Military history

CHAPTER 14

The Mahdi

THE MEN WOULD gather at the Mohsin Mosque, ten thousand of them even in the heat of summer. They were the downtrodden of Sadr City, the Shiite slum that took up most of eastern Baghdad. At the edges of the crowd, confident young men with guns but no uniforms searched those coming in. Among the supplicants, each carried his own prayer mat to cushion his knees from the street. The sermon was outdoors. The imam would exit the mosque and climb a ladder to a raised wooden platform and look out on the assembled men on their knees. The imam would place his hands at his side to signal the beginning of the prayer: There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet. Then someone in the crowd would call out, then a second man, and the rest of the men would join in. Raising their arms and shouting. In a few moments the mass of men would be throbbing and contracting like a beating heart.

Wa ajal faraja’hou.

May God speed his appearance.

Wa ala’an adouwahou.

May God curse his enemies.

Wa’ansur waladahou.

May God make his son triumphant.

Muqtada!

Muqtada!

Muqtada!

I went to the Mohsin Mosque to remind myself of what I didn’t know. As the months wore on I went there more and more. I’d stand at the front of the crowd, at the foot of the platform, underneath the imam, just to take it in, to feel the power. The Mohsin Mosque was a corrective: I’d gotten caught up in the trappings and the pronouncements of officialdom, Iraqi and American. I’d believed there was a center. I’d thought the maneuverings of the Iraqi leaders, the exiles from the West, had been unfolding toward some greater purpose. Perhaps in the beginning they had been: Allawi, Chalabi, Hakim, Jafaari—men who’d lived their adulthoods in London and Tehran. They’d taken me in, served me tea in their drawing rooms and showed me the black-and-white photos of their childhoods. They wore suits and spoke English. Some of them were serious. They worked hard, worked until they were red in the eyes.

In the beginning, the American-backed political project had a plausible structure. It had a coherence, even if it was a shaky coherence. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite religious authority, sat at the center. He was the man who would deliver the Shiite majority to the dominance in Iraq that it had been so long denied. To do this, Sistani had endorsed the American-backed project—never explicitly, but just enough so that Iraq’s exiles could feel secure in joining in. In the new structure, Sistani was like a sun, with the exiles orbiting round him like planets, sustaining themselves on his nurturing rays. Meet with Sistani. Speak of Sistani. Echo Sistani. Agree with Sistani. It was in this way the exiles would become legitimate, become real Iraqis again. And it was in this way that they would win elections and take hold of the broken country.

Then came Muqtada al-Sadr. He was the antithesis of the pampered exile: black-eyed and glowering, a man of the streets, with a black beard and turban. He’d never left Iraq. He was only in his early thirties. Muqtada rarely showed his face, but when he did, he gave wild sermons about the Shia messiah, the Mahdi, revealing himself to a world torn by war. The prevailing wisdom was that Muqtada was a nuisance, that he was cashing in on the reputation of his father, the ayatollah for whom Sadr City had been named. He’d been murdered by Saddam in 1999, and his face still adorned tea shops throughout the Shiite slums.

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In the beginning, Muqtada had flirted with the exiles, hinting that he might like to join them at their table inside the Green Zone. But the exiles had balked, and the Americans had balked with them. So Muqtada was out of the American-backed project, and he returned to the streets. From then on, the exiles and the Americans thought it best not to think about Muqtada, convincing themselves that the political process was representative without him.

Then it happened: almost a year to the day after the Americans arrived, Muqtada called for an uprising to throw the occupiers out. With that, the Shiite underclass that he commanded seized Sadr City and provincial capitals across southern Iraq. They took the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala, too. The Iraqi police and the army, trained and armed by the Americans—the very backbone of the new Iraqi state—melted away. The Americans and the British had to shoot their way back in so the exiles could have their chairs back. And Muqtada skittered back into the shadows.

The exiles had been exposed. They and Muqtada may have been Shiites, but now they would be fighting each other. “They want him dead,” one of the Shiite exiles, a senior Iraqi official, told me. At one of the cabinet meetings, they had even drafted Muqtada’s obituary, typed it up for immediate release. But by then the exiles couldn’t decide what to do. No one could decide if Muqtada would be better alive or dead.

At the Mohsin Mosque, the sermons went on. At the end, the crowd would be delirious, the men jabbing their fists and yelling. I could almost feel the waves of sound coming off the crowd.

Kala, kala, Amrika

No, no, to America

Kala, kala, Isra’il

No, no, to Israel

Kala, kala, Lilshaytan

No, no, to the devil

A’ash, A’ash, Al-Sadr, Muqtada Lil Jana Jisir!

Long live, long live, al-Sadr. Muqtada is the bridge to heaven!

THE SHIITE FIGHTERS stepped into the darkened alley. They put down their rifles and sat down and exhaled. The gunfire was coming down the street, but here they were safe. The alley ran through the old city directly to the Shrine of Imam Ali, fifty yards away. Its giant wooden doors were visible through the far end. The alley seemed like a tunnel; even in the white heat of August, it was so high and so narrow that it was bathed in shadows. A jet roared above us and there was a terrible crash. For a second, the alley seemed to turn on its side. One of the men lit a cigarette.

The Mahdi Army, the name Muqtada had given his militia, had seized the Shrine of Imam Ali earlier in the year. The shrine was named for one of the great icons of the Shia faith. Muqtada had rallied his men by declaring that the shrine was under attack, but in fact he was just outmaneuvering his rivals. The Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, had given the Americans the green light to come in here and route Muqtada’s militia. His only condition was that the shrine and its glorious golden dome be spared. The first American soldiers had entered the old city the night before. The Mahdi Army fighters had fallen back to this tiny perimeter around the shrine. From the air, the Americans had begun destroying the perimeter, too.

“God is with you—you are heroes,” a hoarse voice called into a loudspeaker from the shrine. “Fight, fight, fight!”

Jaff and I had walked for hours to get here. We’d tried to cut through the old city but snipers were killing so many people that we backed out and walked into the desert at the edge of town, called the Sea of Najaf. We walked out into the sand and across the old lakebed until we spotted a passageway near the shrine. We walked back in and snaked our way through the back streets until we made it to this alley just off the shrine. We arrived as the Americans were moving in for the kill.

A pair of Mahdi fighters entered the alley, carrying a bleeding comrade. “No pictures, no pictures!” one of them cried, dragging their comrade past. His black tunic was soaked in blood. “You are a hero,” one of them whispered to the wounded man. “A hero.” The fighters carried him through the alley and into the open space between the alley and the shrine. Someone had built a barricade across this last bit of open space, and the Mahdi fighters scampered to the entrance and lay the wounded man down. They pounded on the twenty-foot-high doors. “Open! Open!” they cried. The door cracked, a head appearing, and the great doors swung wide. The fighters pulled the bleeding man inside and the giant doors closed. An Apache swooped in low, its rotors turning and dipping over the rooftops.

Jaff and I sat down in the alley next to the fighter who was smoking. I asked him where the Americans were.

“Thirty meters,” he said, exhaling smoke. “This is the last line.”

I asked his name. Walid Shakir, he said. Thirty-four, a driver from Nasiriya, a husband and father. He’d come as soon as Muqtada had put out the word that the Americans were attacking. Shakir wore a fake Casio watch with a heavy metal band and a yellow checked shirt. He was barefoot. Between his legs lay a Dragonoff rifle.

“Perhaps there will be an agreement to end the fighting soon,” he said. “Where is Sistani?”

He’s on his way from London, I told him. I asked him about Muqtada.

“We are all under his command,” Shakir said. “He is our leader. We are his soldiers. We act together, like fingers on one hand.”

Gunfire sounded behind us, in the area between the alley and the shrine. The barricade splintered and blew apart. Shakir glanced at it for a second and turned back to me.

“If the Americans do not agree, then we will not give up,” he said.

His bare feet were enormous, like pontoons. How can you walk in the heat without shoes? Jaff asked him.

Shakir flipped his feet up and revealed their leathery bottoms.

“I’ve been walking in my bare feet all my life,” he shrugged. “They’re like flip-flops now.”

A pair of fighters appeared in the alley, hunched over, like the men carrying the wounded. They’d come from the shrine. They were carrying a container as large as a steamer trunk. It was a vat of rice and vegetables, stirred together, warm and greasy. Shakir got up and dug his hand into it and began to eat.

There was more gunfire, more explosions. The alley shook again.

He finished eating and wiped his palms on his pants. He looked at Jaff.

“Is that a camera?” Shakir said.

It is, Jaff said.

And so, to the sound of bombs and gunfire, we sat together, Shakir and I and three other Mahdi Army fighters, while Jaff snapped a picture of us on a bench in the alley by the shrine. The alley shook again. There wasn’t much time. Jaff and I dashed out, back into the sunlight.

A ROW OF BUILDINGS lay crumbled and blown to dust, along a street that marked the entrance to the old city. Wires snaked through boulders and smashed cars. An American tank sat in the intersection. Gunfire came from the ruins. It was pinging off the tank’s shell.

The tank sat there for a time, absorbing the gunfire like some large animal still asleep. It was an M-1. Bullets flew out of the rubble, plinking its impenetrable coat. Finally the turret began to turn, like it was waking up, swiveling toward the rubble. More gunfire. The tank looked at the rubble for a while and lowered its gun and fired. The gun exhaled a terrible sound. The rubble bounced. It was silent.

I started walking up the street, toward the M-1 but keeping my distance. Trudging in the rubble. Avoiding the wires. The tank sat quietly.

Then there was a noise, and the hatch swung open.

A young man appeared, a tiny head with a large helmet and goggles. He was waving his arms. His voice was very high.

“Get out of here!” he said in a boy’s voice, waving me out of the road. “Go on, get out of here!”

It was a boy’s voice, the voice of a child before it changes.

“Get out of here!” he said.

Then he lowered himself into the tank and closed the hatch.

I WAS SITTING in my hotel, The Sea of Najaf, waiting out the battle, when the Iraqi police pulled up, shouting into their bullhorns. It was near midnight.

“Attention, attention,” the police shouted. “There is an agreement to end the fighting!”

A press conference was being held at the home of one of the ayatollahs, they said. Sistani had brokered a cease-fire. The police escorted us through the town with the same bullhorns and flashing lights.

When I arrived, I stepped inside the front courtyard of the ayatollah’s house. Hamed Khafaf, an aide to Sistani, stood on a raised platform before a crowd of reporters. His face shone in the lights of the TV cameras. He was flanked by several of Sistani’s clerics. They looked exhausted.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him: Muqtada scuttling out a side door. He had an aide on each arm. He headed for his car as Khafaf started to speak. It all happened too fast; by the time I realized it was him, he was gone. Muqtada: he’d wrecked the city and thrown the country into crisis. And now he was leaving it to the grown-ups, and the grown-ups were letting him get away.

AT DAWN, the tall wooden doors of the shrine swung open and the fighters began filing out. They were dirty and bedraggled and some of them limped. They walked over to a donkey cart and threw their Kalashnikovs and RPGs into a pile and walked into the streets. A voice on a loudspeaker was telling them to drop their guns and go home.

“The Americans could not enter the shrine,” one of the fighters, Mohammed Abid Qasim, told me as he walked out. He was filthy and tired. “That’s the important thing.”

The fighters disappeared. There was no surrender. There was no handover. There were no American soldiers; they had pulled back. There were no Iraqi policemen, no Iraqi soldiers. The Mahdi Army was being allowed to slip away, like Muqtada himself. That was the deal. They would live to fight again.

A pair of clerics stood at the wooden doors as the guerrillas filed out. Their white turbans said they were from Sistani’s office. They both wore scowls on their faces. “We are taking over the shrine,” one of them said.

Jaff and I were pestering some of the fighters to talk with us when a couple of gunmen stopped us. They put their hands on our arms.

“You’re under arrest,” one of them said.

Jaff started to speak.

“Shut up,” one of them said.

They wore black baggy pants and black tunics and black dirty turbans. They had ammo belts slung over their shoulders. Their eyes were hollow and red.

Jaff spoke again, saying we had met one of Muqtada’s aides, Ali Smesim, a couple of days before. We were well received, he said.

“That is shit,” one of the Mahdi guys said. “I am going to take you to the sharia court. They’ll decide.”

The men motioned with the guns. We walked away from the shrine, into the back alleys of the old city. The men were jittery, like they hadn’t slept. One of them turned to me.

“You are the second American spy I have captured today,” he said.

We arrived at a small storefront. Inside was a cleric with a black turban and a beard. He was sitting behind a table covered with a dark gray blanket. He didn’t get up.

Jaff started explaining, slowly and carefully. Jaff was great that way: always calm. It was only afterwards that he told me how close it was. Jaff didn’t lie—he said, Yes, he is American, and yes, we are journalists.

“We met Ali Smesim, an aide to Seyyed Muqtada,” Jaff said.

The two Mahdi Army guys stood behind me and Jaff. Waiting for the word.

Jaff finished talking. The cleric stayed in his chair for several minutes. A blank face, not friendly at all.

The Mahdi Army guys waited.

“Get out of here and don’t come back,” the cleric said.

The Mahdi fighters slumped in disappointment.

A couple of days later, after the Mahdi Army had cleared out of the old city, Jaff went to the militia’s sharia court and found the bodies of executed people in the courtyard, bloated and decomposed. About sixty in all, he said.

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