Inside the Shia resistance

From Najaf to Baghdad, I track the men who are menacing the U.S. occupation. They're young, desperate and dangerous -- and their ranks are growing.

Phillip Robertson
April 28, 2004 2:02AM (UTC)

Before we could meet the members of an underground al-Sadr cell, we had to leave Najaf for Baghdad.

In the pitch darkness a week ago last Saturday, the al-Sadr militiaman on the rooftop near our hotel in Najaf began firing his heavy machine gun in long bursts toward the Najaf Sea. The gunfire went on for 10 minutes, until someone started shrieking on the street, and the gunner on the next rooftop suddenly gave up on his target. He could have been firing at cats, jumpy and scared because everyone expected the U.S. to attack the city that night. In the morning, we decided to stay another day at the An Najaf. The hotel had only two guests and the enormously fat owner, Abu Amir, slept in the lobby to keep out looters.


Then, on Sunday morning, the fighters of Muqtada al-Sadr suddenly disappeared. The night before, the shrine was crowded with young men in black uniforms brandishing rocket launchers and rifles, chanting their leader's name, Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada! They demonstrated on the spot where a mob loyal to al-Sadr hacked to death a rival cleric and another man. Now, as we walked out into the clear air, new people were streaming into the city, and the militiamen were gone. They walked down the road carrying green and black flags, the old men using sticks to help them along. In the procession, everyone moved with great dignity. Monday was the anniversary of Mohammed's death and the new people were pilgrims coming from as far away as Karbala. Najafis gave the pilgrims tea and bread. The simple shelters along the road were stocked with bottles of water. Outside town, one side of the highway was turned over for pilgrim traffic, mile after mile of devout families drifting down the road. The city was open again, the war turned off for a few days.

Al-Sadr told his militia to change out of their uniforms and hide their guns after the bloody clashes with the coalition, and they had followed orders. Unnerved by the absence of al-Sadr's men, I asked someone from Karbala who was sympathetic to the cleric, a former engineer, what happened to the al-Mehdi Army during the night. "You don't see them? There are armed men everywhere," he said. It is the nature of faith to believe so deeply in the invisible. But it wasn't true that the al-Mehdi Army was everywhere; most of the fighters were off the streets, their weapons hidden away. It seemed al-Sadr had made them vanish so the Karbala pilgrims wouldn't be alarmed by the spectacle of an armed camp at the center of Najaf. So on Sunday morning, only the bodyguard militiamen near al-Sadr's office carried weapons, while a few young men proudly carried green and black flags on the main road into town. When the pilgrims left, it would be back to the usual show of force.

The vanishing act of the fighters spoke of serious discipline, Muqtada sitting in council with the young sheiks at Kufa, the shieks then relaying the orders to regional commanders, the commanders taking the orders to the cell leaders. It was past time to see the part of the organization that is doing the actual fighting. Unlike in Najaf, the al-Mehdi Army in Baghdad is at least partially underground. The fighters didn't want to be recognized and arrested for attacking U.S. soldiers, which they do on a regular basis. We left Najaf Sunday afternoon for Baghdad to meet a contact who could introduce us to a leader of an al-Mehdi Army cell. It was carefully managed and authorized by the al-Sadr militia, who wanted to present the organization as strong and unified, and instructed its members to make contact with a few reporters.


When it happened, it happened quickly. A Sadr contact in Baghdad chose the time and place, a house that didn't belong to any of the men he was taking us to meet. "You would like to meet members of the al-Mehdi military?" I was asked. I explained that I would. My contact said he would try to arrange it with the sheiks.

Last Tuesday, when the arrangements were finally confirmed, we took a taxi into the dust and the ruin of Sadr City, turning down narrow streets with open sewers. Donkeys and goats ambled by under the fierce sun and the goats ate at the piles of refuse. On the main streets there is a smell of rotten things on fire. Men sold cooking gas canisters from horse carts, while boys called out for bread from the houses.

When we arrived at the meeting place, we were taken inside quickly. In the safe house our host ushered us into a room with carpets and pillows, the rest of the house reserved for immediate family. It was an unremarkable place, a typical poor Shia house in Sadr City, but the host took great pains to make us feel welcome. On one wall there was a painting of Imam Ali and a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini surrounded by children. While we waited for the al-Mehdi Army, the host brought us water and tea in the cool darkness of the guest room. When our eyes adjusted to the light, a thin 24-year-old engineering student named Muhanned arrived. Over the next few minutes, five other men appeared, all in their 20s. Muhanned, who did not have a trace of youth left in him, was the commander. The engineer was doing the interview because a sheik had given an order, and he was uneasy about it. We stood up and shook hands. Then Muhanned and his men sat across the room from us making a neat line along the opposite wall. Iraqis often sit close to guests on the floor, but the fighters chose to keep a safe distance from strangers. Every few minutes something would happen outside, the sound of a ball bouncing or a kid's shout, and they would all glance at the door.


Who were they? One man worked for the coalition as a building contractor, renovating schools. Another fighter sold cigarettes in the market, which is regarded by Iraqis as little better than begging. They were laborers, ordinary men who were fighting a guerrilla war against the U.S. blocks from their houses. Muhanned was the only man with a college education. "When I see a tank or a large number of trucks, we attack from many directions," Muhanned said. Which weapons did he use? "RPG-7s, Kalashnikov and grenades," he answered. Muhanned's technique was to find a slow-moving target, usually at night, then fire the rocket-propelled grenades and disappear back into the city. I tried to imagine what it was like to be on the receiving end of an attack, to conjure up the shock and the horror of rockets coming out of nowhere, and failed. Muhanned had a great advantage: As soon as he hid his weapons he and his group looked like everyone else.

"I have attacked American forces for every day since the problems began, except for three days," he told us, and went on to say that just in case there were problems, there was always a reserve cell of fighters nearby to help out. They bought their guns in the market with donations from the al-Sadr militia, and some of the weapons came from the Iraqi army before the war. It was obvious that finding weapons in the new Iraq was not a problem. As far as who fired first when the Americans went by, he said it was the al-Mehdi Army.


"Saddam is the son of America," one of the fighters interjected. He wanted me to know that the al-Mehdi Army thought the ex-dictator and the United States were interchangeable oppressors, and it came out that many of his comrades had been imprisoned for taking part in the uprisings in Karbala following the first Gulf War. The fight had become a repetition of recent history. All of the men agreed about this. It was much harder to draw them out about the future: They wouldn't talk about the likely nature of an Islamic state in Iraq, or the possibility of peace; they simply wanted the U.S. out.

Did they ever talk to the Americans? Muhanned said he never did. "American soldiers are scared of Iraqi people and will not talk to me. They bring chocolate for the kids because they are afraid of people in Sadr City."

What they did not say that afternoon, but what is also true, is that Muqtada al-Sadr's organization has given the young Shia men of Baghdad a sense of unity and banished their long-running helplessness. The men are drawn to Muqtada out of nationalism and religious fervor, but also because the organization is truly their own. Then there is the most frightening aspect of the al-Sadr movement -- Muqtada's willingness to kill his rivals and exert absolute control over his supporters conjures comparisons with fascist gangs in a desperate and declining Europe.


As we came to the end of the meeting, I wanted to know if the most respected Shia cleric in Iraq could intervene and end the crisis with the Shia militia. I asked Muhanned if he would stop fighting if Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for an end to it. "No, all my orders come from Muqtada al-Sadr." Muhanned would continue to fight as long as the Americans were in Iraq. We did not ask him what he would do when Muqtada was dead.

The next day, our al-Sadr contact nervously described a wave of arrests directed at the members of the militia. It made sense. We saw posters put up by the coalition that offered citizens $2,500 for information leading to the arrests of fighters. Al-Sadr people put up their own posters after tearing down the reward advertisements, exhorting people to kill spies. At the Iraqi police station next to the Muqtada al-Sadr headquarters, the officers refused to talk about it. They begged me to leave quickly. None of the officers at the station wanted to be seen talking to a Westerner.

During the week, U.S. soldiers were moving through Sadr City at night, picking people up whom they suspected of being involved in the attacks. Our contact made a gesture with his hand of reaching down and pulling someone by the shirt. Everyone the al-Mehdi Army contact knew in the organization was moving from house to house, sleeping in a different place every night. But he had to show up to work as if there was nothing wrong, and when I saw him looking tired and ill Thursday morning, he had another invitation. On Friday, there was a large demonstration scheduled at the al-Hekma mosque. "Maybe all the Iraqi police will join with Muqtada," he said. He believes that the movement is growing, but I am not so sure.


We arrived several hours too early. From the roof of the mosque, we watched the street below slowly fill with al-Sadr men, the leaders putting their prayer rugs down first. By the time the sermon was set to begin, there were thousands who jammed into the streets under the furnace sun. Abdelhadi al-Darragi, a middle-aged student of Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, gave the sermon. In it, he did not say anything new, but it was the venom and fury of his delivery that was so impressive. Muqtada's crowd suffered under the sun and chanted. Hundreds of young boys sang Muqtada's name, warming up the crowd. They were the most enthusiastic; they were the cheerleaders. A young man was handed the microphone and delivered the call to prayer in an anguished shriek, Allahu Akhbar! When the time came, the crowd prayed behind imam al-Darragi, imitating his movements. There were thousands of men arrayed toward Mecca, magnetized by belief, suddenly kneeling and pressing their heads to the ground. The street rippled and changed color as they prayed and the effect stretched for miles. Above the crowd, the public address system for the mosque broadcast the sermon at an incredible volume over the rooftops.

As the al-Mehdi faithful prayed in Sadr City, Muqtada was in Kufa threatening the coalition with suicide attacks, saying that many people had come to him and offered to become martyrs. The threat sounds like desperation. A senior cleric in Najaf had just called for the al-Mehdi Army to leave the holy city to save it from a bloody battle. But al-Sadr isn't going to leave because he needs conflict with the U.S. to start a widespread Shia revolution. He will stay as long as he can, but the open dissent of a religious leader speaking in the shrine of Ali is impossible to dismiss. There are important people who want the fighters out of the holy city, they just lack the means to force them out.

When I saw my al-Mehdi Army contact on Saturday afternoon, he said that if we had waited a little longer, we would have seen the Americans circle the al-Hekma mosque. The crowd had thinned down, the heat was a punishment, and I think this kept people from staying. I was sorry to have missed it. He said also they had come on Saturday morning, but strangely there was no fighting. I asked to return to the al-Mehdi-controlled sections of Sadr City and spend the night. It was impossible to understand the place without seeing how the rules changed at night. There had been arrests, and attacks on U.S. forces, but Western journalists were having a tough time working there. We agreed that I would spend Saturday night at his brother's house, but even this simple arrangement required the permission of an al-Mehdi Army sheik, and we went to obtain it.

By the time we arrived back at the headquarters of Muqtada al-Sadr, there was a fresh crisis. People had been shot in a crowded market in Sadr City, and the sheik was nowhere to be found. He had gone into hiding from American troops. A small group of Iraqi police looking for him were forced to wait outside the headquarters because the Muqtada men wouldn't let them in. The police finally settled on leaving the al-Sadr official a note.


At the attack site in Hamza square, there was a kid playing with the severed head of a donkey. That is what I saw first. A few feet away, an angry mob performed for a cameraman in front of a truck riddled with bullet holes, they shouted, "Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada." On the ground in front of the market stalls was a shocking amount of blood. When the crowd saw me, I was quickly surrounded by furious men. Even children were whipped up into a frenzy; some carried long sticks. An Iraqi man who said he saw the attack insisted that American planes had flown over and killed people without provocation. "Was there any shooting or explosions before the attack?" "No," the man said, "nothing like that, it was completely unprovoked."

It turned out that no U.S. planes attacked the market. All the bullets came from the street level, and some of them had left what looked like bloody marks on the wall. It was important to ask more questions, look for a decent witness. Then someone in the crowd made an ugly threat, and we started to move away from the shattered truck. Mohammed argued with the man, who was hoarse from screaming, but we couldn't work any longer. Back at the car, the Sadr contact waited. When we all were inside and ready to go, the young boys attacked our car with sticks. We left the market, that horrible admixture of bloodshed, poverty and television. I gave up trying to figure out what happened there.

We drove across Sadr City to a family house where we were expected. As we waited for nightfall, our host, Rahim, had an extraordinary meal prepared for us. His young sons brought the dishes and set them down on the floor. In Iraq it is common for the host's sons to kiss the guests on the cheek. They were not like the children we had just seen at the market.

The water in the simple house was ice cold; the men turned on a generator for the computer. We took a break in the warmth of the house. In Rahim's guest room, I had the feeling that the war was breaking up into a series of disconnected events, incomplete stories. Witnesses who lie. I wanted to make one last trip to see Muhanned, who might talk about what was happening in Sadr City that night. My contact agreed to come with me, the only way another meeting could take place. Mohammed got the yellow cab down the narrow alleys of the neighborhood. Local men in kaffiyehs directed him so he wouldn't hit the walls when making a turn. When we arrived at Muhanned's house, the cell leader told us that the al- Mehdi Army expected U.S. soldiers to arrive at the mosque during the night and he was waiting for orders. Muhanned wouldn't tell me what the al-Mehdi Army was planning and we left a few minutes later.


Back at Rahim's house, I learned that an al-Sadr sheik had stopped by with an order for me. My permission to spend the night in Sadr City was not granted. I was apparently causing them some inconvenience. Sheik Amir al Husseini told a friend that if I wanted to stay, I couldn't leave the house during the night. Otherwise, it would be best to leave the city for central Baghdad, he explained. Leaving Sadr City was the only option. I was not allowed to return to the mosque and see what was going on. My hosts insisted that I stay put or leave for Baghdad. They were apologetic.

Mohammed drove the yellow cab down the dead streets minutes before the 11 p.m. curfew, trying to follow our friend's directions out of Sadr City. We turned onto a vacant side street and when we reached the middle of the block, a man fired his rifle into the air. The white tracks of the bullets went up in straight lines; the weapon and the man who fired it were invisible.

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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