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Letter from Baghdad: City of Fear

Is radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iraq? Or is he the next Saddam?

Car bombing Baghdad

An Iraqi man runs to safety with a small child from the scene of a car bombing that killed at least two and wounded more than in the Mansour district of Baghdad, May 15th, 2004.

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty

No one in Baghdad talks about war. They refer instead to the nightly mortar and rocket fire as “the situation.” It’s a term used by both Iraqis and foreigners to suggest a more subtle conflict — a sort’ of war. Previously when I was in Baghdad, in April and May, the situation — car bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, uprisings by Iraqi insurgents — was probably at its worst level since the end of the formal war. It was also somewhat remote — with the exception of the occasional car bomb, most of the chaos happened somewhere else.

During the past few weeks, the situation has come to Baghdad. Everyone feels it, though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has changed. “You get the eerie feeling that we’re on a precipice,” says one American official in the International Zone, the four-square-mile, heavily fortified area of the city that’s home base to the American diplomatic presence. “It’s like, if a couple of crazy people went really nuts here, maybe a whole bunch of them would go nuts.”

Baghdad’s problem right now is Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, who used to be described by the coalition as the leader of a “ragtag” band of insurgents. Today, his supporters have turned at least a quarter of Baghdad into a no-go zone. Sadr, who is thirty-one, has the same goal as every other Iraqi resistance leader: He wants the United States out of Iraq. But his greater ambition is for Iraq to become an Islamic republic, like Iran, in which he’ll be a key political player. His followers, a legion of thousands of angry, disenfranchised young men, are known as the Jesh al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army — mahdi means, more or less, “the messiah who will come before the apocalypse.”

Sadr’s apocalypse has been taking place about 100 miles from Baghdad, in the Shiite stronghold of Najaf. There, Sadr and several thousand Mahdi fighters have been battling U.S. and Iraqi troops for weeks from their bunker inside the Imam Ali Mosque, in Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine. For weeks, the government of Iraq, as well as the Americans, have tried to persuade Sadr to give up his stronghold. Finally, on August 18th, Sadr agreed to lay down his arms, but he didn’t say when. By the next day, renewed fighting had broken out around the mosque.

The only thing that was clear was that Sadr’s latest confrontation with the U.S. and Iraqi authorities had caught the imagination of the country’s almost 16 million Shiites. On Friday, August 13th, thousands of Sadr sympathizers held a rally in front of the International Zone. Though the police on hand were supposed to help maintain order, many sided with the protesters. In the clog of traffic, a police car was idling with Sadr posters affixed to its windows. At one point, protesters used the police car’s microphone to begin the rally. On the roof of a nearby police station, cops standing guard put down their weapons and picked up Sadr posters, which drew cheers from the crowd.

“You Americans fail to understand what’s in the mind of the Iraqi people,” I was told one day by a former Iraqi intelligence officer I’ll call Ahmed. “We are Muslims. Religion is very important to us.” Ahmed admires Sadr’s strength. Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, is also strong — he’s allegedly personally executed six insurgents, though he denies this. But, says Ahmed, Allawi, who just returned to Iraq after more than thirty years outside the country, “belongs to the Americans.” Sadr, the son of one of Iraq’s most beloved clerics, who was killed under Saddam, “belongs to Iraq,” Ahmed says, “He has a strong following, and he doesn’t back down. That appeals to a lot of people. I think this time Moqtada might win.”

Sadr’s primary bases are in Najaf and in nearby Kufa, two of Shiite Islam’s holiest cities. But his largest stronghold is in Baghdad, in the sweltering, waste-ridden slum known as Sadr City. There, posters of Sadr hang on the walls and in shop windows, just like posters of Saddam did years ago. “There was a slogan you’d see written everywhere,” notes an Iraqi translator named Issa. “It read, ‘All honest men are Baathists.” Now, it’s the same, except it says, ‘All honest men are Mahdi Army.’ A famous Saddam war cry — ‘With my soul, with my blood, I will sacrifice for Saddam!’ has now been rephrased: With my soul, with my blood, I will sacrifice for Moqtadal’ “Issa finds the similarities both amazing and disturbing. “He’s like a rock star to these guys,” he says.

About two weeks into the mosque crisis, I visited with one of Baghdad’s premier weapons dealers, a man I’ll call Karim. We met at my driver Salaam’s house, in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood — the original idea, to meet at Karim’s house, was nixed, as his neighborhood, not far from Sadr City, is currently overrun by Mahdi fighters and thus is too dangerous for a Westerner to visit. A slender Iraqi with a tidy black mustache, Karim showed up dressed in a gray dish-dash robe, with a 9 mm stuffed into each side pocket. He carried a yellow plastic shopping bag, which contained a Browning handgun, and also brought two Kalashnikovs and a Simonov rifle. “Salaam aleikum,” he said, placing a hand upon his heart in traditional Muslim greeting. Then he laid out his wares on Salaam’s sitting-room floor. As a final touch, he handed me a blue velvet box that contained a solid-gold pistol that had once belonged to one of Saddam’s deputies. “Anything you want, I can get you,” he said. “You want an RPG?”

Karim, who has been in business for fifteen years, is flourishing under the current situation. “The resistance is very good for business,” he said He ticked off his clients: Iraqi security guards, police, resistance fighters. Many buyers were just ordinary Iraqis who want a gun or two for protection. Kalashnikovs were his biggest sellers, he told me; the previous day, he sold 250 of them. Each one cost about $100 — he accepts both dinars and dollars. A month ago, the same weapon cost about $70. RPGs cost $300. A month ago, they were $200 or less. In the past month, Karim has sold fifteen RPGs, he said. Last month, he sold two. “When things are bad, business is good,” he said, smiling. “Right now, business is very beautiful.”

Arms dealing used to be dangerous business in Iraq, punishable by ten-to-fifteen years in prison. Now, “weapons are like Pepsi,” Karim said. Though Prime Minister Allawi has reinstated capital punishment, it’s not clear who’s enforcing the laws outside of Baghdad, if there are any. Guns are easily smuggled in from neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan and Iran. Many are left over from the days of Saddam’s Republican Guard. Others are new American guns that have been sold on the black market by Iraqi soldiers or police officers trained by the U.S. military. Karim insisted that he doesn’t accept American weapons, nor does he sell to terrorists. “I think he probably sells to anyone who pays him,” whispered Salaam.

That day, thousands of Shiite pilgrims were making their way to Najaf to support the resistance. Some came in buses or private cars, but many were walking. On Salaam’s TV, an Iranian satellite channel was broadcasting the pilgrimage. Then it switched to coverage of Moqtada al-Sadr speaking to his followers from inside the Imam Ali Mosque. Karim, who is Sunni, watched, transfixed. Sadr’s speeches are frequently broadcast on Arabic all-news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, as well as on local stations.

“Moqtada is a strong man — very good,” said Karim. He liked Sadr, he said — even though Sadr was Shiite. “I support him because he insists on fighting the Americans,” he said. I asked him if he hated Americans. “I don’t hate Americans, I hate the occupation,” he said. “America is like the fish,” he added. “It’s nice food, but it leaves a bad smell.”

Karim’s view, which is shared by many Iraqis with whom I’ve spoken, is an odd one for a weapons dealer. In his mind, among the United States’ biggest sins in this conflict was disbanding the Iraqi Army and thus allowing weapons to proliferate on the street. “For thirty years, we had war in Iraq,” Karim said. “We made weapons here, we exported them. Fighting is good for business; it’s made me rich, alham d’Allah — thank God. But am I happy that I’m rich because I sell weapons?” Then he added, “A lot of people are dead.”

Sunday, august 15th, was the first day of the Iraqi National Conference, a meeting of Iraqi political, social and religious leaders organized by the United Nations. In honor of the occasion, western Baghdad, which houses the International Zone, the major hotels and all of the city’s upscale neighborhoods, was officially shut. The Iraqi government warned all citizens to stay off the streets from 8 A.M. until four in the afternoon. The insurgency had moved, temporarily, from Najaf to the Iraqi capital. As the conference got under way in the International Zone, mortars were fired at the Baghdad Convention Center, where the meeting was held. The mortars killed one person in the Zone and a few Iraqis waiting for a bus nearby.

In Mansur, one of Baghdad’s wealthiest districts, a carpet dealer named Amar sat in his shop, next to his fan, and watched the chaos on his TV. A dapper Iraqi in his early fifties, he looked despondent. “This Moqtada — he’s making it dangerous for all Iraqis,” he said.

It was lunchtime, and over chicken tikka and a rice-and-meat dish called kouzi, Amar complained. In one month, he hadn’t sold a single carpet because of “the situation,” he said with typical Iraqi gravitas. Amar’s customers were primarily Westerners, but no one was coming to shop. “People are too scared to come out,” he said. “They’re scared they’ll be kidnapped.” He looked across the street at a drab beige office building, which belonged to a member of the former Iraqi Governing Council. “Who’s to say someone won’t come and blow that up?” he wondered. “I expect that at any moment.”

Amar went on to carp about the state of Iraqi youth. “Saddam ruined the young people in this country,” he said, looking at his fifteen-year-old son, Maher. In the previous regime, Amar explained, kids learned about weapons before they could read. At school, on Thursdays, the weekly flag-raising was attended by gunfire. “What do you think?” he said. “When they get older. do they know the computer or the tank?”

Maher was flipping channels on the shop TV. A local Iraqi station announced that there was fighting on Haifa Street, a business district northwest of the Palestine Hotel. We heard an extremely loud boom from outside. A car bomb, perhaps a mortar — no one knew. Maher, bored with TV, started thumbing through an old New Yorker I brought with me, which featured a story on the Mahdi Army. “Look,” he said, picking up the magazine and pointing to a photo of the insurgents. He grinned. The Mahdi have a distinct rebel style made up of kaffiyehs, green warrior headbands and lots of guns. I asked Maher if he thought the Jesh al-Mahdi were cool. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Moqtada is a great leader — I love him.”

“He’s just a baby — he doesn’t know what he’s saying,”, said Amar disparagingly. He turned back to the TV now going live to renewed attacks by Sadr’s followers in Najaf. “Maybe today they will kill him,” he said. “Insha Allah.”


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