SADR CITY, Iraq — Suicide bombers marched through the streets here last month. Soldiers of the Mahdi Army paraded through Baghdad’s Sadr city in black uniforms and face masks, bright yellow sticks of mock dynamite strapped to their chests. The militia, loyal to the militant Shia religious leader Muqtada al Sadr, vowed to defend Baghdad from the ISIS-led Sunni insurgency tearing through the country’s north.
And that was the image I had as I drove through Sadr City on Tuesday to meet a Mahdi commander, Hussam al Sudani, in his home. Years before the parade, Sadr City was the site of some of the United States Army’s most intense fighting during the Iraq war. Throughout the eight-year conflict, U.S.-led forces battled the Mahdi Army in an attempt to subdue the Shia insurgency. The Mahdi Army was quieted for periods but never fully defeated. Today it remains the authority in Sadr City and commands a loyal following among Iraq’s Shias.
Since that rally last month, the militia has deployed fighters to guard Shia holy sites that have been targeted by Sunni jihadists in the past. But their mission, Mahdi leaders claim, goes beyond a narrow sectarian defense. According to battle plans revealed by al Sudani, the group will soon launch a major offensive against the forces of ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State. Mahdi soldiers already are playing a key role in Iraq, carrying the burden of fighting alongside the Iraqi army, but if this commander’s claims are true, al Sadr’s forces will soon launch an attack against ISIS in one of the group’s strongholds.
Sadr City is in fact a city within a city. Originally built as public housing for Baghdad’s urban poor, it is home to one million Iraqis, almost exclusively Shia, according to official estimates. It is known to many as a restive slum, but the typically crowded streets of Sadr City were half empty on Tuesday, as businesses were closed for the Ramadan holiday and people observing the fast stayed home from work.
Off a main commercial street, we followed a narrow alley down to the entrance of the Mahdi commander’s house. An iron gate opened to a small inner courtyard and al-Sudani’s brother, still in training with the Mahdi army, led us into a sitting room.
We sat on carpeted floor and leaned against pillows that lined the room’s pink walls.
A poster of Muqtada al Sadr hung on the wall across from me.
A large wood-paneled cabinet provided the room’s only furnishing. Behind glass doors it displayed an assortment of glasses, stacked tea cups; a small row of books; a bouquet of fake flowers.
Al Sudani soon arrived and, in some detail, began to discuss the Mahdi Army’s plans, including where it would move troops to defend certain areas and where it would launch its attack against ISIS. It wasn’t until the end of our conversation that he confided the secret behind the war in Iraq, as he saw it: Israel created and funded the group and was using it now to expand its own territory from the Nile to the Euphrates. Of course, no evidence for this theory was offered and though Sudani presented it as the ultimate truth it had no bearing on any of his other substantive claims. Sudani’s faith in the conspiracy seems to come from Iranian news reports and points to the influence Iran has over Iraq’s Shia militias, even nationalist groups like the Mahdi Army.
To begin with: “There is no more Mahdi Army,” al Sudani told me, echoing an official statement made last month by al Sadr himself, “we are now only the Peace Brigades.”
The soldiers, suicide bombers, and heavy weapons parading through Sadr City last month—that was the launch of the Peace Brigades. Originally mobilized by al Sadr to protect Shia shrines and defend the Shia population in Baghdad, the group has expanded its mission.
It was a theme al Sudani stuck with throughout our talk. Even as he detailed battle plans, he insisted the purpose of defeating ISIS was to reunify Iraq. Al Sadr’s Peace Brigades are waging war, he said, on behalf of all Iraqis including Sunnis and Christians. In fact, Muqtada Al Sadr, for all his radicalism and backing from Iran, traditionally has been one of the most nationalistic of Iraq’s militia leaders.
Claiming 60,000 loyal fighters, al Sadr’s Peace Brigades could prove a crucial force in the war against ISIS. Their role, Sudani said, is not to overtake the Iraqi military but to help it. Without the Mahdi forces, Sudani said, the Iraqi army cannot succeed, but ultimately it must be the army that defeats ISIS.
Some 3,000 soldiers of the Peace Brigades are now stationed in Samarra, 80 miles north of Baghdad, to defend the city and repel ISIS forces, Sudani claimed. Iraq’s brutal sectarian civil war started in Samarra when al Qaeda forces, predecessors of ISIS, bombed an important Shia holy site there in 2006. But the Mahdi Army’s mission now is not sectarian, al Sudani insisted. “The Peace Brigades have been welcomed by the Sunni people of Samarra,” he said.
The Mahdi fighters in Samarra have created defensive perimeters 50 kilometers out from the Shia holy sites, Sudani said, proving to locals there that they are not only guarding Shia shrines but protecting the people as well.
Photos document recent patrols by Peace Brigades fighters in Samarra but there are few details to confirm the size of the group’s presence and the nature of its activities in the city.
Despite al Sudani’s claims and al Sadr’s attempt at rebranding, many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, still know the Peace Brigades as the Mahdi Army—a militant Shia group that stoked sectarian violence and targeted Sunnis in revenge killings. If it is true that some Sunnis in Samarra have welcomed them, as al Sudani claims, it’s a sign of how grave they consider the threat from ISIS and how little faith they have in the army to defend them.
After crumbling in the face of ISIS’s initial assault in the country’s north the Iraqi army has mounted faltering attempts to retake captured territory. Militia groups have taken a larger role in the fighting and as one of Iraq’s largest and most feared, the Mahdi Army, now the Peace Brigades, are at the front.
“We grow larger by the day,” Sudani said. “More volunteers are coming to join us because of the threat from ISIS.”
The Peace Brigades have 60,000 experienced soldiers ready to fight, Sudani said, giving a number far larger than most estimates. “For our fighters there are only two choices in battle,” he added, “victory or death.”
“The Peace Brigades attacks against ISIS pushed the army to advance,” Sudani said. “We love Iraq,” he said, “we fight to help the government take it back.”
“The government didn’t ask us to go to Samarra,” Sudani said. “We went because we have loyalty to our homeland. We want to protect all Iraqis from ISIS: Sunnis, Christians and Shia.”
Historically the Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army have been hostile to Iraq’s government. Their recent turn as Iraq’s saviors from ISIS has not changed their stance. “Maliki and the government don’t care for Iraqis,” Sudani said, “only themselves.”
Al Sudani blames the Iraqi army’s failures on its cowardly leaders. In his estimation, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell with barely a fight because the Army’s commanders abandoned their soldiers and fled, ceding the city to ISIS. “Any area that fell quickly, it was the fault of the leaders,” al Sudani said.
Baghdad’s call for volunteers to rebuild the army after its collapse were noble but doomed to fail, al Sudani explained. “You can’t take a civilian with no training and give him an AK-47 to fight an experienced ISIS force with heavy weapons,” al Sudani said. That’s where al Sadr’s Peace Brigades step into the breach. Al Sadr’s army is full of veterans of the fighting against U.S. forces, battle-hardened soldiers who can match ISIS.
The Peace Brigades’ next move will be to place three regiments in Karbala where they will defend the city’s Shia shrines and launch an offensive against ISIS, Sudani said. Once in Karbala the Mahdi forces will move into the desert between the city and forces in Anbar province to the north. After establishing a headquarters in the Nukhayb desert, the Peace Brigades plan to use heavy weapons, including artillery, to bombard ISIS positions in Anbar. But, al Sudani said, the forces will only attack from the desert. Anbar is too chaotic he said, the group did not want to be pulled in to what he described as human rights abuses in the region perpetrated by both ISIS and government forces.
Already, Sunni tribes and government forces are engaged in heavy fighting in Anbar, where ISIS has controlled major cities since January of this year.
Al Sudani would not say when the offensive against Anbar would begin, but suggested that it would be soon.
Once the three regiments are mobilized to Karbala, the Mahdi Army’s remaining forces will stay in Baghdad to defend the population there and prevent an assault on the city by ISIS, al Sudani said. He added that some Mahdi forces would be moved into areas of Baghdad, like the northern neighborhood of Kadhimiya, where they suspected ISIS sleeper cells of plotting attacks.
Asked to describe how he understood ISIS’s aims, Sudani began by saying that the group is led by a few Iraqis, but comprised almost entirely of foreign fighters. It’s a claim contradicted by most reporting on ISIS, but one that fits with al Sudani’s view of the foreign machinations behind the current war in Iraq.
“The real controllers of ISIS are Mossad,” Sudani said, referring to Israel’s intelligence service. “The Israelis are using this battle to reach Babylon and create a state of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates. “The Israelis call this ‘The Battle of the Hornets’” Sudani told me, using a phrase that appears to originate in an Iranian news report. According to that report, ISIS’s is a joint creation of America, Britain and Israel – and revealed by … Edward Snowden. Testing the limits of the region’s propagandists and the imaginations of their audience, seems to have paid off. The story of Israel’s nefarious role in Iraq’s war has been repeated by several Iraqis during my visit and is taken as fact by Sudani, who told me: “The real battle now is against Israel.”
Al Sudani denied any cooperation between the Peace Brigades and other Shia militia like Iraqi Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, which is believed to be behind the recent massacre of alleged prostitutes in Baghdad. But he confirmed “some coordination” between the group and Iran. Al Sudani acknowledged that the Mahdi forces have worked with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian military force long reported to be active inside Iraq, but would not elaborate on the terms of their relationship.
Despite the evidence of Iranian funding and influence, the Mahdi Army has a more nationalist leaning and stronger connections to the Iraqi state than other religious militias. As one of the strongest groups inside Baghdad, the reborn Peace Brigades are vital to the city’s defense. As the group moves outside of the city to clash with ISIS in mixed areas, their claim to fight on behalf of all Iraqis is being tested.