A Mahdi Army militia member near a burning
U.S armored vehicle following a firefight with
Coalition forces in Sadr City (April 4, 2004)
Jaish-i-Mahdi, also known as the Mahdi Army or Mehdi Army, is a militia force created by the Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in June of 2003. It 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 from the Shiite community.
The Mahdi Army began as a small group of roughly 500 seminary students connected with Moqtada 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 initially dispensed aid to Iraqis and provided security in the Shiite slums from looters. Gradually, the milita grew and was formalized by Mr. Sadr in June of 2003. Jaish-i-Mahdi grew into a sizeable force of up to 10,000 militia who even operated what amounted to a shadow government in some areas. The group is armed with AK-47 Kalashinkov assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and other light weapons. Mr. Sadr's preaching is staunchly anti-American, but he formerly withheld unleashing his militia on U.S forces and joining the attacks already being waged by guerillas from the Sunni community.
Sadr's position changed dramatically, however, by the beginning of April. Following the closure of the Sadr-owned newspaper al-Hawza and the arrest of one of his senior aides, Sadr gave an unusually heated sermon to his follower on Friday, April 2, 2004. The next day, violent protests occured throughout the Shiite south that soon spilled over into a violent uprising by Jaish-i-Mahdi militiamen, fully underway by April 4. The Jaish-i-Mahdi forces swept through Najaf, Kufa, Kut, and Sadr City, seizing control of public buildings and police stations while clashing with coalition forces. The militants gained partial control of Karbala after fighting there. Other coalition forces came under attack in Nasiriyah, and British forces also came under fire in Amarah and Basra. Najaf and Kufa were quickly seized after a few firefights with Spanish troops, and Kut was seized after clashes with Ukrainian troops soon afterwards. After sporadic clashes, coalition forces suppressed the militiamen in Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra. Mahdi rebeles expelled Iraqi police from three police stations and ambushed U.S forces in Sadr City, killing seven U.S troops and wounding several more. U.S forces subsequently regained control of the police stations after running firefights with the fighters that killed dozens of Iraqis. Jaish-i-Mahdi members still maintained control influence over many of the slums areas of Sadr City, however. On April 16, Kufa was retaken by U.S forces, leaving the area around Najaf and Kufa as the only region left under the firm control of Sadr's forces. Sadr himself was believed holed up inside Najaf. U.S troops put a cordon around Najaf with 2500 troops, but reduced the number of forces to pursue negotiations with Jaish-i-Mahdi.
The uprising seemed to draw an ambivalent reaction from the Iraqi population, which for the most part neither joined or resisted the rebels. Many Iraqi security forces melted away, wishing to avoid confrontation. The uprising did receive a good deal of support from the Shiites of Baghdad, however, who were galvanized by the simultaneous seige of the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah.
The group's name, using the term Mahdi, has apocalyptic connotations.