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The US military has begun to directly identify the Iranian-backed "Special Groups" Shia terror groups with Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army in press information issued in Baghdad.

The direct association between the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups is a change in how the US military has treated Sadr’s militia for more than the past 18 months.

Previously, the US military would make distinctions between the two groups. This was part of an effort to sow divisions within the Mahdi Army and split off the moderate elements willing to reconcile with the Iraqi government.

Evidence of the change first appeared at the US military’s DVIDS (Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System) website on Nov. 26. The Joint Combat Camera Center Iraq published five photos of Iraqi Army raids in Diwaniyah in southern Iraq.

The caption on all five photos noted the Iraqi Army was conducting a search for "Jaysh Al Mahdi forces," the Iraqi name of the Mahdi Army, which is often referred to as JAM.

"JAM is a militia insurgency group in Iraq" was written under each photo.

A second set of seven photos, released on Nov. 28, were captioned in the same manner. The Iraqi Army was described as searching for Mahdi Army forces in Diwaniyah, while the Mahdi Army was again described as "a militia insurgency group in Iraq."

The next day, Multinational Forces Iraq issued a press release noting the Iraqi Army captured a "suspected JAM-SG [Mahdi Army Special Groups] criminal" in the city of Khalis in Diyala province.

The US military’s terms for the Mahdi Army have evolved over the past 18 months. In the spring of 2007, the military began calling the Mahdi Army the "Secret Cells" and said they were armed, trained, and funded by Iran. In the early summer of 2007, the name changed to Special Groups.

In the summer of 2007, the US military began to associate the Special Groups with the Mahdi Army, but claimed there was a split between the two groups. The Mahdi Army leaders and fighters killed or captured in August were identified as "rogue" and associated with the Special Groups.

Over the next six months, the US heaped praise on Sadr for initiating a cease fire after his forces were defeated in Karbala in August of 2007, while referring to those who still attacked Iraqi and US forces as "criminals." US and Iraqi forces ruthlessly attacked these "criminals."

The tone changed again in February 2008, when Sadr’s ceasefire was set to expire. In press releases identifying the capture or death of "criminals" or Special Groups fighters, the US military began implicitly linking the targeted operatives with Sadr.

The US military began referring to Sadr with the religious honorific of al-Sayyid, while saying those who continued to fight the Iraqi government and Coalition forces were dishonoring the ceasefire and the Mahdi Army.

In late March, when the Mahdi Army attempted to rise up in Baghdad’s Sadr City and Basrah, the al-Sayyid honorific was dropped and the US reverted to simply calling the Shia terrorists the Special Groups. The military has essentially stuck with this description, avoiding any association between the Mahdi Army and the Special groups until the past several days.

The US military has been working to divide and conquer the Mahdi Army and weaken Sadr for the past two years. To do this, the military has used a carrot and stick approach with the Mahdi Army.

The US would claim those fighting the Mahdi Army were rogue or splinter groups in order to avoid labeling the militia as an insurgent group and provide those willing to reconcile with the government an out. During this time period, Sadr was stuck between choosing to fight and risk having his militia dismantled by US and Iraqi forces, and halting the attacks and risk losing the hard-line factions in the Mahdi Army who often were the most capable.

The strategy worked. Sadr was conflicted between fighting and sitting on the sidelines as Iraqi forces launched an offensive in Basrah at the end of March 2008. The hardliners in the Mahdi Army demanded they fight back, and they did.

US and Iraqi forces then savaged the Mahdi Army during heavy fighting in Baghdad, Basrah, and central and southern Iraq. Over the course of six weeks, more than 2,000 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, thousands more were wounded, and an estimated 3,000 more fighters and leaders fled to Iran. Sadr agreed to a ceasefire while the Iraqi government said it would issue warrants to detain Mahdi fighters.

But US and Iraqi forces continued to press the Mahdi Army, using the "Special Groups" and "rogue elements" narrative to methodically pursue the Mahdi Army in southern and central Iraq during the late spring and summer of 2008. Iraqi forces obtained the warrants and thousands of Mahdi Army fighters were captured.

The US military and Iraqi government succeeded in fracturing the Mahdi Army. Sadr effectively lost control of his militia as he remained in Iran, far from the fighting. Several offshoot groups, such as the Army of the Righteous, the Imam Ali Brigades, and the Hezbollah Brigades were formed by Mahdi Army commanders.

Sadr’s political power also began to wane. He ordered the disbanding of the Mahdi Army over the summer, and withdrawal of the Sadrist political bloc from the upcoming provincial elections.

The Sadrist strongly opposed the US-Iraq status of forces agreement, but failed to rally opposition against it in either the parliament or with the public. His weekly protests drew thousands of Sadrists but had no effect n the general public. Of the 199 votes cast, 149 voted for the agreement, 35 voted against, and 15 abstained. Thirty-two of the votes against the agreement came from the Sadrist bloc.

By identifying the Mahdi Army as "a militia insurgency group," the US military may be signaling it no longer views the group as a serious threat. And labeling the group part of the insurgency will drop the pretence the Mahdi Army is a legitimate entity in Iraqi society.