Al-Sadr’s men in black

Inside the Iraqi cleric's stronghold, the al Mehdi militia hunker down for a showdown with the U.S. that they believe they can -- and will -- win.

Topics: Iraq war, Iraq, Middle East,

Al-Sadr's men in black

As I write on Friday evening, An Najaf is close to being cut off from the rest of the country by coalition forces. The only available road out of town is the highway to Karbala, now that clashes have closed the usual route to Baghdad. Drivers arriving in the city this afternoon described a scene of panic when civilians caught up in the fighting near Kufa headed north for safety. Kufa is a mere 10 kilometers away, and long lines for fuel snarled traffic in An Najaf, making a short drive take hours. Drivers are hoarding gasoline, one sign of extreme anxiety.

In the late afternoon, this city became a ghost town as residents prepared themselves for a coalition assault. Civilians have gone inside, while small bands of militiamen moved quickly from one position to another, speaking of successful strikes against American Humvees. As if to signal worse times to come, a great wall of dust rose in the west and dimmed the sun into a milky disk.

I have been here for two days. On Thursday night, the militiamen of Muqtada al-Sadr roamed the streets of the desert city of An Najaf, their frenzied shouts rising above the buildings into the warm night. This place, the site of Imam Ali’s tomb, is one of the holiest places in the Muslim world, and it is not a coincidence that it is also Muqtada al-Sadr’s zone of exclusive control. All the militiamen, manning gates near the shrine, were wearing black clothes, black shirts, black ski masks. Black is the color of Imam Mehdi.

To get to the shrine, one must pass through al-Sadr checkpoints — there is no other way in. Carefully made ID tags, like the ones worn by coalition staff and journalists, adorn the militiamen. Without an al Mehdi ID, fighters are not allowed to carry ammunition or pass through into highly secured areas. It is clear that they are well organized; their IDs and press conferences speak to their determination to legitimize their power across the country.

On Thursday evening we saw hundreds of well-armed men milling around the tomb of Ali, some kissing the silver railing around the crypt, circling it slowly. Any coalition attack near the shrine would echo throughout the country and lead to waves of bitter retaliation.

I have a contact who brought me here and made all the al-Sadr introductions: a young man who is part of the al Mehdi army in Baghdad. He doesn’t do regular work for them or carry a gun. But he wants Muqtada al-Sadr to emerge from the struggle as the leader of an Islamic Iraq. It’s as simple as that. When I ask him why, he says, “Muqtada is a good man, he is a very good man.”

Just before we left for An Najaf, we met on a miserable Wednesday afternoon as I was walking past a parking garage. A voice came straight out of the cool darkness from a grate in the ground; the speaker was invisible. It was my al-Sadr contact, drinking tea underground with his friends to get out of the sun, and he had a message. We had tentatively arranged to drive to An Najaf the next morning with a safe conduct letter from the al Mehdi army in Sadr City, but I hadn’t heard from him since. We confirmed the trip, and at the last minute, the translator got cold feet and didn’t show up, so we left without him.

At Al Latifiya, just south of Baghdad, we drove past the remains of the convoy where two colleagues had been detained; their lives had been threatened, then they were miraculously released by insurgents. We watched while a few looters picked over the carcasses of the U.S. equipment. There were other burned vehicles on the road. Not far from the dead convoy in Latifiya, American soldiers in armored personnel carriers waited nervously while trying to fix a mechanical problem with one of their vehicles. It was a bad place for a breakdown.

We arrived in Najaf at midday; the transition from Iraqi government to al-Sadr territory happened while I slept somewhere north of Kufa and south of Al Latifiya. When we arrived at the al Mehdi checkpoints, they waved us through. At the main intersection in Najaf, a giant poster bearing Muqtada al-Sadr’s portrait said, “MEN ARE CREATED FOR ME.”

Is what is happening in Najaf going to be the future of Iraq? Outside the Al Najah hotel window is a floodplain, and across the floodplain, dug in and ready to fight, are U.S. and Spanish forces tightening their grip on the city. The troops outside town are there to put pressure on al-Sadr’s organization and force them to lay down their weapons, but I don’t think that will happen. Reports in the Western press describe an effort by American diplomats to work through Iranian intermediaries to defuse the situation.

On the other hand, if coalition forces decide to move in to make good on their intention to arrest or kill al-Sadr, a battle here on Najaf’s holy ground could irrevocably scar the U.S. project in Iraq, and al-Sadr could emerge triumphant — either as strongman or martyr. U.S. officials have said clearly they want to get their target, as if the man himself is the only problem. They haven’t left themselves much room to maneuver.

Negotiations between the U.S. forces and al-Sadr were supposed to be continuing behind the scenes even while the spokesman for the al Mehdi army, speaking at an Islamic court building near the mosque, claimed that there were no such talks. Al-Sadr is unlikely to give up the machine he has so carefully built. He still urges his men on to fight. Earlier on Friday, he made a surprise appearance at his mosque in Kufa and said that there can be no agreement with the Americans.

Most of Muqtada al-Sadr’s fighters are young, and the name of their organization, the al Mehdi Army, is taken from an historical figure who is prophesied to return from the dead to liberate the oppressed around the world. They say they are waiting for an Islamic messiah, to defeat the enemy and deliver justice. But Muqtada al-Sadr’s people are not really waiting. Al Mehdi could come today, one minute from now, or tomorrow, the followers tell me, but their job is to make sure he has an army ready when he gets here. Until then, Muqtada al-Sadr will run things, at least in Najaf, and Imam Mehdi will communicate through him to the members of the militia.

Al Mehdi’s spokesman is everywhere, his portrait posted on the walls of Ali’s shrine, hanging on the walls of restaurants and teahouses, on video screens. Shiite religious leaders like Ayatollah Ali al Sistani also have posters, but supporters of al-Sadr have attached his image on pictures of the old men without obscuring their faces, like an inset on a TV screen. In each poster, Muqtada wears an angry expression: He is always admonishing his enemies.

It is also impossible to talk to al-Sadr, the militiamen tell me, because he doesn’t trust Westerners to get his statements right. He’s been stung by his own statements before. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr declared his own Islamic government in Iraq and denounced the U.S. and coalition members. He insisted the Governing Council had no authority and urged Iraqis to ignore it. Nothing came of his attempt to rally the Iraqi people around his new regime. But the uprising in Fallujah changed everything. Muqtada al-Sadr has gained ground in Najaf and around Iraq. Here he is king, and very few talk about Ayatollah Ali al Sistani or other voices of moderation. If Sistani has made a statement on the current crisis in the last two days, we haven’t heard it.

When the al Mehdi army assembled in front of the shrine on Thursday night, they sang their leader’s praises, thrust rifles and rocket launchers in the air and offered songs of loyalty for him. A few old men watched worriedly near the entrance to the mosque, but they didn’t say anything. Members of the militia moved in and out of the mosque that houses Ali’s tomb; they controlled security at the shrine, along with many key points of the city; they marched and chanted his name.

The al Mehdi army occupied police buildings days ago, then withdrew, but that does not matter. Most of the police I saw around town were not armed and were there with the permission of the Muqtada people. It is hard to tell how many al-Sadr forces there are in An Najaf, but they certainly number in the thousands, and they are far more organized than mere bands of thugs with guns. And they are electrified by the thought that they can rally around Muqtada al-Sadr and win a war against the Americans.

Last night, loud explosions came from the other side of town where the al Mehdi army was attacking the Spanish base from a hospital. “It was Muqtada al-Sadr fighters who started it,” an old policeman near the mayor’s office said. “When the Spanish returned fire they shot randomly, hitting civilian cars.” As it turns out, civilian cars are how the al Mehdi army gets around. Buses, trucks and everything else in between. On Thursday night, I saw an absurdly overloaded Volvo sedan sitting low on its springs from the weight of insurgents. Men with weapons were perched delicately on each other’s laps. It went racing off into the night, and not long after that, the Spanish base was attacked.

On Thursday night, before the clashes started, I went to the shrine of Imam Ali with members of the al Mehdi army. They took me on a tour of the mosque just before an interview with one of their senior figures, the manager of the shrine. The building is massive and the gates are covered with tiles bearing complex designs and Arabic script. In some places the tile has fallen away, and birds are nesting in the holes. The faithful kiss the doors of the mosque and greet Imam Ali and Imam al Mehdi when they walk through.

My hosts led the way back into the depths of the mosque where I spoke with Sheik Ahmed Al Shibany. We sat on cushions in a room kept chilly by an overworked air conditioner. “America is faced with two choices: Either it can control Najaf and Nasiriya because it lost in Fallujah. The other choice is not to fight anywhere like they did there. Perhaps America wants to make up for losing in Fallujah with victories in these places.” The young sheik went on to thank America for what it has done for Iraq. “America has done us a great service, it has given us the gift of unity.”

On Friday night, when I found out about the battle in Kufa, I drove out to Muqtada al-Sadr’s mosque and asked the militiamen what had happened. I couldn’t get into the mosque: The al Mehdi fighters were serious about it, and made me sit on a chair outside while men came to talk to me. After probing questions about my nationality, the fighters described a battle with U.S. forces that had injured a number of civilians.

Over at the Kufa hospital, Dr. Saif first asked to see my permission to interview patients — he said it was for his own safety. Only after looking at my letter from the al-Sadr people would he allow me into the hospital. The idea of getting in trouble with al-Sadr people made him very nervous — he wanted to make that clear before we started. Saif then led me to an old woman with a fresh wound in her leg.

“When the fighting started, the police tried to evacuate me, but as soon as we got outside the house, the missiles started falling,” Kosa Shwaat explained. She was trapped in the rural area near the Abbasiya bridge where the fighting started in the afternoon. She didn’t know which side fired the weapon that hurt her.

After talking to the Kufa hospital staff for a few minutes, we walked past the hospital’s emergency preparations for the attack: six beds arranged in the lobby with an IV stand. Dr. Saif said he could handle it, but tonight he is certain an attack will happen quite soon.

It is a reasonable guess. The main mosque in Kufa is a place where al-Sadr regularly addresses his supporters, and it is likely that the U.S. will seize the town to weaken him. We headed back to An Najaf on an empty road. I thought about what the sheik at the shrine of Imam Ali had to say, how he broke the situation down into a binary choice. It seems now that both sides have made their choices and there will be little hope for negotiations. But a breakthrough could still happen.

We have bought a full tank of fuel on the black market, and the driver wants to leave for Baghdad on the only open road tomorrow. It will take a great deal of convincing to get him to stay.

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>