The Rise of the JAM

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 6 months ago

Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) essentially had its beginnings in June of 2003.  Since then, they have grown, developed and embedded themselves into Iraqi Shi’ite culture more efficiently than the mafiosi, and their thugery, control and violence is rivaled only by their analogue in Lebanon, the Hezbollah.

A Muslim imam dropped his cloak to the sidewalk. It was a signal for the gunmen to move.

They surrounded the top Iraqi security official in a north Baghdad district. Iraqi military vehicles – commandeered by other Shiite militiamen – screeched into a cordon, blocking his exit. A gun was put to his head.

Brig. Gen. Falah Hassan Kanbar, a fellow Shiite, managed to escape when his bodyguards pulled him into a vehicle that sped down an alley.

Details of the Aug. 5 ambush emerged this week in interviews with Kanbar, U.S. military and intelligence officials. It remains unclear whether the thugs sought to kill Kanbar or simply intimidate him, but suspicions over the source of the brazen assault pointed in just one direction: the powerful Shiite armed faction known as the Mahdi Army and its increasingly unpredictable trajectory.

The vast Mahdi network – ranging from hardcore fighting units to community aid groups – is emerging as perhaps the biggest wild card as Iraq’s U.S.-backed government stumbles and the Pentagon struggles to build a credible Iraqi security force to allow an eventual U.S. withdrawal.

Just a few months ago, the Mahdi Army and its leader, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were seen as reluctant – but critical – partners with Iraq’s leadership. Al-Sadr agreed to government appeals to lessen his anti-American fervor and not directly challenge the waves of U.S. soldiers trying to regain control of Baghdad and surrounding areas.

But now, the once-cohesive ranks of the Mahdi Army are splintering into rival factions with widely varying priorities.

Some breakaway guerrillas are accused by Washington of strengthening ties with Iranian patrons supplying parts for powerful roadside bombs – which accounted for nearly three-quarters of U.S. military deaths and injuries last month. The devices suggest that Shiite militias could replace Sunni insurgents as the top threat to American troops.

Other Mahdi loyalists are seeking to expand their footholds in the Iraqi military and police, frustrating U.S. attempts to bring more Sunni Muslims into the forces as part of national reconciliation goals.

And in many Shiite strongholds across Iraq, Mahdi crews are trying to shore up their power and influence. The pace has picked up with the sense that the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government could be irrevocably damaged after political mutinies by Sunni and Shiite Cabinet ministers.

The Mahdi Army, meanwhile, appears to be going through its own leadership crisis. Al-Sadr has been unable to rein in the renegade Mahdi factions. On Friday, a U.S. military commander said al-Sadr had returned to Iran, where he spent several months earlier this year. Al-Sadr’s top aides called the claim baseless.

But there is no dispute that Mahdi Army operatives are busy planning for the future.

The militia is working behind-the-scenes to solidify control of rent markets, fuel distribution and other services in Shiite neighborhoods – taking a page from other influential groups across the region, such as Hezbollah, that have mixed militia muscle and social outreach.

The JAM uses force to control the supply of ice in Baghdad, a non-trivial thing at this time of year.

Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.

With electricity reaching most homes for just a couple of hours each day, the poor hand over soiled brown dinars for what has become a symbol of Iraq’s steady descent into a more primitive era and its broken covenant with leaders, domestic and foreign. In a capital that was once the seat of the Islamic Caliphate and a center of Arab worldliness, ice is now a currency of last resort for the poor, subject to sectarian horrors and gangland rules.

In Shiite-majority Topci, icemakers say that Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army militia issued a diktat on the first day of summer ordering vendors to set a price ceiling of 4,000 dinars, or $3, per 25-kilogram, or 55-pound, block of ice – 30 percent less than they charge in areas outside Mahdi army control.

Everyone complied, delivering an instant subsidy to the veiled women and poor laborers who are the radical Shiite cleric’s natural constituency. The same price is enforced in his other power bases, like Sadr City.

We have discussed both the counterinsurgency victory by the Marines in the Anbar province, as well as the expansion of this model into other areas of Iraq (e.g., the Diyala province).  Some senior military officers are advocating the position that the Shi’ite militias have replaced al Qaeda as the most significant threat.  “The longer-term threat to Iraq is potentially the Shiite militias.”  In addition to Sadr’s army, there is another with which to contend, perhaps even more deeply embedded into Iraqi culture and with deeper roots and history.

The two largest militias, Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, are tied to prominent Iraqi families whose rivalries date back generations. Both militias have infiltrated the security forces.

Badr, which has never openly battled American forces, generally gets credit for being the more astute player of the two. “The Badr corps understood the game from the beginning and incorporated itself into the security forces,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said.

A senior U.S. military official described American support for Badr — an Iranian-funded organization that many think still conducts targeted assassinations — as the only option since many of its members have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces.

“Badr has decided to join the government, and they gave up their weapons and became part of the state,” the senior military official said.

Note the excuses and unwillingness to excise the Badr corp from the ISF.  But these main stream media reports about the JAM splintering, while having a kernel of truth, are probably exaggerated.  Omar Fadhil has noted the power of Moqtada al Sadr.  “While Al-Qaeda poses a serious security challenge in some provinces, Sadr threatens the future of the whole country. He can paralyze or disrupt the proper functioning of whole ministries and provinces.?

This problem of the JAM is largely a creation of coalition policy and strategy in Iraq.  We have discussed how the British have militarily lost Basra, in Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement.  Various JAM factions roam and fight freely in Basra attempting to establish rule in this oil-rich city in preparation for the departure of coalition forces.  In what is potentially becoming the most dangerous city in Iraq, the British casualty rate per soldier is now higher than the U.S. forces sustain.  But even before the calamity of British loss in Basra, the U.S. contributed significantly to the creation of JAM.

Bing West briefly outlines the decision-making that led to the creation of JAM in American Military Performance in Iraq.

Bremer decided to move against the dangerous Shiite demagogue, Moqtada al-Sadr. American troops were thus engaged on two fronts-against Sunnis in Anbar and Fallujah and against Shiites in Najaf. At Fallujah in late April, the White house and Bremer, taking counsel of their fears that Iraq would fall apart because of adverse publicity about the assault, ordered the astonished marines to pull back just as Major General James Mattis was squeezing the insurgents into a corner.

Former Sunni generals came forward, claiming they could bring order to Fallujah. The marines, to the chagrin of the civilians in Baghdad and Washington, turned the city over to the generals and a “Fallujah brigade” that included the insurgents. In Najaf, al-Sadr was cornered, but the American officials in (sic) decided not to press home the attack. Within a month in Fallujah, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and foreign fighters took control, driving out the former Iraqi generals. By the summer of 2004, Iraq was a military mess.

Andrew Lubin of U.S. Cavalry On Point adds some detail to this in a personal communication.  “The Marines of 3/2 came in and arrested Moqtada al Sadr, and held him for 3 days before they were ordered by the Army to release him.”  More than just having Sadr “cornered,” he was in U.S. custody and then released.

After being released, Sadr began building and arming his army.  There were more tactical confrontations in mid-2004, but apparent agreement by Sadr to “disarm” and “join the political process” again convinced U.S. command to allow Sadr to escape justice.  From 2004 on, Sadr did indeed join the political process; the Sadr bloc and Sistani (who has been called the most powerful man in Iraq) strong armed Makili’s administration while Sadr continued to build his army.

The thinking that led to this perceived exigency remains today.

Each day, militiamen in civilian clothes patrol in the tight cluster of winding streets surrounding the Imam al-Kadhim shrine. U.S. forces keep their distance. They fear an all-out insurrection if they crack down on the Mahdi Army, often called by the Arabic acronym JAM. Also, they acknowledge that the Mahdi presence helps keep Sunni insurgents away.

“We could go downtown and have direct confrontation with JAM, and it’d be a tactical victory for us, but the political backlash would make it not worth it,” said Miska, of Greenport, N.Y.

But if we have learned anything over the conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is that things like the release of Sadr, and other political moves aimed at winning hearts that were never “in play,” only make matters worse and have unintended consequences an order of magnitude more destructive than doing nothing.

The erstwhile Sunni insurgents have proven that they are willing to settle with U.S. forces, add to region security, and become part of the political process.  The Shi’ite militias have proven since the inception of Operation Iraqi Freedom that they are unwilling to do the same.  Unless and until U.S. forces take down Sadr, there will be no peace or security in Iraq.  Taking down Sadr will not finish the job, however.  The balance of the Shi’ite militias (splintered from Sadr) will have to be defeated, and finally the Iranian terror masters stopped from their insidious influence inside of Iraq and the whole Middle East.

You are currently reading "The Rise of the JAM", entry #575 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Iraq,Jaish al Mahdi and was published August 12th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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