The Guardian: Senior commanders of the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have been spirited away to Iran to avoid being targeted in the new security push in Baghdad, a high-level Iraqi official told the Guardian yesterday. The Guardian
· Shia fighters to return ‘once Sunnis are pacified’
· Sadr strategy is to retain militia’s infrastructure
Michael Howard in Baghdad
Senior commanders of the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have been spirited away to Iran to avoid being targeted in the new security push in Baghdad, a high-level Iraqi official told the Guardian yesterday.
On the day the Iraqi government formally launched its crackdown on insurgents and amid disputed claims about the whereabouts of Mr Sadr, the official said the Mahdi army leadership had withdrawn across the border into Iran to regroup and retrain.
“Over the last three weeks, they [Iran”> have taken away from Baghdad the first and second-tier military leaders of the Mahdi army,” he said. The aim of the Iranians was to “prevent the dismantling of the infrastructure of the Shia militias” in the Iraqi capital – one of the chief aims of the US-backed security drive.
“The strategy is to lie low until the storm passes, and then let them return and fill the vacuum,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Tehran authorities were “playing a waiting game” until the commanders could return to Baghdad and resume their activities. “All indications are that Moqtada is in Iran, but that is not really the point,” he added.
One of the main aims of the latest government crackdown – codename Imposing Law – is to halt the work of the Shia militias and death squads thought to be behind much of the sectarian violence gripping the capital.
The Mahdi army has launched two failed uprisings against US troops and has been linked to death squads preying on Sunnis. The new security operation in Baghdad will be the third attempt by US forces and their Iraqi allies to end violence that soared following the bombing of the sacred Shia shrine in Samarra a year ago.
“They [the Iranians”> are calculating that the security operation will continue for a certain period of time, and that it will do serious damage to the Sunni jihadists and the insurgents,” the official said. “While in Iran they will be able to get more training and then once the Sunnis have been pacified, they plan to return.”
The claims appeared to be partially confirmed in the holy city of Najaf, south of the capital, yesterday by a senior figure in the Mahdi army, Karim al-Moussawi. He said most of the militia leaders had gone to Iran, but on their own initiative. “They were neither ordered to go by Sayid Muqtada nor invited to enter by the Iranian authorities,” he said. “Simply they were seeking sanctuary as individuals from expected targeting by the US occupying forces during the security drive in Baghdad.” A number of commanders had also gone to Najaf and the southern provinces, he added. “The US forces should be targeting the real terrorists,” he said.
The US has long blamed Iran – and Syria – for letting militants use their territory to slip into Iraq to attack US and Iraqi forces as well as civilians. Yesterday George Bush said he was convinced Iranian weapons were being used by insurgents in Iraq and promised to “do something about it”.
Iraqi authorities, although regularly echoing the US charges against Syria, rarely repeat claims of interference from Iran, with which the Shia-led administration in Baghdad has close ties.
Reports of the vanishing Mahdi fighters came amid mounting speculation over the whereabouts of Mr Sadr. The chief US military spokesman in Baghdad said the anti-western cleric had fled to Iran. “He is in Iran and he left last month,” said Major General William Caldwell. US forces were tracking him “very closely”, he said.
The assertion was hotly contested by senior members of the Sadr movement, who said their leader had been in Najaf meeting local officials. One pro-Sadr satellite channel showed footage of Mr Sadr that it said was taken in Najaf three days ago. Falah al-Akaily, a pro-Sadr MP, said: “This is just a rumour sent around to confuse people. Sayid Moqtada is available and has not left Iraq. Why would he need to do so? The movement has declared its support for the security crackdown and its full cooperation in defeating the terrorists.”
A statement by the Sadr movement’s office in Sadr City accused the US of playing games: “This is a lie put out as part of a psychological and media campaign by the US occupation to hurt the reputation of the brave national leader.”
The Mahdi army, also known as Jaish al-Mahdi, was born in the vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein. With no one in charge, Shia clerics organised religious students to distribute food and essentials from the mosques of Sadr City in Baghdad. One of the most popular of the clerics was Moqtada al-Sadr – young, radical and anti-American. The groups soon took on “security duties”, and in June 2003 Mr Sadr brought them together as the Mahdi army. The militia rose to prominence in April 2004 when they led the first major Shia confrontation against US forces. The army has continued to gain in strength since the handover to the Iraqi interim government, feeding on dissatisfaction among Shias who initially welcomed the fall of Saddam. Mr Sadr, despite his anti-Americanism, is a political ally of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. His fighters, dressed in black, are armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-air missiles and other light weapons, and have been known to use IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The size of the force is thought to be between 6,000 and 10,000.