A Portrait of the Mahdi Army
By providing charity and security, the Mahdi organization created Iraq's most powerful movement
Today, Alternet features a fascinating portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi organization, "the only genuine mass movement in Iraq." Here are some highlights:
The picture that emerges is clear: the Mahdi Army has been furnishing the essential services, including security, that the government has been unable to provide. Combining the soft power of charity and the hard power of violence, they earned the loyalty of the people in the districts they control. Support for the organization is broad and deep enough that the efforts by the American occupiers and the central government cannot succeed without triggering another civil war.
Since April 2007, American forces have erected a series of concrete walls and checkpoints throughout the city to divide warring Sunnis and Shiites. Though these walls helped dampen sectarian violence, they may have bolstered sectarianism, isolating Iraqis from their neighbors and leaving them dependent on militias like the Mahdi Army for food, supplies and protection.
Before the war, 80 per cent of Iraqis depended on the Public Distribution System, an efficient ration system established in 1996 that provided essential items for all Iraqi families. But the system has now stopped functioning because of security problems, corruption and sectarianism. Most families do not even receive 50 per cent of what they used to, and displaced Iraqis, especially Sunnis, receive nothing at all. In the meantime, the Sadrist movement has become Iraq's largest humanitarian organization.
On another visit, the crowd at Abu Hassan's office included two young men working for the Iraqi security forces. One was a member of the Facility Protection Service, which protects ministries and government offices but is notoriously lawless and loyal to sectarian Shiite militias. The other man belonged to the Iraqi National Guard. Both proudly told me they were also members of the Mahdi Army.
"We want you to know that most of the Sadrists are working for the government," said the FPS member. They listed their many friends who had been killed by Sunni militias. "I have been a solider in Iraqi army, the Iraqi National Guard, for three years," his friend said. "We saw that none of the political parties or movements are working for the benefit of the people except this movement. The Sadrists are devoting their time and effort to help Iraqi people. I thought the best way to help the people is by joining them."
Many displaced Shiites from wealthier majority-Sunni neighborhoods have been forced to flee to Washash, where they settle in homes that belong to Sunnis purged or killed by the Sadrists; they scrape by with meager incomes from whatever work they can find. "We are helping the people who have been displaced from other cities because of the sectarianism," Kazim told me.
Neighborhoods like Washash and Shaab have become like refugee camps for Iraq's internal displaced. One man in Washash, who came from Dora, in south Baghdad, told me that Shiites were the minority there "and they started killing us in our houses. They did not get my son because he was at his college and we came to this area because it is has a Shiite majority".
But one month after fleeing to Washash from Dora, he said, "the Americans and the Iraqi army came to our street and they blew up the door to our house and they arrested us and some of our neighbors, we don't know why. I was arrested by the American army with my son for eleven months and six days. Without any charges. They accused me of being terrorist and they don't have any proof. They released me and they kept my son and we don't know for what reason."
The Sadrists have often been characterized as a movement of angry young men, but these women were unabashed in their enthusiasm. A younger woman explained to me that "without the Mahdi Army our women or girls could not go outside. We are under a lot of pressure. They are defending us like they are defending their own sisters".
(cross posted at Liberal Avenger and appletree)