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IRAQ: Big changes in the Mahdi Army?

August 27, 2008 |  2:01 pm

Sayid Fareed al-Fadhili, a bearded cleric in his 30s, heads the Shiite Mahdi Army militia’s new non-armed branch, Mumahidoon, an Arabic word "meaning those who pave the way." Sitting in Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s office in Sadr City, Fadhili described his men as the militia's educational wing.

In June, Sadr first announced plans to transform most of the Mahdi Army militia into a social organization, while preserving an elite group to fight the U.S. military, without harming Iraq’s civilians.

The overhaul was prompted after the spring offensive by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in the southern city of Basra. The fighting, which then spread to Sadr City in Baghdad, concluded with the Mahdi Army laying down its weapons.

Fadhili elaborated on the Mahdi Army’s new structure. “The first section is the armed one for resisting only the occupiers and to not carry weapons against any other side. This section is a clandestine one. Nobody knows who their members are,” Fadhili explained. “The second part is ours, which will undertake ethical and cultural issues to change the society from its tendencies toward a secular and Western orientation to a society based on Islamic and religious culture.”

Fadhili said that Mumahidoon members did not carry weapons.

“They never carry weapons and they do not care for the military side at all. Their main work is absolutely cultural and intellectual,” he said.

Fadhili vowed that Mumahidoon would recruit members with solid reputations. “We have certain specifications and regulations for each member to join this army, including a good reputation and good education and popularity among his neighbors and society,” Fadhili said.

Fadhili said he has received 250 applications in Baghdad of people who wish to join. Their applications include a broad range of questions, focusing on their education, employment histories and family background. The applicants should also have a reference from a tribal leader. About 10 Iraqi men were applying Wednesday to join the new organization.

The reasons for the creation of the new organization remain a subject of mystery. “Muqtada al Sadr is following a clear-eyed strategy of not eliciting a violent confrontation. He has even agreed to the takeover by the government of his movement's offices in Basra, Baghdad and Amarah,” said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program. “This should not be interpreted as a defeat for the Sadrists, but as the implementation of a very clever long-term strategy.”

— Raheem Salman and Ned Parker

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