In 2003, as Baghdad, and indeed all of Iraq, plunged into chaos, Muqtada Sadr and other local Shi’a leaders rose to the challenge. Despite their obligation to provide security, the occupation authority disregarded this obligation, and potentially helped fuel the insurgency and the Shi’a Mahdi Army militia.
As I wrote previously, when the monopoly on violence, coercion, and security disappear, as occurred in March and April 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, communities fragment. Citizens seek out leaders, solutions for security, and collective protection. Because the United States and the Multinational Forces failed to provide leadership and solutions, locals turned to the leaders they knew, often this meant religious leaders.
Organizations such as the Sadr Movement and the Sunni Endowment and Association of Muslim Scholars were prepared with communications networks and quickly expanded their influence with the equipping of security networks, i.e. militias.
In the fall of 2003, when Paul Bremer officially disbanded the Iraqi Army he dismantled the last best solution to forestall these militias. The connection between Paul Bremer’s decree and the insurgency is usually examined simplistically, with analysis discussing the loss of force and the insidious call of religion. I would argue that individuals were seeking authority, security, and direction.
Crime became virtually unheard of in Sadr City, for example, after the establishment of the Mahdi Army. While the United States was busy fighting Sunni nationalists, jihadists, and, indeed, remnants of the Iraqi Baath Party, the Mahdi Army in Sadr City and elsewhere, the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq, and forces of the Badr Brigades in southern Iraq began filling the holes left by the collapse of the State.
By 2004 the decision of Multinational Forces and in particular the CPA to ally itself with the exiled Iraqi dissidents began to have an impact not only on the intransigent Sunni branch of the insurgency, but was further radicalizing the Sadr Movement and the Mahdi Army. Although there were many options for promoting reconciliation and bringing certain elements in from the cold, Paul Bremer appeared almost to take disagreements with Muqtada Sadr as personal affronts. The order to arrest Muqtada as well as other respected leaders of the Sadr Movement proved too much for the leader to tolerate.
In the spring of 2004 the Mahdi Army took up arms and even began discussions with Sunni elements of the insurgency. The second front became difficult for Multinational Forces to account for. Unfortunately, having bet all their chips on Iraqi exiles who were practically foreigners to their countrymen, it was increasingly difficult to organize productive negotiations.
By 2006 the marginalization of the Mahdi Army, rather than detente and reconciliation, pushed them to become more and more radical. The support of outside elements such as Iran became more and more appealing and even necessary to the continuance of the organization. Some elements turned to crime and smuggling in order to finance their operations. When the Askariya Shrine bombing occurred the transition was complete. Previously fighters and citizens alike recognized the authority of Muqtada Sadr and the Sadr Movement’s principles, but at that moment it seems to have become clear that even this accepted authority was not enough to protect the community. Instead the community further fragmented, and an reinforcing cycle of tit-for-tat violence gripped Baghdad as well as elsewhere in Iraq.
In another way this urged Sunnis back toward the State, as they desperately needed to find someone to support and protect them from the unleashed vengeance of the Shi’a community. They initially formed neighborhood watch groups to defend their neighborhoods, eventually these kinds of groups were brought in from the cold as the “Sons of Iraq.”
Although eventually Muqtada Sadr reasserted control over many of these elements, it wasn’t until Prime Minister Al-Maliki asserted his own sovereignty and control of the Iraqi state in 2008 that a change began to appear. After Al-Maliki’s operations, it appears that Iraqis are widely tending back toward recognition of the Iraqi State as sovereign and a provider of security and stability.
Unfortunately it’s beginning to look as though Al-Maliki really can’t back up his gamble. Crime is on the rise even in Sadr City where, even at the height of Iraq’s chaos crime was virtually unheard of in this district. Combine the ever-present lack of services, six years into the war and occupation, the decimation of a once-respected community leadership, with what now appears to be rising crime directly connected to this decimation, and Prime Minister Maliki may be facing another perfect storm of fragmentation.
Though it seems like a strange time to release 147 militants connected to the Sadr Movement, given the risk of destabilization facing Al-Maliki in the run-up to the elections, perhaps there is a deal between the erstwhile Prime Minister and the released partisans?