The Americans Are Coming … for Muqtada

Not the peaceful demonstrations called for by clerics

It gets worse. We woke up Monday morning to an uprising. The Mehdi Army, the militia of the Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr, had taken over police stations in Sadr City, the Shiite slum in Baghdad, U.S. helicopters rocketed houses, eight American soldiers were killed, many more Iraqis lay dead and wounded. In Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf, Muqtada had retreated to a corner of his home mosque. His followers gathered, outraged at the arrest of his close aide Mustapha Yacoubi, charged in connection with the murder of Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was stabbed and shot to death last spring in the very portals of the Najaf shrine.

In the morning, the sky was blazing sunlight on the gilded dome. The beggar women incanted “Death to the Americans” for alms. They searched me thoroughly: Three women stripped down my abaya and my head coverings, felt around, and made me show them the suspicious underwire in my bra. Inside the wide expanse of a courtyard, still under reconstruction, a crowd coalesced in front of a video camera, dancing, stomping, and chanting rhythms, arms in the air, Kalashnikovs in the air, black flags flying. “Our lives for you, Sadr.” Gunmen walked the ramparts. Muqtada’s men wore black shirts, black trousers, black headscarves, and black Gortex utility belts. Some carried grenades and held their grenade fists out in front of them, very ready.

A kindly, portly cleric in a white turban came up and explained that this was a continuation of the day before. Yesterday, he said, peaceful demonstrations had caused a gun battle outside the Spanish base on the outskirts of Kufa, leaving at least one Salvadoran soldier and 20 Iraqis dead. “It is their right to demonstrate; the occupying forces are shooting at them randomly.” Yes, they had many demands: The release of Yacoubi and the closing down of the Muqtada newspaper were minor issues; all Iraqi detainees should be released, the tyrant Saddam should be put in an Iraqi court, the handover of sovereignty in June was a lie.

In the courtyard I saw a man in an “Iran” tracksuit. Barefoot aides glided between groups of two or three men in the marble-floored cloistered section of the courtyard. Tannoy announcements punctuated the incantations of a knot of chanting supporters from Amara, “We are sacrificing our lives for you,” stamp, dance, gun waving, “Death will not stop us.” One supporter was wearing a blue police flak jacket looted the day before; others tied strips of bright green satin around their foreheads. People handed out photocopies of statements by Muqtada: “One of the leaders of evil, Bremer, has accused me of being an outlaw. If that means I am against the law of American tyranny or its filthy transitional constitution then I am proud and this is why I am revolting.”

We asked one of the aides, a man with red-veined protuberant eyes, how long the seyyed will sequester himself in this mosque.

“Forever,” he answered. “Until they fulfill his demands.” (Sadr  apparently left the mosque early Tuesday morning.)

Outside Muqtada’s office in Najaf, a supporting cleric said, “We know very well America will not fulfill the demands of Iraqis.” And then he used the word jihad.

The rhetoric called for peaceful demonstrations, Muqtada had not yet issued a fatwa for violence, but the picture didn’t match the words. A clump of Mehdi Army soldiers walked past us down the quiet, waiting streets in Najaf, flashing swords, guns, and belts laden with grenades.

Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s office had been evacuated. (A cleric outside refused to talk. “Who are we to talk on behalf of the Seyyed Sistani?” You can speak as an ordinary citizen, we told him. “No, we cannot talk as ordinary citizens.”) Other ayatollahs were sitting at home. The head of the Badr Organization in Najaf, Hassan al-Battan, said he was worried, very worried.

The Badr Organization, formerly the Badr Brigade, formerly based in Iran, also favors an informal uniform of black shirts and black trousers. It is the militia wing of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), a much broader, more popular, more reasonable, Governing Council participatory Shiite party. Al-Battan said they had been trying to negotiate among the Americans and the Spanish and Muqtada but that he didn’t see “an exit from this crisis. I think there will be escalation,” he said. “But if we can contain it in Najaf, we can contain it in the rest of the country.”

Outside, in the street, a parade of pilgrims walking to Karbala for the 40-day mourning after Ashura, acted out the torture of Hussein’s family: Small black figures with white blank-sheet faces were beaten by their oppressors wearing blood red gowns.

And the people? People, like their leaders, were at home. The shops in Najaf were mostly shuttered. “We have anxiety, we have hope. God willing, there will be no split among the Shiites,” said Abu Ali, who has a small shop selling Phillibs, Toshiko, and Buosh electrical goods. His colleague Abu Noor added, “Please please, what is happening is not general; it is only one group. We have an intifada only when there is a reason, like during Saddam. Now there is no reason.”

“Before we had to walk the streets in fear, now we walk with our heads up. Financially, things are better—”

Salah Hasan Ali, who runs an ice cream shop on the corner, felt the same. “Things are settling back to normal, we do not want fighting. Hopefully this is a crisis that will pass.”

But none of them like the occupation, none of them like the arrests of clerics. They also feel the pressure of occupation, its injustices and provocations.

In mid-afternoon we drove back toward Kufa. Six Humvees went by on the road, three of them had tires blown out and were weaving, shaking, driving too fast. A man in black stood with a frightened, urgent face waving cars off the road. There had been shooting, something, it wasn’t clear. We drove past him. The Mehdi Army was roaming the street outside the mosque carrying rocket-propelled grenades. They stood on the roofs of the police station and the court house with Kalashnikovs and RPGs. The checkpoint on the other side of town had been abandoned by the Iraqi police who had manned it earlier. A single Mehdi Army scout stood on a lump of concrete holding a large carbine and scanned the traffic. There were rumors the Americans were on the bridge. (There were no Americans on the bridge.) There were rumors the Americans were advancing in three directions on Kufa to arrest Muqtada. There were rumors the Americans were coming.