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What About the Iraqis?

Nothing illustrates this better than the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric who has benefited from the frustrations and desires of the Shiite dispossessed to become, arguably, the most powerful man in Iraq today. The son of a respected grand ayatollah who was killed by Saddam in 1999, Sadr the younger holds a relatively modest clerical rank. But he has managed to capitalize on his illustrious pedigree12 by casting himself as an unstinting opponent of the occupation from the start—which has offered the additional political benefit of positioning him against the established Shiite clerical elite, sometimes known as the hawza, after the influential Najaf seminary that remains one of Shiism’s spiritual centers. This elite has generally tolerated the American presence in exchange for the hope that elections would award political power to the Shiite majority. As Nir Rosen observes in the pages of In the Belly of the Green Bird, “The Sadr family was known for being revolutionary, their political activism a contrast to the quietism of the hawza‘s more traditional leadership.” At times, indeed, Sadr’s followers (known in Arabic as the Sadriyun, or “Sadrites”) have spoken of their camp as the “speaking” or “outspoken hawza” (natiqa hawza) in contrast with the “silent hawza” (samita hawza) of Sistani, who identifies himself with a Shia tradition that eschews all-too-direct involvement in politics.

Sadr is an unapologetic Iraqi nationalist. His supporters proudly embrace the Iraq national flag, in stark contrast to the emblems of the other Shiite parties, which stress religious symbolism. When Sadr and his then-nascent militia, the Mahdi Army, rose up against the Americans twice in 2004, many Sunnis offered enthusiastic support for his rebellion. Sadr, who stayed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein despite the attacks on his family, is also happy to play on widespread doubts about the bona fides of his Shiite rivals, many of whom sought refuge in Iran and are accordingly derided as safawi (after the Iranian Shah Ismail al-Safawi, who forcibly converted Sunnis in what is now Iraq to his own Shia faith in the early sixteenth century). Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual exemplar for most of Iraq’s Shiites, was born in the Iranian city of Mashhad and still speaks Arabic with a Farsi accent—though there is little in his career to suggest that he has ever viewed himself as a proxy of Iran. Sadr, for his part, is a fluent populist, imparting his views in a slangy, colloquial, even crude Iraqi Arabic that stands in studied contrast to the classical elegance of his more educated rivals.

Rosen, another Arabic-speaking American journalist, spends much of his book listening to Friday prayers at the mosques where Iraqi faithful are being galvanized against the Americans by their spiritual leaders. He is one of the few Western journalists to get inside the Sunni insurgency, and his book contains a memorable portrait, among other things, of Fallujah under the chaotic rule of the mujahideen in the days before the US Marines retook the city in a devastating offensive in November 2004. But it is his accounts of Sadr’s rise that will probably prove more enduring. At one Baghdad mosque, he listens as the Shia faithful amend the traditional chorus of “Our god prays for Muhammad and Muhammad’s family” with

a strange innovation, “and speed the appearance of the mahdi,13 and damn his enemies and make victorious his son Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!” Suddenly, Turkmen Shias were shouting it in demonstrations in front of the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters, as well as in Kirkuk. Followers of Moqtada began repeating it in their daily prayers.

Rosen notes other interesting examples of Sadr’s willingness to change the rules of the game, and recently he has reported on the violent breakdown of the links between Sadr and the Sunnis.14 Against tradition, Sadr maintains his father’s status as marja, a spiritual “figure of emulation” for his followers, even though he is dead: “By preserving the office of his slain father, Moqtada has changed yet another rule,” Rosen notes. Though Shadid, who had a rare interview with Sadr, offers a much smoother narrative than Rosen (whose book at times has the feel of a reporter indiscriminately emptying his notebooks), Rosen does succeed in capturing some vivid snapshots of the Sadriyun worldview:

On the walls of the Sadr office I found announcements exhorting the people to support the Shias, plant trees, and preserve the grass. A nearby shop sold stickers for children’s schoolbooks with spaces for the child’s name, class, school, and address. They had bright colors and flowers and each depicted Moqtada in a way I had previously not seen. He was smiling, friendly, even embracing children. Each sticker contained one of Moqtada’s aphorisms, such as “If the teacher is good, then certainly the student will be good.” The shop also sold keychains with Moqtada, his father, and his uncle framed by hearts. Stickers for cars depicted Moqtada and his fighters in various natural settings. Some were in the deserts of the American Southwest, others in lush jungle paradises, and one was on an ocean, with two crescent moons in the sky (perhaps Moqtada was on a different planet).

As I was able to see during my own recent stay in Baghdad, talk by Americans of “disbanding” militias like the Mahdi Army (a demand much heard in Washington these days) rings hollow in the communities where they are so deeply rooted, particularly Sadr City, the immense Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad where Moqtada’s political organization and militia reign unchallenged. And none of his rivals, it should be said, can boast a power center of comparable cohesion and intense devotion—which is why many in Iraq believe Moqtada to be the man most likely to achieve control of a future Iraq subject to Shiite rule.

Many Shiites in Sadr City and elsewhere view Sadr’s hard men as their only protection against attacks by their sectarian enemies. “The Mahdi Army is our crown,” a man in Sadr City told me. “Without the Mahdi Army the terrorists would have destroyed this city. They [the militiamen] are our brothers and cousins.” While Ayatollah Sistani has continued to argue for moderation even in the face of increasingly savage Sunni-sponsored terrorist attacks on the Shiite population, Sadr and his militias have taken a much harder line, instigating terror campaigns of their own. This has been a major factor in the growth of the Mahdi Army’s power and reach. (After one recent car bombing in Sadr City, Mahdi Army men are said to have kidnapped several Sunnis at random from elsewhere in the city, then executed them in the bomb crater.)

As so often in comparable historical situations, the distinction between thuggery and law enforcement becomes blurred. One officer in the Iraqi army who came from Sadr City told me that the militia consists of “good guys and bad guys.” “The bad guys are engaged in kidnapping and various kinds of criminal activities.” And the good? “They eliminated bad habits like drugs and prostitution. And they prevent terrorists from coming in. That’s the good part. Killing Sunnis just because they are Sunnis—that’s the bad.”

It is in the once-mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad that the depth of change is at its most apparent. The waves of sectarian terror and ethnic cleansing that have seized Baghdad and other parts of Iraq since the attack on a Shiite shrine last February have uprooted entire communities. As of August, half a million Iraqis had become refugees inside their own country. As I walked through Baghdad in the company of US military patrols, I encountered Baghdadis who do not know their neighbors, something that would have been unthinkable not long ago. The neighborhoods of the city are traditionally close-knit places, with neighbors sharing information and assistance across the lines of ethnicity and sect. Now the newly displaced are finding themselves in places where their only ties are sectarian. In Rusafa, the half of Baghdad located to the east of the Tigris River, I encountered Shiites from other parts of the city who had been driven out by Sunni militias using death threats and targeted killings.15

Terrorized by horrific acts of bloodshed and torture, and frequently forced to leave behind the businesses that once sustained them economically, these new arrivals have only the mosques, and their associated political parties, to turn to. As the Mahdi Army has steadily extended its control over areas it has succeeded in “cleansing” of its enemies, it has increasingly become the organization that, for many Shiites, delivers the goods. Need cheap propane gas for cooking? The Mahdi Army will be happy to supply it. Your wayward husband refuses to give you a divorce? The Mahdi Army will beat some sense into him. And what about wreaking vengeance on the nawasib (Sunni militants) who drove you from your house? That goes without saying.

And so the cycles of rage and retribution spiral ever higher. In the south Baghdad district of Doura, meanwhile, I encountered another surprise. The Sunnis I met there, usually steadfast opponents of the occupation, were overflowing with praise for the US Army’s effort to “lock down” their neighborhood after some of the worst sectarian violence over the summer. “We don’t want the Americans to go,” one of them told me (an elderly man who, on closer questioning, revealed himself to be a fervent supporter of Saddam Hussein). The reason was clear: when the US forces leave, the Sunnis of the area will more likely than not find themselves under full-scale assault from their sectarian enemies. And an American withdrawal could force the increasingly threatened Sunnis to find their own protectors in the region, precipitating a broader Middle East conflict. In late November, Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi government adviser expressing his “own” views in The Washington Post, wrote that “one of the first consequences” of an American withdrawal “will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”16 Yet even as the residents of Doura told me this they were aware of the growing limitations on the exercise of American power, and sensed that, sooner or later, withdrawal is probably inevitable.

As I listened to these Iraqi voices, I could not entirely shake the feeling that we Americans are already becoming irrelevant to the future of their country. While people in Washington continue to debate the next change in course, and the Baker report raises the possibility of gradual withdrawal, Iraqis are sizing up the coming apocalypse, and making their arrangements accordingly. My conversations with those hapless Baghdadis took place under a glowering afternoon sky that announced the arrival of the rainy season. It was the day that an Iraqi tribunal pronounced a verdict of death for Saddam Hussein, news marked by a crackle of celebratory gunfire somewhere in the distance. Aside from that, though, no one really seemed to care; they are worried about saving their own lives.

—December 13, 2006

  1. 12

    He is a sayyid, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He is also the son-in-law of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was tortured and killed by Saddam’s agents in 1980, and, perhaps most intriguingly, he is the grand-nephew of Mohammed al-Sadr, one of the leaders of the rebellion against the British in 1920.

  2. 13

    The mahdi is the Shiite twelfth imam, a messiah-like figure who disappeared in 874 and is expected to return to deliver the world from injustice.

  3. 14

    See his article in the Boston Review, November/December 2006.

  4. 15

    I also met Shiites who had moved into the city from rural areas and were being allowed to squat on empty patches of land. It’s hard to tell how much of this latter movement has been actively encouraged by Shiite political parties; certainly many Baghdadis believe that the Shiite leadership is working to tip the demographic scales in Rusafa in its own favor.

  5. 16

    See “Stepping Into Iraq,” The Washington Post, November 29, 2006. On December 12, The New York Timesreported that while the Saudi government disavowed the comments of Obaid, who has been fired, it also made similar warnings to Vice President Dick Cheney in late November.

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