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Public enemy or savior? An Iraqi city could reveal the true Moqtada al-Sadr

Iraqi security forces and members of the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), a group formed by Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, inspect the site of suicide bombings at a power plant in Samarra in September 2017. (Mahmud Saleh/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

SAMARRA, Iraq — At the main checkpoint outside this central Iraqi city, where regular army soldiers and police are joined by militiamen commanded by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — a onetime battlefield foe of American forces — it is the flags of Sadr’s militia that fly most prominently.

While the city’s checkpoints are supposed to be jointly operated, it is clear who is in charge. Sadr’s militiamen do all the talking, quizzing drivers about their destinations, while the regular security forces sit idly on the side.

Sadr’s 12,000 armed followers protect — even dominate — this city, ensuring peace in a place that is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim but is home to one of the world’s holiest Shiite shrines. The militia’s role in Samarra reflects Sadr’s evolution from public enemy to enforcer of order and provides potent clues to how he will play his new part in ruling Iraq.

In May, Sadr’s ticket won an unexpected victory in Iraq’s national elections after running on a platform of eradicating sectarianism, fighting corruption and sidelining both American and Iranian influence in the country.

Though he is not seeking to become prime minister himself, Sadr has emerged as the likely kingmaker. With his ticket winning the most parliamentary seats of any party, he is in a strong position to shape Iraq’s next government and select the nation’s leader. 

His electoral victory was the latest surprise from the 44-year-old cleric. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, his militia, then known as the Mahdi Army, fought fierce battles with U.S. troops, making him an outlaw to Americans and a revolutionary to his large and loyal base. In the following years, his militia fueled a blood-soaked sectarian war that deeply divided the nation. After a brief exile from public life, Sadr returned after the rise of the Islamic State, rebranding himself as an advocate for Iraq’s sovereignty. 

Sadr’s transformation, coupled with his win at the polls, has led to head-scratching in Baghdad, Washington and Tehran: Who is the real Moqtada al-Sadr?

“There is a genuine confusion over whether he is the future of Iraq or simply a relic of its recent past, wearing a mask,” said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations among Iraq’s domestic and foreign power brokers.

The performance of his militia, now known as the Peace Brigades, suggests Sadr has genuinely shed his earlier sectarianism and is committed to healing the Sunni-Shiite wounds that have corroded Iraq’s society and security.

But the brigades’ conduct in Samarra also shows that he may not have been so fast to relinquish his autocratic tendencies and still retains a taste for subordinating Iraq’s laws to his own rule.

Samarra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a city rich with medieval artifacts from the Sunni Abbasid reign and the final resting place of two of Shiite Islam’s revered imams.

Along its boulevards, Sadr’s image is ubiquitous on posters and billboards. He is depicted as a military commander, graying and portly in combat fatigues and a camouflage cap, unlike in Baghdad and the Shiite heartland farther south, where he is most often represented as a pious cleric clad in a traditional black turban and robe. The posters in Samarra bear the logo of the Peace Brigades, a silhouetted fighter triumphantly holding an Iraqi flag, a rifle slung over his shoulder, next to a white dove in flight and the motto: “We bow to no one but God.”

A decade ago, the city was at the epicenter of a ruinous civil war. Suspected al-Qaeda militants had bombed the golden-domed al-Askari mosque sacred to Shiites, sparking a years-long sectarian conflict throughout the country.

Sadr, who was leading a populist Shiite revival in Iraq’s south, publicly called for unity. But in reality, his Mahdi Army became a central player in the revenge killings, employing death squads in Baghdad and operating prisons far outside the control of the central government. His militia was also implicated in running protection rackets and shaking down small and large businesses alike.

After the rise of the Islamic State, which conquered more than a third of Iraq’s territory, the Mahdi Army was reborn as the Peace Brigades. Sadr ordered his fighters to Samarra in 2014, and they deployed quickly, beating back the militants who had surrounded it as nearby cities fell to the Islamic State.

The new Sadrist fighters were warily accepted by the Sunni population and by commanders of Iraq’s army, which had crumbled in the face of the Islamic State blitz.

“We came to secure the holy shrines, return the people to their homes and gain their cooperation and trust. That has been our biggest success,” Majid Hamid, the deputy commander of the brigades in Samarra, said in an interview.

Hamid, who sports a neat beard, olive fatigues and a 9mm Glock pistol on his waist, said he is proud of his membership in the Mahdi Army but insists that the Peace Brigades are different — despite drawing many of the same fighters.

“The Mahdi Army fought the Americans because they were occupiers,” he explained. “The Peace Brigades fights the Islamic State who are criminals.”

In other Iraqi cities, Shiite militias that mustered in response to the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State often abused the local Sunni populations. But in Samarra, the deployment of Sadr’s Peace Brigades helped ensure that the city remained prosperous and secure for its 300,000 Sunni residents.

“At first, we were afraid because we used to hear that the Mahdi Army were conducting massive killing against the Sunnis,” said Mahdi al-Bazzi, a 53-year-old teacher in Samarra. “The Peace Brigades who came in changed this idea because they defended the city and kept it safe.”

Bazzi said the heavily armed presence provides a sense of security that was missing when government forces patrolled the streets.

Mahmoud Khalaf, Samarra’s mayor since 2005, credited the brigades with facilitating the return of residents who had fled the Islamic State threat. In other cities, Shiite militias stand accused of expelling or killing Sunnis. “It doesn’t benefit any side to have a hostile relationship with the city’s people,” Khalaf said. “The Peace Brigades understood that.”

Sadr’s militiamen have also sought to build bridges to the community by restoring the city’s electricity lines and water networks; they have sent delegations to celebrate local weddings and to console mourners at funerals. And, Khalaf said, the Peace Brigades have effectively policed themselves, immediately punishing members who were accused of looting shops, stealing civilian vehicles or acting imperiously. 

Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Firas Sami once fought against the Mahdi Army. He now works with Sadr’s militiamen on security operations.

“The Mahdi Army were criminals, thieves and killers,” he said. “When they changed their name to the Peace Brigades, they changed everything with it. They are very disciplined and respect the law.”

Many military and government officials do not share Sami’s views. They see the Peace Brigades as an obstacle to bringing Iraq’s various armed groups under central government command. Though Sadr says he wants a strong Iraqi state where all weapons are in the hands of the government, a senior provincial official said the brigades have become “a state within the state.”

The militia’s vehicles bear license plates marked with “The Peace Brigades” rather than the province where the vehicles are registered. The militia has ordered, unlike in other cities, that outsiders be sponsored by a local resident to enter Samarra and must leave their government identification at the checkpoint until they depart.

“They are a stifling presence in the city, controlling everyone’s movements, and the police and army are subordinate to them,” said the provincial official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals by Sadr’s forces.

Local restaurant owners dutifully turn their televisions to the Sadrist news channel when the rowdy militiamen, some wearing long beards and others wearing more fashionable pompadour hairstyles, stop in.

“They are behaving like a police state, and this shows their true intentions,” the official said.

Since the militia entered Samarra, more than 1,000 residents have been taken into custody by “unknown” groups with no word on their fate, a senior city official said. He said that the national government is investigating the disappearances and that Peace Brigade militiamen are the leading suspects.

Many city residents refused to talk about the brigades, saying they fear punishment for being critical of the group.

“I don’t trust them. I want them to leave the city and be replaced by government forces, because right now their authority is bigger than the state authority,” said a 25-year-old shopkeeper who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Hamid, the Peace Brigades commander, said the strict procedures imposed in Samarra are the sole reason the city has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2014. A native of Iraq’s Shiite south, Hamid said he cannot wait to return home once a strong Iraqi government presence is established in Samarra. He said that once Sadr calls on the brigades to demobilize, they will “do it in that minute, in that hour.”

Dhiaa al-Asadi, Sadr’s top political adviser, agreed that the brigades’ 50,000 active-duty fighters around the country and additional 250,000 reservists are ready to disarm and noted Sadr’s call that a small number of independent militiamen be absorbed into the national army and police.

But Sadr has sent a conflicting signal, recently announcing that he would enter a governing coalition with Shiite militia figures seeking to remain independent from Iraq’s security forces. Still, Asadi said Sadr’s evolution is sincere and augurs a strong Iraq defined by rule of law and an independent foreign policy.

“This is a very natural development from one stage to another . . . and all the principles that he adopts now are genuine,” he said of Sadr. “It means that he believes in and he’s adopted and embraced the democratic principles and procedures.”

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