"If there was a good
will of creating a fair and just political system in Iraq, there
would have been an empowerment of all political groups, whether
they are in the left, in the center or in the right. But what happened
in Iraq was that the U.S. administration wanted to empower only
those who are on the right side of the political formula, and on
the right it was mostly Islamists. And when they dealt with the
political groups who are on the ground they dealt with them with
what is understood as the law of the jungle --whoever has the biggest
militia and whoever has the better ability to kill, those were
the ones who are in the parliament now"
Mohammed, President, Organization of Women's Freedom
"In Iraq today you would
not see U.S. today with your bare eyes, in the sense
that American tanks are not on the streets as the Iraqi
army has become a very big army and is all over the place,
and has become quite oppressive in its own ways. The U.S.
people are behind the scene, they have set up all the establishments
of the Iraqi government, and we are surpised that most of
these establishments are beginning to become as oppressive
and as difficult to live with day to day just as they were
in Sadam's time. For example, we have more than eleven security
institutions around the country. When we step out of the
house to make a demonstration and we want to gather in our
public square we have to go through the security institution
in order to get a permission for a demonstration, and for
those important public squares in the city they would not
give us the permission. We have turned
in the last ten years into a police state." --Yanar
Mohammed, President, Organization
of Women's Freedom
Basra, Iraq. March 22, 2003 Man carries body of small girl
killed during the siege of Basra. Photo:
Amr Nabil, AP
"We need to humanize the reality of this terrible
conflict. When they say today that there's a massive bombardment,
what they mean is that in a country in which 50% of the people
are 15 or younger, what we are really doing is murdering
children. We can't give up the plea for sanity." --Frieda
Seniors for Peace
On April 7, 2006, the third anniversary of the U.S. occupation
of Iraq, I drove south with Shia pilgrims from Baghdad to the
shrine city of Najaf. The day before, on the same route, a minibus
like ours had taken machine-gun fire in the Sunni town of Iskandariyah.
Five pilgrims were killed.
My companions—a young man named Ahmed, his mother, and
their friend Iskander, a driver—came from Sadr City, the
Shia bastion in Baghdad named for Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, a popular
and politically ambitious Shia cleric slain in 1999. They wanted
to hear a sermon by Sadr’s son, Muqtada, who after the war
had become the single most important person in Iraq and the only
one capable of sustaining the fragile alliance between Shias and
Sunnis. His power had only grown, although hopes for that alliance
were now gone.
It was Friday, and like my companions, I was going to the Friday
prayers. I had been following this practice since I arrived in
Iraq in April 2003, when it became clear that clerics were filling
the power vacuum created by the war. After the fall of Saddam
and his Baath Party, looting and anarchy gave way to forces of
more organized violence: men with guns, some wearing the turbans
of clerics, some the scarves of the resistance, and many belonging
to criminal gangs. Despite American intentions to create a secular,
democratic Iraq, clerics were quickly replacing Baathists, and
in the absence of anything else the mosque would become Iraq’s
most influential institution.
This should not have come as a surprise. Many complex factors
influence life in the Muslim world, most of them secular and mundane,
but the mosque plays a central role in the community, in religious,
social, and political life. The call to prayer five times a day
echoes through neighborhoods, regulating time and the cycles of
life. At the mosque men meet to pray, learn, talk, and organize.
The Friday sermon, or khutba, is often a call to action, in which
the imam lectures his flock about issues affecting the community.
In authoritarian states, the pulpit is a rare source of alternative
authority. The mosque unites communities. It has also at times
been a provider of welfare and a weapons depot, a source of news
and a rallying point.
After the 2003 invasion, the country’s majority Shia, radicalized
by three decades of persecution and poverty under Saddam and suspicious
of the American occupiers, responded quickly to the clerics’
incitements. Followers of Muqtada al Sadr capitalized on his father’s
network of mosques and clerics to seize control of Shia Baghdad
and much of the southern part of Iraq. They occupied hospitals,
Baath Party headquarters, and government warehouses and gave themselves
state power. The same pattern repeated itself in much of Iraq.
When Baghdad fell, on April 9, 2003, and widespread violence
erupted, the primary victims were Iraq’s Sunnis. For Shias,
this was justice. “It is the beginning of the separation,”
one Shia cleric told me with a smile in the spring of 2003. Saddam
had used Sunni Islam to legitimize his power, building one large
Sunni mosque in each Shia city in the south; these mosques were
seized by Shias immediately after the regime collapsed. During
the 1990s Saddam also used the donations that Shia pilgrims make
to the shrines they visit—totaling millions of dollars a
month—to finance his Faith Campaign, which spread Sunni
practices in Iraq and even declared official tolerance of Wahhabis
for the first time, perhaps because of their deep hatred of Shias.
Wahhabism is an austere form of Sunni Islam, dominant in Saudi
Arabia, that rejects all other interpretations and views Shias
as apostates. Wahhabis had traveled up from Arabia in centuries
past and sacked Shia shrines. Now Shias were terrified of a Wahhabi
threat. They feared that Wahhabis would poison the food distributed
to pilgrims. According to a cleric in Najaf, Sheikh Heidar al
Mimar, “There were no Sunnis in Najaf before the 1991 intifada,
but Saddam brought Wahhabis to the Shia provinces in order to
control the Shia. These Wahhabis were very bad with us, and all
Shia were afraid of them.” Again and again I heard Iraq’s
Shias refer to all Sunnis as Wahhabis.
The Shia wave that swept Iraq in the wake of the American attack
overthrew the Sunni-led order imposed on Iraq for centuries—by
the Ottomans and by the British. The uprising was guided largely
by Shia leaders who under Saddam had been pushed underground or
into exile and whose sectarian identity had been strengthened
as a result. On April 7 Ayatollah Sayyid Kadhim al Haeri, a cleric
from Karbala who had been in exile in Iran since 1973, sent a
letter to Najaf appointing Muqtada as his deputy and representative
in Iraq. Haeri also urged Iraqis to kill all Baathists to prevent
them from taking over again. On April 18, in the southern city
of Kut, Abdel Aziz al Hakim, brother of the Shia opposition leader
Muhammad Bakr al Hakim and leader of the 10,000-strong Iran-supported
Badr Brigade militia, proclaimed that Iraq’s majority Shia
hoped for an Islamic government. That same day, Muqtada’s
deputy for Baghdad warned that Shias would not accept a democracy
that would obstruct their sovereignty.
Later that month Shias descended in the millions upon Karbala
for a massive celebration on Arbain al Hussein, the day marking
the end of the 40-day mourning period for the prophet Muhammad’s
grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, slain in 680 in a battle that crystallized
the division between Sunni and Shia Islam. An important and distinctively
Shia holiday traditionally observed with mourning processions,
public flagellation, and crying, its ceremonies had been severely
restricted under Saddam.
The first Arbain after the war was marked more by Shia triumphalism
than mourning. While Shias could not remember a time when they
expressed pride in their identity so openly, Sunnis watched with
concern and some disdain at the celebrations, which they rejected
as un-Islamic or primitive. The Shias who made their way to Karbala
were united in one message: the Hawza—the Shia theological
seminary and seat of the Ayatollahs—was supreme. Banners,
songs, and statements demanded that the Hawza should lead Iraq.
These sentiments hardly assuaged Sunni fears, nor were they consistent
with the words of such Shia exiles as Ahmad Chalabi, who had closely
advised the United States before the invasion and who had promised
that Iraq’s Shias were secular and sought democracy.
Some realignment of power was inevitable after Saddam’s
removal, and perhaps not even shared opposition to the American
occupation could have united Sunnis and Shias. As it happened,
the occupation divided Iraqis between those seen as anti-occupation
and those seen as pro-occupation. The Shias I spoke with proudly
pointed to the attacks of Muqtada’s militia on Americans
in the spring and summer of 2004 as proof that they were as anti-occupation
as the Sunnis. Nevertheless, Sunnis viewed Shias as the primary
beneficiaries of the American occupation. And they were right:
the Sunnis had been pushed to the side, dismissed from the security
forces and the government, replaced in the government by Shias
and Kurds, and treated as the enemy by the American military,
which punished them collectively first for Saddam’s crimes
and then for the insurgency.
After Saddam’s fall, the Sunnis were vulnerable. They had
no leader; Saddam had gotten rid of the competition. Sunni clerics
formed the Association of Muslim Scholars to protect Sunni interests
and unite their leadership under the command of Baathists-turned-clerics.
These clerics would soon call for boycotts of the Iraqi elections
and would eventually control much of the insurgency, harboring
the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and other
foreign fighters who targeted not only Shia civilians in markets,
buses, and mosques but Iraq’s new security forces, which
were filled with young Shia men.
Three years later, Shia religious parties such as the Iran-supported
Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (its name a
sufficient statement of its intentions), or SCIRI, controlled
the country, and Shia militias had become the Iraqi police and
the Iraqi army, running their own secret prisons, arresting, torturing,
and executing Sunnis in what was clearly a civil war. And the
Americans were merely one more militia among the many, watching,
occasionally intervening, and in the end only making things worse.
Iraqis’ hopes for a better future after Saddam had been
* * *
Iraqi National Guard and police checkpoints slowed our progress
to Najaf. Officers would peer through the driver’s window
and ask where we were going. “We’re a family from
Sadr City,” we would say, or simply, “We’re
from the city.” This was enough to convey the fact that
we were Shia pilgrims. We would be waved along with a smile. “Go
We drove past brick factories and palm groves. As we approached
Najaf we were stopped more and more often, our minibus searched,
our bodies patted down. When all roads were closed off by Iraqi
National Guard pickup trucks fitted with machine guns, we parked
on a sandy lot filled with hundreds of cars, some with coffins
lashed to their roofs. Mourners were bringing their dead to be
buried in The City of Peace, the vast cemetery for Shias in Najaf,
close to the shrine of Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s
cousin and son-in-law. As we continued on foot, we saw men waiting
with pushcarts to carry the feeble, shrouded women and the coffins.
Iraqi National Guardsmen in blue fatigues surrounded the charred
wreckage of three minibuses and urged the pilgrims who stopped
to stare, “Please, brothers, move on.”
Not far away was the cemetery set aside for the martyrs of Muqtada’s
militia, Jaish al Imam al Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi
was a ninth-century Shia leader who is said to have disappeared
into an occult realm when he descended into a hole in Samarra
to escape assassins. Shias see him as a messiah and believe that
when he returns he will restore justice. Many view his return
as imminent. Among Muqtada’s followers it is common to hear
that the American army has come to kill the Mahdi. In a September
2006 sermon in Kufa, Muqtada told his followers that the Pentagon
had a large file on the Mahdi and would greet his return with
their military. But I was often assured that the Mahdi would kill
all the Americans, and all the Jews, too, for good measure.
Muqtada formed the Mahdi Army in the summer of 2003. Thousands
battled American and British troops in Najaf and Kufa in the spring
and summer of 2004 in what Muqtada’s followers call their
two intifadas. Many members of the Mahdi Army were former members
of the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary militia. Its Sunni members
would constitute the core of the resistance. (It is a misconception
that all Baathists and soldiers in Saddam’s army were Sunnis.)
Ahmed, himself a Mahdi Army fighter, regaled his mother with
tales of their daring fight against the Americans. We stopped
so that Ahmed could visit the tombs of his friends.
As we approached the Kufa mosque just outside Najaf, we were
searched by Mahdi Army militiamen. Latmiya, or mourning songs,
echoed through the stalls of the market outside, describing in
rhythmic beats the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet,
and professing loyalty to him. The mosque’s thick walls
looked fortified and indeed had been used as a base for the Mahdi
Army during the 2004 intifadas. Here they had lined up to receive
food and weapons training. Small groups had learned how to use
grenades and grenade launchers. Crates full of weapons were stored
here, as well as in Muqtada’s office in Najaf. There had
even been a unit of female fighters, called the Bint al Huda Brigade,
allegedly with its own suicide squad.
The Kufa mosque also holds a mystical importance to Iraqi Shias.
Some believe it to be the oldest mosque in the world. Imam Hussein’s
cousin Muslim bin Aqil was buried there after being slain by the
same traitors who would kill Hussein. And many Shias believe that
the Mahdi will return there, descending from heaven onto its dome.
It was at Kufa in 1998, after Saddam relaxed restrictions on
Shia clerics, that Muqtada’s father delivered 47 famous
sermons. Saddam had promoted Sadr at first, hoping that as an
Iraqi nationalist he could be used as a tool against Shia leaders
of Iranian or Pakistani descent, and against Iran itself. But
Sadr did not show sufficient loyalty; his last sermons criticized
Saddam himself. In 1999 Sadr and two of his sons were shot by
unknown assailants. The government accused rival Shias of the
murder and executed the suspects, but Sadr’s followers blamed
Saddam and rioted. Many were killed in Sadr City, then known as
Saddam City. After the war Muqtada took over the Kufa mosque,
and it was to this mosque that he retreated in April of 2004,
urging his fighters to “make your enemy afraid” and
assuring them that he would not abandon them.
The market outside the mosque offered key chains with pictures
of Muqtada and his father and books by Shia thinkers including
Sadr and his uncle Muhammad Bakr al Sadr, the most important Shia
theologian of the 20th century, whose Dawa Party called for an
Islamic state in the 1970s. When he was executed by Saddam in
1980 along with his sister, Bint al Huda, he became known as the
first martyr. Sadiq al Sadr, Muqtada’s father, was known
as the second martyr. One stand sold films of Muqtada’s
sermons as well as panegyrics to Muqtada and films depicting his
men battling the Americans. A large group stood around watching
Before the noon prayer a crowd assembled to receive copies of
Muqtada’s latest bayan, or statement, with rulings on certain
questions and the cleric’s seal at the bottom. This week’s
bayan was formulated in a typical way, with a real or hypothetical
question posed, followed by Muqtada’s response.
“Sayyiduna al mufadda,” began the question, “Our
sayyid for whom we sacrifice ourselves, in the Iraqi streets these
days there is a lot of talk . . . about militias. And as your
eminence knows, some politicians classify Jaish al Imam al Mahdi
(God speed his appearance) under this title. Do you classify the
army under this title like the brothers in the Badr organization
and the Kurdish peshmerga or do you classify it under another
one?” The question was signed by a “group of members
of the Mahdi Army.”
In his answer Muqtada explained that the Mahdi Army was only
an outlaw to oppressive governments. As long as the government
was legitimate and not associated with the people’s enemies,
the Mahdi Army was with the government “in a single trench.”
He was affirming his nationalism, a consistent theme in his public
pronouncements and the reason many Sunnis once viewed him as “the
good Shia.” He was also trying to distinguish the Mahdi
Army from other militias: his position was that the Mahdi Army
was not a militia at all but a spiritual army, and therefore did
not deserve the label of sectarian armies that merely control
fiefdoms through violence. “The Mahdi Army,” he continued,
“is not a party, and it is not an organization. There is
no salary, no headquarters, there is no special organization,
there is no arming, and every weapon is a personal weapon.”
Muqtada said that the ones who had provoked these questions were
the American occupiers, the Saddamists, and the takfiris—radical
Sunnis who believe Shias to be infidels, although this was a veiled
reference to all Sunnis. The Mahdi Army, he said, belongs to the
Shia leadership in the Hawza, and the Shia leadership belongs
to the Mahdi.
The crowds marched into the mosque, and I marched with them,
past more security. Many men carried umsalayas, prayer rugs, on
their shoulders, setting them down in the concrete courtyard.
Next to each marble column stood grim-faced men in dark suit jackets,
their arms pressed down to hide their guns and keep them within
reach. They had once openly carried Kalashnikovs, but this was
now considered undignified.
Over 10,000 people filled the mosque. Unlike Sunnis, who go to
whatever mosque is nearest to their home, Shias take buses to
attend Friday prayers in one of several key mosques. Many women
were there, sitting in a separate section. And I had never seen
so many children at a mosque: Muqtada was the “cool”
cleric, a fighter who defied authority, and he reached out to
children, offering them stickers for their notebooks. As the call
to prayer ended, the crowd chanted and sang songs they all knew
A murmur and a frisson spread through the crowd to the back as
Muqtada waddled in with his head down, surrounded by assistants
and bodyguards. People had been expecting one of his deputies
to speak for him that day. “Ali wiyak Ali!” they thundered,
waving their fists. “Ali is with you!” Muqtada was
flanked by his two closest friends and advisers. On his left stood
the young and very thin Ayatollah Ali al Baghdadi, originally
from Sadr City. On his right stood his more rotund brother-in-law,
Riyadh al Nuri, the usual imam of the Kufa mosque. Nuri lived
with Muqtada and had cared for Muqtada’s mentally handicapped
brother, who died in 2004. As a leader of Muqtada’s Islamic
courts, Nuri also had a militia at his disposal, which he would
dispatch to arrest and torture people for suspected infractions
ranging from homosexuality and the sale of pornography to theft
and slander against Muqtada.
Nuri raised his hand to quiet the crowd as Muqtada began to speak.
* * *
I first met Muqtada in May of 2003, when his quick rise as a
Shia leader was beginning to outrage the Hawza. Each marja, or
cleric who has been deemed “a source for emulation,”
had his own office and received a tithe from his followers. Muqtada
appeared with no experience or education and almost immediately
won the loyalty of thousands of young men. He spoke in the name
of his father and the mustadafin—the dispossessed masses—and
he spoke their dialect and its slang, much as his father had.
He alone was known by his first name because Iraq’s Shias
felt a personal bond with him. While the Iranian-born Ayatollah
Ali al Sistani was the most respected religious authority for
Iraq’s Shias, Muqtada spoke for them and led them politically
and spiritually. Tens of thousands would die for him. Chubby with
an unkempt beard, he was awkward and unsure of himself then, coming
across more like a street punk than a religious leader among Najaf’s
refined and somewhat snobbish clerical aristocracy. He seemed
to speak with a slight lisp.
It would be nearly a year before his militia would fight Americans
openly, but already he warned that the time would come. His men
had taken over much of Shia Iraq, providing social services and
security and imposing their strict interpretation of Islam on
women and more liberal Muslims. His network of clerics coordinated
their sermons, and his bayans were posted on mosque walls throughout
On June 23, 2003, he returned from Iran, where he had met with
his father’s exiled student and intellectual heir, Ayatollah
Kadhim al Haeri, and commemorated the death of Ayatollah Khomeini
with government officials. It was Muqtada’s first visit
to Baghdad since his father’s death four years earlier.
In Sadr City tens of thousands greeted him with Iraqi and Shia
tribal flags. A speaker read the victory verse from the Quran:
“If you receive God’s victory and you witness a great
many people joining Islam, thank your God and ask him to forgive
you, for God is very merciful.” People chanted, “Muqtada,
don’t worry, we will sacrifice our blood for the Hawza!”
They sang a song written in praise to Saddam with new lyrics praising
Muqtada. When a speaker asked the crowd to make room for Muqtada
to take the stage, they would not move, everyone wanting a chance
to be close to him. Muqtada cried, or pretended to, addressing
the crowd: “I visited this city when my father was alive,
and I will visit this city on this day every year.” Muqtada
spoke of the memory of the martyrs and promised that businesses
would return to Iraq and that the unemployment problem would soon
be solved. He also promised to establish a humanitarian office
in Sadr City. He spoke for seven minutes, and the crowds of adulators
would again not move to let him leave.
That month, when Muqtada’s name was proposed as a possible
member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, other members
of the council rejected the idea. Muqtada and his constituency
were radicalized by the exclusion, and he took on the role of
a spoiler. He temporarily grew closer to Haeri. Though Muqtada’s
politics were at the time inchoate, lacking ideology and seeking
only inclusion and power, Haeri was a rigid Khomeinist, with a
clearly defined political program aimed at establishing a theocracy
in Iraq, just as Khomeini had established one in Iran 25 years
On July 20, Muqtada publicly claimed that American soldiers had
surrounded his home and were planning to arrest him. Thousands
of protestors descended upon Najaf. Demonstrators chanted, “No
Americans after today,” echoing Saddam’s storm troopers,
who in 1991 ransacked southern Iraq warning that there would be
“no Shias after today.” Some carried swords and flags.
A message from Ayatollah Haeri was read to the crowd condemning
the “American agents” of the Iraqi Governing Council
and calling on the clerics to rule Iraq. From the shrine of Ali,
protestors walked past Najaf’s cemetery in rows and columns
like soldiers to the American base in Najaf, where the protest
leaders handed a list of demands—including an immediate
withdrawal from the city—to the American colonel.
On August 13 an American helicopter hovered over a Sadr City
radio tower flying the black Mahdi flag. Soldiers tried to knock
it down. Thousands of protestors clashed with U.S. troops; at
least one Iraqi was killed and several others wounded. For Iraq’s
insecure Shias, accustomed to victimization and reared on myths
of martyrdom, it was the spark they had been waiting for: the
Americans had declared war on Islam. In spite of an official apology,
Friday prayers two days later in Sadr City were inflammatory.
Sheikh Abdul Hadi al Daraji, a Sadr spokesman, warned that Iraqis
would exact revenge for attacks against their sacred symbols.
“Yesterday Saddam the infidel attacked our holy sites and
the people of this holy city,” Daraji cried, “and
now the Americans do the same thing. So what is the difference
between Saddam and America?” He warned that people would
seek revenge against the Americans, but the army of the Mahdi
would channel that anger and control it.
For the next nine months Muqtada continued to test the limits
of American tolerance, sometimes virtually declaring war on them,
then retreating and welcoming them as friends. In a sermon he
praised the September 11 attacks and condemned the Interim Governing
Council and all its actions. In March 2004 the Americans closed
his newspaper, al Hawza, which they accused of calling for violence,
arrested an influential associate of his, and issued an arrest
warrant for him as well. To the Americans Muqtada was an annoyance
and a religious radical, but they had been led to believe that
he had no constituency and could be forced to retreat. But American
pressure on Muqtada only increased his following among Shias.
At the same time, the revelations of American abuse of prisoners
at Abu Ghraib and the attack on Fallujah allowed Muqtada to capitalize
on growing anti-American feeling.
Following the success of Shia parties in the January 2005 elections,
Muqtada’s representatives in the Iraqi National Assembly
demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, a demand also made by
Sunni rejectionists, who refused to participate in the new government
or rein in the resistance until the Americans committed to leaving
Iraq. The vote on the initiative fell short of the needed majority,
but Muqtada’s championing of a nationalist and anti-American
agenda shared by Sunni leaders suggested a fragile alliance. Muqtada
also joined Sunnis in condemning the draft constitution. Like
them, he opposed giving the Kurds local political control of their
region in the north and also opposed the Shia SCIRI leader Abdel
Aziz al Hakim’s goal of establishing autonomous Shia regions
in the south. Muqtada’s followers demonstrated against the
constitution, sometimes marching with Sunnis. In the summer of
2005 militiamen loyal to Muqtada clashed with SCIRI militiamen
in several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, Nasriya, Najaf, and
Amara. The two Shia movements had a historic rivalry dating back
to the time when competing clerics sought to succeed the first
martyr. But Muqtada and his followers also resented SCIRI for
living in exile and for returning on the backs of American tanks.
They suspected SCIRI of being controlled by Iran, while accusing
it publicly of collaborating with the United States. Most importantly,
this was a turf war: each faction hoped to establish power among
Despite the tensions between Muqtada’s followers, also
known as the Sadrists, and SCIRI, Muqtada was invited by SCIRI
and Dawa to join the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shia
coalition that would be competing in the elections for the National
Assembly in December 2005. They needed the numbers, and he could
provide them. The Sadrists were granted equal status with the
two other parties, giving them the opportunity to win as many
as 30 seats in the National Assembly. Muqtada was legitimate now,
no longer on the outside.
Later that year he visited Saudi Arabia on the hajj pilgrimage
as an official guest of the Saudi king; then he visited Iran,
Syria, and Lebanon, practicing his diplomatic skills and establishing
a close relationship with the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad and
By this time, the United States understood Muqtada’s power.
When the Americans realized they had to work to encourage Sunni
participation in the December election, they condemned Shia militias
and pressured Shia Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari to step down
in favor of a candidate Sunnis would find less aligned with Muqtada,
and therefore more acceptable.
By the time I saw Muqtada in the spring of 2006, he was no longer
meeting with the media for security reasons. While the rhetoric
of nationalism still pervaded his sermons, so did thinly veiled
references to Sunnis as infidels. All hope of an alliance between
Sunnis and Shias was gone.
* * *
Muqtada read a verse from the Quran and then switched into Iraqi
dialect. Like his father, Muqtada spoke in a quiet monotone, without
the emotion many clerics invest in their speeches. He was not
a talented speaker. He kept his eyes down most of the time, reading
from his notes and only glancing up occasionally.
“This is the time when right becomes wrong and wrong becomes
right,” he said. “When women become corrupt. Occupation
has become liberation, and resistance has become terrorism. The
occupation has joined the nawasib—those who do not accept
the Shia imams and hate the family of the prophet.” To Muqtada’s
followers this meant the Sunnis. “Look at them,” he
said, “the occupation and the nawasib. And look at their
values.” He called for Muslims to be united. “Which
Muslims?” he asked. “The ones who say we are good
Muslims. The ones who follow the family of the prophet. In the
past God punished people by sending frogs, locusts, lice. Now
he punishes them by sending earthquakes, mad-cow disease, hurricanes,
floods, bird flu, the diseases in Africa, and globalization, armies,
politics, solar and lunar eclipses.”
Muqtada sat down for a minute, and somebody in the crowd shouted
a hossa, a responsive slogan. “For the love of the oppressed,
the two martyrs, the Sadrs, pray for Muhammad and the family of
Muhammad!” he shouted. Thousands of people bellowed, “Our
God prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad.” They
waved their fists. “And speed the Mahdi’s return!
And damn his enemies!”‚
Muqtada stood up once again. In spite of his veiled attack on
Sunnis he expressed the hope that political struggles would not
cause sectarian strife, and he blamed what strife there had been
so far on the Americans. He gave his condolences to his followers
for a joint American and Iraqi army raid on one of his movement’s
offices in the Mustafa Husseiniya—a northern Baghdad Shia
religious center—two weeks before. “That attack was
not the first carried out by the occupation forces,” he
said. “It is part of a series. . . . The occupation has
attacked a lot of people among us. It has started killing civilians
in the streets and in public areas. They are killing us randomly.
They drag cars with their tanks. And they torture prisoners in
Abu Ghraib and Um Qasr and other hidden prisons in Iraq. They
made our neighbors our enemies.
“We did not have a country under Saddam, and now that Saddam
is gone, why can we not have a country? . . . Even though we and
our neighbors have one religion and one fate, the United States
has succeeded in making us enemies. Instead of reconstructing
the shrine of the two imams in Samarra”‚ an important
Shia shrine whose bombing in February 2006 fed the civil war—‚
the occupation is building prisons.” Muqtada switched to
Iraqi dialect again to quip, “preparing them for the Iraqi
“When the press insults the prophet Muhammad, they say
this is the freedom of the press. And when our press writes something
true against America, they say it incites terrorism. So this is
all proof that the small Satan has gone and the big Satan has
“So be patient, my brothers,” he said. “They
are trying to plant a civil war. Do not let them drag you into
it. We know that they are going to assassinate our clerics and
our leaders to make a sectarian and civil war. So be careful.
We will never be oppressed. Do everything to resist the American
idea called democracy.”
Muqtada asked the nationalist forces in Iraq to help him pressure
the Americans to schedule their withdrawal. He called for the
United Nations, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic
Conference to cooperate in what he called “the national
project for scheduling the withdrawal of the occupation of Iraq.”
And he outlined his plan: the withdrawal would begin in Iraq’s
stable areas such as the south, some of the middle (the Shia areas),
and the north. Security would be turned over to Iraqis, and Iraqi
airspace would not be used by military planes without the permission
of the parliament and the governorates. The Iraqi security forces
would be trained, but not by the Americans, and all the members
of government would refrain from associating with the Americans
When Muqtada withdrew and the prayer leader took over, thousands
of men rushed the windows and fences in the hope of seeing Muqtada
one last time. “Ali is with you!” they shouted as
he walked by. The crowd slowly made its way out of the mosque.
One man shouted, “Curse America and Israel and pray for
Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!” Thousands joined in.
In Baghdad that day, the important Shia Buratha mosque was attacked,
leaving nearly 100 dead and more than 100 wounded. It was the
second postwar attack on this mosque, and it would not be the
last; another suicide bomber would strike in June. The mosque’s
imam, the SCIRI politician Jalal al Din al Saghir, blamed two
Sunni newspapers for falsely claiming that the mosque was a secret
prison and the site of a mass grave for Sunnis.
On the road back to Baghdad, Ahmed called his friends on his
mobile phone to tell them that he had seen Muqtada speak. He told
me repeatedly how lucky I was.
* * *
Ten days earlier, on March 27, 2006, I had driven into the al
Shaab district of northern Baghdad with a long convoy of Mahdi
Army pickup trucks and minibuses. Several hundred fighters were
waving flags and machine guns. Blue and white Iraqi police trucks
drove along with them.
It was one day after the incident that Muqtada had mentioned
in his sermon: a still little-understood American raid on the
Mustafa Husseiniya that had inflamed Shia rage against Americans
but had secretly satisfied many Sunnis. A statement issued later
that day by the U.S. military said, “Iraqi special-operations
forces conducted a twilight raid today in the Adhamiyah neighborhood
in northeast Baghdad to disrupt a terrorist cell responsible for
attacks on Iraqi security and coalition forces and kidnapping
Iraqi civilians in the local area.” It added that “no
mosques were entered or damaged” and that the operation
was conducted at dusk to “ensure no civilians were in the
area and to minimize the possibility of collateral damage.”
It also claimed that U.S. forces were merely present as advisers;
only Iraqi soldiers were involved.
The American statement was at best confused. The raid had targeted
the husseiniya, which strictly speaking was not a mosque but which
had the same function. Before the war it had been a Baath Party
office. Like other Baath Party buildings seized by Muqtada’s
followers, the Mustafa Husseiniya now had a minaret clearly protruding
above its walls, with loudspeakers on top to broadcast the calls
to prayer. Several rooms had been given to the Dawa Party for
its offices. Furthermore, the husseiniya was not in the Adhamiya
neighborhood. Adhamiya is a Sunni bastion, not far from Shaab
but worlds apart. Could the Americans have confused the most Sunni
neighborhood in Baghdad with a Shia stronghold? Could they have
confused Muqtada’s militia with a terrorist cell?
I had arranged to meet a journalist I knew from Shaab who was
also a close confidant of Sheikh Safaa, the imam of the husseiniya
and Muqtada’s deputy in Shaab. When we spoke on the side
of the road, far from the husseiniya, he warned me that he would
act as if he did not know me when we met later at the mosque;
it would be dangerous for him if people knew he associated with
foreigners. He wore a black suit, a dark shirt with no tie, and
leather shoes—Madhi Army dress. He told me that Sheikh Safaa
was expecting me and that he had asked the sheikh to guarantee
The journalist was an informal intelligence gatherer in the neighborhood.
Three years earlier I had found thousands of Baathist security
files in an abandoned and looted General Security Service office
that documented the day-to-day operations of the dictatorship,
including orders for executions, arrests, spreading rumors, and
countering rumors, as well as lists of snitches and collaborators,
and careful records of mosque sermons. They revealed the names
of Baathists and those who cooperated secretly with them and the
fates of missing men imprisoned under Saddam. At the time I felt
that they were Iraqi patrimony and should be handed over to an
Iraqi movement. The journalist was associated with the Dawa Party
and asked to borrow them. I agreed. I never got them back. I now
believe that they were used to compile hit lists for Shia militias
in Shaab who targeted former Baathists. The journalist was involved
A large sign in front of the husseiniya bore the faces of Muqtada’s
father and local Mahdi Army martyrs. Black banners hung on the
wall with Arabic letters in white, red, green, and yellow: “The
massacre of the Mustafa Husseiniya was done by the Wahhabis with
the help of the Americans.” Another said that the massacre
was committed by “the forces of darkness with the help of
the forces of occupation.”
The husseiniya was blocked off by concrete barriers, and in the
lot in front of it stood a large black chadir, a round tent erected
for mourning. Rows of plastic chairs lined its sides, and several
turbaned clerics sat talking. It is customary for visitors to
enter on the right side, shaking the hands of all present, wishing
peace upon them one by one. Each then sits down and asks God to
have mercy on the one who reads the fatiha, the first verse of
the Quran. Everyone recites the fatiha seated except for the relatives
of the deceased, who stand. Following the recital, the men wipe
their hands down their faces.
In front of the husseiniya was a small stand where a pot of tea
was boiling. I was offered a small glass of the very sweet and
strong tea popular in Iraq, always poured into glasses that taper
inward gracefully. The young men guarding the mosque welcomed
me and gave me a tour of the wreckage. The journalist was there,
too, and he introduced himself as promised. The men pointed to
a pile of rubble that had been the imam’s home. A missile
fired from an American Apache helicopter had apparently destroyed
it. As proof, the men had collected all the shrapnel, along with
numerous shell casings from American M-16s, not the Kalashnikovs
used by Iraqis. Three blackened cars sat inside the courtyard.
These, the men explained, had belonged to people praying in the
mosque and had been parked outside, but the Americans had burned
them and dragged them in. “By God, I don’t know why
the Americans came,” said one of my guides. “They
killed people praying, innocent people.”
Brownish-red stains still marked the courtyard. “One of
the people praying was shot here”he pointed—and dragged
all the way here. And one was shot here.” He showed me dried
pools of blood in the next room and pointed to the ceiling, where
blood and pieces of flesh had splattered. “They brought
four here; one of them was 14.” He gestured toward a doorway.
“There were five martyrs in that room.”
To the left of the husseiniya were several rooms that had been
given to the Dawa Party. This was not Prime Minister Ibrahim al
Jaafari’s party but a rival Dawa Party branch (there are
three) that had been exiled in Iran. Inside the offices, blood
covered plastic chairs and parts of the floor. Political posters
on the walls featured the first and second Sadr martyrs. “Here
they killed one,” my guides told me, pointing to more blood.
We were interrupted by a guide’s mobile phone; its ring
tone was an angry Shia sermon.
In one of the Dawa Party’s rooms they showed me a vast
pool of blood with white pieces of brain stuck in it. I glanced
at a Sunni doctor who was my interlocutor to get confirmation.
It looked real to him. The men pointed to more blood. “Torture,
you understand? Torture?” one said. A book written by Muhammad
Sadiq al Sadr was bloodied. A poster of Prime Minister Jaafari
had black ink scribbled on his face. In the room where the ceremonial
drums and chains were stored, drums had been torn.
Outside, Sheikh Safaa paced back and forth in the courtyard by
his destroyed home, talking on his mobile phone. The journalist
and several other young men surrounded him to consult as I waited.
I recognized another one of them, also wearing a black suit and
shirt with no tie and leather shoes. He worked for the Iraqi government’s
de-Baathification committee but passed information about Baathists
along to the Mahdi Army.
Sheikh Safaa agreed to meet me inside the prayer room itself.
Its green carpet and shiny model of the Najaf shrine were still
intact. On its walls hung verses from the Quran about judgment
day, a picture of Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, and one of Muqtada.
Sheikh Safaa looked extremely young, and his stylishly groomed
beard was still not fully mature. He was thin, with a long, narrow
nose. He wore modern wire-frame glasses and had a white imama,
or turban, balanced on his ears. As we spoke he held his mobile
phone and prayer beads in one hand, gesticulating with the other.
He confirmed that the mosque belonged to the Sadrists. He explained
that they had permitted the Dawa Party to use some of their rooms
as an office. “They are old people, and they are even not
capable of carrying a weapon,” he said. “They didn’t
even have a guard in their office. The American forces denied
that they attacked the husseiniya—they said they just attacked
the Dawa office—but it was a lie. . . . The truth is they
entered both the Dawa office and the Mustafa Husseiniya and they
killed in a very barbaric way. . . . And nobody expected the Americans
would do that, especially those who saw films about freedom in
America. No one expected this.
“We were surprised at six o’clock, half an hour before
the prayer, by a large number of Humvees and another armored vehicles.
They surrounded the husseiniya and started firing randomly. It
didn’t sound like Kalashnikovs or classic light weapons
but like Dushkas and heavy belt-fed machine guns. They also used
bombs and grenades.” I was surprised by his knowledge of
“There were low-flying planes and helicopters. I don’t
know if they were F-16s or B-52s. Infantry soldiers came in shooting.
They took the brothers to a single place and grouped them together
and executed them. One of them had a black band on his forehead
because he was a sayyid. He was the one who got the most bullets.
You have already seen his brains. They went inside the shrine
with a grenade. People were praying. They went inside the mihrab
[which only the imam enters]. The mosque should be a safe place.
. . . I have four children, and they were very scared. They still
are not stable. I went today to visit my mother, an old woman.
She was in shock and couldn’t recognize me.”
Sheikh Safaa blamed the political pressure on Jafaari for the
raid. “Americans think that Jaafari is the closest man to
the Sadrists, and they don’t like the Sadrists to have a
friend in the prime minister’s position in Iraq. They allowed
the Sadrists to participate in the elections, but the election
results were not what the Americans wanted, so they are putting
political pressure to prevent things from going in the direction
Sheikh Safaa warned of his people’s anger. Over the last
few days, he said, the people of Shaab “were very upset
by the presence of the occupation. Muqtada demanded that the occupation
forces apologize and compensate the families of the victims. America
should not kill and compensate. Just stop killing. When the occupier
came to this country we lost our security, and security is one
of the most important favors that God gives to us. It is true
that there was a strong oppression of Iraqis by the former regime.
America came to Iraq proclaiming its liberation and freedom and
democracy and pluralism, but America proclaimed one thing and
we saw something else. We saw freedom, but it was the freedom
of tanks and the democracy of Humvees, and instead of multiple
parties we saw multiple killings of people in ugly ways.”
That Thursday, March 30, I attended the weekly press briefing
of Major General Rick Lynch, the U.S. military spokesperson, in
the Combined Press Information Center. I expected some mention
of the raid, since prominent Shias had issued angry statements.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari said that the dead had indeed
been inside a mosque. Nuri al Maliki, who would soon succeed Jaafari
as prime minister, said on Iraqi state television, “This
was a hostile attack looking to destroy the political process
and provoke a civil war.” He blamed the American military
and the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Lynch wore pressed fatigues with two stars on his shoulder straps.
He stood before American and Iraqi flags and throughout the conference
remained expressionless. His hands sliced the air to emphasize
points, in rhythm with his words.
“Our operations continue across Iraq towards the identified
end state,” he said, “an Iraq that is at peace with
its neighbors and that is an ally in the war on terrorism, that
has a representative government and that respects the human rights
of all Iraqis, that has a security force that can maintain domestic
order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terror. And now we’re
making progress there every day.” He explained that attacks
against the coalition forces were concentrated in three provinces:
Baghdad, al Anbar, and Salah ad Din. He neglected to mention that
this was also where U.S. troops were concentrated and where some
of the biggest cities—Baghdad, Tikrit, Samarra, and Ramadi,
among others—were located.
“The enemy,” he said, “specifically the terrorists
and foreign fighters, specifically al Qaeda in Iraq, the face
of which is Zarqawi, is now specifically targeting Iraqi security-force
members and Iraqi civilians. In fact, the number of attacks against
Iraqi security-force members has increased 35 percent in the last
four weeks compared with the previous six months.” General
Lynch told the story of Sunni Arab recruits to the army who joined
even after some other recruits had been killed in a suicide bombing.
“If that’s not a testimony to the courage and conviction
of the Iraqi people, I don’t know what is. They’re
uniting against Zarqawi. As we’ve talked about before, counterinsurgency
operations average nine years. The people that are going to win
this counterinsurgency battle against Zarqawi and al Qaeda in
Iraq are the Iraqi people, and indications like that show their
courage, their conviction, and their commitment to a democratic
future. Amazing story.” General Lynch insisted on talking
as if the insurgency were limited to al Qaeda.
“We are making great progress to our end state here inside
Iraq,” General Lynch said. He switched slides to a satellite
image of Ur and Shaab showing the Mustafa Husseiniya. It was labeled
“Tgt Complex.” Several blocks away was a building
described, falsely, as the Ibrahim al Khalil Mosque, and even
farther away was a building described, again falsely, as the Al
“Last Sunday,” he said, “Iraqi special-operations
forces had indications that a kidnapping cell was working out
of this target complex. . . . This was led, planned, and executed
by the Iraqi special-operations forces, based on detailed intelligence
that a kidnapping cell was occupying this complex. The operation
consisted of about 50 members of Iraqi special operations forces
and about 25 U.S. advisers. But the U.S. advisers were there purely
in an advisory role. They did none of the fighting; there wasn’t
a shot fired from a U.S. service member during the conduct of
this operation. They surveyed the battlefield in advance, looking
for sensitive areas, and they said, Okay, there are mosques in
the area, but the nearest mosque is about six blocks from the
target-point complex, so a decision was made to do the operation.
. . .
“All told, 16 insurgents were killed, 18 were detained.
We found over 32 weapons, and we found the hostage, the innocent
Iraqi, who just 12 hours before was walking the streets of Baghdad.
He was walking the streets of Baghdad en route to a hospital to
visit his brother who had gunshot wounds. He was kidnapped and
beaten in the car en route to this complex. When he got there,
they emptied his pockets, they took out his wallet, and in the
wallet was a picture of his daughter, and he asked for one thing:
he said, ‘Please, before you kill me, allow me to kiss the
picture of my daughter. That’s all I ask.’ The kidnappers
told him, ‘Hey, we got you, and if we don’t get $20,000
sometime soon, you’re dead.’ And they showed him the
bare electrical wires that they were going to use to torture him
and then kill him. And they said, ‘We’re going to
go away and do some drugs, and when we come back, we’re
going to kill you.’
“He was beaten. He was tortured. He was tortured with an
electrical drill. Twelve hours after he was kidnapped, he was
rescued. . . . He is indeed most grateful. He is most grateful
to be alive, and he is most grateful to the Iraqi special-operations
forces. . . . The closest mosque was six blocks away. When they
got close to the compound, they took fire, and they returned fire.
When they got inside the room, a room in this compound, they realized
this could have been a husseiniya, a prayer room. They saw a prayer
rug. They saw a minaret. They didn’t know about that in
advance, but from that room and from that compound, they were
taking fire. In that room and in that compound, the enemy was
holding a hostage and torturing a hostage, and in that room and
in that compound, they were storing weapons, munitions, and IED
explosive devices. Very, very effective operation, planned and
executed by Iraqi special-operations forces.”
When asked who the enemy might have been, Lynch responded, “Extremists,
terrorists, and criminals, and it’s all intertwined. We
have reason to believe and evidence to support that the terrorists
and foreign fighters are indeed using kidnapping as a way to finance
their operations. And the story that I told about Sunday night’s
kidnapping can be told many more times.”
I remembered my visit three days earlier. There had been no signs
inside or outside the husseiniya of a gun battle or any fire coming
from inside, no random bullet holes in the husseiniya or the buildings
around it, no Kalashnikov shells (although those could have been
removed). The entire affair had seemed one-sided, and General
Lynch’s account of the kidnappers was pretty implausible.
If the Americans had committed extrajudicial killings there, they
were lying about the incident and even its location. They may
have stumbled on a Shia assassination squad targeting Sunnis,
but they seemed to have no idea.
* * *
In fact, the Mustafa Husseiniya’s Sheikh Safaa was at the
center of an organized campaign against Sunnis in Shaab, which
was one of the first parts of Baghdad where Sunnis were the victims
of assassinations and cleansing by Shia militias. Here, in the
Baghdad neighborhood with the second-largest Mahdi Army presence,
the civil war began in earnest in early 2005.
But it all started in the last months of 2004. Shias had fought
alongside Sunnis in April in the first battle of Fallujah, but
by November, when a second battle between Americans and insurgents
destroyed the Sunni city of Fallujah, some Shias were beginning
to think that the Fallujans got what they deserved for harboring
Zarqawi and his killing force. The near-daily insurgent attacks
against Iraqi policemen and soldiers had taken on a sectarian
tone, because these forces were mostly composed of poor Shia men;
Sunnis avoided joining. And as Shias grew indifferent to Fallujans’
suffering, Sunnis became resentful, and some turned murderous.
Sunni militias started targeting Shias as Shias, not as forces
of the occupation.
As Sunni refugees from the bombed-out Fallujah settled in west
Baghdad, the cleansing of Shias began. The neighborhoods there
were Sunni strongholds, with a formidable presence of both insurgents
and Salafis, people who practice a strict, reactionary form of
Sunni Islam that in its most extreme form even sanctions the killing
of all who disagree with its tenets. Shia families started getting
threats urging them to leave. If they ignored the threats, their
homes were attacked or their men murdered by Sunni militias (women
were rarely targeted).
It was in the al Amriya neighborhood of Baghdad in the last months
of 2004 that violence by Sunnis against Shias became widespread.
Hundreds of families were brutally forced out. Vacated homes were
seized by Sunni refugees. Not only insurgents but relatives of
refugees who merely needed housing conducted attacks. In the months
leading up to the January 2005 elections, Amriya’s streets
were littered with leaflets, and walls were covered with graffiti
calling for “death for those who betray what they have promised
God,” meaning death for those who participate in the election.
Jafar’s family was one of four Shia families on their street
in Amriya. They were the third to flee. Two others had left a
month before: one after their son, a translator for the U.S. Army,
was assassinated in the gate of his home and the other after receiving
a threat—their son worked in the Iraqi police forces.
Jafar is a Shia originally from Nassiriya. His family moved to
Baghdad in 1940, but maintained the connection with their tribe
in the south. Jafar lived in Amriya in a big house with his 70-year-old
mother, his brothers, and a large extended family. The family
was known for practicing the Shia tradition of cooking food and
giving it away to poor people on Ashura (the anniversary of Imam
Hussein’s martyrdom), even in the final years of Baath rule.
On September 4, 2005, they found a letter in their garage: “In
the name of God, do not think God is unaware of what the oppressors
are doing. We are watching your movements step after step, and
we know that you have betrayed God and his messenger; for that
we give you 48 hours to leave Amriya forever, and you should thank
God that you are still alive. And there will be no excuse after
The writer did not seem well versed in the Quran, and there was
no heading or signature to reveal the letter’s origins.
It seemed more a personal threat than a Jihadist operation. Nonetheless,
the family did not take a chance. They fled. The brothers split
up because they could not find a place that could take them all.
Jafar moved in with his wife’s parents in a Shia neighborhood;
the rest of the family moved into their aunt’s house in
the al Binok district. They had to leave much of their property
behind: there was no time to pack, and there would be much less
space in their new home.
In Dora, another majority Sunni neighborhood of west Baghdad,
the cleansing of Shias was even more brutal. Once one of Baghdad’s
nicest and most expensive neighborhoods, terrorism had brought
housing values down to a third of their pre-war price. Fleeing
Shia families would sell them cheaply, or abandon them; and poor
Sunnis would move in and live among other Sunnis. The cleansing
had been carried out largely by local insurgents who lived in
the farms of Dora (Arab Jiboor and Hor Rijab), but criminals had
also contributed, demanding money for kidnapped members of rich
families. When no hostage was taken, which was most often the
case, it was a sectarian attack.
Solaf was a 33-year-old Shia carpenter who had lived in Dora
since 1974, the youngest brother of five from the poor Abu Muhammad
family. His oldest brother, Muhammad, joined the police in mid-2004;
in May 2005 he was threatened and told to quit. But Muhammad needed
work, so he kept his job. He moved out of his parents’ house
and rented a small house in Shaab, a safer place for Shias. The
other brothers did not feel safe and tried to sell their house.
In mid-July they accepted an offer, but there was a delay in
signing the contract. Days later, as Solaf sat at the gate of
his home chatting with a friend, a white Hyundai stopped a few
meters away. A gunman with neither uniform nor mask emerged and
started shooting, killing Solaf and his friend. Solaf’s
family buried him the next day. On the second day of the funeral,
they received another threat and left Dora forever.
One week after Solaf’s murder, his mother heard that the
family of Solaf’s dead friend, who are Sunnis, had received
jizya, or blood money, of two million Iraqi dinars and an apology
from the mujahideen. Two Sunni families now live in Solaf’s
In the Shia stronghold of Shaab, Shias began retaliating against
Sunnis for the killings of their brothers, in a tit-for-tat that
foreshadowed what was to come. The Mahdi Army, having battled
coalition forces in April 2004, had formed new hierarchies and
accumulated guns and vehicles. Shia attacks on Sunnis would become
better organized after January 2005, when Sheikh Haitham al Ansari
Sheikh Haitham was Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr’s representative
in the Friday prayers. He fled to Syria in 1999 and returned to
Iraq only after Saddam’s fall. At the time he was an ally
of Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, and he immediately
gained political importance, grouping different Shia factions
together around him. Most importantly, he enjoyed wide popularity
among Mahdi Army soldiers. His murder on January 2, 2005, a few
months after he joined the United Iraqi Alliance as the Sadrist
representative, infuriated young Mahdi Army soldiers and other
loyalists. Further inflaming passions was the attempted assassination
of another prominent Shia, the so-called Prince of the Marshes,
Haj Abdul-Karim Mahood al Muhammadawi of Iraqi Hizbullah, as he
left Haitham’s funeral.
Soon after, organized campaigns against Sunnis in Shaab began.
Sheikh Safaa decided to avenge Haitham’s murder. He established
a special assassination squad under his command. All his soldiers
belonged to the Mahdi Army, and all targets belonged to the Salafi
movement. A room inside the Mustafa Husseiniya was used for torturing
suspects. Prisoners’ confessions to attacks against Shias
or civilians were filmed, with the interrogator’s voice
in the background, asking questions calmly in a southern Iraqi
accent (the same one common in Sadr City). One film captured the
group that confessed to the murder of Sheikh Haitham al Ansari.
The films were kept in the Sheikh’s possession and were
not distributed, only saved as evidence that people who deserved
it were executed. Sometimes the executions were filmed too.
Sheikh Safaa armed his death squad with grenades, grenade launchers,
and Kalashnikovs. He hand-picked the soldiers for their strength
and prowess and supplied them with vehicles donated by supporters
in Shaab. Having Mahdi Army friends in the vehicle-registration
department helped the group replace license plates. Sheikh Safaa
gave final approval of all targets, who would then be tracked
for a couple of days before their murder. There was no need for
the sheikh’s permission to follow a target merely to gather
intelligence. When they conducted operations and raids, members
of the group usually wore all black or military uniforms. Sometimes
they coordinated their operations with the Iraqi army. When raiding
a target’s house at night, the group operated quickly, dragging
him from bed, taking him to the mosque for interrogation, executing
him, and then disposing of his body by dumping it in the outskirts
of Sadr City locally known as al Sadda.
The killings of Shias by Sunnis and Sunnis by Shias escalated
into systematic sectarian cleansing in certain Baghdad neighborhoods.
Local Shia and Sunni militias were running death squads, sometimes
targeting their neighbors, even secular Iraqis, who would in the
end have no choice but to embrace the militias who might protect
them. This grinding daily violence had little to do with resistance
against the occupation, despite the clerics’ rhetoric. It
would make a project of national reconciliation very hard indeed.
Al Maalif, a poor, majority-Shia neighborhood of Baghdad lying
in the southern part of the Seidiya district, is a case study
in the cycle of violence. It was established in the late 1980s
when the government moved tribes from villages north of Baghdad
to build a factory and military camp in their place. The families
moved from village to city but preserved their tribal habits and
traditions. The neighborhood consists of a few large tribes and
other poor people (both Sunnis and Shias) who moved to the city
in the 1990s for cheaper living, but Shias are the vast majority
there, unlike in Seidiya in general, which is evenly split.
On June 13, 2005, the Shia Shuhada al Taf mosque was attacked
with a car bomb. Angry relatives of victims attacked Sunnis in
the area. That night Shias wrote “Death to Saddam and death
to Zarqawi” on the wall of the local Sunni Ali al Sajjad
mosque. Sunnis left “Death to Saddam” but removed
Zarqawi’s name, which only angered Shias more.
Hussein, a butcher from the Tual tribe who owned five shops in
Seidiya, and his partner, Ahmed al Mulla, also from the Tual,
formed a death squad targeting Sunnis. After two of Ahmed’s
brothers returned from exile in Iran where they had been soldiers
in the Badr Brigade, Hussein and Ahmed hung portraits of Ayatollahs
Sistani and Khomeini over their shops walls. They too joined the
Badr Brigade. Shia locals who had raided the Baath Party office
and transformed it into a Shia mosque gave them records with the
names, addresses, and personal information of party members in
Seidiya. The records even included the types of weapons they owned
and the serial number for each weapon. Hussein and Ahmed scanned
the records and interviewed about ten former regime loyalists
a day in an interrogation room they set up in one of Hussein’s
shops. They would knock on their doors and inform them: “You
were a Baath Party member and you need to come visit us in our
office in the Elam Market to clarify a few issues concerning you.”
Their “office” was a desk with two chairs and a long
bench. They would ask the Baathist to sit on the bench and sign
a statement: “I condemn all the former regime’s activities
against the Iraqi people, and I regret everything I have done
with that regime, and I promise to never help the Baath Party
again.” The Baathists would then be asked to turn over their
weapons. Ahmed and Hussein would check the serial number against
the records. They did not let any Baathist retain his weapons.
Assassinations of local Baathists in Seidiya intensified one
month after the office opened. They started fleeing the district.
Hussein and Ahmed tried to obtain a fatwa to give them legitimate
cover for their militia, but no respected cleric would give them
one. Even their dear friend and neighbor Sheikh Dhafer al Qeisi,
the Sistani representative for southern Baghdad, refused; he did,
however, support them secretly.
Hussein and Ahmed’s militia operated very professionally;
its many young members moved quickly, driving fast German Opels.
Ahmed spoke proudly about his operations in public and often said
that he would exceed 100 dead “Saddamists” before
2005 ended. Since most of the former Baathists in his neighborhood
were Sunni, all Sunnis in the neighborhood began to fear Ahmed,
worrying that they might be the next target. In late 2004 Sunnis
from the Omar Mosque in Elam formed their own assassination group.
Their main targets were Ahmed and Hussein.
One evening in March of 2005, Ahmed al Mullah was attacked in
his shop. A member of his group, Kadhum, died immediately; Ahmed
was seriously wounded. One week after he left the hospital, while
visiting the shop again, he was assassinated. His group ceased
operations. They had killed more than 50. In October, Hussein
was shot while driving home. Another brother, locking up the shop
the next day, found a warning: “In the name of God, we did
not oppress them, but they oppressed themselves, those who killed
the sons of Sunnis and Baathists, killed the men, made the children
orphans, and made the wives widows. They are cursed for what their
hands have done. We will beat them like they beat us, and we will
kill them everywhere.”
The end of the militia didn’t make al Maalif any safer
for Sunnis. On December 25, 2005, 13 Sunni families were threatened
and ordered to leave their homes. Two left the next day. In other
families the men hid or left. A Sunni woman in al Maalif whose
son had left the city reported his words: “There is a conspiracy
to force Sunnis out of Baghdad. We are limited in where we can
move; we cannot move to Shulaa, Hurriya, Dolaie, Shaab, Baghdad
al Jadida, or al Amien, where we face the same threats. We can
only move to Sunni neighborhoods dominated by the resistance—Dora
and Amriya. But it is not safe to live there either. We cannot
avoid attacks by writing on the walls that we are Sunnis. We might
be attacked by the army since we live next to terrorists.”
In late 2006 a Shia friend of mine from Maalif updated me about
his neighborhood. “There are no more Sunnis,” he said.
“Maalif for Sunnis is much worse than Fallujah for Shias.”
A few months earlier the body of his 16-year-old Sunni neighbor
had been found decapitated. The Mahdi Army had continued cleansing
the neighborhood, and after a mortar attack by insurgents that
killed more than 50 civilians, war was declared on the neighborhood’s
Sunnis. Sunnis with friends in Shia neighborhoods began exchanging
homes with them. While battling Sunnis, the Mahdi Army routinely
took over houses, using their rooftops for firing positions and
sometimes terrorizing the inhabitants.
The civil war was spreading. Violence between Sunnis and Shias
took on a life of its own, operating outside the reaches of the
occupation and its forces. Sectarian violence even extended to
the American prisons in Iraq, and prisoners segregated themselves.
Sheikh Muayad al Khazaraji, a Shia who had been imprisoned by
Americans for stockpiling weapons in his mosque, told another
Sadrist cleric, “After I was in the jail I knew who is my
enemy and who is not. The Americans are not my enemy. The Americans
have interests, and anybody who wants to block the way of Americans
from obtaining those interests becomes their enemy and they destroy
him. Be away from their road and they will not touch you. Our
enemies are the Wahhabis.”
* * *
I returned to the Mustafa Husseiniya for the Friday prayers five
days after the attack, and much of the neighborhood was shut down.
Roads were blocked with tree trunks, trucks, or motorcycles. Mahdi
Army militiamen sat on chairs on the main road east to the husseiniya
asking for IDs as men walked slowly in the sun to the noon prayer.
The soldiers of the Mahdi Army were mostly in their 20s and 30s,
sporting carefully groomed clipped beards, shaved under the chin
and neck, and wearing all black, sometimes with cotton shirts
that said “Mahdi Army” and their unit’s name.
Many carried Iraqi police–issue Glock pistols and handcuffs
at their sides. They were off-duty policemen. The Mahdi Army had
become the police, and the police were the Madhi Army.
As the call to prayer ended, a man stood up to yell a hossa.
“Damn Wahhabism and takfirism and Saddamism and Judaism,
and pray for Muhammad!” The crowd yelled back, “Our
God prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!” Then
they shook their fists. “And speed the Mahdi’s return!
And damn his enemies!” Wearing a white turban and white
shroud to show he was prepared for martyrdom, Sheikh Hussein al
Assadi, the lead Sadrist cleric for the entire eastern half of
Baghdad, stood up behind the pulpit. The sermon would be inflammatory.
It would again blame the occupation for sectarian violence. But
like the sermons of other Sadrist clerics since early 2005, its
message would be implicitly sectarian—it would treat Sunnis
as infidels and urge, indirectly but using encoded language the
audience would understand, that they be subjugated and even killed.
“All this martyrdom was done by international Zionism and
world imperialism and the American occupation.” Sheikh al
Assadi’s angry voice echoed against the city’s walls.
Some filmed the sermon with their mobile phones. Sheikh al Assadi
prayed against the enemies of Islam, asking God to divide them
and make them hungry, to make them fight each other, to kill them,
to make them cowards, to push them from victory, to stop their
tongues, to make them run away, to make them always losers, to
make them examples for future generations, to make them infertile,
to make their livestock infertile, to stop the rain from them,
to kill their plants, and to unite Muslims. He reminded his listeners
that nothing could replace Islam because man’s laws, like
man, were imperfect, and therefore people must follow a constitution
written by God.
Sheikh al Assadi blamed the Americans for opening Iraq’s
borders to the takfiris, and he blamed the Americans for killing
Sunnis and claimed that they had thrown bodies in the Sadda area,
near Sadr City, to ruin the reputation of Sadr City and to frame
it for the crimes. He called the American government an occupying,
criminal, Zionist, infidel administration, a criminal against
humanity. He said that the Americans planted agents around the
world, including the Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq, who was
buried in hell, and Saddam, and the American ambassador to Iraq,
Zalmay Khalilzad, “the husband of the Jew who was accepted
by the Mossad.” He explained that “the American monkey
Bush” had admitted to collaborating with Israel. He said
that George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice were well-known Protestant
Christians and that such people were “Zionist Christians
who do not even believe in the Christian prophet, and so they
gave the green light to attack targets in Palestine and Lebanon.”
For good measure he called United Nations Secretary General Kofi
Annan an “idiot friend of Saddam.” He warned that
the UN has infiltrated in the north to help the Kurds under the
guise of humanitarian, charity, and health organizations and that
it openly occupies northern Iraq.
He condemned the “rotten spy” and “loyalists
of the criminal Saddam and some leaders in the infidel American
army” who declared that Mustafa Husseiniya was not a mosque
and said they wanted to return it to its previous use as a Baath
Party office “for slaughtering people.” He asked the
crowd of thousands to shout, “We will never be oppressed!”
and they thundered in response. Invoking the custom of tribal
vengeance that mandates that no funeral ceremonies be observed
for a murdered relative until his killers are themselves killed,
he said, “We promised ourselves not to cry for the martyrs
until we kill their killers in a worse way and the government
should not put their hands in the hands of those who killed us
and we want them to prove their Iraqi identity and Islamic identity
and we want them to release our prisoners or an eye for an eye
and a tooth for a tooth.”
After the sermon, the streets of Hai Ur and Shaab filled with
men strolling home in the heat or heading for minibuses and trucks.
Prayer was also ending across town in the western Sunni neighborhood
of Ghazaliya; there, several hundred Sunni men were heading home
from the Um al Qura mosque. In Sunni mosques, too, clerics had
long since stopped appeals for unity.
Ghazaliya was built in the 1980s for Baath Party members and
Iraqi army offices. It was largely Sunni, although it had its
own Shia slums. Saddam didn’t allow Shia mosques to be built
there, so all 12 of Ghaziliya’s mosques are Sunni. Um al
Qura is the largest. Its name, which means “mother of villages,”
is a reference to Mecca. Built by Saddam as a symbol of his turn
to Sunni Islam at a cost of $7.5 million, the mosque (whose original
name was Um al Maarik, “mother of all battles”) commemorated
his battle against the United States and its allies in the 1991
Gulf War. Its tall minarets and sharp tapering dome, taller than
most in Iraq, are visible from far away. Four of the minarets
are shaped like Kalashnikovs and four like Scud missiles. A large
fence and a moat shaped like the Arab homeland surrounds it. Inside,
bright white marble and natural light streaming in from high up
gives more an impression of a cathedral than a mosque. The imam’s
voice echoes like a Gregorian chant. On the mosque’s cream-colored
walls hang green and gold decorations and gruesome posters of
murdered members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, allegedly
killed by Shia militias or the ministry of the interior’s
forces. The mosque’s huge parking lot has not been full
since the heady days of spring 2004.
Sunni mosques in Iraq rarely attract the same large crowds as
their Shia counterparts, since Sunnis generally go to the closest
mosque in their neighborhood. People tend to sit alone and pray
quietly. There are no group chants or social activities, no songs.
Men do not converse with each other. Some lean against the columns
in solitary thought.
About 500 men were present in Um al Qura the day Sheikh Sumaidai
made his way up the steps wearing a tightly wound white turban
and immaculate white robes. His beard was shaved so close it was
barely visible. He wore thin wire-frame glasses. Before microphones
from the full panoply of Iraqi and Arab television stations, he
began in a slow chant, eventually picking up, screaming, and waving
his hands as his emotion mounted, then began all over again, his
voice once more subdued until it built up to a frenzy—the
The Prophet Muhammad’s birthday was coming up, and Sheikh
Sumaidai reminded his audience that Muslims had “felt like
kings in time of Muhammad and now they feel oppressed.”
He cut the air with his fists and asked, “What kind of life
are we living now? Is this a life? People have abandoned their
religion, abandoned their Islam! These days remind us of the days
before Muhammad’s birth. Where are the Muslims?”
Sheikh Sumaidai urged people not to abandon Islam, not to abandon
God’s word “and start chasing the slogans of the West
like democracy.” He compared the American occupation to
the attempted assassination of the prophet Muhammad. “They
want to assassinate Islam,” he said. “The invasion
does not want Muslims to be Christians; it wants them to be cattle,
and to disconnect the communication between them and God. . .
. Today all the Muslim countries, including our patient country,
are suffering enormous disasters. Muslims are confused: should
they follow the politics of the West, or the politics of the parties,
or the politics of sectarianism? There is no way except religion.
That is the only asylum from this strife. We should return to
Islam that taught brotherhood and mercy.”
“Islam tells us that if we want to preserve our country
we have to defend it,” he said. “We should stop crying
about our country; we should act to keep it.”
It was a far more subdued message than ones I had heard in the
past from the mosque’s pulpit. For months before the war
Baath Party clerics had called the Americans pigs and apes and
preached in support of Saddam’s regime. On July 18, 2003,
a day after the anniversary of the Baath coup, over a thousand
men with white skullcaps had gathered for the Friday prayer and
sermon. The mosque’s original name still hung there, and
an adjoining museum displayed a Quran allegedly written with Saddam’s
That day, Dr. Muthana Harith al Dhari, the head of the Association
of Muslim Scholars, warned that the Americans should think of
leaving Iraq to spare them and the Iraqis time, blood, and money.
Dhari was the grandson of Sheikh Suleiman al Dhari, who led the
1920 rebellion against British occupation and killed Colonel Gerard
Leachman, a British colonial officer. Dhari proudly kept his grandfather’s
gun. “It is the right of occupied people to resist the occupiers
. . . The Iraqis will resist.” Dhari recalled the recent
American July Fourth celebrations, commemorating America’s
own independence from the British. Did the Arabs not have the
same right to resist occupation and expel the occupiers that other
nations had? Dhari commended the resistance, calling it “an
honest opposition” of which Iraqis could be proud.
Dhari condemned the new Iraqi Governing Council, “established
by dishonest parties,” for dividing Iraq along sectarian
lines, and warned that it would provoke hostilities among the
Iraqi people. He was infuriated by the council’s declaration
making April 9, the day Baghdad fell in 2003, a national holiday,
a day he described as “the downfall and surrender of Baghdad,”
which should be remembered with sorrow and pain. Dhari’s
anti-Shiism came across only obliquely, when he condemned as the
council’s greatest evil its acceptance of one community
(the Shias) unjustly dominating the others (he rejected the statistics
that said that Shias were in the majority). Dhari also implicitly
condemned opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi, as well as his colleagues,
who he said came on the backs of U.S. tanks and called for the
killing of former Baathists. Up to half of the country’s
population were former Baathists, he said, and all were pious
and well-intentioned. In private, Dhari spoke of Muslims and Shias
as if they were two different things.
Even so, like most Sunni clerics in the spring of 2003, Dhari
made some effort to embrace national unity publicly and to join
with Shias in resisting the occupation. His voice building to
a shrill cry, Dhari screamed out that the Americans were committing
crimes—breaking into homes, searching women. “Do you
agree with this?” he demanded. “No!” the crowd
shouted back. Dhari said that the Iraqis knew how to resist occupation,
recalling the 1920 revolution against the British, when Sunnis
and Shias fought together. As prayers ended and the men streamed
out of the mosque, they shouted, “No to colonialism! No
to the occupiers!”
The crowd chanted rhyming slogans calling for the extermination
of the infidel army and for the American head of the Coalition
Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, to follow Nuri al Said, the
British-protected Iraqi prime minister who was killed by mobs
in 1958. Leaflets distributed during the demonstration contained
a statement from the Iraqi branch of the Islamic Liberation Party.
It called on Muslims around the world to come to their aid.
On August 11, 2003, the Association of Muslim Scholars issued
a statement condemning the American violation of mosques, which
they said even the Mongols had not done. Thanking the Shia Ayatollah
Sistani for his own statements defending Sunni mosques, it blamed
the Americans for giving Shias too much power, including control
over the ministry of religious endowments, or Awqaf. Awqaf did
not protest the arrests of 30 clerics or the American violation
of holy places, the association said.
In early April 2004, Dhari called for national unity and a three-day
general strike to protest the U.S. siege of Fallujah. He announced
that the Sunni council had declared it against Islam to purchase
American or British goods, since the money would support the military
operations against Iraqis, Arabs, and the Muslim world. Dhari
also asked his audience to help in providing medical supplies
for Fallujans, as well as gas and generators.
“Come to Jihad!” he shouted, calling Fallujah a historic
battle of the Iraqi nation in which their loved ones were fighting,
welcoming death and martyrdom. Dhari called on God to support
the holy warriors who were fighting to liberate their country
and religion and to kill the occupiers. “Do not spare any
Two years later, there was no more talk of unity. Sunni clerics
were trying to demonstrate to the public and to the media that
innocent Sunnis were being slaughtered by Shia militias and to
rally Sunnis around the common threat. On April 4, 2006, I stood
waiting in the sun for the second day in a row after a friend
who moonlighted for the Association of Muslim Scholars told me
that the bodies of Sunnis slain in sectarian violence would be
brought in from the morgue, a standard show. Ghazaliya had long
been one of Baghdad’s many no-go zones for foreigners, journalists,
and even many Iraqis. Sunni militias openly patrolled its streets
when American or Iraqi army or police forces were not looking,
and they stopped cars at their checkpoints to look for suspicious
outsiders. Shias living in Ghazaliya had been receiving death
threats, if they were lucky, warning them to leave the neighborhood.
As I stood in the parking lot with a few Iraqi cameramen, I could
hear exchanges of fire in the distance.
Finally we heard wailing coming from the mosque’s gate
as two trucks approached, accompanied by men on foot. The men
were crying and beating themselves, stopping to collapse on the
ground or raise their arms in desperation, then shouting, “There
is no god but God!” They cursed the killers. “Faggots!
Brothers of whores!” they said. “This is a disaster!
What did they do? We are almost extinct! They’ve broken
our backs! The bastards! The infidels!”
The dead were Sunni shopkeepers. I asked one of the men to tell
me what had happened. “They took them in the south, from
their shops. They took them to an office and took their car. We
found them yesterday in the morgue. They lived in Ghazaliya. Four
brothers. And a father and son!” He began crying again.
An older man wearing tribal clothes and hiding his face with
his headscarf shouted, “This is arranged by Iran. We are
Muslims and this is our country. Why are they doing this to us?
. . . One victim is only 12 years old! Everywhere they kill Sunnis.”
He said when other relatives came to the morgue for the bodies
they too were kidnapped.
After the trucks stopped at the mosque’s steps, the men
took out rugs and laid the coffins on the ground, their covers
pulled to the side, revealing bodies under plastic. “Open
the bags so they can see,” one man said. “This one
is only ten years old,” cried a man. “A kid. Should
he be strangled? Look at him.” The boy did indeed look about
ten, his face swollen and eyes closed, thick stitches lining his
They opened another coffin. “This one was tortured before
killing!” one man shouted. “They pulled out his teeth!
He was helping his father. What is their crime that they were
killed? Only that they are Sunnis?” He raised his hands
and shouted, “God is great!” I looked at the corpse,
a middle-aged man with a bruised face, missing some of his front
teeth. “Even Jews wouldn’t do this!” shouted
one man. “They say that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. How
do you explain this?”
Somebody decided the show was over. The coffins went back on
the trucks, which drove away, followed by the Iraqi journalists.
The members of the Association of Muslim Scholars remained outside,
discussing a Sunni man who was kidnapped as he went to visit relatives
in the hospital. “They control the hospitals,” said
one man, referring to Muqtada’s followers. He noticed me
filming him and angrily covered the lens with his hand. He was
the head of security, I was later told.
On my way back I drove through the wealthy Mansur district. Two
bodies lay on the main street. It was a common sight. I later
found out that they were Iraqi staff of the embassy of the United
Arab Emirates. The same day a Sunni friend from western Baghdad
called me, distraught, because his Shia neighbor and friend had
been killed the previous night. At least ten bodies had been found
in his neighborhood. A Sunni who brought one of them to the hospital
was also killed, for doing just that. On another typical night,
Shias who lived in a Sunni neighborhood saw masked men in their
garden. They found a letter ordering them to leave. The following
day they did. Over the course of six weeks that spring I had had
three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day
off because a neighbor or relative had been killed.
Several Iraqi news channels were running a warning from the ministry
of defense that Iraqis should not follow the orders of police
or army patrols at night unless they were accompanied by American
forces. Some Iraqis began panicking at the sight of unaccompanied
Iraqi forces and fired on them. Iraq was deteriorating. One morning
14 bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets
identifying them as “Omar,” a Sunni name. It was a
message. On another day a group of bodies were found with their
hands overlapping on their abdomens, right hand above left, the
way Sunnis pray. Another message. Many Sunnis were thinking of
obtaining false papers with neutral names. And Sunni militias
were retaliating, stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya, or
ID cards, of passengers and executing those with Shia names. In
the past the American military was a dominant presence, its Brobdingnagian
vehicles rumbling through Baghdad’s traffic, its soldiers
giants with their vests and helmets and weapons. The occupation
could be felt. Now in Baghdad you could go days without seeing
American soldiers. Instead it felt as if Iraqis were occupying
Iraq, their masked militiamen blasting through traffic in unmarked
security vehicles, shooting into the air, angrily shouting orders
on loudspeakers, pointing their Kalashnikovs at all who passed.
On February 8, 2006, Abdulsalam al Kubeisi, the director of public
relations for the Association of Muslim Scholars, said in an interview,
“There is an organized campaign being run by the current
government and executed by militias belonging to the government
and following a Persian strategy to occupy Baghdad and replace
its Sunni families with other families whose roots we do not know.
. . . The government militias are attacking Sunnis everywhere.”
* * *
With the January 30, 2005, electoral success of the Shia parties,
the balance of power between Shias and Sunnis shifted, initiating
an apartheid process. In the ministry of health, pictures of Muqtada
and his father were everywhere, along with pictures of Shia saints
and banners celebrating Shia holidays. Traditional Shia music
reverberated through the hallways. Doctors and ministry employees
referred to the minister of health as “imami,” or
“my imam,” as though he were a cleric. And in the
ministry of transportation, walls were adorned with Shia posters,
including some specifically supporting Muqtada. Sadrists instituted
a program they called “cleansing the ministry of Saddamists,”
with “Saddamist” defined so broadly that all Sunnis
felt vulnerable. Ousted Sunnis were replaced by Shias with no
apparent qualifications. In one case, a Sunni chief engineer in
the transportation ministry was fired and replaced with an unqualified
Shia who wore a cleric’s turban to work. Efficiency dropped;
the ministries of health and transportation barely functioned,
and the ministry of the interior operated an anti-Sunni death
squad. Its secret prisons were uncovered in November 2005.
Although SCIRI controlled the ministry of the interior, which
nominally controlled the security forces, the rank and file were
poor, young Shia men, often members of the Mahdi Army. Local police
forces thus fell under the control of the Sadrists. Iraqi police
stations and army bases were decorated with posters of Muqtada,
as were police and military vehicles. Even in the Sunni Anbar
province, the Iraqi army was composed of Sadrists. In the spring
of 2006, when Sunni soldiers from the Anbar province graduated
as new members of the Iraqi army and were told that they would
serve outside their home province, among Shias, they rioted and
tore off their uniforms. (The Americans had established police
forces in Anbar, composed of local Sunni men selected by their
tribes. When I visited them in the spring of 2006, these police
had not been paid in months, because the ministry of the interior
was not sending the money.)
Sunnis had initially courted Muqtada, who opposed Iranian intervention,
in the hope of establishing a united front against Americans.
But Muqtada’s Mahdi Army was in fact primarily responsible
for the attacks against Sunnis. The Mahdi Army could claim, as
it did, that it had handed over its weapons after battling Americans
in Najaf, Sadr City, and other Shia enclaves, that it was a purely
“spiritual army,” but since Mahdi Army soldiers pervaded
the police force, they were still armed and in control. And although
the ministry of the interior had been implicated in attacks against
Sunnis, it was the police themselves that conducted such attacks
Fighting between Sunni militias and the Mahdi Army escalated
but was not yet officially declared. One Mahdi Army soldier explained
to me that “Wahhabis know we are killing them, otherwise
they would not attack us back, but they have not declared war
on us because then all the Shias of Iraq would be against them
and they would lose.” Another soldier told me, “We
kill more Wahhabis than Badr does, and we throw their bodies in
our city, but accusation’s finger points to Badr anyway.”
In private conversations Sunni insurgents and their leaders acknowledged
the Madhi Army’s role and expressed the belief that they
were motivated by Iran, not Iraqi nationalism. But they too feared
publicly naming them, still hoping for some manner of reconciliation.
Shia militias led by the Mahdi Army took the offensive against
Sunnis when it was clear that the Sunni resistance had reconciled
with al Qaeda, and Iraqi nationalist groups, including the Association
of Muslim Scholars, began supporting al Qaeda’s attacks
on security forces and providing Zarqawi’s men with shelter
in late 2005. The Mahdi Army saw the Association of Muslim Scholars
as merely Salafis and Baathists in the attire of normal Sunni
clerics and claimed that “they are not representing our
Sunni brothers.” This justified killing any Sunni they wanted.
The Mahdi Army became increasingly effective, perhaps because
of its new collaboration with Lebanese Hizbullah; Muqtada had
sent his senior men to Lebanon and was modeling his militia on
theirs, although Hizbullah was a resistance movement and had never
engaged in sectarian killings. With a small number of police cars
Mahdi Army militiamen could operate at night, past curfew, entering
Sunni neighborhoods to arrest or kill Sunnis with official sanction.
A turning point in the intensifying struggle between Shia and
Sunni militias had been the fighting in Madain, a town in the
Baghdad province, in the spring of 2005. Although Shias, Christians,
and members of the rare Sabaen sect (which combined elements of
Judaism and Christianity) all lived there, it was a majority-Sunni
town. After about 150 impoverished Shia families from the south
migrated there, encamping in former military bases, they were
soon accused of looting, stealing, and highway robbery. Resistance
and insurgent groups needed the roads unobstructed so that they
could conduct their own attacks on coalition and Iraqi security
forces. They clashed with the new Shias. Among the insurgents
were members of Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group, who brought
with them foreign fighters. Unemployed youths also joined the
insurgents. Salafi fighters drove around the area in their pickup
trucks ordering all Shias to leave the city.
A special unit of the ministry of interior called the Wolf Brigade
occupied Madain and fought with the insurgents, making mass random
arrests of Sunnis. They took over a school and based themselves
there. The Wolf Brigade was replaced by the Karar Brigade, based
in the Wasit province in the Shia south. Locals viewed the presence
of ministry forces from a different province with suspicion. Karar
is another name for Imam Ali, whom the Shias revere; this was
not a coincidence. Karar made more random arrests of Sunni men
and established a reign of terror, ominously resembling Saddam’s,
for the first time under the new Iraqi security forces. Sunnis
compared the security forces’ operations in Madain to the
American operations in Fallujah. In its communiqués the
Association of Muslim Scholars described the Iraqi police and
army forces as Shia militias and referred to them as “government
police” instead of “Iraqi police,” and the “government
army” instead of the “Iraqi army.”‚
When Zarqawi declared war on Shias in a September 2005 speech,
Iraq’s radical Sunni leadership reacted quickly to condemn
it. The Association of Muslim Scholars announced that Iraq’s
Shias were responsible neither for the crimes the government was
committing with the Americans’ blessing nor for the attacks
by the Americans themselves. No religious principle allowed one
to seek revenge on an innocent person, they said, and they accused
Zarqawi of supporting the Americans’ hope to create civil
war in Iraq. Meanwhile five resistance groups—the Army of
Muhammad, the al Qaqa Battalions, the Islamic Army of Iraq, the
Army of Mujahideen, and the Salehdin Brigades—condemned
Zarqawi’s statements, calling them a “fire burning
the Iraqi people” and explaining that the resistance only
attacked the occupiers and those who assisted them, and did not
base their attacks on sectarian or ethnic criteria.
These Sunni condemnations did not satisfy Muqtada, and in late
2005 he sent a letter to various Sunni leaders complaining that
Zarqawi had labeled all Shias as infidels and that he and all
Shias were being targeted by Zarqawi’s deadly attacks. He
demanded that Sunni leaders label Zarqawi an infidel. No Sunni
leader agreed. Some explained that it was too dangerous to do
so, but Muqtada refused their apologies.
This was a key moment for the Sadr movement and for sectarian
relations in Iraq. Mahdi fighters complained bitterly about this
betrayal by the Sunnis. And Sadr decided to join the Shia coalition
openly in the December elections. For the first time Mahdi Army
soldiers were sitting down with Sistani followers and discussing
politics. In the past it was difficult to even have them in the
Sunnis and Shias began using new terms to refer to each other.
To Shias, Sunnis were Wahhabis, Saddamists, and nawasib. To Sunnis,
Shias were al rafidha or al turs. Rafidha, meaning “rejectionists,”
refers to those who do not recognize the Islamic caliphs and want
instead a caliphate from the descendent of Imam Ali. It has become
a blanket pejorative term. Turs, meaning “shield,”
refers to the human shields used by the enemy infidels. It is
permitted to kill these shields. Iraqi Salafis call the Shias
they kill turs to justify their killings.
Elections may have represented a victory for the Bush administration,
but they also enshrined sectarianism more deeply in Iraq. Ayad
Alawi, the former prime minister and the secular nationalist candidate,
faired even worse than he had in the January elections. Other
nonsectarian parties failed to win even one seat. The elections
also proved that the resistance was disciplined and Iraqi-controlled:
the resistance did not attack Sunni voters; in some cases resistance
fighters protected them, since they too viewed a large Sunni turnout
as a key element in their struggle for a larger Sunni role in
the new Iraq. The Sunni winner in the elections was the Iraqi
Accord Front, a coalition of three Islamist parties. Sunnis felt
betrayed when SCIRI leader Abdel Aziz al Hakim warned that Shias
would prevent Baathists from joining the new government—by
force if necessary—nor would Sunnis be able to modify the
constitution, something promised to them by U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad
to secure their participation. Khalilzad’s attempt to woo
Sunnis had been viewed as a betrayal by Shias, who called for
his removal. Hakim also renewed his call for a southern Shia super-region.
In February 2006 the Iraqi Accord Front, with 44 seats in the
new parliament, threatened civil disobedience if attacks against
Sunni civilians did not stop.
On February 22, 2006, a bomb destroyed the Shia Askari shrine
in Samarra. In the days that followed, over 1,300 bodies were
found in Baghdad, most of them Sunni. Once these figures were
revealed, the ministry of the interior—whose forces were
likely responsible for most of these deaths—asked the Shia-controlled
ministry of health to cover up the numbers. Shias took over dozens
of Sunni mosques and renamed them after the Samarra shrine.
Sunni television stations such as Baghdad TV, controlled by the
Iraqi Islamic Party, showed only Sunni victims of the retaliatory
attacks. Shia television stations, such as al Furat and al Iraqiya,
focused on the damaged shrine and on the Shia victims. Al Furat
was even more aggressive, encouraging Shias to “stand up
for their rights.” On a Shia radio station’s talk
show, one caller announced that those responsible for the attack
were Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman, the three first caliphs whom
Sunnis venerate and whom Shias reject as usurpers of the position
that rightfully belonged to Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s
cousin and son-in-law.
Following the February 22 attack Sunni militias faced the increased
wrath of the Mahdi Army. Throughout Iraq, Mahdi Army cadres flooded
the streets, marching and chanting in unison.
After a young Shia sheikh was stopped and searched by armed guards
near the Sunni al Sajjad mosque, Mahdi Army soldiers surrounded
the mosque and searched the entire building for explosives. (The
Sajjad mosque belongs to the Sunni militia Ansar al Sunnah. In
late 2004 it had celebrated two funerals for Iraqi-Palestinian
suicide bombers killed in operations against collation forces
in Iraq. The Sajjad mosque graduation’s ceremonies for children
who memorize the Quran are named after al Qaeda video titles,
such as “Winds of Victory.”) Sunnis informed the media,
and local stations claimed that the Mahdi Army had taken over
the mosque. On the following Friday, Sunnis asked for U.S. Army
protection against possible Mahdi Army attacks during their Friday
prayers. They were increasingly open in accusing the Mahdi Army.
Officially, Muqtada opposed attacks on Sunnis, but he had unleashed
his fighters after the Samarra attack, ordering them in his sermons
to kill the nawasib. Angry Shia militiamen believed that not even
destroying all the Sunni mosques in Iraq would avenge the attack
on the shrine in Samarra.
In any case, Muqtada did not have direct control of his militias.
The Mahdi Army is a diverse movement and not strictly hierarchical,
and Muqtada himself is unaware of most of its local commanders
and activities (although it is widely believed that this October
he executed 30 rogue Mahdi Army officials for being out of control).
The Mahdi Army’s cells are generally loose and informal
and resemble soccer teams. In fact, many emerged from local soccer
teams. (Sayyid Hassan Naji al Musawi, an important Mahdi Army
commander in Sadr City, was a well-known local soccer star before
the war.) Different leaders of the Mahdi Army dislike each other.
There are jealousies and rivalries. There is nothing stopping
a group of Shia youths from declaring themselves a Mahdi Army
unit, collecting weapons and interpreting Muqtada’s fatwas
as they see fit. But the Mahdi Army is also evolving and becoming
far more structured and professional in parts of Baghdad and Iraq.
Many have been divided into units, following the model of Hizbullah
in Lebanon. Many are paid salaries, a few hundred dollars a month.
Mahdi Army units are attached to the offices of Muqtada Sadr’s
representatives in various Baghdad districts. Smaller neighborhoods
are easier to control; there is usually a local boss, intelligence
officers, and a chain of command. Large neighborhoods such as
Sadr City are harder for them to govern, and different groups
compete for control. In the past journalists could guarantee their
security by coordinating with the Sadr office in Sadr City, but
now one group can grab you from another group. Recent talk of
Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki disarming the militias is absurd:
Maliki’s Dawa Party, which has no armed wing, closely collaborates
with Muqtada’s men. But this division of labor within the
Shia bloc is temporary; once they consolidate their control and
cleanse the Sunnis, the Shia parties will begin competing among
themselves for power and the civil war will devolve.
As sectarian cleansing escalated after the Samarra bombing, Shia
families fled Abu Ghraib, al Taji, and al Mishahda, moving into
Shia strongholds in Baghdad, where Muqtada’s representatives
took care of them. In Amriya bodies were found on the main street
at a rate of three, or five, or seven a day. People feared approaching
the bodies, for those who did, or those who called an ambulance,
were threatened or killed. Hundreds of Shia families from Sunni
towns settled in Red Crescent–run refugee camps near Kut.
The United States constantly shifted its support back and forth
between Sunnis and Shias, calling on Shias to rein in their militias,
a key Sunni demand, while still conducting massive and lethal
raids on the Sunni population.
A television station launched a program entitled “Terror
in the Hand of Justice.” On it alleged Sunni insurgents
were shown confessing to crimes such as rape and sodomy. On one
episode an interrogator accused the members of important Sunni
tribes—the Juburi, Janabi, and Duleimi—of all being
terrorists. The show only heightened Sunni fears that the Shia
security forces were targeting them en masse. (Sunnis are also
targeted by rejectionist groups such as al Qaeda for seeking to
participate in the mainstream political system.)
In April 2006 the Mahdi Army attacked a number of high-ranking
insurgents, including prominent former Baathists in Baghdad’s
Adhamiya neighborhood. They captured their suspects. Irate locals
began shooting at Iraqi National Guardsmen, and they accused both
the Badr organization and Iranian revolutionary guards of being
involved. Rumors spread of revolutionary guards taking prisoners.
In fact, it was a Mahdi Army operation. In the days that followed,
Iraqi police fired randomly into Adhamiya, and residents could
not leave their homes for days in a row. The police shot out generators
and cut power cables, presumably to punish residents for harboring
Following the battles the Association of Muslim Scholars released
a statement accusing the ministry of the interior: “The
people of Adhamiya defended their city with honor and they lost
seven martyrs and 19 were injured. We have realized that satellite
channels like Hurra and al Arabiya have changed the truth, and
they have shown the interior’s commandos and militias as
the ones who helped the people of Adhamiya from an attack by other
armed people, despite the fact that these forces were the ones
who attacked the city. And we saw that the Iraqi National Guard
leader who is responsible for protecting the city was just watching
and doing nothing.” For Sunnis the state was at war with
* * *
A staunch Sunni bastion, Adhamiya was named for its famous eighth-century
mosque, Al Imam al Adham, meaning “the greatest imam,”
a reference to Abu Hanifa al Numan, whose tomb is contained there.
Abu Hanifa was a ninth-century theologian whose legal judgments
are still followed by about half the world’s Muslims. As
Iraq’s most important Sunni shrine, it was visited by hundreds
of thousands of pilgrims a year. It had been a favorite mosque
of the former Iraqi government, and prior to the war Iraqi state
television often broadcast its Friday prayers. The mosque’s
imam, Sheikh Abdul Ghafar al Kubaisi, would hold up a Kalashnikov,
exhorting listeners to protect Saddam and his regime. After the
American invasion, Kubaisi went into hiding.
Iraq’s Shias believe that Abu Hanifa was a treacherous
student of Imam Kadhim who participated in his killing. They have
a tradition of spitting in the direction of the shrine when they
pass by it. Sayyid Hassan Naji al Musawi, a close ally of Muqtada’s
in Baghdad and a commander of the Mahdi Army, once confided to
me that Abu Hanifa was an “ibn zina,” or “son
of adultery,” and that “a dog is buried there.”
Salafis, whose numbers in Adhamiya had grown in the 1990s, also
despised the mosque because of the Salafi rejection of all shrines
Adhamiya was very old and very rich, and the former regime found
many supporters there. Up-and-coming Baathists would often buy
houses in Adhamiya as soon as they could afford it. General Mustafa
al Azzawi, who commanded the Iraqi forces that fought Americans
in Nasiriya in 2003, had begun building a home in Adhamiya before
the war. Saddam himself hid in Adhamiya in the first Gulf War
of 1991, and following the war he appeared on Iraqi television
and thanked the people of Adhamiya for helping him. He declared
that Adhamiya was Baghdad’s original neighborhood. (Saddam
was spotted and filmed on April 9, 2003, at a rally outside the
Abu Hanifa mosque.) Posters of Saddam are still sold in the streets,
and the former leader is still highly regarded. Shias call the
neighborhood “Saddamist City.”
Adhamiya was also the last part of Baghdad to fall. Its defenders
were mostly foreign fighters who had retreated from the rest of
the country and tenaciously held out. The ones who survived the
April 10 battle were hidden in mosques or homes by sympathetic
locals; some were even driven to the Syrian or Iranian border.
Twenty-two prisoners were taken from the mosque, including the
mosque’s sheikh, Watheq al Obeidi, and his two sons. Inside
the mosque, a cemetery “for the martyrs of April 10”
would be built. Before the headstones were ready, the names of
the dead foreign fighters, at least 20 of them, were written on
paper, put into soda bottles, and stuck into the ground. There
were Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Yemenis.
After the fighting, to prevent looting, Adhamiya’s residents
formed a committee from armed volunteers. And life began to return
to normal, with the tea houses across from the mosque open and
the neighborhood’s men gathering once more to chat and play
I first visited Adhamiya on April 18, 2003, to see the triumphal
return to Abu Hanifa of Dr. Ahmad Kubeisi, Iraq’s most famous
living Sunni theologian and a television preacher who had been
based in the United Arab Emirates. The mosque was covered in banners.
On top of its walls young men held ones proclaiming “One
Iraq, one people,” “No to America,” “We
reject foreign control,” “Sunnis are Shias and Shias
are Sunnis; we are all one,” “All the believers are
brothers,” “Leave our country; we want peace.”
Demonstrators chanted, “No to America, no to Saddam. Our
revolution is Islamic!” The angular, white-bearded Kubeisi
had been a strident opponent of the American war, which he had
warned would fail. Shortly after he was proved wrong, he made
haste from his comfortable life in Dubai for Baghdad—he
had supported Saddam against the alternatives but preferred life
in exile. He was reportedly flown in from Amman on an official
UAE private jet.
Baghdad was once occupied by the Mongols, Dr. Kubeisi said in
his sermon, referring to the 1258 sacking of what was then the
capital of the Muslim world. Now, new Mongols were occupying Baghdad,
destroying its civilization and creating divisions between Sunnis
and Shias. But, he said, the Shias and Sunnis were one, and they
must remain united in rejecting foreign control. They were all
Muslims and had all suffered together as one people under Saddam’s
rule; Saddam oppressed all Iraqis, and then he abandoned them.
Iraqis had defended their country together against the Americans
and the British. He thanked the Shia people of Basra for “defending
their country against the foreign invaders.” And he demanded
an administration governed only by Iraqis and a council of Shia
and Sunni scholars to oppose any government the Americans tried
“We fear that sectarianism will be exploited by our enemies,”
he said. “We will reconstruct our country.” He mocked
the “continuous lies” of the Americans. They had not
come to get rid of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction;
they were the enemies of mankind and had come for Iraq’s
oil. “Get out before we expel you,” he said, addressing
The parallel with the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258
was ominous. It had shocked the Muslim world of the 13th century.
Theologians such as Taqi al Din ibn Taimiya from what is today
Allepo, Syria, blamed Muslims for failing to be sufficiently devout.
A wave of conservative Islam spread through the Muslim world.
Often quoted by bin Ladin, Ibn Taimiya is the spiritual father
of radical Sunnism, in particular Wahhabism and Salafism. Taimiya
viewed offensive jihad as a duty of every Muslim and expressed
extreme hatred for Shias. He even blamed Shias for the sacking
of Baghdad. Perhaps as ominously, many Sunnis blamed Shias for
the betrayal that led to the fall of Baghdad. The sultan’s
Shia adviser, Ibn al Alqami, was said to have sold out his people
and helped the Mongols. The Saudi government has been distributing
the works of Ibn Taimiya for free throughout the world since the
1950s. I found a shop selling magazines that promoted Ibn Taimiya’s
thoughts across from the Abu Hanifa mosque. Most recently Zarqawi
and other Salafi jihadists have called Shias the “grandsons
of Ibn al Alqami” for their collaboration with the Americans,
the new Mongols.
But in 2003 Kubeisi’s followers held joint demonstrations
and joint prayers with radical Shia movements such as Muqtada’s.
Their message was “maku farq” there is no difference”
between Sunnis and Shias: “We are all Muslims.” But
they were protesting too much, and behind the stentorian insistence
that they were united was the fear that they were not, and the
knowledge of what would happen should this secret become known.
On April 21, 2006, I returned to the mosque on the Friday following
the clashes between local fighters and Iraqi security forces.
The mosque’s security men were so stunned to see a foreigner
with a camera that they could come up with no objections to my
presence, although as I filmed the exterior, a man walked by and
cursed me. “May your eyes go blind,” he said. Outside,
Iraqi National Guardsmen stood watch. As an important Sunni symbol,
Abu Hanifa was a likely target of Shia militias. And indeed there
had been several attempts to hit it with mortar fire since the
February 22 bombing in Samarra.
The clock tower damaged by American missiles three years earlier
had been repaired, I noticed. Outside hung different banners than
the ones I had seen in April 2003. Now they were white banners,
commemorating martyrs from recent clashes. One gave condolences
from the families of Adhamiya to the Sunni politician Saleh al
Mutlaq for the murder of his kidnapped brother. Another honored
a young man, Muhammad Fawad Latufi Annadawi. A black banner announced
the death of a woman.
Loudspeakers echoed the call to prayer and the reading of the
Quran. Locals made their way in. They stopped to be patted down
by the mosque’s militia. Inside, the mosque walls were intricately
detailed, inlaid with geometric carvings, with stalactite vaulting
in its dome. About 500 men prayed quietly. Ibrahim al Naama, an
aged cleric wearing a white hat with a red top took out his glasses
and stood up. As is traditional, he began by discussing Islam.
His voice was raspy and high-pitched. “We are passing the
birthday of the prophet Muhammad,” he said, “so we
want to talk about what the prophet Muhammad was like, and what
his friends were like, so we can emulate them in these difficult
days.” Sheikh Naama made reference to the writings of Ibn
Taimiya, and he thanked God that he was a Muslim and thanked him
more that he was a Sunni. This kind of explicit sectarian pride
would have been shocking a year before, but now it was commonplace.
“We are passing through a very hard time, and we have enemies
from inside and outside. We have the invasion and their hatred
for Islam and Muslims.” These were the worst days for Muslims
in their history, he said.
Iraqis were looking forward to a new government, he said, because
they hoped it could prevent the further shedding of Iraqi blood.
“Therefore, any obstacle put in the way of forming the government
will increase the bloodshed. Those who are causing it”—the
Shias—“will be responsible before God. Who could have
imagined that the blood of Iraqis would be the cheapest blood?
This is how the occupiers want to divide the Iraqi people; this
is how they want to plant sectarian division. This is how the
occupier succeeds in its mission. Some people want to divide Iraq
into regions so Israel can live in safety and security and to
do the project that the occupier came for. But are we defeatist?
No, we are not!” The Americans hated Iraqis’ resistance,
he claimed, as did their “tails,” who came on American
tanks. (These were the Shia parties, such as Dawa and SCIRI. Saddam
had often called Israel and England the “tails of America.”)
God was testing Iraq. “You have to succeed in this test
and return to Iraq its sovereignty.”
There was more silent prayer after the sermon, and then each
man turned to his left and to his right, still kneeling, and wished
his neighbors peace and the mercy and blessings of God. They stood
up and shook each other’s hands, walking out into the blinding
sun, where neighbors stopped to greet each other and chat, smiling.
From a bulletin board by the mosque’s door hung two pictures
of middle-aged martyrs, both wearing Iraqi military uniforms.
Men paused to read the signs. There were no longer radical books
being sold outside the mosque, only a vegetable stand and a mendicant
woman in black rocking back and forth with her baby. I went for
lunch in Adhamiya’s famous kabob and shwarma restaurant.
That afternoon I interviewed a doctor in the neighborhood. He
paused every so often when the sound of firefights interrupted
After I left Iraq the civil war continued, unaffected by massive
security operations in Baghdad. As the summer heat peaked, so
too did the violence. North of Baghdad, Shia villagers attacked
Sunnis in retaliation for a bombing that killed at least 25. The
Shia attackers were joined by Iraqi police and Americans. Following
a massive bomb targeting Shias in Baghdad’s Sadr City, several
mortars were fired at the Abu Hanifa mosque. Locals clashed with
Iraqi security forces. The Sunni parliamentarian Taysir Najah
al Mashhadani of the Islamic Party was kidnapped, allegedly, by
Shia militias as her convoy drove through the Shaab neighborhood,
prompting the main Sunni coalition to boycott the government.
A reconciliation proposal offered by Prime Minister Maliki was
rejected by Shias including Muqtada for being too soft on Baathists
and Sunnis, and it was rejected by Sunnis including Harith al
Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars for not going far
enough with its offer of amnesty and inclusion.
Iraqis were breaking the final taboo: they were asking one another
if they were Sunni or Shia. Sometimes this was done obliquely,
one asking another about his name, or neighborhood, or tribe.
Sometimes it was explicit. Officially, Iraqis tried to stress
that they were nonsectarian. On one television channel a poetry
contest featured poets chanting that Iraq was unified.
* * *
In an attempt to limit Muqtada’s power and appease Sunnis,
the Americans pressured Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari to step
down. He was replaced in May 2006 by Nuri al Maliki, his close
friend, but American and British bullying cost them the few Shia
allies they had and only convinced Iraq’s Shias that Americans
were playing a game of divide and conquer. The debate over Jaafari
was framed as Kurds and Sunnis competing with Shias for power.
It was one more sectarian battle, fought this time inside the
Green Zone. But it was too late for that game because the Americans
had long since lost the Sunnis and were continuing to alienate
them with daily killings and their protecting with force the Shia-dominated
order that they created in April 2003. This American blunder has
only pushed Iraq closer to Iran and Syria.
Nuri al Maliki is ideologically at least as extreme as Jaafari,
and as committed to preserving the new order. He has already threatened
to use “maximum force” against “terrorists,”
the code word for Sunnis. Even if Maliki was committed to a national
unity government and nonsectarian security forces, and even if
the Americans tried to reverse the sectarian trend in Iraq, it
is too late. Muqtada’s supporters will not voluntarily relinquish
control of the army or the police, and having fought the Americans
in the past, many would be eager to fight them again. And who
would replace them? There are no nonsectarian Iraqis left, no
nonsectarian militia, and no physical space for those rejecting
sectarianism. Even secular Sunnis and Shias are embracing sectarian
militias because nobody else will protect them. Many even join
these groups out of fear, since to refuse is to be disloyal, or
perhaps a spy.
Although the Bush administration has criticized the Iraqi government
for not disarming the militias—and this is certainly the
most important problem facing Iraq, apart from the occupation—this
is an untenable first step. The militias exist because there is
no security in Iraq. And when the Bush administration criticizes
the Iraqi government for being weak, they forget that they deliberately
made it weak and dependant on their dictates. The American failure
to provide security has led to the militias. The American sectarian
approach has created the civil war. We saw Iraqis as Sunnis, Shias,
Kurds. We designed a governing council based on a sectarian quota
system and ignored Iraqis (not exiled politicians but real Iraqis)
who warned us against it. We decided that the Sunnis were the
bad guys and the Shias were the good guys. These problems were
not timeless. In many ways they are new, and we are responsible
for them. The tens of thousands of cleansed Iraqis, the relatives
of those killed by the death squads, the sectarian supporters
and militias firmly ensconced in the government and its ministries,
the Shia refusal to relinquish their long-awaited control over
Iraq, the Kurdish commitment to secession, the Sunni harboring
of Salafi jihadists—all militate against anything but full-scale
When it comes, through the slow progression we have seen so far
or through a cataclysmic incident like Sarajevo, or the 1975 Ayn
ar-Rummanah bus attack, or another attack like the one on the
Samarra shrine, or perhaps the assassination of an important Shia
cleric or leader, Sunnis will be cleansed from Baghdad. And the
Shias will go to war against Sunnis. The Kurds, having waited
for this opportunity, will secede and tell the world they tried
the federalist route in good faith but those crazy Arabs down
south keep killing each other. Who would want to belong to a country
The Arab world had always been dominated by Sunnis, who make
up 85 percent of the world’s Muslims. The new Shia Iraq
is overturning the Ottoman and colonialist legacies that entrenched
Sunnis. Along with Hizbullah’s victory against Israel this
summer, this will threaten the status quo throughout the Arab
world. In Syria, already seen as dominated by the Shia-like Alawi
minority that is hated by the Sunni majority, the Iranians recently
built a mosque commemorating a battle that Imam Ali lost. The
unpopular Sunni regimes of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, seeing
their power wane, can no longer be anti-American or anti-Israeli,
having sold out on those issues by supporting the Americans and
practically supporting Israel against Hizbullah in July. Instead,
they are playing the sectarian card to regain the respect they
lost from their population and galvanize them against a new threat,
the Shias. Most recently, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused
Shias of being fifth-columnists, loyal to Iran. Egypt does not
recognize Shiism as Islam. In Lebanon, during the demonstrations
that followed the publication of the Danish cartoons, Sunni clerics
led demonstrations condemning Shias and supporting Zarqawi, whom
one cleric called “my sheikh, my emir,” perhaps hoping
they could appropriate the so-called “sheikh of the slaughterers”
as their own to gain more leverage against the powerful Hizbullah.
More ominously, in April 2006 Hizbullah accused nine men who were
charged in an attempted assassination of Hizbullah’s general
secretaries of being motivated by a desire to avenge killings
of Sunnis in Iraq. In his last statement, Zarqawi specifically
condemned Lebanese Hizbullah, making arguments from a Lebanese-Sunni
point of view. The effects of Hizbullah’s victory remain
to be seen, but they further discredit the unpopular Sunni dictatorships
who criticized Hizbullah but who were always impotent to stand
up to the Americans or Israelis despite their large armies and
wealth. Hizbullah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, became
the most popular leader in the Arab world. But Iraq was pulling
in a different direction, for Muqtada was no Hassan Nasrallah.
If Iraq’s Sunnis are targeted on a larger scale the concept
of the Iraqi nation-state will cease to be relevant. Salafi jihadis
will pour in to fight the hated Shias. Shias will attempt to push
Sunnis out of Iraq, for until they can control the key highways
in the Anbar leading to Syria and Jordan, their economy will be
threatened. Sunnis throughout the region will not tolerate the
Shias killing Sunnis or a Shia Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni tribes
extend into Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Their
tribal kinsmen will come to their aid, sending reinforcements
of men and materiel across the porous borders. Sunni retaliation
against Shias or Alawis in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain,
the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan could
provoke sectarian clashes throughout the Muslim world. Kurdish
independence could provoke Turkish intervention. At minimum it
will push the Turks closer to the Iranians and Syrians, who will
have the same concerns of Kurdish irredentism. At some point Iran
will intervene, and if it threatens the waters of the Persian
Gulf the entire world’s economy will be threatened. Iraq’s
civil war will become a regional war.
Rather than remaking the Middle East, the Iraq war has destabilized
it. Sunnis throughout the region who already have so many reasons
to hate the United States—Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre,
the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl, Guantánamo—would
now have one more, for the Americans would have handed Iraq over
to the Shias. We are seeing the death throes, not the birth pangs,
of a new Middle East.
The Bush administration persists in its assertions of progress
and clings to the idea that something called victory is possible.
What victory? By every measure, life is worse for the Iraqis (leaving
aside the Kurds, who don’t want to be Iraqis anyway). They
are dying by the dozens or the hundreds every day—nobody
even knows how many, since the Anbar province and much of the
south, and even much of Baghdad, are black holes, with no information
coming out. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died violently
since the war began, probably eclipsing the number of Saddam’s
victims. The ministry of health was recently ordered again not
to disclose the number of casualties. The United Nations’
torture expert has stated that torture in Iraq is now worse than
it was under Saddam. Over 1.5 million Iraqis have fled their country,
to Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, and in late 2006 one European official
in Syria estimated that up to 3,000 Iraqis a day were fleeing
into that country.
SCIRI’s calls for a Shia superstate have grown more strident,
and Sunnis have made their own demands. Already in March 2006
Harith al Dhari reminded the rest of Iraqis that Sunnis had means
of their own available: just as there was oil in the south, there
was water in the center and the north, and it could be held off
until “the barrel of water in the south was worth a barrel
of oil,” or it could flood the south and drown it. More
recently, maps have been circulating on Sunni Iraqi Web sites
showing an enlarged Anbar province including Baghdad, Mosul, and
the so-called Sunni Triangle in a large Sunni superstate. Iraqi
comedians joke about different neighborhoods of Baghdad becoming
their own republics. Iraq is dying, falling apart.
America did this to Iraq. We divided Iraqis. We set them at war
with each other. The least we can do is stop killing them and
* * *
The death of Zarqawi last June was not the long-awaited turning
point. A new Zarqawi has already emerged, this time from among
the Shias. In the summer of 2006 rumors began spreading through
Baghdad of a shadowy killer known as Abu Dira, a nickname meaning
“the armor bearer.” In the Shia uprisings of 2004
he was said to have held off the Americans in southern Sadr City.
He earned his name either by destroying American armored vehicles
or by killing an American soldier and stealing his body armor,
which (some say) he wears at all times. Another story claims that
he took his name out of irony: a Sunni prison guard under Saddam
called Abu Dira was notorious for his brutality. Hailed by Shias
as a hero, he is known by Sunnis as the “Shia Zarqawi”
and the “Rusafa Butcher,” a reference to the primarily
Shia eastern half of Baghdad. All information about this man is
based on rumor, but he is said to be in his 30s and called either
Salim or Ismail. It is said that he lives in Sadr City but was
born in the southern Shia town of Amara. Some say that he is a
member of the Mahdi Army and commands hundreds of fighters, but
others say that he is a renegade militiaman, out of Muqtada’s
control. Some say he was a bodyguard in the former regime but
later fled to Iran. Or that he was a guard and torturer in one
of Saddam’s prisons. One Web site claims that he controlled
the ministry of the interior’s Falcon Brigade, which kidnapped
Sunnis from Baghdad’s Zafraniya district. Some say that
every time there is an attack on Shias he counts the dead and
kills an equal number of Sunnis. Others say he kills a greater
number of Sunnis. He is said to kill dozens of Sunnis every day
in a remote part of Sadr City by a dam, and he is said to have
threatened to fill the craters left from car bombs in Sadr City
with the bodies of Sunnis.
Some Sunni sources believe he is obeying a fatwa issued by Ayatollah
Kadhim al Hairi in Iran, who was Muqtada’s supporter once.
One Sunni Web site claims that he took an oath to slaughter a
camel and feed the poor people of Sadr City after killing the
Sunni politician Adnan al Duleimi. A popular radical-Sunni line
is, “Our dead are in paradise and your dead are in Hell.”
It is said that Abu Dira tells Sunnis, “Our dead are in
paradise and your dead are in Sada,” a reference to a remote
area near Sadr City where Sunni corpses often turn up. Muqtada
and the Mahdi Army have denied that Abu Dira even exists, claiming
that he was invented by Sunnis as a way of falsely accusing Shias
of crimes. In July, Americans targeted the Sadr City funeral of
someone they believed was one of Abu Dira’s relatives, but
the operation failed to lead to an arrest.
Whether Abu Dira exists or not, the image of a raging, lone killer
is prophetic at a time when Muqtada’s control over his militia
is uncertain. But this much is clear: the Mahdi Army is the police.
It holds all the force of state power.
And the once confident and aggressive Sunnis now see the state
as their enemy. They are very afraid. All Iraqis are.
Nir Rosen is a freelance writer and a fellow at the New America
Foundation. He is the author of In the Belly of the Green Bird:
The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.
U.S. Marines killed 15 Iraqi civilians in their homes last November.
Was it self-defense, an accident or cold-blooded revenge?
By Tim McGirk/ Baghdad
March 27, 2006
The incident seemed like so many others from this war, the kind
of tragedy that has become numbingly routine amid the daily reports
of violence in Iraq. On the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, a roadside
bomb struck a humvee carrying Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion,
1st Marines, on a road near Haditha, a restive town in western
Iraq. The bomb killed Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20,
from El Paso, Texas. The next day a Marine communiqué from
Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi
civilians were killed by the blast and that "gunmen attacked
the convoy with small-arms fire," prompting the Marines to
return fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding one other.
The Marines from Kilo Company held a memorial service for Terrazas
at their camp in Haditha. They wrote messages like "T.J.,
you were a great friend. I'm going to miss seeing you around"
on smooth stones and piled them in a funeral mound. And the war
But the details of what happened that morning in Haditha are
more disturbing, disputed and horrific than the military initially
reported. According to eyewitnesses and local officials interviewed
over the past 10 weeks, the civilians who died in Haditha on Nov.
19 were killed not by a roadside bomb but by the Marines themselves,
who went on a rampage in the village after the attack, killing
15 unarmed Iraqis in their homes, including seven women and three
children. Human-rights activists say that if the accusations are
true, the incident ranks as the worst case of deliberate killing
of Iraqi civilians by U.S. service members since the war began.
In January, after TIME presented military officials in Baghdad
with the Iraqis' accounts of the Marines' actions, the U.S. opened
its own investigation, interviewing 28 people, including the Marines,
the families of the victims and local doctors. According to military
officials, the inquiry acknowledged that, contrary to the military's
initial report, the 15 civilians killed on Nov. 19 died at the
hands of the Marines, not the insurgents. The military announced
last week that the matter has been handed over to the Naval Criminal
Investigative Service (NCIS), which will conduct a criminal investigation
to determine whether the troops broke the laws of war by deliberately
targeting civilians. Lieut. Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing, spokeswoman
for the Multi-National Force--Iraq, told TIME the involvement
of the NCIS does not mean that a crime occurred. And she says
the fault for the civilian deaths lies squarely with the insurgents,
who "placed noncombatants in the line of fire as the Marines
responded to defend themselves."
Because the incident is officially under investigation, members
of the Marine unit that was in Haditha on Nov. 19 are not allowed
to speak with reporters. But the military's own reconstruction
of events and the accounts of town residents interviewed by TIME--including
six whose family members were killed that day--paint a picture
of a devastatingly violent response by a group of U.S. troops
who had lost one of their own to a deadly insurgent attack and
believed they were under fire. TIME obtained a videotape that
purports to show the aftermath of the Marines' assault and provides
graphic documentation of its human toll. What happened in Haditha
is a reminder of the horrors faced by civilians caught in the
middle of war--and what war can do to the people who fight it.
Here's what all participants agree on: At around 7:15 a.m. on
Nov. 19, a U.S. humvee was struck by a powerful improvised explosive
device (IED) attached to a large propane canister, triggered by
remote control. The bomb killed Terrazas, who was driving, and
injured two other Marines. For U.S. troops, Haditha, set among
date-palm groves along the Euphrates River, was inhospitable territory;
every day the Marines found scores of bombs buried in the dirt
roads near their base. Eman Waleed, 9, lived in a house 150 yards
from the site of the blast, which was strong enough to shatter
all the windows in her home. "We heard a big noise that woke
us all up," she recalls two months later. "Then we did
what we always do when there's an explosion: my father goes into
his room with the Koran and prays that the family will be spared
any harm." Eman says the rest of the family--her mother,
grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles--gathered
in the living room.
According to military officials familiar with the investigation,
the Marines say they came under fire from the direction of the
Waleed house immediately after being hit by the IED. A group of
Marines headed toward the house. Eman says she "heard a lot
of shooting, so none of us went outside. Besides, it was very
early, and we were all wearing our nightclothes." When the
Marines entered the house, they were shouting in English. "First,
they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran,"
she claims, "and we heard shots." According to Eman,
the Marines then entered the living room. "I couldn't see
their faces very well--only their guns sticking into the doorway.
I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then
in the head. Then they killed my granny." She claims the
troops started firing toward the corner of the room where she
and her younger brother Abdul Rahman, 8, were hiding; the other
adults shielded the children from the bullets but died in the
process. Eman says her leg was hit by a piece of metal and Abdul
Rahman was shot near his shoulder. "We were lying there,
bleeding, and it hurt so much. Afterward, some Iraqi soldiers
came. They carried us in their arms. I was crying, shouting 'Why
did you do this to our family?' And one Iraqi soldier tells me,
'We didn't do it. The Americans did.'"
TIME was unable to speak with the only other survivor of the
raid, Eman's younger brother, who relatives say is traumatized
by the experience. U.S. military officials familiar with the investigation
say that after entering the house, the Marines walked into a corridor
with closed doors on either side. They thought they heard the
clack-clack sound of an AK-47 being racked and readied for fire.
(Eman and relatives who were not in the house insist that no guns
were there.) Believing they were about to be ambushed, the Marines
broke down the two doors simultaneously and fired their weapons.
The officials say the military has confirmed that seven people
were killed inside the house--including two women and a child.
The Marines also reported seeing a man and a woman run out of
the house; they gave chase and shot and killed the man. Relatives
say the woman, Hiba Abdullah, escaped with her baby.
According to military officials, the Marines say they then started
taking fire from the direction of a second house, prompting them
to break down the door of that house and throw in a grenade, blowing
up a propane tank in the kitchen. The Marines then began firing,
killing eight residents--including the owner, his wife, the owner's
sister, a 2-year-old son and three young daughters.
The Marines raided a third house, which belongs to a man named
Ahmed Ayed. One of Ahmed's five sons, Yousif, who lived in a house
next door, told TIME that after hearing a prolonged burst of gunfire
from his father's house, he rushed over. Iraqi soldiers keeping
watch in the garden prevented him from going in. "They told
me, 'There's nothing you can do. Don't come closer, or the Americans
will kill you too.' The Americans didn't let anybody into the
house until 6:30 the next morning." Ayed says that by then
the bodies were gone; all the dead had been zipped into U.S. body
bags and taken by Marines to a local hospital morgue. "But
we could tell from the blood tracks across the floor what happened,"
Ayed claims. "The Americans gathered my four brothers and
took them inside my father's bedroom, to a closet. They killed
them inside the closet."
The military has a different account of what transpired. According
to officials familiar with the investigation, the Marines broke
into the third house and found a group of 10 to 15 women and children.
The troops say they left one Marine to guard that house and pushed
on to the house next door, where they found four men, one of whom
was wielding an AK-47. A second seemed to be reaching into a wardrobe
for another weapon, the officials say. The Marines shot both men
dead; the military's initial report does not specify how the other
two men died. The Marines deny that any of the men were killed
in the closet, which they say is too small to fit one adult male,
much less four.
According to the military officials, the series of raids took
five hours and left at least 23 people dead. In all, two AK-47s
were discovered. The military has classified the 15 victims in
the first two houses as noncombatants. It considers the four men
killed in the fourth house, as well as four youths killed by the
Marines near the site of the roadside bombing, as enemy fighters.
The question facing naval detectives is whether the Marines' killing
of 15 noncombatants was an act of legitimate self-defense or negligent
homicide. Military sources say that if the NCIS finds evidence
of wrongdoing, U.S. commanders in Iraq will decide whether to
pursue legal action against the Marines.
The available evidence does not provide conclusive proof that
the Marines deliberately killed innocents in Haditha. But the
accounts of human-rights groups that investigated the incident
and survivors and local officials who spoke to TIME do raise questions
about whether the extent of force used by the Marines was justified--and
whether the Marines were initially candid about what took place.
Dr. Wahid, director of the local hospital in Haditha, who asked
that his family name be withheld because, he says, he fears reprisals
by U.S. troops, says the Marines brought 24 bodies to his hospital
around midnight on Nov. 19. Wahid says the Marines claimed the
victims had been killed by shrapnel from the roadside bomb. "But
it was obvious to us that there were no organs slashed by shrapnel,"
Wahid says. "The bullet wounds were very apparent. Most of
the victims were shot in the chest and the head--from close range."
A day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped
the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings
had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights
Group, which cooperates with the internationally respected Human
Rights Watch, and has been shared with TIME. The tape makes for
grisly viewing. It shows that many of the victims, especially
the women and children, were still in their nightclothes when
they died. The scenes from inside the houses show that the walls
and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes as
well as the telltale spray of blood. But the video does not reveal
the presence of any bullet holes on the outside of the houses,
which may cast doubt on the Marines' contention that after the
IED exploded, the Marines and the insurgents engaged in a fierce
There are also questions about why the military took so long
to investigate the details of the Haditha incident. Soon after
the killings, the mayor of Haditha, Emad Jawad Hamza, led an angry
delegation of elders up to the Marine camp beside a dam on the
Euphrates River. Hamza says, "The captain admitted that his
men had made a mistake. He said that his men thought there were
terrorists near the houses, and he didn't give any other reason."
But the military stood by its initial contention that the
Iraqis had been killed by an insurgent bomb until January
when TIME gave a copy of the video and witnesses' testimony to
Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. After
reviewing the evidence, Johnson passed it on to the military command,
suggesting that the events of Haditha be given "a full and
formal investigation." In February an infantry colonel went
to Haditha for a weeklong probe in which he interviewed Marines,
survivors and doctors at the morgue, according to military officials
close to the investigation. The probe concluded that the civilians
were in fact killed by Marines and not by an insurgent's bomb
and that no insurgents appeared to be in the first two houses
raided by the Marines. The probe found, however, that the deaths
were the result of "collateral damage" rather than malicious
intent by the Marines, investigators say.
The U.S. has paid relatives of the victims $2,500 for each of
the 15 dead civilians, plus smaller payments for the injured.
But nothing can bring back all that was taken from 9-year-old
Eman Waleed on that fateful day last November. She still does
not comprehend how, when her father went in to pray with the Koran
for the family's safety, his prayers were not answered, as they
had been so many times in the past. "He always prayed before,
and the Americans left us alone," she says. Leaving, she
grabs a handful of candy. "It's for my little brother,"
is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, currently assigned
as their middle-east correspondent, based in Iraq. A few days
ago, she sent some friends an email describing the real state
of affairs in the country -- no spin, no editorial control, no
publisher's censorship, just one unhappy person letting her friends
know what she's faced with. The email was forwarded on to a number
of colleagues, and from there it escaped into the blogosphere.
It is pasted below.
From: Farnaz Fassihi
Subject: From Baghdad
Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being
under virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured
me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic,
meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell
stories that could make a difference.
Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied
all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very
good reason to, and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's
homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping
any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike up a conversation
with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing
but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories,
can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't
take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints,
can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling.
And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls,
including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the
windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write
a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees
stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter
It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly began.
Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans?
Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military?
Was it when Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population,
became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when
the insurgency began spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni
triangle to include most of Iraq?
Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster.
If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans
it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign
policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to
Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.' When asked 'how
are thing?' they reply: 'the situation is very bad."
What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi government doesn't
control most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off
each day around the country killing and injuring scores of innocent
country's roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds
of landmines and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers,
there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The situation,
basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla war. In four days,
110 people died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The
numbers are so shocking that the ministry of health - which was
attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the
numbers - has now stopped disclosing them.
Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.
A friend drove thru the Shiite slum of Sadr City yesterday. He
said young men were openly placing improvised explosive devices
into the ground. They melt a shallow hole into the asphalt, dig
the explosive, cover it with dirt and put an old tire or plastic
can over it to signal to the locals this is booby-trapped. He
said on the main roads of Sadr City, there were a dozen landmines
per every ten yards. His car snaked and swirled to avoid driving
over them. Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi ready to detonate
them as soon as an American convoy gets near. This is in Shiite
land, the population that was supposed to love America for liberating
For journalists the significant turning point came with the wave
of abduction and kidnappings. Only two weeks ago we felt safe
around Baghdad because foreigners were being abducted on the roads
and highways between towns. Then came a frantic phone call from
a journalist female friend at 11 p.m. telling me two Italian women
had been abducted from their homes in broad daylight. Then the
two Americans, who got beheaded this week and the Brit, were abducted
from their homes in a residential neighborhood. They were supplying
the entire block with round the clock electricity from their generator
to win friends. The abductors grabbed one of them at 6 a.m. when
he came out to switch on the generator; his beheaded body was
thrown back near the neighborhoods.
The insurgency, we are told, is rampant with no signs of calming
down. If any thing, it is growing stronger, more organized and
more sophisticated every day. The various elements within it -
baathists, criminals, nationalists and Al Qaeda - are cooperating
I went to an emergency meeting for foreign correspondents with
the military and embassy to discuss the kidnappings. We were somberly
told our fate would largely depend on where we were in the kidnapping
chain once it was determined we were missing. Here is how it goes:
criminal gangs grab you and sell you up to Baathists in Fallujah,
who will in turn sell you to Al Qaeda. In turn, cash and weapons
flow the other way from Al Qaeda to the Baathisst to the criminals.
My friend Georges, the French journalist snatched on the road
to Najaf, has been missing for a month with no word on release
or whether he is still alive.
America's last hope for a quick exit? The Iraqi police and National
Guard units we are spending billions of dollars to train. The
cops are being murdered by the dozens every day - over 700 to
date - and the insurgents are infiltrating their ranks. The problem
is so serious that the U.S. military has allocated $6 million
dollars to buy out 30,000 cops they just trained to get rid of
As for reconstruction: firstly it's so unsafe for foreigners
to operate that almost all projects have come to a halt. After
two years, of the $18 billion Congress appropriated for Iraq reconstruction
only about $1 billion or so has been spent and a chuck has now
been reallocated for improving security, a sign of just how bad
things are going here.
Oil dreams? Insurgents disrupt oil flow routinely as a result
of sabotage and oil prices have hit record high of $49 a barrel.
Who did this war exactly benefit? Was it worth it? Are we safer
because Saddam is holed up and Al Qaeda is running around in Iraq?
Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange
for insecurity. Guess what? They say they'd take security over
freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler.
I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam Hussein were
allowed to run for elections he would get the majority of the
vote. This is truly sad.
Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk to him
about elections here. He has been trying to educate the public
on the importance of voting. He said, "President Bush wanted
to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be an example for the
Middle East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a model
for the region, we have to salvage Iraq before all is lost."
One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For
those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing
could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of
terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country
as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into
The Iraqi government is talking about having elections in three
months while half of the country remains a 'no go zone' - out
of the hands of the government and the Americans and out of reach
of journalists. In the other half, the disenchanted population
is too terrified to show up at polling stations. The Sunnis have
already said they'd boycott lections, leaving the stage open for
polarized government of Kurds and Shiites that will not be deemed
as legitimate and will most certainly lead to civil war.
I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family would participate
in the Iraqi elections since it was the first time Iraqis could
to some degree elect a leadership. His response summed it all:
"Go and vote and risk being blown into pieces or followed
by the insurgents and murdered for cooperating with the Americans?
For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"
Note: According to Tim Rutten's column in the Los Angeles
Times, who has obtained on-the-record quotes from the WSJ
editor on this, the Wall Street Journal is now recalling Ms. Fassihi
for a "long-planned vacation" that will extend until
2nd. Which means that she's barred from writing about Iraq until
after the US election.
Who armed Iraq?
Sunday, March 2, 2003
Before World War I, arms manufacturers were commonly called "merchants
of death." As clouds of war gathered over Europe, the peace
movement worked in vain to stop armament companies from producing
explosives, torpedoes, mustard gas, machine guns, dreadnoughts,
subs, destroyers, U-boats, howitzers, bombers and zeppelins.
Two world wars and countless regional conflicts have since ravaged
the globe. The merchants of death are still in business.
Iraq's Weapons Declaration underscores a tragic irony: The United
States, the world's leading arms supplier, is taking the world
to war to stop arms proliferation in the very country to which
it shipped chemicals, biological seed stock and weapons for more
than 10 years.
According to the December declaration, treated with much derision
from the Bush administration, U.S. and Western companies played
a key role in building Hussein's war machine. The 1,200-page document
contains a list of Western corporations and countries -- as well
as individuals -- that exported chemical and biological materials
to Iraq in the past two decades.
Embarrassed, no doubt, by revelations of their own complicity
in Mideast arms proliferation, the U.S.-led Security Council censored
the entire dossier, deleting more than 100 names of companies
and groups that profited from Iraq's crimes and aggression. The
censorship came too late, however. The long list -- including
names of large U.S. corporations -- Dupont, Hewlett-Packard, and
Honeywell -- was leaked to a German daily, Die Tageszeitung. Despite
the Security Council coverup, the truth came out.
A German company, for example, exported 1,000 ignition systems
for Styx and Scud missiles capable of carrying biological and
Alcolac International, a Maryland company, transported thiodiglycol,
a mustard gas precursor, to Iraq. A Tennessee manufacturer contributed
large amounts of a chemical used to make sarin, a nerve gas implicated
in Gulf War diseases.
Phyllis Bennis, author of "Before and After," notes
that "the highest quality seed-stock for anthrax germs (along
with those of botulism, E. coli, and a host of other deadly diseases)
were shipped to Iraq by U.S. companies, legally, under an official
U.S. Department of Commerce license throughout the 1980s."
A Senate Banking subcommittee report in 1994 confirmed that shipments
of biological germ stock continued well into 1989.
According to Judith Miller in "Germs: Biological Weapons
and America's Secret War," Iraq purchased its seed stock
-- its "starter germs" -- from "The American Type
Culture Collection," a supply company in a Washington, D.C.,
We tend to forget that the Reagan-Bush administration maintained
cordial relations with Hussein in the '80s, promoting Iraq's eight-year
war against Iran. Twenty-four U.S. firms exported arms and materials
to Baghdad. France also sent Hussein 200 AMX medium tanks, Mirage
bombers and Gazelle helicopter gunships. As Assistant Secretary
of Defense Richard Armitage testified in 1987:
"We cannot stand to see Iraq defeated." The CIA, State
Department, the central military command directing Middle East
operations, were well aware of Iraq's biological-weapons efforts.
Nevertheless, Iraq's applications were seldom denied.
The infamous massacre at Halabja -- the gassing of the Kurds
-- took place in March 1988. Six months later, on Sept. 19, a
Maryland company sent 11 strains of germs -- four types of anthrax
-- to Iraq, including a microbe strain called 11966, developed
for germ warfare at Fort Detrick in the 1950s.
The vast, lucrative arms trade in the Middle East created the
groundwork for Hussein's aggression in Kuwait. Without high-tech
weapons from the West, Iraq's wars against Iran and Kuwait would
never have taken place.
The inspection process is spawning a host of questions about
U.S. policy. Why aren't U.S. and European scientists, who invented
and produced lethal materials for Saddam Hussein, subject to interrogations
like their counterparts in Iraq? Are U.S. companies sending their
deadly material to other dictators? Why are there no congressional
hearings on the U.S. role in arms proliferation? And how many
senators (like the voice of Connecticut's arms industry, Sen.
Joe Lieberman) are taking contributions from the world's arms
The United States exports more weapons than all other countries
combined, and Hussein is only one of many human rights abusers
who purchased the means of terror from the West.
No despot, no monarchy, no medieval insurgency that can be exploited,
no regime of terror seems to be off-limits to the sale of arms
From 1983-88, Siad Barre, the mad dictator of Somalia, received
from the United States 155 howitzers, 20mm Vulcan air defense
guns, light artillery pieces, mortars, anti-tank rocket launchers,
a mass of firearms and ammunition.
By 1989, its precious desert water holes demolished, the impoverished
country was in open revolt. When Siad Barre fled, he left the
country in ruins,
and he left all his U.S. weapons behind -- the very weapons that
enabled warrior clans to bring down U.S. Black Hawks and kill
70 U.S. and U.N. humanitarian troops.
On the edge of famine, Somalia today is still awash in U.S. weaponry,
as 14- year-old children carry hand-me-down rifles through the
streets of Mogadishu.
Notwithstanding pious talk about curbing arms proliferation,
arms traffic is expanding under the administration of George W.
Bush. The administration recently lifted the embargo on arms sales
to contending nuclear powers -- India and Pakistan -- where riots,
massacres, religious uprisings and border showdowns take place
The arms traffic may be very profitable for General Dynamics
and Lockheed Martin, but the arms traffic is deadly for developing
Arms militarize the Third World, deplete local resources and
-- despite low interest rates -- generate large debts and inflation.
Loans for genuine capital investment generate increased productivity,
enabling a nation to progress and repay the loan. Military loans
and purchases have no such value. They divert resources from civilian
production, from the growth economy, and they increase poverty.
Even before Sept. 11, historian Chalmers Johnson warned in "Blowback:
Costs and Consequences of American Empire": "Arms sales
are a major cause of a developing blowback whose price we have
yet to begin to pay."
"Blowback," a term first used by the CIA, refers to
the unintended consequences of covert policies. "In a sense,
blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what
it sows," Johnson wrote. "But so much of what the managers
of the American empire have sown has been kept secret. Although
most Americans may be largely ignorant of what was, and still
is, being done in their names, all are likely to pay a steep price
-- individually and collectively -- for their nation's continued
efforts to dominate the global scene."
Is it moral to view social conflicts, hatred, fear, aggression,
war and violence as a mere marketplace for high-tech business?
And can we continue to treat the mechanisms of terror in terms
of supply and demand?
George Orwell's brilliant essay on empire and nationalism applies
directly to the mendacity of the Bush administration:
"Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits,
but according to who does them. There is almost no kind of outrage
-- torture, imprisonment without trial, assassination, the bombing
of civilians -- which does not change its moral color when it
is committed by 'our' side. . . . The nationalist not only does
not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has
a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."
It is time to measure human rights by one yardstick -- to hold
the suppliers, not just the purchasers, of death accountable for
chamber of horrors so close to the ‘Garden of Eden’
in Foreign Parts in Basra, Southern Iraq
From the Independent - a harrowing account of birth
defects in Iraq
1 December 2001 - Andy Kershaw
I thought I had a strong stomach - toughened by the minefields
and foul frontline hospitals of Angola, by the handiwork of the
death squads in Haiti and by the wholesale butchery of Rwanda.
But I nearly lost my breakfast last week at the Basrah Maternity
and Children's Hospital in southern Iraq. Dr Amer, the hospital's
director, had invited me into a room in which were displayed colour
photographs of what, in cold medical language, are called "congenital
anomalies", but what you and I would better understand as
horrific birth deformities.
The images of these babies were head-spinningly grotesque - and
thank God they didn't bring out the real thing, pickled in formaldehyde.
At one point I had to grab hold of the back of a chair to support
my legs. I won't spare you the details. You should know because
- according to the Iraqis and in all likelihood the World Health
Organisation, which is soon to publish its findings on the spiralling
birth defects in southern Iraq - we are responsible for these
During the Gulf war, Britain and the United States pounded the
city and its surroundings with 96,000 depleted-uranium shells.
The wretched creatures in the photographs - for they were scarcely
human - are the result, Dr Amer said. He guided me past pictures
of children born without eyes, without brains. Another had arrived
in the world with only half a head, nothing above the eyes. Then
there was a head with legs, babies without genitalia, a little
girl born with her brain outside her skull and the whatever-it-was
whose eyes were below the level of its nose. Then the chair-grabbing
moment - a photograph of what I can only describe (inadequately)
as a pair of buttocks with a face and two amphibian arms. Mercifully,
none of these babies survived for long.
Depleted uranium has an incubation period in humans of five years.
In the four years from 1991 (the end of the Gulf war) until 1994,
the Basrah Maternity Hospital saw 11 congenital anomalies. Last
year there were 221. Then there is the alarming increase in cases
of leukaemia among Basrah babies lucky enough to have been born
with the full complement of limbs and features in the right place.
The hospital treated 15 children with leukaemia in 1993. In 2000
it was 60. By the end of this year that figure again will be topped.
And so it will go on. Forever. (Depleted uranium has a half-life
of 4.1 billion years. Total disintegration occurs after 25 billion
years). In any other country, in which the vital drugs are available,
95 per cent of these infant leukaemia cases would be treated successfully.
In Basrah, the figure is 20 per cent. Most heartbreakingly, many
children on the road to recovery go into relapse part way through
treatment when the sporadic and meagre supply of drugs runs out.
And then they die.
By the United Nations' own admission 5,000 Iraqi children die
every month because of a shortage of medicines created by sanctions
imposed by the United Nations. Tony Blair, on numerous occasions,
has misled Parliament and the country (perhaps unwittingly) by
saying that Saddam Hussein is free to buy all the medicines Iraq
needs under the oil-for-food programme. This is not true. Oil
for food amounts to just 60 cents (40p) per Iraqi per day and
everything - food, education, health care and rebuilding of infrastructure
- has to come out of that. There simply is not enough to go around.
And has Mr Blair heard of the UN Security Council 661 Committee?
If he has, then he keeps quiet about it.
The committee was certainly unknown to me until I toured the
shabby hospitals of Basrah. This committee, which meets in secret
in New York and does not publish minutes, supervises sanctions
on Iraq. President Saddam is not free to buy Iraq's non-military
needs on the world market. The country's requirements have to
be submitted to 661 and, often after bureaucratic delay, a judgement
is handed down on what Iraq can and cannot buy. I have obtained
a copy of recent 661 rulings and some of the decisions seem daft
if not peevish. "Dual use" is the most common reason
to refuse a purchase, meaning the item requested could be put
to military use. So how does the 661 committee expect Saddam Hussein
to wage war with "beef extract powder and broth"? Does
661 expect him to turn on the Kurds again by spraying them with
"malt extract"? Or to send his presidential guard back
into Kuwait armed to the teeth with "pencils"? Pencils,
you see, according to 661, contain graphite and therefore could
be put to military use. (Tough on the eager schoolchildren of
Basrah who have little with which to write).
Across town at the Basrah Teaching Hospital, the whimsical rulings
of 661 are not so comical. Dr Jawad Al-Ali, the director of oncology,
trained in the UK and a member of the Royal College of Physicians,
talked of an "epidemic" of cancers in southern Iraq.
"The number of cancer cases is doubling every year. So is
the severity of the cancers, and there has been a big increase
in cancer among the young," he said. Last week he was struggling
to treat 20 cancer patients with "a huge shortage of chemotherapy
drugs" and just two days supply of morphine. "We are
crippled," he said, "by Committee 661." The doctor
applied for, but was denied, life-saving machinery - deep X-ray
equipment, blood component separators, even needles for biopsies.
All, said 661, could have military use. Tell that to Mofidah Sabah,
the mother of four-year-old Yahia. The little boy has both leukaemia
in relapse and neuroblastoma, a cancer behind the eye that has
bulged and twisted his left eyeball in its socket. Ms Sabah travels
miles every day to sit and cuddle her son on his grubby bed. If
Yahia lived in Birmingham, his chances of survival would not be
in much doubt. But not in Basrah. "I'm afraid he will not
live very long," Dr Amer whispered. Ms Sabah said: "I
will leave everything to God, but I want God to revenge those
who attacked us." Yahia\'s illness is not her first brush
with tragedy. She lost 12 members of her family during an Allied
bombing in 1991. Her husband, a soldier, fought in the Gulf war.
He is still in the Iraqi army and has just been reposted, to Qurna,
50 miles north of Basra and among the contaminated former battlefields.
Qurna, according to legend, was the site of the Garden of Eden.
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