Sadr's followers answer as one when his movement calls them, and his organization of social, religious, political and military programs -- as well as the young clerics, politicians and fighters around him -- has become the most pivotal force in Iraq after the United States.At the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Sadr's militia did not exist. Today, his army numbers tens of thousands. In 2004, Bremer issued a vague order aimed at the Mahdi Army stipulating that militias should be disbanded at some unspecified date. The order set rules under which militias could keep working in the meantime.
The militias rapidly infiltrated key government agencies. Sadr's movement was not alone; it worked in parallel with another Shiite movement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by Abdul Aziz Hakim.
Millions of Sadr's supporters turned out in December elections to give his movement the largest bloc in parliament, which in turn put him in control of four government ministries. Thousands of male followers abandoned their homes and jobs when a bomb destroyed a Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22, rallying at Sadr headquarters on a night and day of retaliatory bloodletting that plunged Iraq into sectarian war.
Generally speaking, there are various way to deflect the power of an armed non-governmental militia. You can subvert it and weaken it, you can fight it, or you can divert them into participation in the government of the country, or you can do a combination of all three. Our approach to the militias initially was too reactionary, overbroad, and forceful. That's why American soldiers died battling the Mahdi army in in the streets of Baghdad and Najaf. Our response was then to swing too far in the other direction, incorporating the Mahdi (and other Shiite) militias into the Iraqi national government without weakening their ability to act as an independent armed force or diluting their stated goals through democratic participation. This was done because coalition forces lacked sufficient numbers to maintain security in the most violent parts of Iraq and because there was political pressure to be seen as making progress in controlling the insurgency, and the already armed and organized militias were seen as elements that could be quickly put to work stabilizing the overwhemling security situation. Unfortunately, while the Mahdi army is interested in bringing peace to Iraq, it desires to do so by implementing a Shiite religious government, and by killing or oppressing all Sunnis and secular Iraqis who oppose them.
At this point, any plan to blunt the power of the Shiite militias that doesn't involve sending 300,000 more soldiers to Iraq, is merely politically convenient fantasy.