AP: Mahdi Army fractures, defectors now loyal to Iran

Not just a bombshell but a cluster bombshell, with plenty of bomblets inside.

Pretty well sourced, too.

The violent Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, adding a potentially even more deadly element to Iraq’s violent mix.

Two senior militia commanders told The Associated Press that hundreds of these fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and

At the Pentagon, a military official confirmed there were signs the Mahdi Army was splintering. Some were breaking away to attempt a more conciliatory approach to the Americans and the Iraqi government, others moving in a more extremist direction, the official said.

However, the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the topic, was not aware of direct Iranian recruitment and financing of Mahdi Army members.

The outlines of the fracture inside the Mahdi Army were confirmed by senior Iraqi government officials with access to intelligence reports prepared for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The leader of the breakaway faction allegedly is Qais al-Khazaali; google him and you’ll see plenty of statements from him issued on Sadr’s behalf back in 2004, when we should have mopped up all of them up.

As for the Iranian angle, I’ll take a double heaping of crow for having scoffed at that dissident earlier. Follow the link in the update to that post and you’ll see that this is the third separate report today of Iraqi Shiite militiamen being trained and equipped across the border. The AP story is the first one to identify them as rogue JAM, though. Details:

The Mahdi Army commanders, who said they would be endangered if their names were revealed, said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were funding and arming the defectors from their force, and that several hundred over the last 18 months had slipped across the Iranian border for training by the Quds force.

In recent weeks, Mahdi Army fighters who escaped possible arrest in the Baghdad security push have received $600 each upon reaching Iran. The former Mahdi Army militiamen working for the Revolutionary Guards operate under the cover a relief agency for Iraqi refugees, they said.

Once fighters defect, they receive a monthly stipend of $200, said the commanders…

The defectors are in secret, small, but well-funded cells. Little else has emerged about the structure of their organization, but most of their cadres are thought to have maintained the pretense of continued Mahdi Army membership, possibly to escape reprisals.

The money makes sense. Pajamas wrote last week about the financial crisis JAM capos have found themselves in after Sadr bugged out. Doubtless some of the defectors are fanatics who couldn’t wait any longer to fight the occupier, but a lot of them are probably just starving at this point and looking to make a buck. Mercenaries, to borrow the parlance of our loyal opposition. The irony is, Bill Roggio has long maintained that there really is no such thing as “rogue” Mahdi Army fighters. That’s a fiction, he’s said, invented by the U.S. to justify its covert targeting of JAM fighters. By designating the guys we liquidate as “rogue” we preserve the appearance of neutrality towards the Mahdi Army proper, which prevents an all-out war from breaking out and grants them the legitimacy needed to negotiate with us, disarm, and rejoin civilian life.

But maybe there really are rogue fighters. It makes sense that Iran would want to cannibalize as much of Sadr’s boys as they can; the other major Shiite militia, SCIRI’s Badr Organization, is already close to Tehran (and is ID’d as such by the AP). If they want to dominate the country when the U.S. leaves, they might as well line up as many guns as they can now.

Or, just maybe, this whole story is garbage fed to the AP as propaganda. But if so, whose propaganda is it? It could be ours: Roggio’s theory is essentially a divide-and-conquer strategy and this would be the ne plus ultra of that. Plus the involvement of the Quds Force lets us point the finger at Iran, which in turn gives us a very good reason to keep our troop levels high. Or the propaganda could be Iran’s: any accusation that they’re training Iraqis is plausibly deniable, and it could be that they’re sincerely worried about Sadr’s strength and are angling for a little divide and conquer of their own. The AP notes that estimates of JAM membership vary sharply, but the last number I saw a few months ago was 40,000. The Badr Organization isn’t that strong, I don’t believe, so maybe the mullahs are hoping to turn the Mahdi Army against itself before they really make their move for control. (According to the Mahdi capos who spoke to the AP, they’ve been trying to lure people away since 2005.) Or, possibly, the propaganda is Sadr’s own: if the world thinks some of his guys have broken away — while “maintaining the pretense” of being loyal JAM — then he can start ordering hits on whoever he likes while blaming it all on the breakaway wing. It’s the Roggio theory in reverse, coopted by Sadr for his own ends. In fact, the Mahdi Army commanders interviewed by the AP both attribute the attempted murder of the mayor of Sadr City last week to those pesky rogues. What a coincidence.

I don’t know. Something to sleep on. I’ll leave you with this fun fact: “Al-Sadr tried to return to Iraq last month but turned back before he reached the Iraqi border upon learning of U.S. checkpoints on the road to Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad where he lives.” Exit question: Why? Does he really think we’re going to arrest him?