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The Southern Mahdists Speak for Themselves

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

20 January 2008

In an interesting statement, the Adherents of the Mahdi, the group targeted in recent security operations in the southern Iraqi cities of Nasiriyya and Basra, have explained the conflict from their own point of view.

Just as they did during the Muharram confrontation in Najaf in early 2007, the Adherents of the Mahdi disclaim any connection with the Soldiers of Heaven and violent plots against the ulama. They describe their own group as a “reformist” movement of the kind that can be found in many world religions (the parallel to Jehovah’s Witnesses is highlighted), and, interestingly, in this statement do not focus so much on their apocalyptic ideas but rather stress an anti-ulama theme that shares certain features with neo-Akhbarism in its focus on the Koran and the life of the Prophet. They encourage the Iraqi people to go back to the original sources of Islam, rather than asking the ulama for help. In their view, it is not a religious duty to perform taqlid (emulation) of a high-ranking cleric (as per the orthodox Usuli Shiite view), nor is religious tax (khums) payable to anyone but the Twelfth Imam.

The Adherents of the Mahdi then go on to decry the recent violent operations against the group, specifically mentioning their premises in the three southern governorates, Basra, Dhi Qar and Maysan, as well as their office in Najaf. Interestingly, they also acknowledge Hasan bin Muhammad Ali al-Hammami, the son of a Najaf cleric, as one of their leaders (presumably alongside Ahmad al-Hasan al-Yamani). The group twice accuses Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) of being behind the arrests, and claims that inquiries to the local authorities have yielded no results because everything was part of a special operation conducted directly from Baghdad.

It is noteworthy that the genesis of the Mahdist conflict this year closely resembles that of 2007. In both cases, a few weeks before the actual confrontation, Ahmad al-Hasan followers issued public complaints about highhandedness by local Iraqi authorities. In 2007, one of the groups involved apparently went as far as to declare the arrival of the Mahdi, and the “mainstream Mahdists” quickly denounced any links to them. In this case, it is not yet clear whether anyone actually proclaimed that the Mahdi had arrived; this could make it easier for the group to remain united, although the identification by local security forces of a “military leader”, Abu Mustafa al-Ansari, could be a parallel to the 2007 situation and the killing of Diya Abd al-Zahra al-Kar‘awi – who had been largely unknown before the conflict erupted. The perennial problem for Mahdist groups is that they have only got one shot: once the apocalypse has been declared, there is no way back.

See also Ashura 1429/2008: Iraq's Shiites between Iraqi Nationalism, Sectarianism, and Mahdism

as well as article on Ashura 1428/2007 and the Mahdism challenge

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