentiment and fought alongside a variety of JAM factions in Basra to enhance their capabilities and lethality.30 Maliki and the Iraqi Security Forces therefore encountered a heavily-armed and capable enemy fighting force. The operation stalled by the end of the first week, as the abrupt decision to fight led to insufficient planning and exacerbated the problems created by inexperienced army units and an infiltrated police force.
An Iraqi delegation including representatives from Dawa and ISCI went to Iran to negotiate a ceasefire with Sadr and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander, Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani. Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets after the negotiations concluded on March 30, 2008.31 The fiercest fighting in Basra subsided in the wake of the Iranian-brokered ceasefire, but the violence continued in Sadr City throughout the month of April. Coalition Forces had begun to push their way into the district to stem the mortar and rocket attacks that were being launched from the area against the Green Zone. As they did so, they faced heavy resistance from Special Groups and their JAM affiliates.32 The intensity of the violence caused extensive collateral damage in Sadr City, particularly along al-Quds street, where Coalition efforts to build a barrier became a magnet for militia attacks.
Iraqi politicians, Sadrist leadership, and even JAM and Special Groups commanders came under intense pressure to halt the violence as the fighting dragged on.33 Sadrist cleric Salah al-Obeidi announced that a truce had been reached on May 10, 2008, after several days of negotiations between Sadrist political leaders and the ISCI-led United Iraqi Alliance.34 It nevertheless took several days for the fighting in Sadr City to subside, indicating that Sadrist clerics and politicians were having trouble imposing the ceasefire on the militia.35 Many Special Groups and JAM fighters were apparently angry about the truce and reluctant to stop fighting Coalition Forces.36 Faced with the prospect of Iraqi forces entering the rest of Sadr City, Special Groups and mainstream JAM leaders fled to Iran to avoid capture and reconsolidate their forces.
The Iraqi Security Forces launched a third security offensive in late June that aimed at clearing the Sadrist stronghold of Amarah, the provincial capital of Maysan province. “Sadrist politicians and clerics, wishing to avoid the destruction that accompanied the push into Sadr City, instructed their followers not to resist the government’s operations. Moreover, any Special Groups and JAM leaders that remained in Maysan in the wake of the Baghdad and Basra offensives fled to Iran before the operations commenced in Amarah.”37 The Iraqi Security Forces faced little resistance and took control of the province. The immense political and military pressure directed at the Sadrists in the spring and early summer of 2008 had serious ramifications for the movement.
The Restructuring of JAM
Sadrist clerical and parliamentary leadership sought to consolidate their fractured movement in the wake of their political and military losses. They embarked on a dramatic restructuring of the movement to improve its image and political prospects for the upcoming provincial elections, which were scheduled for the fall.
Sadr “moved away from both JAM and the Iraqi government and tried to return to the social services model that launched his movement.”38 He thereby sought to rectify the tarnished image of his militia. He wanted instead to “focus on the ideological and intellectual aspects” of the movement.39 Sadr issued a statement that was read after Friday prayers in Kufa on June 13, 2008, announcing that he was transitioning the majority of JAM fighters into a non-violent organization.40 The group would focus on social support and cultural and religious education programs, rather than armed resistance.41 More details about the organization emerged in August. Named the Mumahidoon, roughly translated as “those who pave the way,”42 the group would focus on educational and social projects, including neighborhood reconstruction projects.43 Members of the Mumahidoon would be unarmed and strictly disciplined; any violation of this policy would be dealt with harshly.44 Sadrist cleric Hazem al-Araji was the primary leader of this reformed movement, along with nine other Sadrist clerics.45
Sadr’s move surprised many, given his militant rhetoric at the height of the fighting only weeks before. One report suggested Sadr’s decision resulted from an agreement made between Maliki and Haeri during the former’s visit to Tehran on June 7, 2008. Maliki reportedly warned that the Sadrists would be barred from participating in provincial elections unless Muqtada al-Sadr issued a clear order to disband JAM and end their violence against the Iraqi government.46 Although the the report was not substantiated, it does underscore that Sadr’s moves were likely not made without some kind of Iranian endorsement.
Sadr did not abandon his commitment to armed resistance altogether. In keeping with nationalist strain of the movement, Sadr announced that he would keep a small cadre of well-trained and tightly-controlled fighters to carry on attacks against Coalition Forces.47 He emphasized that this new unit, later named the Promised Day Brigade, would have a clear chain of command and strict discipline in order to avoid the decentralized structure of JAM that led to a fractured and uncontrollable militia.48 The group would only target Coalition Forces, and not the Iraqi Security Forces. The decision to keep a small group of fighters likely resulted from the intense pressure on Sadr to respond forcefully to the targeting of his movement.49
1 Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada, Scribner, New York, 2008, 145-147; Jim Garamone, “Warrant Issued for Anti-Coalition Cleric's Arrest,” American Forces Press Service, April 5, 2004; Dan Murphy, “In Iraq, a 'perfect storm',”
The Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 2004. For an account of the battle of Karbala in April 2004, see Peter R. Mansoor, Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 279.
2 Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada, Scribner, New York, 2008, 147-149.
3 Orly Halpern, “Sadr standoff comes to an end,” Christian Science Monitor, Page 6, May 28, 2004.
4 Tom Lasseter, “U.S. troops clash with al-Sadr's supporters in Najaf,” Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, August 3, 2004.
5 Abdul Hussein Al-Obeidi, “Al-Sadr militia clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces,” The Associated Press, August 5, 2004.
6 Abdul Hussein Al-Obeidi, “U.S. Helicopters pound militants in Najaf cemetery,” The Associated Press, August 10, 2004.
7 Sistani had been in London where he was undergoing a medical procedure. “Cleric seeks end to battles in Najaf,” The International Herald Tribune, August 27, 2004; Dexter Filkins And Alex Berenson, “Allawi orders ceasefire to permit talks,” The New York Times, Page 1.
8 “Top Cleric Brokers Deal To End Battle In Najaf; Militia, U.S. Would Leave,” The Washington Post, August 27, 2004; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Mortar Attack Kills Dozens,” Washington Post Foreign Service; Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada, Scribner, New York, 2008, p. 161-162.
9 Ellen Knickmeyer and K.I. Ibrahim “Bombing Shatters Mosque In Iraq; Attack on Shiite Shrine Sets Off Protests, Violence,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2006, p. A01; Colonel Peter Mansoor, interview by Kimberly Kagan, Institute for the Study of War, September23, 2008, Washington, DC.
10 “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists, and the Surge,” Middle East Report No. 72, International Crisis Group, February 7, 2008, p. i, 1; Sabrina Tavernise, “Cleric Said to Lose Reins of Parts of Iraqi Militia,” The New York Times, September 28, 2006; Anthony Shadid, “A Struggle for Iraqi Clergy's Soul; Some Shiites Reject Tradition, Embrace Politics,” The Washington Post, June, 30, 2003.
11 Sabrina Tavernise, “A Shiite Militia in Baghdad Sees its Power Wane,” The New York Times, July 27, 2008.
12 Sabrina Tavernise, “Cleric Said to Lose Reins of Parts of Iraqi Militia,” The New York Times, September 28, 2006.
13 Sabrina Tavernise, “Cleric Said to Lose Reins of Parts of Iraqi Militia,” The New York Times, September 28, 2006.
14 Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman, Multi-National Force – Iraq, February 14, 2007.
15 Colonel Peter Mansoor, interview by Kimberly Kagan, Institute for the Study of War, September23, 2008, Washington, DC.; Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman, Multi-National Force – Iraq, February 14, 2007.
16 Patrick Gaughen, “The Fight for Diwaniyah,” Backgrounder 17, Institute for the Study of War, January 6, 2008.
17 Patrick Gaughen, “The Fight for Diwaniyah,” Backgrounder 17, Institute for the Study of War, January 6, 2008.
18 Stephen Farrell, “50 Die as a Bitter Power Struggle Between Shiite Groups Turns Violent in Karbala,” The New York Times, August 29. 2007. Badr had secured Karbala’s shrines before and after the spring 2004 JAM uprising; Peter R. Mansoor, Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 305, 328.
19 Joshua Partlow and Sudarsan Raghavan, Sadr’s Militia Blamed for Deadly Shiite-on-Shiite Melee,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2007.
20 Stephen Farrell, “Mahdi army to stop fighting for 6 months,” The International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2007.
21 Joshua Partlow and Sudarsan Raghavan, Sadr’s Militia Blamed for Deadly Shiite-on-Shiite Melee,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2007; “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists, and the Surge,” Middle East Report #72, International Crisis Group, February 7, 2008, p. 11.
22 Stephen Farrell, “Mahdi army to stop fighting for 6 months,” The International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2007; “Shi'ite leader declares cease-fire,” The Washington Times, August 30, 2007; David R. Sands, “Orders 6-month freeze on attacks by militia,” The Washington Times, August 30, 2007.
23 Stephen Farrell, “Mahdi army to stop fighting for 6 months,” The International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2007; David R. Sands, “Shi'ite leader declares cease-fire,” The Washington Times, August 30, 2007; Bassem Mroue, “Al-Sadr suspends Iraq militia,” The Associated Press, August 30, 2007.
24 General Raymond Odierno, interview by the Institute for the Study of War, Baghdad, Iraq, November 10, 2008.
25 See, Marisa Cochrane, “The Growing Threat of Special Groups in Baghdad,” Backgrounder #25, Institute for the Study of War, March 6, 2008.
26 “Secret deal kept British troops out of Basra- report,” Reuters, August 5, 2008.
27 “Secret deal kept British troops out of Basra- report,” Reuters, August 5, 2008.
28 Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008; Marisa Cochrane, “Special Groups Regenerate,” Iraq Report 11, Institute for the Study of War, September 2, 2008.
29 Amit R. Paley, “U.S. Deploys a Purpose-Driven Distinction,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2008.
30 Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008; Marisa Cochrane, “Special Groups Regenerate,” Iraq Report 11, Institute for the Study of War, September 2, 2008.
31 “Shiite cleric al-Sadr pulls fighters off streets,” Associated Press, March 31, 2008.
32 Bill Roggio, “US forces capture 14 Iraqi Shia terrorists in Baghdad, The Long War Journal, November 23, 2008; “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Claims Attack on US Vehicle 10 May, Posts Video,” Open Source Center Summary of Jihadist Websites, December 8, 2008; “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Claims Three Attacks on US Forces in Iraq, Posts Videos,” Open Source Center Summary of Jihadist Websites, April 28, 2008.
33 Marisa Cochrane, “Special Groups Regenerate,” Iraq Report 11, The Institute for the Study of War, September 2008, pg, 17.
34 Sholnn Freeman and Ernesto Londoño, Deal Reached to End Fighting in Sadr City; Agreement Reported by Aide to Cleric,” The Washington Post, May 11, 2008, A21.
35 “Iraq: Elusive Cease-Fire in Al-Sadr City Begs New Questions,” Radio Free Europe, May 14, 2008; Michael R. Gordon, “War Over Wall Persists in Sadr City Despite Truce,” The New York Times, May 15, 2008; Michael R. Gordon and Stephen Farrell, “In Sadr City, a Cease-Fire Is Put to the Test, and Fails,” The New York Times, May 12, 2008.
36 Hamza Hendawi, “Warrior with AK-47 becomes cleric with pseudonym,” Associated Press, August 12, 2008.
37 Marisa Cochrane, “Special Groups Regenerate,” Iraq Report 11, The Institute for the Study of War, September, 2008, pg 18.
38 Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq: Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Occasional Paper Series, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, October 13, 2008, p. 48.
39 Ashraf Khalil, “Shiite cleric Sadr to demobilize most of his militia,” Los Angeles Time, June 14, 2008.
40 Ashraf Khalil, “Shiite Cleric Sadr to demobilize most of his militia,” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2008.
41 Ashraf Khalil, “Shiite Cleric Sadr to demobilize most of his militia,” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2008.
42 The name Mumahidoon is a reference to the devout Shi’a followers who are waiting for the return of the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi. They believe that he will return to earth shortly before the Final Judgment and rid the world of injustice and evil.
43 Ali al-Mashakheel and Nick Schifrin, “Anti-U.S. Cleric to Lay Down Weapons,” ABC News, August 7, 2008.
44“Shiite cleric Al-Sadr suspends Mahdi militia operations-MP,” Aswat al-Iraq, August 28, 2008.
45 Ned Parker, “In Iraq, Muqtada Sadr’s followers struggle for relevance,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2008; Sudarsan Raghavan, “Sadr Movement Seeks Its Way As Others Gain Power in Iraq,” The Washington Post, December 5, 2008, p. A1.
46 “Iraqi Al-Mahdi Army reorganization result of premier’s visit to Iran-paper,” Al-Watan, BBC Monitoring Middle East-Political, June 16, 2008.
47 Amit R. Paley, “Powerful Iraqi Cleric Recalibrates Strategy,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2008
48 Amit R. Paley, “Powerful Iraqi Cleric Recalibrates Strategy,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2008; Sinan Salaheddin, “Iraq’s al-Sadr renews threats to attack US,” Associated Press, November 14, 2008.
49 Dean Yates, “Analysis: Iraq’s Sadr avoiding fight with government,” Reuters, June 16, 2008.