Friday, February 02, 2007

Vague intro to the Iraqi millenarian groups

Al-Hayat prints a very sketchy introduction to some of the millenarian (or "Mahdist") groups that have flourished in Iraq as a result of the turmoil of the occupation and before that the economic blockade, pointing out some of their common features and some of their differences. The one common theme is that the proliferation of these groups has a lot to do with the troubles that followed the American occupation. Unfortunately the sole or main source for all of this seems to be the government spokesman. In any event, the account is not a particularly profound or searching one, and in fact the concluding remarks suggest this could be excellent material for concocting stories. The reporter introduces the theme this way:
The recent events in Najaf have exposed some of the obscure aspects of religious movements in Iraq, which are not limited to the Shiia, but includes also some Sunni groups, and foreign as well as domestic ones, according to government spokesman Ali Dabbagh.

These movements deal in concepts, some of them strange and dangerous--and in their organization they are no different from militias--starting with the idea of the imminent appearance of the Mahdi, in the midst of the spread of fighting and corruption, and this is not limited to the Army of Heaven, which embarked [!] on the violent fight this week, and dozens [!] of them were killed. Rather, the list [of this type of group in Iraq] includes dozens of religious communities, and their leaders don't limit themselves to calling themselves the "Mahdi of the present times"; they go so far as to preach "prophecies".

There was a man who has disappeared from the province of Basra, where right after the American occupation he preached that he was a new prophet, but his teaching wasn't widely propagated, and some say he died in the year 2006.

There are many other such groups in the Iraqi environment, with a tendency to proliferate as a result of a mix of ignorance and the psychological chaos brought about by the occupation and before that by the over 12-year economic blockade.

A religious man from Amara said he was the "second after the expected Mahdi", and he meets with him, and he pointed to his name "Ahmed", referring to the story that runs: "And a man will come forth at the right hand (al-yemin) of the Mahdi and he will fight along with him, and his name is Ahmed". This man [from Amara] called himself "al-Yamani", and he appeared right after the American attack and he began preaching in the Sahala area of Kufa. He attracted followers, but he got into scrapes with the former governor of Najaf...and moved to another area. He continues to preach, and to build mosques and Husseiniyas, and he has an internet web-site [here]. He has thousands of supporters and they call themselves the "Army of Allah".
This group denies having anything to do with the group involved in the recent fight. There is an English translation of their statement here.

As for the "Army of Heaven" that was involved in the fight, the government spokesman Dabbagh had only this to say (at least these are the only remarks of this the reporter tells us about):
[The group] became active right after the fall of the former regime, and they participated in stealing and pillaging, and they bought farms in the Zarga area, and they have around 317 supporters. There were leaflets called "revelations of the sacred appearance" that the group's leader al-Karaawi [?] distributed among the followers. They had been making plans for an operation during Ramadan 2006, but they decided to postpone this to Muharram (January) of this year.
Not what you could call a deep or an enlightening account, either of the group or of the recent events.

The reporter continues: There are other groups, led by one Muhassan al-Hamami, headquartered in Basra, known for their distinctive dress. They describe their mission as "preparing the ground for the Mahdi".

But the strangest of these groups that people tell stories about in many cities of the South [writes the reporter, finally warming to his subject], is accused of spreading corruption to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi, permitting killing and theft, and some accuse them of assassinations and other acts of violence. The name of its leader is not know, but the group is called "the advancers" [in the sense that they are trying to advance or accelerate the arrival of the Mahdi].
The reporter concludes this account by hinting at possible political and propaganda uses of this vague and frightening material. He writes: "It is thought that each of these groups has its own private militia. And their sources of financing are unknown".

Tacked onto this account, is a seemingly unrelated report that quotes a high Sadrist official who said: The dissolution of the Mahdi Army is not up to Moqtada al-Sadr, but rather "it is the responsibility of Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf and of Ayatollah Kazim al-Hairi in Iran to either disband the Mahdi Army or to continue it". And a Sadr adviser and PR official in Baghdad said Sadr recently met with Sistani and "they discussed the dissolution of the Mahdi Army, but the latter [Sistani] rejected it."

3 Comments:

Anonymous Yohan said...

Very interesting, looks like we'll never know exactly what happened with this incident. We obviously can't count on the major US media to get it right on this or any issue in Iraq really.

Another curious incident that is shrouded in uncertainty is the raid on US troops in Karbala that involved English speaking, American uniform wearing assailants who obviously knew what they were doing. The initial US reaction was that the attack was so sophisticated it MUST be Iran, but it seems an obvious knee-jerk reaction against the favorite whipping boy. There have been reports that the leader of the group had blond hair and that it might have been South African mercenaries? The major US outlets predictably have repeated the US official statements and investigated no further. Has there been anything in the Arabic press that sheds more light on this incident?

5:44 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

What do people here think of the reliability of Dahr Jamail. His counternarrative-friendly account of the First Whatever of Najaf includes direct quotes from the head of the al-Hatami tribe. I have a vague sense that Jamail has overplayed controversial stories before, but no clear memories.

Also, McClatchy's local reporter, Qussam Zeir (IIRC) did provide an eyewitness report of the orchard complex after the battle in which he reported seeing a "car-bomb factory," but he didn't say what precisely convinced him it was a car-bomb factory and not a garden-variety garage. But he works for McClatchy and they've been far and away the most reliable western news agency on all things Iraq for four years.

7:44 PM  
Blogger badger said...

yohan, on the Karbala incident you mention, I haven't seen any followup at all in Arabic (which doesn't mean there hasn't been anything), but I guess pinning down a security breach like that might not be a big priority when you have horrible Iraqi-civilian casualties to report every day...

jim, folks around here are a pretty quiet bunch. I think you're right in general about McClatchy and Jamail, but I can't say I read everything...

6:44 AM  

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