BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s once formidable Mehdi Army appears to be bowing to orders to lay down arms, but it is yet unclear if Shi’ite fighters are preparing another offensive with Iranian help, a U.S. intelligence official said.
The militia, once accused of fuelling civil strife that drove Iraq to the brink of sectarian war, had fought bloody battles with U.S. and Iraqi government forces before a ceasefire last year and a government crackdown earlier this year.
“The Mehdi Army was meant to protect the Shi’ite community and to provide basic needs for Shi’ites,” a senior intelligence analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Friday.
“There’s no need (for Mehdi Army) to protect Shi’ites if the government is protecting them,” the analyst told Reuters in an interview a day after its leader, Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, extended indefinitely a ceasefire for his militiamen.
The militia is now “hopefully transitioning into an unarmed organization”.
It was Sadr’s latest move to constrain the militia, which has held much of Iraq in its grip since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Sadr’s extension of the ceasefire, originally declared in August 2007, follows an order for most of his followers to embrace a non-violent struggle to fend off Western domination and to help fellow members of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
Questions remain, though, about the extent to which Sadr, believed to be holed up in the Iranian city of Qom completing his religious studies, wields control over the militia.
Violence dropped sharply in one-time Mehdi strongholds after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s offensive against the militants this spring, as has violence across Iraq in the last year.
But U.S. officials have also warned that some militiamen have fled to Iran — especially members of ‘special groups’, rogue Mehdi fighters who the United States alleges are funded, equipped and trained by Iran — and could easily return.
Attacks attributable to special groups have ebbed, the analyst said, and none were recorded in July or August of this year. Iran vehemently denies a role in Iraqi bloodshed.
Yet the analyst stopped short of saying Iran had dropped its alleged support for Iraqi militia. “We are keeping an eye on Iran’s intentions,” she said.
The cautious assessment is in sharp contrast to a year ago, when U.S. officials squarely blamed Iran for the special groups’ sophisticated weaponry and deadly tactics.
Today, the Mehdi threat is seen as more quotidian. “Our biggest threat now would be those disobedient members, Sadrists or Shi’ites who have access to arms … criminals,” she said.
The United States is hoping that improving security and greater access to electricity, water and jobs will make it harder for returning militants to find support.
As the United States describes a turn for the better among Shi’ite militants, it is also seeking to extirpate Sunni militants entrenched in rural areas of Iraq.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have been combing the northeastern province of Diyala in recent weeks in search of Sunni Arab al Qaeda members, detaining hundreds of suspects and clearing bombs from roads and homes.
They believe al Qaeda is now dug in across the countryside after it was driven out of Baghdad and other cities.