U.S. estimates of the numbers of Shi'ite militia now fighting the
U.S.-led coalition in Iraq ranges widely in a dispute that pits the U.S. Army against U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies.
The U.S. Army has determined that the Mahdi Army of
Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada Sadr has no more than a few thousand
But intelligence analysts both inside and outside the U.S. government
provided higher estimates of Sadr's force. They said that contrary to the
assessment of the U.S. army and the Defense Department, Sadr has actually
bolstered his militia over the last six months. They said this has resulted
in a force strength of up to 10,000 trained and equipped militia members.
On Wednesday, the Mahdi Army forced Ukrainian troops in the U.S.-led
coalition to withdraw from the southern city of Kut, Middle East Newsline reported. The Mahdi Army has also
succeeded in maintaining control over Najaf while coalition forces remain
outside the city. For his part, Sadr has attempted to coordinate his
campaign with the Sunni insurgency.
The disparity in estimates has become a key issue as U.S. and coalition
troops battle Sadr's forces in cities throughout central and southern Iraq.
Military officials said the strength of the Mahdi Army diminished over
the last six months amid disappointment by Shi'ites with the level of
salaries and financial support by Sadr. But officials could not rule out the
prospect that Sadr recruited thousands of new fighters over the last few
weeks to help prepare for his campaign against the coalition.
"We are now understanding more and more about the Mahdi Army," U.S. Army
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of coalition operations, said, "how
they operate, where they operate, against whom they operate."
Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated
that Sadr's forces number between 1,000 and 6,000 people. Myers said the
Mahdi Army, which he termed "thugs and gangs that would associate themselves
with Sadr," has been active in Amara, Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Kut and
"Sadr used the period of quiet between October 2003 and the present to
expand his capabilities," Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence
Agency analyst, said. "His Mahdi Army, which consists of some 6,000-10,000
militants, now seems better organized, better armed, and more capable."
Analysts said the Mahdi Army demonstrated its capabilities in March. At
the time, Sadr's forces carried out a coordinated mortar and infantry strike
on the gypsy village of Qawliya.
Sadr's forces destroyed Qawilya before expelling its residents.
Emboldened by this show of force, the analysts said, the Mahdi Army marched
into Baghdad on April 3 and on the following day attacked Iraqi police
stations in that city.
"The spread of opposition to the U.S. occupation to include the formerly
moderate Shia is an ominous development," Ivan Eland, a former defense
analyst at the Congressional Budget Office and senior fellow at the Oakland,
Calif.-based Independent Institute, said. "The United States has been put in
the position of choosing between a mild response to the uprisings, making it
look weak, and a more aggressive response that will likely further
radicalize the moderate Shia, and eventually lose the war in Iraq."
For his part, White said in an analysis for the Washington Institute
that Sadr Ñ linked to the assassination of a leading Shi'ite cleric in
April 2003 Ñ could no longer be ignored by the U.S.-led coalition. He said
U.S. options include an offensive against Sadr and his aides, a truce, or an
alliance with other Shi'ite leaders to control Sadr.
"Sadr's radicalism and willingness to violently oppose the coalition
constitutes the first serious Shi'i security challenge to the coalition,"
White said. "If he and his supporters are not dealt with effectively, the
coalition's nightmare scenario of widespread armed Shi'i resistance will
become a reality. Such a development would stretch coalition military assets
to the breaking point."