On the Ground in Iraq
The roots of sectarian violence
March 1, 2006
Mar 1, 2006
37 Min read time
The Americans came for Sabah one Friday night in September. His house in Radwaniya, on the western outskirts of Baghdad, stood in a dry, yellow field surrounded by brick walls. Three cars were parked in front the day I came to visit, two weeks after Americans had shot him. It was the month of Ramadan, and our mouths were as dry as his yard. The resistance was active in Radwaniya, and we drove through fields and dry canals to avoid any checkpoints that might reveal to locals that I was a foreigner. Journalists were targets now too.
The Americans had come maybe 20 times before to search for weapons in the house were Sabah lived with his brothers Walid and Hussein, their wives, and their six children. They knew where to look for the single Kalashnikov rifle the family was permitted to own. They had always been polite. “This day they didn’t act normal,” Hussein told me. “They were running from all sides of the house. They kicked open the doors. They didn’t wait for us.” With Iraqi National Guardsmen standing outside, the Americans hit the brothers with their rifle butts. Five soldiers were on each man. Sabah’s nose was broken; Walid lay on the floor with a rifle barrel in his mouth. The Shia translator told them to kill Walid, but they ripped the gun out of his mouth instead, tearing his cheek. The rest of the family was ordered out. The translator asked the brothers where “the others” were and cursed them, threatening to rape their sisters.
As the terrified family waited outside on the road, they heard three shots and what sounded to them like a scuffle inside. The Iraqi National Guardsmen tried to enter the house, but the translator cursed them, too, and shouted, “Who told you to come in?” Thirty minutes later Walid was dragged into the street. The translator emerged with a picture of Sabah and asked for Sabah’s wife. “Your husband was killed by the Americans, and he deserved to die,” he told her. He tore the picture before her face. Several soldiers came out of the house laughing.
Inside, the family found Sabah dead. Blood marked his shirt where three bullets had entered his chest; two came out his back and lodged in the wall behind him. American-made bullet casings were on the floor. The house had been ransacked. Sofas and beds were overturned and torn apart; tables, closets, vases with plastic flowers were broken. Sabah’s pictures had been torn up and his identification card confiscated. Elsewhere in the house one picture remained untouched—Sabah with his three brothers and their father, smiling in happier times. When Sabah was buried the next day his body was not washed—martyrs are buried as they died.
Hussein told me that three days before Sabah was killed, an American patrol had stopped in front of Radwaniya’s shops and the Shia translator had loudly taunted the locals, cursing and threatening them for being Sunnis. Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia had been escalating throughout the year, and the Americans had done little to diffuse them.
Hussein’s neighbor, Haidar, lived in a smaller house surrounded by dry, overgrown plants. Although it was Ramadan, we all drank tea. Haidar was 23 years old and an officer in the intelligence section of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s marawir, the SWAT team. He had completed the military academy before the war and after the war was asked to join the intelligence service. With Iraq’s history of army-led coups, a conscious decision was made after the war to establish a small and weak army and to give the police a paramilitary capacity, placing the onus of the counterinsurgency on them. To me, Haidar seemed too thin and his mannerism too gentle for a police officer, especially one responsible for counterterrorism.
Haidar was concerned about the presence of foreign fighters in the resistance and its growing sectarian violence. He told me that members of his intelligence unit had infiltrated resistance groups, praying with them and participating in their planning. “Some of the resistance are organized gangs like mafias,” he said. “They use religion and claim they are the resistance. Some of the resistance has good goals. The real resistance won’t kill Iraqis. They attack the occupier, and they attack them in remote places and don’t use civilians as cover.” He explained that the real resistance just wanted the Americans to stay in their bases and not enter houses or cities. “If they get inside my house, what is left for me?” he asked in the voice of the Iraqi resistance. “I can’t even protect my own house.”
But—possibly because of the influence of foreigners—Sunnis were killing Shia civilians, and Shia, often under official cover, were retaliating. I asked Haidar if the rumors I’d heard were true—that the Ministry of Interior had been infiltrated and dominated by the Badr Organization Militia, the military forces of the radical Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI. Yes, he said, and added that Ministry of Interior members affiliated with Badr were assassinating Sunnis throughout Iraq. Sunni officers were being removed and replaced by unknown Shias.
With the December parliamentary elections only a few weeks away, Haidar, a Sunni himself, warned against Sunni politicians like Adnan Duleymi and Saleh al Mutlaq, who had begun speaking in sectarian terms. “They are not speaking for Iraq. We need somebody who speaks for all Iraqis,” But, as Haidar must have sensed, sectarian voters would win the day in the December elections. “The Americans should stay for two years,” he told me. “If they leave there will be a civil war.” In my judgment the civil war had started at least a year and a half before.
* * *
Political parties didn’t overtly begin to speak in the name of sectarian groups until 2005. For Shias, it wasn’t necessary: after the war Iraq’s Shia triumphalism was shared by all Shia parties; Iraq was now theirs and could not be taken away except by the Americans. There was no threat of Sunnis retaking the country because they had never taken it before: they had been given it, first by the Ottomans and then by the British. Iraq’s Sunnis, unsurprisingly, felt intimidated, and they increasingly came to view Shias as Iranians or Persians, refusing to recognize that Shias were the majority or that Shias had been singled out for persecution under Saddam. Sunnis were the primary victims of American military aggression and viewed Shias as collaborators. As Shias became the primary victims of radical Sunni terror attacks against Iraqi civilians, they came to view Sunnis as Baathists, Saddamists, or Wahhabis. Yet Shias showed restraint amid daily attacks meant to provoke a civil war; they knew the numbers were on their side.
The attacks against Shia civilians did nothing to weaken their increasing power in Iraq, validated by the January 2005 elections. With many Sunni leaders boycotting the elections in protest of the occupation, the new government and the constitutional committee emerged with a large Shia majority. Throughout the region, sectarian tensions began to increase, and Sunnis in Jordan and Saudi Arabia were feeling threatened by the Shia renaissance in Iraq.
In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdallah warned of a “Shia crescent” from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran that would destabilize the entire region. Iraq’s Shias had demonstrated against Jordan in the past, condemning the country for its steady trickle of suicide bombers who crossed into Iraq to commit atrocities against Shia civilians. In September 2005, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal warned that a civil war in Iraq would destabilize the entire region and complained that the Americans had handed Iraq over to Iran. In response, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr called the Saudi foreign minister a “Bedouin riding a camel” and described Saudi Arabia as a one-family dictatorship. Jabr, who had commanded the Badr corps, also condemned Saudi human-rights abuses—particularly the repression of Saudi Arabia’s approximately two million Shias—and he mocked Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its women.
In Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabi Islam, Shias are known as rafida, which means “rejectionists.” A highly pejorative term, it implies that Shias are outside Islam, and to Shias it is the equivalent of being called “nigger.” This is the same word Sunni radicals in Iraq and the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, use to describe Shias. Saudi Arabia’s two million Shias have been persecuted, prevented from celebrating their festivals, and occasionally threatened with extermination. Saudi Arabia is also the main exporter of foreign fighters to the Iraqi jihad to fight both the Americans and the Shia “rafida” collaborators.
When I returned to Baghdad in October 2005 after an absence of many months, a regional sectarian war was being fought in Iraq, with Jordan and Saudi Arabia providing support for Sunni violence that would give Iraq’s Sunnis more political leverage. Iran was of course supporting its client SCIRI—perhaps still funding it as well—as SCIRI waged war against Sunnis who went too far.
* * *
A few minutes after I drove out of the airport upon my return I heard two bursts of Kalashnikov fire. It continued intermittently all day, and every day I was in Baghdad, along with the constant rumble of helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. On the walls of an overpass I noticed new graffiti: “We have 1000 katrina for USA.” Shortly before I arrived someone had nihilistically blown up the landmark statue of Abu Jafa al Mansur, the builder of Baghdad and the second Abbasid caliph. The large bust of the handsome man in a turban, looking down at the city from a roundabout, could have been destroyed by Shias, Sunnis, or Kurds. Mansur had laid the first stone for Baghdad in 762. Now much of the city was being turned to rubble.
“It’s not like in the past,” an Iraqi friend warned me. “Now it’s all gangs and mafias. Everything is very, very bad,” he told me. The killings continued, ten on one day, 100 the next. My Iraqi friends ordered me to avoid anything that was shash, slang for something that attracts attention.
Sunni attitudes had begun to change in early spring 2005. Some Sunni leaders who had boycotted the January 2005 elections began to realize that they might be locking themselves out of Iraq’s future. The question, though, was how to begin to re-enter politics. In the first months after the war, Sunnis and Shias formed united committees, held joint prayers, and rejected sectarianism; by 2004 it was apparent that civil war was on its way. Sunni newspapers waged a war of words against Shias, hinting ominously about the millions of Iranians who had infiltrated Iraq, claiming to be Iraqi Shias, intent on changing the demographic balance. Would Sunni politicians struggling to regain power now claim to represent the disenfranchised Sunnis, or would they claim the good of Iraq as their platform? The slide into sectarian language wasn’t instant, but even those politicians who chose the latter often spoke with implicit attacks on Shias.
In late March 2005 Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Abd al Ghafour al Samarai, the director general of the Sunni Endowment and a former top official in the neo-Baathist clerical organization the Association of Muslim Scholars, encouraged Iraqi Sunnis to join the Iraqi military and police as long as they supported their nation and not the occupiers of Iraq. If the “honest and loyal elements” of Iraq (meaning its Sunnis) did not participate, then those who sought to harm the security of the nation (meaning Shias) would dominate the security forces. He later explained that the “real resistance” understood his call because they did not want militias (Shia and Kurdish militias) ruling Iraq. Sixty-four other high-ranking Sunni clerics from throughout Iraq signed onto al Samarai’s fatwa.
When the Jordanian al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi boldly declared war on Shias in a speech, Iraq’s radical Sunni leadership reacted quickly to condemn it. The Association of Muslim Scholars announced that Iraq’s Shias were not responsible for the crimes the government was committing with the Americans’ blessings and that they were innocent of the attacks against Sunnis carried out by the Americans. No religious principle allows one to seek revenge on an innocent person, they said, and accused Zarqawi of supporting the Americans’ hope to create civil war in Iraq. Meanwhile five resistance groups—the Army of Muhamad, the al Qaqa Battalions, the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Army of Mujahideen and the Salehdin Brigades—also condemned Zarqawi’s statements as a “fire burning the Iraqi people” and explained that the resistance only attacked the occupiers and those who assisted them and did not base their attacks on sectarian or ethnic criteria.
Later in 2005 there was also increasing debate among Iraq’s Sunni resistance about the need to negotiate with the Americans. Sheikh Muayad, of Iraq’s most important Sunni mosque, who had vehemently condemned the Americans from his pulpit, announced his membership in the Islamic Party and his support for the new Iraqi constitution. He became a wanted man. Viewed as a traitor by the resistance and his community, he left his mosque and home under the protection of the Iraqi National Guard.
Most Sunni leaders did not go as far as Muayad, but their increasing discussion about the need to negotiate with Americans worried Shias. The Shia resistance, led by the radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Army of the Mahdi, had to surrender its weapons before negotiating. They viewed Sunni attempts to enter the political process as a fifth column, granting them political power without requiring them to lay down their weapons, and opening the possibility for a future coup by Sunnis, who had superior skills and experience in intelligence, fighting, organizing, and military takeovers.
On the day I visited the Um al Qura mosque—the headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars—another member of the association had just been assassinated, and it was widely presumed by Sunnis that the “Interior”—the Badr militia—was responsible. A small platoon of Iraqi National Guardsmen stood watch outside the mosque while armed mosque staff members searched vehicles entering the vast compound. Inside the reception room I counted at least six Kalashnikovs. The satellite television was on a station from the Persian Gulf, showing Salafi chants for Allah with images of nature and paradise. Gruesome posters lining the walls depicted slain members of the association or other murdered Sunnis. “Our martyrs are twinkling stars in the Iraqi sky,” said one. “No to organized government terrorism,” said another.
The Um al Qura mosque was also known as the Mother of All Battles because it had been built in honor of Saddam’s alleged victory over allied forces in the first Gulf War. It had been taken over after the war by the Association of Muslim Scholars, and from its pulpit clerics had called for jihad against the occupiers and urged listeners to join the resistance. From its parking lot aid—including weapons—had been sent to Falluja, as well as to Shias in the south during the Sadr uprisings led by Muqtada in the spring and summer of 2004. But the once aggressive Sunnis of Iraq now felt besieged.
The Sunni cleric Adnan al Dulaymi set the precedent for a new sectarianism in Iraqi politics. Dulaymi had been a dean at Jordan’s Al Zarqa University from 1994 until 2002. Zarqa gained renown as the center of Jordan’s Salafi movement and the hometown of Zarqawi, as well as many of his lieutenants. Dulaymi returned to Iraq a week after the fall of Baghdad. He was appointed head of the Sunni Religious Endowment but was removed for what he claimed were political reasons because he was “defending the Sunnis.”
The elderly cleric—who was also appointed religious advisor to President Jalal Talabani—formed the Conference of Iraqi Sunnis in May 2005 to unite Sunnis under what he described as “one umbrella” and to encourage their political participation. The Conference described the Iraqi constitution as illegitimate because it allegedly sought to partition Iraq. Dulaymi, who always wore a black hat that looked like a sailor’s cap, warned of plots to destroy Iraq and provoke sectarian conflict, coded language for giving Shias and Kurds too much power at the expense of Sunnis.
Dulaymi had condemned terrorism as “unjustified violence and mass killing” but called resistance to occupation legitimate. He criticized the Americans for targeting Sunni cities with the support of Shias in order to prevent the political participation of Sunnis. Dulaymi repeatedly warned of malice directed against Iraq’s Sunnis, who he claimed made up—along with Kurds—60 percent of the population.
In the summer of 2005 Dulaymi’s party maintained that the constitution being drafted should establish Iraq’s Arab and Islamic identity, recognizing it as part of the Arab homeland and prohibiting any conflict between the law and Islam. His assertions were sure to offend the non-Arab Kurds—just as his steadfast opposition to federalism would—and even some Shia leaders who had called for a southern federal province uniting Shias.
I hoped to get an even more explicit statement of the party’s intentions. I visited the Association of Muslim Scholars to meet with Dulaymi’s deputy, Sheikh Imad Muhamad Ali, who had been working with Dulaymi since September 2004. He explained to me that although the association was not participating in the elections, they were not proscribing participation. “The people should participate in the elections in full,” he told me, “The Iraqi situation is very difficult, and the only way to solve it is political participation.” I asked him what specific steps could be taken to establish peace and security in Iraq. “First, end the occupation,” he said. “Second, establish the former Iraqi army. Third, dissolve the militias. Fourth, close all borders and maintain them, especially with Iran and Syria.”
What about ending the resistance? “The resistance attacks the occupiers,” he said. “Attacks against the police and army are a reaction to what the Iraqi army did to people. A lot of sides have an interest in making the situation unstable. . . . When Zarqawi issued his fatwa against Shias we rejected it. Shias are Muslim.” The Sheikh averred with the oft-repeated Sunni myth that they are the majority, explaining to me that 40 percent of Iraqis are Sunni Arab and an additional 20 percent are Sunni Kurds.
Did the Sheikh want an immediate American withdrawal? “The occupation should not end today,” he said. “Before they withdraw they should re-establish the original Iraqi army. The American army should leave the cities and move to bases outside the cities, and during this period the Iraqi army should be given new arms and equipment and an agreement should be made for gradual withdrawal. If this does not happen then there must be negotiations between the resistance and the Americans.” When I asked him how the Americans could find resistance leaders to negotiate with them, he said with a smile, “The resistance is here . . . they are not ghosts. They are Iraqi and they are heroes.”
“Who? You?” I asked.
He smiled and laughed, nearly winking at me. “Do you want me to have trouble? I’ll have to run away if I say that!” I asked if he thought the resistance would consent to negotiations. “If I was a resister I would agree,” he said. I asked him if he was worried about the foreign fighters refusing to recognize any truce. He admitted that the Iraqi resistance would also need a plan to deal with them.
Saleh al Mutlaq of the National Dialogue Council was less coy about wanting to represent the resistance. Entering his office past numerous armed guards, I waited with an Iraqi friend next to several tribal sheikhs and the leader of the Salahedin Group of the resistance. Looking at the party’s officials whispering to each other, my friend muttered that they all had “Baathist faces.” Mutlaq himself was known for using Baathist discourse, and during the drafting of the constitution—he was one of the few Sunnis who had participated in it—he had been the most vociferous opponent of any de-Baathification clause.
As I sat waiting to meet him two burly men approached his receptionist and whispered that they were from “the office of the martyr,” meaning Muqtada al-Sadr’s martyred father, meaning Muqtada himself. To my surprise they were followed by Seyid Hassan Naji al Mussawi, who had led Muqtada’s Army of the Mahdi in Baghdad’s Sadr City and who was one of Muqtada’s senior representatives. Just as Sunni Baathists had rehabilitated themselves and joined Islamist movements, so too had Shia Baathists, and up to one third of Muqtada’s men were former Baathists. Seyid Hassan was rumored to have been a Baathist agent himself. He had warned me once that the Americans had come to Iraq to kill the Mahdi, the Shia messiah, but that the Mahdi would kill the Americans and the Jews.
A large entourage of black-clad men wielding Kalashnikovs followed Seyid Hassan. Most remained in the yard and violated the fast with tea as their boss met with al Mutlaq for about an hour. Pretending to fast was taking its toll on me, and I fell asleep in my chair until it was my turn. Dressed in a better suit than most Iraqis I had met, seated with his legs crossed, and fingering prayer beads, al Mutlaq spoke a smooth English, no doubt refined during his doctoral studies in agriculture at Aberdeen University. Originally from Falluja, al Mutlaq had made a fortune in agriculture and Baathist cronyism, although he now claimed to have left the Baath Party in 1977 (a convenient year since it just precedes Saddam’s seizure of total power) because of his opposition to the execution of five Shias in Basra (conveniently chosen victims for his story as well). He claimed to have attempted two coups against Saddam, which would make him unique in Iraq; anybody else would have been executed, but he managed to become a millionaire. But he was comfortable with his revised autobiography. “I’m quite okay,” he said, smiling. “Not a very rich man.” Al Mutlaq told me that immediately after the war he had entered politics. “I expected what is happening,” he said. Al Mutlaq had collected many tribal leaders and former military officers to support him. Al Mutlaq had also said explicitly that he was speaking on behalf of Sunnis. Even the Islamic Party of Iraq had avoided such claims.
“I hope to be the political face of the resistance,” he admitted to me, comparing himself to Gerry Adams. “I took this responsibility on myself but nobody authorized me.” Still, the last person to try that, former Minister of Electricity Ayham al Samarai, had found his announcement followed by a publicized statement from the Islamic Army of Iraq, Ansar al Sunna, and the Army of the Mujahideen rejecting his claim to represent them and allowing his blood to be spilled. Since no resistance group had come out against al Mutlaq’s claims, they must have supported him, or at least did not oppose him. “Most of the resistance wants the political option,” he told me. “The Americans should talk to them directly. They want to free Iraq from the Americans and I think they will be flexible if the Americans are serious about leaving.”
“The Americans should leave after they correct their terrible mistakes. They dissolved the army and dismissed the Baathists. The new army is mostly thieves. They should join the new army to the old army.” And the foreign fighters who would refuse to negotiate with the Americans? “We hope they will just leave Iraq and go fight the Americans somewhere else.”
Al Mutlaq described Iraq since the war as “worse than anything from 1922 until 2003. Saddam’s period was much better for Iraq.” This would certainly enrage Shias, as would his view that Shias are not killing Sunnis out of revenge for terror attacks but because “they want to prove they are the power and since what they are doing does not conflict with the Americans.” Al Mutlaq complained that the Shias leading Iraq were not interested in negotiating with the resistance. “This Ministry of Interior is the worst ministry we have had in history. The minister has no control. Badr has infiltrated the entire ministry. They collect their men and attack with MOI cars and equipment but without orders. You can’t tell the mafia from the government.” Although he admitted that Muqtada’s followers had fought the Americans as well, he called them unstable. “They consider themselves part of the resistance but they handed over their weapons before the battle ended,” he said. “People didn’t want to: it’s against their honor.” When I told him I knew Seyid Hassan, his previous guest, he became very curious, asking me, “Is he very influential?”
* * *
So I returned to Sadr City to see just who was still influential. A few days before, an Irish journalist writing for the British newspaper the Guardian had been kidnapped there by members of Muqatada’s Mahdi Army who hoped to trade him for their militiamen held in the south by the British. Despite its truce with the Americans, the militia, it seemed, remained powerful and armed, assimilating into the police in many cases.
I arranged to meet Fatah abu Yaqin al Sheikh, the editor of the Sadrist newspaper Ishraqat al-Sadr and a representative of Sadr City in the National Assembly, in his office near the entrance to the Shia bastion. Downstairs in the broken-down three-story building, men were hard at work welding immense signs for Muqtada’s movement. One depicted the shrine of Imam Kadhim with Muqtada, his father and uncle (the first and second martyrs). Black-clad and masked soldiers of the Army of the Mahdi marched, looking eerily like Saddam’s fedayeen, and Iraqis were shown screaming and crying. “God accept this sacrifice from us and protect Iraq and its people,” it said.
Fatah showed up with two pickup trucks full of militiamen for protection. Some had little swords hanging from their guns, representing Dhulfiqar, the fabled sword of Ali. Fatah was also widely rumored in Sadr City to be a former Baathist agent. He had owned a haberdashery before the war and remained fastidiously shaven and groomed. After the war he had established a newspaper that spoke for Muqtada and by 2004 he had become the strongman for Sadr City, charging journalists entry fees and arranging for those who didn’t pay to be intimidated.
Fatah had run as an unofficial candidate in the January elections that Muqtada refused to boycott or support, and the seat he won represented 30,000 Iraqis. And since Muqtada had recently appointed him his representative for the Anbar Province, I teased Fatah that he would soon have to move to Falluja. The appointment was symbolic, meant to strengthen relations between Muqtada and the Sunni rejectionists of the Anbar. Fatah regarded Seyid Hassan with contempt, viewing him as overly obsessed with his appearance. “He cares for his religious fashion more than his knowledge.”
Fatah agreed that there were signs of a civil war, but he blamed the Americans for it and added that “Sunnis and Shias are united in opposition to the Americans. The Americans kill Sunnis and put their bodies in Sadr city and kill Shias and put bodies in Sunni areas. The Americans want an excuse to stay, and it is in the interest of the Mossad and American intelligence to divide Sunnis and Shias. But it united Sunni and Shia.”
“People expected Shias to welcome the Americans,” he said proudly. “People accused Shias of supporting the occupation,” but the Army of the Mahdi showed they reject the occupation.
Unlike other clerical Sadrists I had met, Fatah was not interested in a government run by the clergy. “The government has to provide justice for the Iraqi people,” he said. “It doesn’t have to have men with beards or turbans. I am with the government that provides justice, even if it is secular, and against an unjust government, even if it is not Islamic. There is no Islamic government in the world today.”
Fatah’s newspaper, Ishraqat, whose name means “sunrises,” was now far more professional than when I had first started reading it 18 months before. But on the front page of nearly every copy he gave me, I found a news item with his picture on it. “I’m like a new dictator,” he laughed. One headline said, “Revenge . . . Revenge. Every nation’s blood is from the tears of the martyrs of the Mujahid Sadr city.” Other headlines quoted Muqtada saying, “America fights Islam and nothing else. I don’t believe the occupier will leave,” and “The American government hasn’t offered an apology.”
At Muqtada’s local office in Sadr City, which had taken over the Friday prayers from the Muhsin mosque, tens of thousands still filled the streets every day, an ocean of people rising and bowing in unison. Outside the office I purchased more newspapers and posters. A Sadrist newspaper called “Friday” quoted Muqtada’s father, Muhamad Sadiq al-Sadr: “The Friday prayer is a needle in the eyes of occupiers generally and Israel in particular.” Muqtada’s office had issued a special-edition newspaper called Quds, Arabic for “Jerusalem,” in honor of the “World Jerusalem Day” that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had declared and which Iranian Prime Minister Ahmedanijad had recently made famous when he called for Israel to be wiped out. Muqtada was still publishing his original newspaper, Al Hawza, and it warned of an American plan to split Iraq and printed a cartoon of British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying, “Hello, Bush, we succeeded in splitting Iraq.” One article discussed the role of Islam in the Iraqi constitution and concluded that Islam could not be applied truly unless the Mahdi returned or his assistant appeared, suggesting the possibility that Muqtada was the Mahdi’s assistant. Another headline reported a study that showed that 25 percent of Europeans are insane.
I asked to purchase some Sadrist CDs, and Fatah took me to a shop nearby decorated with posters of the first and second martyrs, Muqtada, and Ayatollah Khomeini. One CD I bought was dedicated to Muqtada. “The candles are tall,” a man sang. “The Shias are greeting Muqtada . . . We are in your light our lord . . . All the young men are behind you . . . These are the people of the opposition.” It was sung to popular Iraqi music and contained images from Sadr’s uprisings as well as Iraqis dancing on the occasion of Muqtada’s birthday, although his age is never revealed. Voices sang “God help us win against the nation of unbelievers” as a rocket-propelled grenade hit an American tank.
Another CD opened with credits: “The Two Imams’ Islamic Foundation and Studio introduces its new production ‘The Knights: Part 2.’” With a volcano and lava in the background, gunfire sounded and the young men who made the film ran into view. “The U.S. army came and we came to them,” a singer wearing a bullet-proof vest recalled, “and we threw the 1920 revolution at them . . . They declared their enmity; we came to get them.” The editors spliced in scenes of rocket-propelled grenades being shot at American soldiers from the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down. It looked real, and someone unfamiliar with the movie might have believed it so. “We resist with our rifles as Sadr said,” men sang. They were shown inside a mosque, singing and dancing with their shoes off, but with guns and RPGs in hand and ammunition belts still on.
On the walls of the Sadr office I found announcements exhorting the people to support the Shias, plant trees, and preserve the grass. A nearby shop sold stickers for children’s schoolbooks with space for the child’s name, class, school, and address. Decorated with bright colors and flowers, they depicted Muqtada in a way I had not previously seen. He was smiling, friendly, even embracing children. Each sticker contained one of Muqtada’s aphorisms, such as “If the teacher is good, then certainly the student will be good.” Stickers for cars depicted Muqtada and his fighters in various settings—deserts of the American Southwest, lush jungle paradises, and even in an ocean with two crescent moons in the sky.
As I parted from Fatah he asked my driver if he wanted to take a pistol or Kalashnikov for my safety and offered to secure a weapons license for me. He was very concerned for my safety, but the only danger on the street that day was the little boys playing with large toy Kalashnikovs that shot small plastic pellets. Throughout my time in Baghdad I did not see a single Iraqi boy on the streets without one of these rifles.
* * *
I saw boys scampering through the streets of Amriya wielding the same toys when I joined a friend for Iftar, the meal to break the Ramadan fast, and waited for Sheikh Hussein, another friend who headed the nearby Maluki mosque. Sunni-dominated Amriya had been the site of many sectarian killings in recent months, 150 according to locals, and most of the victims were Shias who had been warned to leave the neighborhood. My friend Hassan and his father, abu Mustafa, recounted how Hassan had been shot in the belly for working with the Ministry of Defense. Hassan’s longtime Shia neighbor had been killed on the street nearby in a drive-by shooting. There was no apparent motive other than to intimidate local Shias. Sunni groups established specifically to kill Shias had been successful throughout the country. They had targeted a bus and taxi depot for people traveling to Amara and Nasriya, Shia towns in the south. They had exploded car bombs in the predominantly Shia-owned shops of the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad. In Amriya, their attacks had gone astray. In a nearby house, nine of Hassan’s Sunni neighbors had been killed when mortar shells shot by the resistance missed the military base and landed on them instead.
Unlike Sunni assassins who targeted the general Shia population, gangs of Shia killers, allegedly part of the Badr militia or the Army of the Mahdi, most often targeted radical Sunni clerics or former Baathists suspected of supporting the resistance. Sheikh Hussein—a Salafi himself with clear links to the resistance—had nearly been assassinated by Shia Badr militiamen who had arrived at his home in a police car. He hid and they missed him. When he joined Hassan and me he had only recently re-emerged from hiding.
Sheikh Hussein supported Sunni participation in the December elections and agreed with Sheikh Samarai’s fatwa urging them to join the security forces. He too expressed concern that the “Arabs,” meaning foreign fighters, who wanted a jihad until judgment day, would refuse to accept negotiations with the government. Sheikh Hussein was also a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, and like many of its members, his attitude toward political participation appeared to have become markedly more flexible.
When I visited the Um al Qura mosque in mid-October, an open letter urging Sunnis to vote against the constitution still hung on its walls. “Oh great Iraqi people from the north to the south and from the east to the west,” the letter said. “Your sons are being killed in the north in the center in the south. All this talk by the Americans of this situations improving is a trick and a lie. They are planting the seeds of strife for the realization of their goal. The constitution is a big conspiracy to divide the nation and to waste its resources and to transform Iraq into a weak nation and divide it into different sections like they did with Lebanon.”
But in his seminar that day, Dr. Mahmud al Sumaidai, one of the association’s spokesmen, warned of following clerics who were too radical. “People manipulate the meaning of the Qur’an as they want,” he said, “and we suffer from this now. We should follow our imams and listen to their sermons but we should not be against the religion. There is no obedience to a leader that leads to sin.” The audience understood what he meant clearly. “I am now talking to the people who want to lead this country,” he continued. “They should put Islam in front of their eyes. They should put Iraq in front of their eyes. The policies of sectarianism and exclusion of parts of the Iraqi people have failed.” He meant that Sunnis had been excluded from Iraqi politics, but he failed to mention that they had excluded themselves. “You should participate in the elections so we can preserve Iraq’s mosques and our scholars and our families.” He added that this would prevent any one Iraqi sect from controlling the others. Again his meaning was clear. He continued, “All Iraqis should stand against our enemies, telling them to go out of our country! Go out of our country! . . . For all my brothers, the Iraqi Muslims, your vote is very important, so you should be careful in giving it to a man who has integrity, he believes in Islam, he should be a patriot, and just, and you should not vote for a man who wants to give the government to a certain sect. If you vote for a man and this man destroys the country and spreads corruption then you will be his partner in all of this.”
On the evening of Eid al-Fitr, the festival at the end of Ramadan, I was tired of my friends restricting our excursions out of fear for my safety and demanded that we return to Zayuna’s al Rubai Street to get a milkshake in a shop I liked. The street had been closed to traffic so that families could congregate in its shops and stroll undisturbed as they celebrated Eid. Hundreds of policemen stood guard and mingled with the crowds. They found a child who had been separated from its parents and called out to them on loudspeakers. Other children squealed in an ancient amusement park. Young boys with drums danced and sang. They set off loud firecrackers, and I winced with each burst.
* * *
The struggle was spreading, and if it looked as though the resistance might strike a deal with the Americans and the Iraqi government, it was certain that many would not relinquish the fight.
Sunni fears about the Badr militia’s infiltration of the Ministry of Interior were confirmed in November 2005 when the Americans exposed the torture of hundreds of resistance suspects in its prisons. While the SCIRI leader Abdel Aziz al Hakim called for harsher methods to be used against the resistance and complained that the Americans were tying Iraqi hands in the battle against them, former Prime Minister Ayad Alawi made his comeback, condemning the new human-rights abuses and comparing them to Saddam-era excesses, a move that surely won him Sunni votes. At the National Reconciliation Conference for Iraq, held in Cairo on November 19, Iraqis from across the political spectrum met. Although Shias and Kurds at first staged a pullout when pro-Baathist statements offended them, behind the scenes Iraqi and American leaders met with leaders of the Iraqi resistance—including the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Army of Mujahideen, and the 1920 Revolution Brigades—who demanded that the occupation end, Iraqis receive compensation, prisoners be released, and political and military structures be built that are independent of foreign influence.
They refused to hand Zarqawi over to the Americans but agreed to hand him over to the new Iraqi government if they found it legitimate. They admitted that they were offended by Zarqawi’s attacks against civilians and discussed ways of isolating the Jordanian terrorist leader, who they said used his wealth to attract fighters. President Jalal Talabani admitted that he was negotiating with resistance leaders and recognized the legitimacy of struggling against an occupation, and even Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari allowed for a demand to be made for a timetable ending the occupation. Jaafari also recognized attacks against occupation troops as legitimate forms of resistance, even as his government was fighting that resistance. Jaafari’s flexibility might have resulted from the inclusion of Muqtada al-Sadr as an equal member of his party’s list, the United Iraqi Alliance, giving Muqtada 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Muqtada announced a National Honor Pact that would work to end the occupation, release “the sons of the noble Resistance” held by the Americans, refuse to have relations with Israel, apply de-Baathification and Islamic law, and distribute Iraq’s wealth according to the needs of the people. At the same time Muqtada’s men were exacting revenge on Sunni fighters who killed their Shia kinsmen.
But Sunnis preferred to view Muqtada as “the good Shia,” and he was becoming the only bridge between Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis. Muqtada opposed the Baathists but had established an excellent working relationship with radical Sunnis immediately following the war, and like them he demanded a centralized Iraq, in part perhaps because he has so much support in Baghdad. SCIRI, on the other hand, saw no need for compromise, preferring to impose a new order on Iraq that directly clashed with Sunni aspirations and reinforced all their fears. It was fighting an open war with the Association of Muslim Scholars as well as former Baathists and Iraqi military officers, singling out former fighter pilots for retribution.
Muqtada al-Sadr, once the most divisive figure in Iraqi politics, was becoming the only hope for halting the civil war. Muqtada was the only Shia leader respected by Iraq’s Sunnis. Unlike the leadership of Dawa or SCIRI, Muqtada was not in exile, and like his father he has condemned foreign-born clerics based in Iraq and has made much of his nationalism. Muqtada has been a fierce critic of Iran, warning of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Muqtada’s Army of the Mahdi fought the American occupiers, establishing street cred with the Sunni resistance. Muqtada’s movement had drawn many Shia former Baathists into its ranks, as well as Shias who had served in Saddam’s dreaded security and intelligence services, rehabilitating them. Several of Muqtada’s own bodyguards were former Baathist security thugs. But would all this be enough? My views swung from the apocalyptic to the optimistic erratically, depending on my experiences on any given day.
My last night I sat with friends in my favorite fresh fruit juice and ice cream place, Sandra. I was happy that the owner still recognized me and remembered my usual drink, a strawberry and banana milkshake. One friend, a Sunni, confided to me that things had been much better under Saddam. Another was annoyed that Iraqis could be celebrating and ignoring the horror around them. A young Shia man, educated and secular, said he felt stultified, with few options. I asked him if, with all this violence, crime and radical Islam, it was not better under Saddam. “No,” he said, “they could level all of Baghdad and it would still be better than Saddam. At least we have hope.”
A few weeks later, after the elections, the same friend e-mailed me: I’m living here in the middle of shit, a civil war will happen I’m sure of it. People became more aggressive, in the way they talk, before they would care a little bit about Shia or Sunni, but now it is like you can’t be comfortable talking with a man until you know if he was Shia or Sunni, the situation is like this, and beside what do you need to start a civil war? Religious difference (Shia, Sunni), Weapons, Militias, Politicians don’t trust each other, People don’t trust each other, Seeking Revenge, Weak government, Separate regions for the opponents, some mixed regions from both with a lot of problems inside, Tribal feelings and loyalty. To be clear, now Shia are Iranians for the Sunni, and Sunni are Salafi terrorists for the Shia. We have a civil war here; it is only a matter of time, and some peppers to provoke it.
Those peppers may have been the February 22 bombing of the Shia shrine in Samara. Angry Shias came to the streets, attacking hundreds of Sunni mosques, killing Sunni clerics, and for the first time demonstrating to Iraq’s Sunnis who really had the power in the new Iraq. Sunnis donned black clothes like al Qaeda’s and protected mosques in their neighborhoods. This angered Shias, who were only partially deterred by fatwas calling for restraint. Shias occupied Sunni mosques in Baghdad and renamed them after the destroyed shrine in Samara. In Radwaniya, Sunnis angry at the Association of Muslim Scholars for not doing enough to protect them collected their guns and prepared for a counterattack. Members of Muqtada’s Mahdi Army were losing what little discipline they had and ignoring their leaders’ calls for peace. While the all-out nihilism that accompanies full-scale civil wars had not yet taken hold, leaders on all sides traded accusations. In the days that followed, attacks on mosques increased. Officially, Muqtada opposed attacks on Sunnis, but he had unleashed his fighters on them. Sectarian and ethnic cleansing continued apace. In Amriya, dead bodies were being found on the main street at a rate of three a day. People were afraid to approach the bodies or call an ambulance or the police for fear that they would be found dead the next day. In Abu Ghraib, Dora, Amriya, and other mixed neighborhoods, Shias were being forced out. In Maalif, Sunnis were being targeted. Those who were expelled from their homes would not soon forget it. They would join militias seeking revenge.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
March 01, 2006
37 Min read time