It had become a ritual. Each friday hundreds of young, impoverished Shi’ite men would pile into beat-up Kia minibuses in a Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.
They would travel the 90-mile highway to the holy city of Kufa to lay their prayer mats inside the mosque, jockeying for a spot as close to the podium as possible. Whenever the white car carrying their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, came into view, the scene would turn into pandemonium.
Bodyguards with Kalashnikov machine guns would struggle to carve out a path so al-Sadr could reach a platform beneath the arches. Once there, his speech was usually brief, but the point of his appearance was clear: to show his movement’s strength and plant the seeds for Islamic revolution. “Muqtada!” the crowd would roar. “We will sacrifice our blood!”
When political ambition coincides with popular disillusion, the mix can be combustible. And so it proved last week in the mean streets of Sadr City, a neighborhood filled with poor, disgruntled Shi’ites, when the young rabble-rousing cleric decided to roll the dice. Since the day a year ago when U.S. soldiers pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein, symbolizing the regime’s fall, al-Sadr has railed against the American occupation. He built up a network of civilian supporters and recruited fighters for his Mahdi Army, named for the 12th, or Hidden, Imam, whom Shi’ites believe will return as their Messiah. Al-Sadr delivered fiery anti-American sermons but always stopped short of calling for armed confrontation. Until April 4, that is, when he issued a call from his Najaf office for his black-clad militiamen to “terrorize your enemy.” Thousands took to the streets of the capital to attack American forces, and soon a string of cities across the formerly pacific Shi’ite heartland were aflame with running gun battles aimed at ending the U.S.-led occupation.
The U.S. was of two minds about the man. Occupation officials knew that al-Sadr was trouble. He had stirred up threatening protests numerous times, his rhetoric spread a dangerous message, and his militia was steadily growing. An Iraqi court charged him with allowing the murder of Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, a U.S.-favored moderate cleric who was hacked to death in April 2003, and by September, the Pentagon had cooked up a plan to seize al-Sadr. But military officials in Baghdad eventually concluded he was a minor player who was gradually being marginalized, his army more phantom than real, his support flagging as the size of his Friday crowds shrank. U.S. officials put the arrest plan on hold and even signaled that al-Sadr might escape punishment if his behavior improved. The question the Americans asked, says Brigadier General Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the Army’s 1st Armored Division, which controls Baghdad, was, Do you stir up a hornet’s nest, or do you let it die out—especially when you’re trying to win the people’s trust?
By late last month, the head of the coalition in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, had evidently had enough. On March 28, he ordered U.S. troops to the Baghdad office of al-Hawza, the tiny but vitriolic anti-American newspaper run by al-Sadr’s movement, to shut it down for “false articles” that “incited violence.” Six days later, U.S. troops arrested al-Sadr’s deputy, Mustapha al-Yacoubi, for his alleged complicity in the murder of al-Khoei. Early this month, American officials confirmed that they had issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr.
That was all the outspoken cleric needed to unleash a revolt by his supporters that is tapping straight into the sense of disenchantment spreading through the Shi’ite community. It was a daring grab for command over the Shi’ites, a majority of the country’s population, who are eager to take charge in the new Iraq after years of oppression under Saddam’s Sunni rule. As a relatively minor cleric, al-Sadr had little influence outside his hard-core supporters. But now he is using his homegrown militia, the Mahdi Army, to put himself on the political map. “It’s a bid for power,” says a prominent Shi’ite in the holy city of Najaf. “He’s saying, ‘I’m the leader!'” That represents a direct challenge to the country’s senior divine, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the elderly moderate cleric whose word is law for most Iraqi Shi’ites. How their rivalry plays out will shape the political face of Iraq.
The surge of Shi’ite violence inspired by al-Sadr plainly took the U.S. by surprise. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimated Mahdi Army manpower to be as high as 6,000; others put the top figure at 10,000. But whatever the number of his forces, al-Sadr showed that he could mobilize a significant following with the snap of a finger. U.S. military spokesmen in Baghdad declared that American troops would “destroy” his army.
But they conceded that taking down al-Sadr was a complicated proposition. He left his house in Kufa on Monday to hole up in his warren of “Martyr Sadr offices” down a dusty alley in Najaf, where Shi’ite pilgrims gathered last week for Arbaeen, the one-day commemoration for a 1st century martyred leader. Given the high emotions raised by such occasions, U.S. officials did not want to do anything that might set off violence. Even after the faithful have left Najaf, it would still be ticklish for U.S. forces to try to shoot their way in. “He knows he’s being looked for,” says a senior U.S. Central Command officer, “so he’s been very difficult to both locate and get in a situation where we can go get him.” With luck, the U.S. hoped it could stage-manage al-Sadr’s arrest by Iraqi security forces—or at least with enough Iraqis along to plausibly claim that “they” got him.
After almost a century of second-class citizenship, the Shi’ites are on the threshold of securing a major place in Iraqi politics. Up to now, most seemed to share the Shi’ite establishment’s preference for the quietist approach that Sistani espouses: leave politics to the politicians while the clergy serves society’s spiritual and social needs. Though the reclusive Sistani has exerted a strong influence over Iraq’s temporary, U.S.-picked Governing Council to help ensure that Shi’ites will gain meaningful power for the first time, he has never sought a ruling role. Under his nonviolent guidance, the Shi’ite community has largely tolerated, if not exactly welcomed, the occupation.
But that is not Muqtada al-Sadr’s way. He shares with the late Iranian revolutionary Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini a belief in rule by the clergy in a strict theocratic state. Al-Sadr’s strategy, it now appears, is to engage coalition forces in a deadly confrontation, in the belief that Iraqi Shi’ites will support him in a direct showdown with the U.S. His rabid anti-Americanism, which previously failed to connect with the majority of Shi’ites, now strikes a chord. A year after the war began, their tolerance is exhausted. The lower rungs of society are fed up with the slow pace of reconstruction and unkept U.S. promises of a better life. Suspicion is rife that America’s murky plans for a political transition on June 30 will somehow thwart Shi’ite claims to a rightful share of power. On the streets in the Khadamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, al-Sadr’s outspoken defiance made quiescent Shi’ites feel good. Militia guarding a Shi’ite shrine were giddy with pride in standing up to the Americans. Even those who trusted Sistani’s wisdom were frustrated by his silence. “The Americans are listening to us,” said one, “and they are scared.”
The U.S. now feels that enough is enough. “We have to take him down,” says an Administration official in Washington. But attacks last week on the Mahdi Army make it unlikely that moderate Shi’ite leaders can act to sideline the young firebrand. Sistani would no doubt love to see the end of his headstrong rival, but it’s hard to imagine an Iraqi mullah condoning U.S. action against an Islamic cleric. In the past, Sistani marginalized al-Sadr by ignoring him, according to Noah Feldman, a New York University professor who was an adviser to the coalition authority. As a result of the clashes, says Feldman, “we’ve tied Sistani’s hands.” Last week Ayatullah Sistani put out a careful call for an end to Shi’ite violence but criticized American use of force in response to it.
Al-Sadr’s immense ambitions are rooted in his family history. He wears the black turban of a Shi’ite blue blood, tracing his family line back 1,300 years to the Prophet Muhammad. But the chubby militant, who scowls into his thick black beard to give himself more gravity, is still a very junior cleric who has not completed enough studies to reach the top religious ranks or issue religious edicts. Unlike Shi’ite seniors whose education has given them the rich vocabulary and eloquence of classical Arabic, al-Sadr, 30, speaks in a strong colloquial Arabic replete with street slang. He draws nearly all his standing from the reflected glory of his father. The late Ayatullah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, an esteemed cleric who once challenged Sistani for control of the prestigious Shi’ite seminary in Najaf, was assassinated in 1999 along with two of his sons, when his fundamentalist views and populist following began to challenge Saddam’s regime as well. Muqtada soon took over the Martyr Sadr offices—not just the physical space in Najaf but also the mosques and money and followers that collect around notable Shi’ite clergy.
Within hours of Saddam’s fall on April 9, 2003, al-Sadr’s militia swarmed into downtrodden Shi’ite neighborhoods like al-Thawrah, pop. 2 million, in east Baghdad. They promptly renamed the area Sadr City in memory of Muqtada’s slain father. With a mix of efficiency, intimidation and force, the Sadr movement took control of mosques, hospitals and civic offices, reopened schools, organized security patrols, doled out food—and raided weapons depots belonging to the former ruling Baath Party, seizing machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition. Money began flowing in from the growing number of mosques al-Sadr controlled as well as from Shi’ite Iran, though the Tehran government directs most of its support to the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the anti-Saddam exile group it nurtured for 20 years. Pictures of the elder al-Sadr were plastered on every wall, a tribute to his empathy with the long-suffering.
Last week it was the defiant young son whose picture, with a sternly pointed finger, appeared at numerous rallies and on the green crescent-moon sculpture that has replaced Saddam’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. He has his father’s ability to voice the discontent that resonates among the Shi’ite population about the U.S.-led occupation, the breakdown of security, the disruption of public services. His angry populist message, combined with the food and services his movement provides, attracts enthusiastic support from those with little hope. Sadr City resident Kerar Abid Rahim, 20, has not worked for a year. Now he wears the black pants of a Mahdi Army soldier and believes that the young cleric’s defiance is his best bet for the future. “The Americans can build my future,” he says, “but they don’t want to.”
Al-Sadr’s fierce young lieutenants apply a puritanical Islamic creed when and where they can. They insist women go veiled, they bar Western music and dress, they censor films and close—or burn down—liquor stores. In Najaf they have set up an office for the “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Al-Sadr has authorized his followers to set up illegal courts and prisons in Baghdad and eight southern cities, where al-Sadr enemies have allegedly been tortured.
Al-Sadr has financed his rise by entering the booming religious-tourism business, cornering the market on Shi’a pilgrims, who have poured into Najaf to visit its shrines. After the assassination last August of Ayatullah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, who used to give Friday sermons at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, al-Sadr’s men worked to consolidate their position in the town—and, more important, their control over the money donated by visitors to its holy sites. Al-Sadr now controls the lockbox at the Imam Ali mosque, worth millions of dollars a year. Last October his militia attempted to seize shrines in another holy city, Karbala, but were turned back by Sistani’s men.
U.S. officials seemed to have had little inkling of the risks of going after al-Sadr. It had been obvious for months that they could not stabilize Iraq until rabble militias like the Mahdi Army were dismantled. But even some inside the Administration wonder why Bremer acted now, given the imperative of maintaining the tenuous support of the Shi’ite population in the run-up to the handover of sovereignty. “It wasn’t our decision,” said Brigadier General Hertling, whose units lost eight men in the initial fire fight with al-Sadr’s men last week. An aide to an Iraqi Governing Council member called the timing of the U.S. move “sheer incompetence.” But now that U.S. officials have provoked the upstart cleric into battle, they face this trickiest of challenges: to quash his rebellion without making things worse.
—Reported by Brian Bennett, Vivienne Walt and Hassan Fattah Meitham Jasim/Baghdad; Scott MacLeod/Cairo; and Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson/Washington