Muqtada al-Ṣadr and his Shia militia engaged in ferocious fighting with American forces during the Iraq War. Now, the Shiite strong man is back in the spotlight and threatening to escalate tensions between the Sunni and Shia populations as Iraq struggles to thwart an insurgency of Sunni fighters, experts say.
Militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant have spilled over the Syrian border into Iraq and captured several northern and western cities -- along with the attention of the rest of the world -- and now threaten to topple Baghdad.
The Iraqi Army remains in disarray, awaiting assistance from the U.S. in the form of military advisors. About 90 special operations troops have arrived in Baghdad, where they will join some 40 others attached to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to establish assessment teams and a joint operations center with Iraqi forces, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said June 24.
They are the first of what could be up to 300 U.S. military advisors President Barack Obama has ordered to the country to assess the cohesiveness of Iraqi security forces and the threat posed by advancing ISIL insurgents.
Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqi Shia militiamen are vowing to oppose the advance of ISIL forces, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And now that Sadr has come back in the public eye, many fear the resurgence of his followers known as the Mahdi army.
At its strongest, Sadr's Mahdi army once numbered about 60,000 fighters that fought American forces in cities such as Baghdad and Najaf.
"They were a potent force," Colin Kahl, senior fellow and director of Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told reporters at a June 25 round-table discussion. "They opposed the United States occupation of Iraq."
Some of the fiercest fighting with the Mahdi army occurred in Najaf and involved units from the Marine Corps' 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the U.S. Army's 1st Armored, 1st Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions in 2004. Fighting with Sadr's forces broke out again in Najaf in 2007 and involved the elements from the Army's 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and the 2nd Infantry Division.
Sadr's entrance into the current Sunni-Shia conflict could have the effect of tossing a lighted match into a pool of gasoline, experts maintain.
"I think we are in a race against time here," Kahl said. "The momentum of ISIS will be reversed by Iraqi security forces and U.S. advisors or Shia politicians like Sadr will take matters into their own hands and unleash their followers to engage in the nasty business of rolling back ISIS fighters, which could involve a lot of sectarian cleansing and other things that were quite terrible in the 2006-2007 period."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@monster.com.