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.

Published April 17, 2004 10:54PM (EDT)

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.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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