Sadr to announce Mahdi Army's transformation into, er, "civic organization"

We first heard about this two months ago, remember? So soiled is the Sadr brand by gangsterism that the only way to repair it now is to publicly order all Mahdi Army fighters — except an elite few whom he can control — to lay down their arms. Anyone who refuses and continues to terrorize Iraqis is, ipso facto, disloyal and operating without Sadr’s sanction. But what’s a jihadi to do when he can’t wage jihad?

Simple. Wage inner jihad.

In an introductory brochure obtained by the Journal and confirmed by Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s chief spokesman, the Mahdi Army will now be guided by Shiites spirituality as opposed to anti-American militancy. It will even get a new philosophy or guiding principle: al-Mumahidoon, meaning his supporters will be the foot soldiers of the Shiites messiah, Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, who Shiites Muslims believe will return to rid the world of evil and injustice.

The brochure states the al-Mumahidoon will undertake an intellectual and scientific jihad that focuses on education, religion and social justice. It also says “It (the army) is not allowed to use arms at all.” The al-Mumahidoon office will be divided into sections for the teachings of the faithful, religion, education and social services, as well as departments for information, administration and a follow-up section. Posters have been put up in some areas of Baghdad saying a new direction for the Mahdi Army will be announced at this Friday’s prayers. The posters also bear the name al-Mumahidoon.

Sadr officials say the transition is partly in reaction to a time horizon for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops that is expected to be part of the long-term security deal between the U.S. and Iraq, which is close to being hammered out after a few months of sometimes contentious negotiations. The Mahdi Army had long stated that its principal goal was withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and since talks of a time-table have emerged, the movement has tried to find itself a second life by transforming itself into a social, cultural and religious organization focused on helping Iraqi society through peaceful means, according to Mr. Obeidi.

The timetable spin is, of course, their way of saving face by declaring “victory” even as the deterioration in their support spreads all the way to ground zero of the Sadr family’s power base. Keep your chin(s) up, Mookie. Exit question: Turning point or subterfuge? Read down into the Journal piece and you’ll find a hair-raising detail about 5,000 Sadrists possibly training in Iran, a report corroborated in part by the Middle East Times story Ed wrote about in late June. Remember, too, that Sadr’s allegedly training to be an ayatollah, which dovetails with the group’s new direction. Sounds like they’re playing nice for now and rebuilding their popular/religious legitimacy while they build a Hezbollah off-premises, presumably for a surge of their own when conditions allow.