Muqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq
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Muqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq

by Patrick Cockburn
     
 

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Time magazine listed him as one of its "100 People Who Shape Our World." Newsweek featured him on its cover under the headline "How Al-Sadr May Control U.S. Fate in Iraq." Paul Bremer denounced him as a "Bolshevik Islamist" and ordered that he be captured "dead or alive." Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, and why is he so vital to the future of Iraq and, arguably, the

Overview

Time magazine listed him as one of its "100 People Who Shape Our World." Newsweek featured him on its cover under the headline "How Al-Sadr May Control U.S. Fate in Iraq." Paul Bremer denounced him as a "Bolshevik Islamist" and ordered that he be captured "dead or alive." Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, and why is he so vital to the future of Iraq and, arguably, the entire Middle East?

In this compellingly readable account, prize-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn tells the story of Muqtada's rise to become the leader of Iraq's poor Shi'ites and the resistance to the occupation. Cockburn looks at the killings by Saddam's executioners and hit men of the young cleric's father, two brothers, and father-in-law; his leadership of the seventy-thousand-strong Mehdi Army; the fierce rivalries between him and other Shia religious leaders; his complex relationship with the Iraqi government; and his frequent confrontations with the American military, including battles that took place in Najaf in 2004. The portrait that emerges is of a complex man and a sophisticated politician, who engages with religious and nationalist aspirations in a manner unlike any other Iraqi leader.

Cockburn, who was among the very few Western journalists to remain in Baghdad during the Gulf War and has been an intrepid reporter of Iraq ever since, draws on his extensive firsthand experience in the country to produce a book that is richly interwoven with the voices of Iraqis themselves. His personal encounters with the Mehdi Army include a tense occasion when he was nearly killed at a roadblock outside the city of Kufa.

Though it often reads like an adventure story, Muqtada is also a work of painstaking research and measured analysis that leads to a deeper understanding both of one of the most critical conflicts in the world today and of the man who may well be a decisive voice in determining the future of Iraq when the Americans eventually leave.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Patrick Cockburn is, quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today. And now he comes forward to warn us that the end game there is near, and we'd better pay much more attention to Muqtada al-Sadr. Cockburn takes us behind the clichés and half-truths to describe a complicated political operative who will play a huge role in the power struggle that is sure to come." — Seymour Hersh

"Muqtada is the story of Iraq's least known political figure who, unfortunately for the United States, is arguably its most important. Patrick Cockburn draws on thirty years' experience covering Iraq and his own extraordinary courage to produce this gripping account of the Shiite cleric and his Sadrist movement." — Peter W. Galbraith

"No serious student of Iraq has failed to incur a debt to the intrepid and intelligent Patrick Cockburn." — Christopher Hitchens

"Patrick Cockburn is one of the few journalists who has covered the Iraq crisis almost from its beginning. His peerless reporting has been instrumental in uncovering the true dimensions of the tragedy of Iraq. His new book on Muqtada al-Sadr and the radical Shia of Iraq is probing and perceptive." — Ali Allawi

"No subject could be more important and, of course, Patrick Cockburn knows Iraq as few foreigners do. The right writer and the right book." — David Rieff

"It is hard to imagine anyone, I mean any other Westerner, getting a clearer take on this slippery and moody character." — Dexter Filkins, The New Republic

"Americans need to learn more about [Muqtada], and Cockburn's empathetic, thoughtful study is a good place to start." — Vali Nasr, The Washington Post

"What other Western journalist writes about Iraq with the intimacy and feel of Patrick Cockburn? This is a brilliant book." — Martin Amis

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416551485
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
10/21/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
849,930
Product dimensions:
8.38(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Thirteen

The Fall of Najaf

On August 6, 2004, Abbas Fadhel, a twenty-four-year-old member of a Mehdi Army company, volunteered with a group of other fighters in Sadr City to go to Najaf to take part in the second battle for the city. It had started three days earlier, and shells and bombs were beginning to destroy much of central Najaf as U.S. Marines fought their way toward the Imam Ali shrine. Abbas had some military training because "when the Mehdi Army was set up we used to train in the open agricultural countryside on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad and pretend that we were hunting." In addition, he had fought in the resistance against Saddam Hussein some years earlier in Amara and Nassariya provinces, "so I knew how to use a Kalashnikov and a PKC [Russian-made light machine gun]."

Abbas and his companions, who belonged to Mehdi Army's Ahmed al-Sheibani company, named after the imprisoned representative of Muqtada in Basra, drove in a car on what is normally a two-hour drive from Baghdad. They could see U.S. aircraft bombing groups of young men traveling in the same direction as themselves on the assumption that they were going to join Muqtada's forces. The crashes of the explosions unnerved the young men in the car. "Some got out and disappeared into nearby farms or took lifts in passing cars going back to Baghdad," says Abbas. As they arrived at al-Aoun, a village surrounded by date palms just north of Najaf where Shia insurgents had briefly fought Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to a standstill in the uprising of 1991, the driver of the car finally lost his nerve. Though he was a follower of Muqtada, he suddenly announced that he was going no farther and was returning to Baghdad. His fear infected others among Abbas's remaining companions, who took their last chance to avoid fighting in a battle in which they knew they were very likely to die. (These defections are striking because they show that the militiamen in Sadr City were not all fanatical fighters carelessly willing to become martyrs for Muqtada and Islam.)

The flight of the driver left the four remaining members of the party that had set out from Baghdad a few hours earlier standing disconsolately beside the road. "We four walked on foot to the Haidaria region using an unpaved dirt track because we were frightened of the American bombardment," recalls Abbas. "We came across a small saloon car whose driver said, 'Get in and I will drive you to Najaf.' I do not think he was entirely in his right mind, though he was not completely crazy, either. As he drove he kept yelling at people beside the road, saying 'You are cowards and agents of the occupier.' We stayed silent and did not speak to him. The situation was very dangerous because we were twice targeted by American snipers and we were very exposed because there were no other cars moving on the roads. He drove us by streets he knew until we were close to the Imam Ali shrine, and would not take any money when he dropped us off, saying, 'This is my work.' Najaf was a ghost city, with all the shops closed and there was nobody to be seen apart from Sadrist fighters." During a bombardment, Abbas, by now reduced to a single companion, took refuge inside the shrine.

When the shelling stopped, the two young men left the city again to rendezvous with a company of Mehdi Army fighters near the so-called Sea of Najaf, a lake just to the west of the city. "They trusted us when we showed them our identity cards, which were given to us in Baghdad, proving that we belonged to the Ahmed al-Sheibani company. We began shooting from a long distance at an American convoy. We never saw American soldiers on foot. They were always in tanks or armored vehicles, even inside the city, and also there were strikes by helicopters." The Mehdi Army militamen were very conscious of their military inferiority compared to the far better equipped U.S. Marines, who could kill them without suffering any equivalent losses. They did what they could to combat American armor. Abbas says that a man named Karim Dra'am, who repaired cars in Sadr City, came to Najaf and modified Katyusha rockets and mortar bombs so they would destroy an American tank, but he was killed in action.

Suffering heavy losses and under continual bombardment, the militiamen were ordered to retreat to the Wadi al-Salaam, the Valley of Peace, the largest cemetery in the world, some six miles by two miles in size, where at least two million Shia are buried, eager to have their final resting place close to the shrine of Imam Ali. Wadi al-Salaam is more of a necropolis or a City of the Dead than a cemetery, and spreads out in a great semicircle around Najaf. A few of its streets are wide enough to drive a car down, but most are winding lanes; only the grave diggers really know the layout. Even under Saddam Hussein, when the Iran-Iraq border was officially closed, pious Shia in Iran and elsewhere would pay border tribes to smuggle the bodies of deceased relatives across the frontier to be buried in Wadi al-Salaam. There are also larger tombs belonging to rich families, which look like small mosques or shrines, their walls painted a vivid pink or green. On the tombs there are sometimes photographs of the dead — aging sheikhs in Arab headdresses and young men in jackets and ties. Many members of the Mehdi Army who had been killed in the April battles were interred in the Wadi al-Salaam in plots bought by Muqtada, and they were soon to be joined by more of his militiamen.

"We fled to the cemetery and stayed in the crypts and fought from there," relates Abbas, who is very open about his terrifying experience. "The bombing continued day and night. We saw the graves being demolished and our companions killed. We buried the martyrs without washing them because they were martyrs and the weather was hot [Muslims traditionally wash their dead before burying them, but in Wadi al-Salaam there was little water and bodies rapidly decomposed in the heat]." At night the surviving fighters received water and food from the people of Najaf. "The water came in bottles and our food was biscuits twice a day, though in that situation we did not have much appetite. I saw two cars come from Fallujah with humanitarian aid and Muqtada thanked them. We found that there was food on top and weapons underneath. I don't know how they were able to get past American checkpoints. One morning a rumor spread that Sayyid Muqtada had been killed, and some fighters retreated, but others fought even harder. Then in the afternoon Muqtada came and visited the fighters, his hand wrapped in a white bandage. He fought with us and we saw him hold an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade launcher] and fire it at the American tanks. He was always turning up during the battle, though he kept his movements secret."1

***

A second round in the battle for Najaf was always predictable. In the April crisis Muqtada had, surprisingly, emerged as the outright winner in the confrontation that Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority had half provoked and half tumbled into in their clumsy and counterproductive attempt to eliminate Muqtada as a political force. They achieved the exact opposite of what they wanted, elevating Muqtada into a major player as the world watched the Mehdi Army stand up to the U.S. assault for almost a month. Muqtada had been extremely lucky, or had chosen his moment superbly well, in that his uprising coincided precisely with the crisis in Fallujah. Thanks to extraordinary bungling by the CPA, the Sunni insurgents had acquired their own semi-independent capital half an hour's drive west of Baghdad. This diverted U.S. attention and made the U.S. Army nervous about fighting a two-front war against both Sunni and Shia. The CPA made a humiliating retreat from its threat to arrest Muqtada and disarm and disband the Mehdi Army. In any event, many of the militiamen did not even leave Najaf, as its leaders had pledged. "Muqtada gave an order saying everybody had to go back to his family," recalls Ali Ahmed, who took part in the April uprising. "But many of our men stayed inside Najaf saying that the truce was just a lie, and they also moved into nearby regions such as Mashkab, Haidaria, and Abbasia."2

By August the authorities in Baghdad were stronger than they had been in April. An interim Iraqi government had been installed with Iyad Allawi as prime minister on June 28, 2004, and sovereignty had in theory been transferred back to Iraq. There was a great deal less in this than met the eye. The United States had total control over security policy. Freshly raised Iraqi military units were incapable of fighting anybody. The new regime resembled many authoritarian regimes already existing in the Middle East, but unlike them, it did not even have its own security service or control of its own army. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service under General Mohammed al-Shahwani was openly funded by the CIA. Iyad Allawi had long been close to the British intelligence service MI-6 and the CIA. His defense minister, Hazem al-Shalaan, had a personal interest in getting rid of Muqtada, as he had been part of Sayyid Majid al-Khoei's party who had made the fatal journey to Najaf in April 2003. But he had not been prominent in the opposition to Saddam Hussein and, along with the new interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, was a long-term exile with very limited experience of Iraqi life. Both of these security ministers vehemently denounced Muqtada and the Mehdi Army as cat's-paws of Iran during the coming crisis. Such declarations were a joy to the ears of the administration in Washington, but they were untrue or grossly exaggerated. Despite the lessons that should have been learned in the April crisis, the United States and its Iraqi allies still underestimated Shia solidarity and the mass support for Muqtada. This was a serious weakness because the key to destroying Muqtada and his movement was to isolate him from the hawza, the Shia political parties, and the Shia community as a whole.

Muqtada's position was both stronger and weaker than four months earlier. He had solidified his grip on Sadr City and he still substantially controlled Kufa and Najaf. The Mehdi Army could, in areas like Sadr City, deliver on security in a way the police could not, by telling gangs of criminals and dealers to get out or be killed. In Kut, Sadrist militiamen provided backup for the local police. Class division within the Shia community usually determined attitudes toward the Sadrists. The laboring poor and unemployed revered him, and the middle class of shopkeepers and merchants regarded him with fear and contempt. "The Mehdi Army was created to maintain security and give Iraqis their freedom, so the duty of each of its fighters is to work alongside the police and the civil defense corps," claimed a Sadrist cleric in Kut named Sheikh Mohammed Fadhil al-Musawi piously. But the shopkeepers in Kut felt like Muneer Ahmed, a follower of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who declared himself skeptical, saying: "The fighters of the Mehdi Army were the cause of the riots that happened a few months ago — and now they're acting like good people?"3

Militarily, the Sadrist militiamen were better trained and equipped in August than a few months earlier, when they were no more than bands of religiously inspired gunmen. By now they were organized into companies and battalions with specialized crews for mortars and machine guns. "We tried to avoid the mistakes we had made in the first battle by studying their causes and finding solutions for the problems we faced," says Abbas Fadhel. He reckoned the army had "4,000 to 4,500 very well trained fighters."4 Opponents of the Mehdi Army have a simple explanation as to why this happened. Writing toward the end of 2004, one well-informed commentator wrote that Muqtada "commands not a ragtag militia of dispossessed Shi'ites, but increasingly, a well-armed, well-trained force of insurgents. The transformation of the Jaysh al-Mahdi lies not in Iraq, but across the border in Iran." He goes on to repeat the claim of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had established three military training camps at Qasr-e Shirin, Ilam, and Hamid on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border and were training between eight hundred and twelve hundred of Muqtada's militiamen.5 Such claims of Iranian involvement by newspapers and governments in the Sunni world should be treated with caution. Saddam Hussein had denounced the Shia insurgents in 1991 as pawns of Iran, though the Iraqi Shia opposition to Saddam was bitter that Tehran, for all the bellicose rhetoric, had not helped them. The U.S. and British governments soon joined the chorus of attacks on Iran, claiming it was the hidden hand behind the Mehdi Army.

On the battlefield there was never much evidence that training and better equipment was transforming the Mehdi Army. Its militiamen were no more able to take on the U.S. Marines in August 2004 than they had been able to do in April. They did not have missiles capable of destroying American armored vehicles, as the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon (whom Iran was also accused of arming) were able to do when they were attacked by Israeli tanks in the summer of 2006. The most striking feature of the Mehdi Army was its ability to take massive punishment without disintegrating, but it never attained the military proficiency of the Sunni guerrillas fighting the United States in Iraq, who were led by experienced professional soldiers. The Mehdi Army also had the disadvantage that, in Najaf and Sadr City, it was defending fixed positions that the U.S. military could locate and destroy with its massive firepower.

Muqtada had told his men to react quickly to any provocation.6 There were signs in the first days of August 2004 that the expected crisis was imminent. Muqtada's representative in Kerbala, Sheikh Mithal al-Hassnawi, was arrested, and demonstrators in Najaf demanded his release. U.S. Marines passed close to Muqtada's house in Najaf, and the Sadrists alleged that they planned to arrest him. When eighteen policemen were kidnapped by Sadrists, the U.S.-appointed governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, accused the Mehdi Army of working for Iran and called for U.S. military support. Heavy fighting started with U.S. forces in Najaf and Sadr City, and with the Italians in Nassariya. This did not at first look very different from previous clashes over the summer, but suddenly the political situation was transformed by a dramatic and unexpected event. It was well-known that Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, like other grand ayatollahs, rarely left his house. But on August 6, after secretly leaving Najaf, he arrived in London seeking treatment for a heart ailment. It was evidently not a medical emergency, since he visited friends in Beirut on his way to London, where he did not immediately enter the hospital; and when he did, no surgery was required. Iraqi observers interpreted his swift and secret departure from Najaf as tacit permission for the United States to advance into the city: Sistani was no longer prepared to allow Muqtada to use his presence to shield the Sadrists from American attack.

As news spread that Sistani was in London, Muqtada issued a number of defiant statements. But he was cautious enough to have somebody else read his sermon in his father's mosque in Kufa. His absence underlined his fear that his enemies intended to kill him at the first opportunity. "America is the greatest of Satans," he told worshippers, and accused it of being responsible for the collapse of law and order. "I blame the occupier for all the attacks going on in Iraq, such as the attacks on the churches and the kidnapping," he said. As in the past he foreshadowed his own death: "Heaven does not come without a price. Don't wait for me to get up in the pulpit and give you directions. I, certainly, will be gone because the enemy is looking for me everywhere. Don't let my death divide you."7

Muqtada's words were accompanied by the rattle of gunfire in the background. As in so many other U.S. military actions in Iraq, the marines deployed immense firepower and underestimated the anger felt by Iraqis at the destruction and number of dead. When the marines claimed that they had killed three hundred Mehdi Army militiamen on the first Thursday and Friday of the battle, Iraqi television viewers noticed that some of the bodies scattered in the street were those of women. The slaughter appalled the Iraqi vice president and leader of the Dawa party, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who said: "I think that killing Iraqi civilians is not a civilized way of building the new Iraq, which is based on protecting people and promoting dialogue, not bullets."8 The attempt by the United States and Iyad Allawi to isolate Muqtada from the Shia community was already beginning to fray. A sign that the Iraqi government was nervous came when Allawi suddenly announced that "I invite Muqtada al-Sadr to take part in the elections next year."

People streamed out of Najaf to escape the fighting. The main market had already been pulverized and reduced to rubble. The scene was vividly described by my friend Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: "The wholesale food market, the size of a football pitch, had been reduced to a pile of warped metal. Everything had been incinerated, and each part of the market reeked with its own stench. The smell of burnt potatoes, figs and grapes marked the vegetables section. The cereals were still burning, giving off a faint smell of overcooked rice, and all around was an overwhelming odor of burnt plastic and the crackle of exploding Pepsi cans. Dozens of men, merchants and workers, were trying to rescue what they could. From the carnage appeared a militiaman wrapped in the Iraqi flag followed by two of his comrades. The trio were trying to stop looters digging into the incinerated merchandise."9 Much of the fighting was in the Wadi al-Salaam cemetery. Muqtada's position looked more and more desperate as the marines closed in on the shrine and cut off Najaf from the outside world. In the other Shia cities, the Mehdi Army kept up pinprick attacks.

On August 13, Muqtada himself was wounded in three places by shrapnel from a bomb, according to his spokesman. This must have been when rumors of his death briefly circulated among the militiamen. They were swiftly quashed by his brief appearance among the militiamen. The following day he gave a press conference declaring that "Najaf has triumphed over imperialism and the imperial hubris." The press conference was run in full by al-Jazeera satellite television, and his words echoed around the Middle East. He added acidly that calling Iyad Allawi a "Shi'ite" was like calling Saddam Hussein a "Muslim."10 Once again, as in April, the U.S. forces, though militarily dominant, hesitated to launch the final attack on the shrine. Its capture, particularly if it was damaged or destroyed in a last stand by the Mehdi Army, would do the Americans nothing but harm, unless they could also kill or capture Muqtada.

There is strong evidence that the U.S. military tried to do just that. All sides had a lot to lose if the assault on the shrine went ahead. The Shia Islamists in particular wanted to prevent an assault. Dr. Mowaffaq al-Rubai'e, the Iraqi national security adviser and an independent Shia Islamist, led a mediation effort supported by the Americans that at the time he thought was close to success. However, in retrospect, he is convinced that the Americans' willingness to negotiate was actually a cover for an attempt to lure Muqtada to a place where he could be killed or captured. "I believe that particular incident made Muqtada lose any confidence or trust in the [U.S.-led] coalition and made him really wild," says Dr. Rubai'e. As he recounts it, what happened was that he obtained the backing of Allawi, the U.S. embassy, and the U.S. military command, and then met with Muqtada, giving him a list of conditions to end the fighting. "He actually signed the agreement with his own handwriting," says Dr. Rubai'e. "He wanted inner Najaf, the old city around the shrine, to be treated like the Vatican." Dr. Rubai'e returned to Baghdad to show the draft agreement to Allawi, who approved it, and then went back to Najaf for Muqtada to sign an agreement at a final meeting. This was to take place in Muqtada's father's old house in Najaf. As Dr. Rubai'e and the other mediators approached the house, the U.S. Marines targeted it with an intense bombardment. They then saw U.S. Special Forces racing to surround it. The marines were a few vital minutes too early and missed Muqtada, who had not yet arrived.

Both Muqtada and Dr. Rubai'e, who was considered to be very close to the Americans, believed they were victims of a setup. "When I came back to Baghdad I was really infuriated, I can tell you," said Dr. Rubai'e. "I went berserk with both [the U.S. commander General George] Casey and the ambassador [John Negroponte]." They denied they knew of a trap and said they would investigate, but he heard nothing more from them.

The impact of what he deemed to be a failed attempt to kill or arrest him under the guise of peace talks made Muqtada even more wary than he had been before. "I know him very well and I think his suspicion and distrust of the coalition and any foreigner is really deep-rooted," says Dr. Rubai'e. After it had happened Muqtada retreated to the Imam Ali shrine itself as the safest place for him to be in Najaf.11 Back in Baghdad, Dr. Rubai'e found that the interim government, and the Western intelligence services, which seemed to direct many of its actions, had backed away from any idea

of compromise. He found himself suspected of working for the Iranians — a permanent obsession on the part of the Allawi government when dealing with the Shia Islamists.

The Mehdi Army militiamen holding out in the Wadi al-Salaam suffered serious losses but did not stop fighting. Their morale, however, was beginning to wilt. Abbas Khoederi, a thirty-three-year-old militiaman, is frank about the difficulties they were in. "At the beginning of the battle, which went on for about a month, we had plenty of weapons and supplies," he says. "But with the passage of time and because of the blockade these had started to run out. Especially serious was when they cut off the supply of water to the Imam Ali shrine and the buildings nearby. Frankly, we went through very difficult times, but we remained steadfast and we were hearing Muqtada's orders, which encouraged and strengthened us. When there were periods of calm we would talk about what would happen at the end of the battle, and some of us were hesitant and fearful. When somebody talked like that we would always shut him up before he had finished, in case what he said reached Muqtada. We began to feel that we were weak and the Americans were so strong."12

In the face of vastly superior U.S. military equipment, the pious and naïve young men fighting in Najaf believed they were receiving divine aid. "My brother returned from Najaf and told us there was a huge bird which cried out in a loud voice," said a teenager in Baghdad. "It appeared when the Americans began bombing Mehdi Army positions." The bird would brush falling bombs with its wings so they would not explode. "It's a sign from God — that he has soldiers of all kinds," he added. "That bird was a soldier of God." Other militiamen said they had seen mysterious shadows flitting around American tanks, which they believed were angels intervening to disable the guns or tracks of the tanks. "Those tanks could not move — something had fixed them to the ground," claimed one fighter, Sayf Adnan, a twenty-five-year-old fighting near the Imam Ali shrine with a group of Mehdi Army militiamen when it was heavily bombed. "It went on for half an hour," he said. "Bombs struck every metre, but eighty percent of them did not blow up. Not one of us was hurt. We knew we were under the protection of Imam Ali...and nothing would happen to us."13

In any event, it was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and not angels or other emissaries of divine assistance, who saved Muqtada and the Mehdi Army fighters. Sistani and the Marji'iyyah wanted the Sadrists out of Najaf but did not want to see them or the city destroyed, permanently dividing the Shia community. They were also very careful — as Iyad Allawi, the defense minister Hazem al-Shalaan, and Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib were not — to avoid being seen as American pawns. Sistani had not left Iraq through the U.S.-controlled Baghdad airport, but made the arduous journey by car through southern Iraq to get a plane from Kuwait. The United States and its favored ministers in the government behaved as if their propaganda about the Sadrists being "foreign fighters," Iranian puppets, or "anti-Iraq forces" (the latter term was dreamed up by an American PR company) were true. As late as August 25, Hazem al-Shalaan, speaking from the safety of a U.S. Army base outside Najaf, boasted: "This evening, Iraqi forces will reach the doors of the shrine and control it and I appeal to the Mehdi Army to throw down their weapons. If they do not, we will wipe them out."14 He spoke as if Iraqi security forces were leading the assault, but most Iraqis were aware that they were only playing a cosmetic role in the fighting. Mainstream Shia clergy were often far more realistic about what was happening on the ground than Allawi or his American mentors. Ayatollah Mohammed Bahr al-Ulum, long an exiled opponent of Saddam Hussein, said bluntly: "The government has lost control of the Middle Euphrates region and the south, even if it manages to calm down these areas, temporarily, by using brute force."15

Muqtada was also looking for a compromise, despite all his predictions of his own imminent martyrdom. His abortive negotiations with Dr. Rubai'e in early August showed he was agreeable to a deal including leaving Najaf, but not to an admission of defeat. As in April, his men had stood up to the U.S. war machine and defied the U.S. occupation, which solidified his support among poor and young Shia. For youthful fighters in Sadr City his legitimacy exceeded that of the four grand ayatollahs in Najaf, all very old, three of whom were Iranians. "Sayyid Muqtada: Don't pay attention to the elderly clerics, they are spies," shouted an unemployed young man carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Sadr City as he celebrated an attack that had destroyed a U.S. Humvee. A Shia policeman added: "We will remain behind Muqtada. He is still a holy warrior even if he leaves the shrine and becomes less visible."16

But this support was by no means universal. Muqtada was feared and despised by the Shia shopkeepers, businessmen, and professionals just as the sans-culottes who manned the barricades during the French Revolution were regarded with visceral terror by the Paris bourgeois. The Sadrists were particularly unpopular in Najaf, where many blamed them and not the Americans for the destruction of part of their city. Dr. Ahmed, a firm supporter of Sistani in Najaf and an opponent of Muqtada, says: "In the center of Najaf, shopkeepers whose businesses had been devastated hated the followers of al-Sadr. People asked: 'Why did they have to choose Najaf for their battle? Why don't they fight in Kufa instead?' We hoped that American forces would eliminate all those who took part in the battle."17 For Dr. Ahmed the Sadrists were an arm of the criminal classes.

Among the Shia leadership there was also a belief that Muqtada's confrontation with the United States was ill-advised. The broad strategy approved by the Shia political parties and the Marji'iyyah was to cooperate with the U.S. occupation in order to compel the holding of elections in 2005, which the Shia as the majority of the population would inevitably win. Armed resistance by the Mehdi Army and anti-American nationalism, however popular on the street, might have the disastrous effect of alienating the United States at the very moment when the Shia community in Iraq was within touching distance of winning the greatest victory in its history.

Until quite late in the day, the hawks in the Iraqi government and the Anglo-American intelligence agencies seemed to think they were winning. On August 19 Qassim Dawood, the minister of state for military affairs, demanded that Muqtada publicly announce that he would disband the Mehdi Army, hand over weapons in all provinces, leave the shrine in Najaf, and confirm in writing that he would not undertake any armed action in the future. But Muqtada categorically refused to disband the Mehdi Army.18 Furthermore, on the same day Dawood was making his demands, Sistani left his hospital in London and his spokesman indicated that the Grand Ayatollah would accept the symbolic key to the shrine and control of the shrine complex. There was no mention of the Mehdi Army being disbanded. Sistani's action preempted the interim government's plan to storm the shrine in order to eliminate Muqtada. The government's first reaction was to indulge in fanciful wish fulfillment similar to that of the Mehdi Army militiamen who saw angels disabling American tanks. A government spokesman announced, wholly falsely, that Iraqi security forces had captured the shrine of Imam Ali without a fight, the Mehdi Army militamen had thrown down their arms, and Muqtada himself had escaped "under the cover of darkness." All this was fantasy, as journalists in the shrine swiftly reported. On August 25, Sistani returned to Basra and, after meeting the governor of the city, it was announced that he would lead a peace march to Najaf to save the shrine of Imam Ali. The Sadrist spokesmen accepted a cease-fire and said they would do whatever Sistani ordered. The Sadrists inside the shrine were particularly joyful. "The situation is getting worse day by day and only God's intervention can save us," Mohammed al-Battat was quoted as saying. "I think this march is a gift from God." Though the peace marchers were shot at by police and national guardsmen, Sistani's presence in Najaf checkmated the hawks, who could no longer storm the shrine. On August 26, the U.S. military declared a cease-fire and Muqtada visited Sistani. They agreed to a five-point peace plan under which Najaf and Kufa were to be demilitarized and the Mehdi Army would withdraw from them. The Iraqi police would take over control. There was a call for the withdrawal of foreign forces from both cities and for compensation for those whose property had been damaged. In the margin of the agreement Muqtada wrote the significant words: "These are not requests, but the instructions of the Marji'iyya and I am prepared to implement whatever is in them in response to the Marji'iyya's instructions."19 A few days later he ordered the Mehdi Army to cease fighting in the rest of the country.

The main losers in the second battle of Najaf were Iyad Allawi and the interim government. They had intended to isolate Muqtada from the rest of the Shia political and religious leadership, and had ended up isolating themselves. Allawi was blind to the consequences of appearing as a U.S. proxy in Iraq and relying on U.S. military might. On December 4, 2005, while campaigning in the second of two parliamentary elections held in that year, Allawi unwisely visited the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. Worshippers reacted furiously at the sight of him, shouting abuse and hurling their shoes in his direction. One of the few television news reports to cause general amusement in Iraq in recent years was one showing the portly figure of Allawi running speedily through the gates of the shrine followed by a hail of shoes, a traditional method of showing contempt. He later claimed there had been an attempt to assassinate him by "about sixty people dressed in black carrying machetes and pistols," though nobody else saw them or heard shots.20

The United States had also lost because for the second time it had deployed its full might against Muqtada, only to see him and his movement live to fight another day. As so often happened to the United States in Iraq, its military strength failed to produce political gains. The outright winner of the August battle in Najaf was Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who showed his immense authority over the Iraqi Shia, which neither the interim government in Baghdad nor the U.S. administration in Washington dared confront. Sistani had broken Muqtada's grip on Najaf and shown that the Sadrists could not survive without heeding the wishes of the grand ayatollahs. Muqtada could not credibly go

Copyright © 2008 by Patrick Cockburn

Meet the Author

Patrick Cockburn is Iraq correspondent for the Independent in London. He has received the Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting, the James Cameron Award, and the Orwell Prize for Journalism. He is the author of Muqtada, about war and rebellion in Iraq; The Occupation (shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007); The Broken Boy, a memoir; and with Andrew Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein.

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