Abu Zaid, a Shi’ite in the Mahdi Army militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr, says he is simply waiting for word on whether to fight again.
With a series of bombing attacks against Shi’ites leaving at least 150 people dead in recent days, many Iraqis have wondered whether the Mahdi Army will continue to stand down or renew death squad killings as they did when sectarian violence raged out of control for more than a year beginning in 2006. Zaid and others associated with Sadr say that for now the militia is effectively dormant. “The Mahdi Army is off the streets by order of the Sadr himself,” says Zaid, who spoke to TIME in Najaf and pointed to a standing unilateral cease-fire declared by Sadr roughly a year ago. “If he orders us to go back, we are ready. If he does not, any one of us who goes into the streets carrying weapons, we consider them an enemy.”
But Iraqi security forces remain wary as they face a potentially restless Mahdi Army while Sunni militants step up attacks at the same time. “We have information that our enemies are re-energizing themselves,” said Brigadier General Faisal Malik Mohsen, an Iraqi National Police commander in Baghdad. “That goes for the militias as well as al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Should the Mahdi Army return to the streets, Mohsen doubts it could do so with the same strength it showed in past years. Iraqi security forces, with help from U.S. troops, now largely control areas that were once virtually untouchable militia havens such as Sadr City in Baghdad and the port city of Basra in the south of Iraq. The Mahdi Army dispatched gunmen nightly during the height of the sectarian violence. Yet Mohsen believes the odds of such a situation unfolding again are low, at least in Baghdad given the myriad checkpoints, blast wall cordons and Iraqi security forces on the street, including Sunni volunteer fighters from the ranks of the Awakening movement, a confederation of tribesmen who’ve been working with U.S. forces since 2007.
In addition to increased security in Baghdad, the political environment has changed in ways that may make a resurgent Mahdi Army less welcome than before to average Iraqis. During the worst of the sectarian violence, much of the Sunni community held a completely rejectionist stance toward the Iraqi government and U.S. forces. In the minds of many Iraqis and militiamen and their passive supporters, that left virtually all Sunni communities complicit in insurgent violence and therefore fair game for bloody reprisal attacks like the bombings Thursday and Friday. But today, many key Sunni factions work with the government and U.S. forces, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made some progress in terms of political reconciliation.
So, in the near term, the Mahdi Army does not look poised to reassert itself in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq, despite what looks to be a rise in sectarian attacks directed against Shi’ites. But the political and security dynamics dampening a Mahdi Army comeback today could change drastically in the coming months as U.S. forces fade from the streets of major cities across Iraq as part of a U.S.-Iraqi agreement calling for American troops to be off the streets of urban areas by June. U.S. military officials have warned that sectarian violence is likely to rise as the drawdown goes forward. Whether the Mahdi Army will reconsider its cease-fire then is a question Sadr’s followers say only the reclusive cleric himself can answer.
Likha al-Yasheen, a female parliamentarian aligned with Sadr said, “A decision like that is only in the hands of Sadr.”
With reporting by Khuder Abbas / Najaf
See TIME’s special report: “Suicide in the Recruiters’ Ranks”
A TIME Photographer’s Iraq Diary