Monday, November 27, 2006

Mahdi Army to the Rescue?

Apologies to all non-US readers for not mentioning that this blog would not be updated during the Thanksgiving holiday. And I hope those in the US and abroad who did celebrate Thanksgiving, had a good one. Welcome back. On to the entry...

The Washington Post is carrying a story on how in the aftermath of the Thursday bombings –the worst incident of violence since the invasion- it was the Mahdi Army (Muqtada Al Sadr’s militia) that came to the rescue.

"On Thursday afternoon, bombs in six parked cars began detonating at 15-minute intervals in three sections of Sadr City, including the crowded Jamila Market. Mahdi Army militiamen quickly spread out around the vast slum, residents said.

They helped the injured into cars and carted the dead to funeral homes, where the corpses would be cleansed according to Muslim rituals. Some donated blood and helped fire fighters douse flames. Other militiamen, some clutching AK-47 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenades, searched for the perpetrators of the bombings. They found one more car, filled with explosives, and took the driver into custody.

At Khadisiya Hospital, militiamen assisted doctors and nurses, carrying patients into emergency rooms, Abid said. With hospital supplies thin, Sadr officials sent over syringes, medicines and other equipment donated by merchants. And with only four ambulances in circulation, most of the wounded were being brought in cars."

As many of the residents of Sadr City noted, that day the Mahdi Army was doing more for them than their government could possibly do. Of note: When PM Maliki came to survey the damage, his motorcade was greeted by a volley of stones and insults.

What the article fails to mention and, in fact implies otherwise, is that the Mahdi Army has been supporting the people of Sadr City for a long time now. I have heard various reports from Iraqis that Al Sadr and his men provide many services to the people of Sadr City including electricity, food, ice and security. What’s more, due to the near impossibility of finding work, the Mahdi Army is the only employment option for the youth of Iraq. (I recommend reading our interview with Cpt. Jon Powers for more on the plight of Iraq's youth)

The longer the government fails to provide basic services to its people the closer the Iraqi people will grow to the militias. In fact one resident of Sadr City explained that the events of Thursday prove that:

"there is no need to disarm the Mahdi Army. If they were not there yesterday, it would have been a disaster."

Assuming its not too late, the U.S. needs to address this issue immediately by funding local organizations which can in turn provide basic services and jobs to Iraqis. What’s more the U.S. needs to publicize the fact that it is behind the aid, otherwise Sadr or others will surely take credit for any of the assistance.

The U.S. and its allies have been trying to crush the Mahdi Army in the name of the Iraqi people, but what will happen when the Mahdi Army becomes the voice of the Iraqi people and has their full support? If this trend goes unchecked, the Mahdi Army could well develop into an organization as powerful as Hezbollah in Lebanon- which rose to power with a political and military wing and also provided social services for the country.

Though recent polls suggest that most Iraqis have faith in PM Maliki, it is not at all unbelievable to think that as long as the Mahdi Army acts as a surrogate government to the people of Iraq, Iraqis may just well vote them into government when the time comes. Just look at what happened with Hamas in Palestine.

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