Definition/Scope: The Mahdi Army, also known as the Mahdi Militia or Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM) is an Iraqi paramilitary force created by the Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June 2003. The group rose to international prominence on April 4, 2004 when it spearheaded the first major armed confrontation against the U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq. Created by Muqtada al-Sadr and a rare portion of Religious Shi’ite Islamics, the Mahdi Army began as a small group of roughly 500 seminary students connected with Muqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam City. The group moved in to fill the security vacuum in Sadr City and in a string of southern Iraqi cities following the fall of Baghdad to U.S-led coalition forces on April 9, 2003. The group has been involved in dispensing aid to Iraqis and provided security in the Shi’ite slums from looters. Gradually, the militia grew and al-Sadr formalized it in June of 2003. The Mahdi Army grew into a sizable force of up to 10,000 who even operated what amounted to a shadow government in some areas. Al-Sadr’s preaching is critical of the US occupation, but he did not initially join the Sunni Islamist and Baathist guerrillas in their attacks on coalition forces. By late 2006, at the height of sectarian violence, the Sadrists were a formidable military force. In the wake of the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra (one of the holiest Shi'a shrines) and frequent attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq, JAM positioned itself as a security guarantor for the Shi'a. However, the organization also spawned death squads responsible for sectarian cleansing. By mid-2006 these militias were engaged in a violent campaign of expansion into Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shi'a neighborhoods. JAM soon controlled large areas of Baghdad and they increasingly relied upon corruption, intimidation, and extortion to enhance their wealth and power. As local commanders grew more powerful and financially independent, they became less likely to follow orders from Muqtada al-Sadr and the clerical leadership in Najaf. Likewise, growing Iranian support for different elements of Muqtada's movement further undermined centralized control. As JAM leaders became less responsive to his demands, Sadr reportedly tried to discipline the movement by reprimanding or firing insubordinates, albeit to little effect. By late 2006, the Sadrist political and religious leadership had little control over the disparate groups operating under the JAM banner.
Broader Terms:Badr Organization
Related Terms:Baghdad (Iraq)