I'm once again, for various reasons, slacking off on blogging. I drove down to Najaf with a couple other reporters Friday morning, just in time to miss the story, but saw some of the aftermath. Here's the piece I wrote for USA Today; because of space constraints it was edited down quite a bit for the paper. I'm hoping to write more about the trip soon.
NAJAF—Najaf's Old City and the Imam Ali Shrine at its center were at peace this weekend after three weeks of heavy fighting between the American military and Muqtadr al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Friday pilgrims to Shiite Islam's holiest place, some of them weeping, kissed and laid their hands on the shrine's massive wooden doors. American forces last week used tanks, infantry and air strikes to push the Mahdi Army from its positions in the Old City back towards the shrine, which the militia was using as its headquarters.
Threats that the shrine would be stormed by Iraqi security forces, which had been floated by the Iraqi government for weeks, seemed more credible.
But the fighting ended abruptly Thursday when Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, returned from seeking medical treatment abroad and called on Shiites to march on Najaf to stop the fighting. He arrived in the city Thursday afternoon and brokered a deal in which al-Sadr's men left the shrine and turned over control of the Old City to the Iraqi Police.
But while the police celebrated by driving around the city honking horns, blaring sirens and hanging off their trucks and sport-utility vehicles, the crisis and its resolution have left the government looking ineffectual in the eyes of many Iraqis.
"Why didn't the government negotiate with Muqtadr and keep all this destruction from taking place?" wondered Said Ali Abd al-Faham. "Now the government is weak."
He was sitting a few hundred yards from the shrine in the lobby of his cousin's hotel, which the Mahdi Army had broken into and turned into a barracks. The hotel was virtually undamaged, but rows of similar pilgrim hotels were used by the Mahdi Army as fighting positions and smashed by American counterstrikes.
Few Iraqis, in Najaf or elsewhere, believe American and Iraqi government claims that Iraqi security forces were equal partners with Americans in the fighting. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his ministers have repeatedly argued that Iraq is fully independent, and that insurgents are fighting a legitimate Iraqi government and not American occupation.
But this month's fighting saw US Marines and the 1st Cavalry Division pounding militant positions while the Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Police mostly stood to the side. The US military has also in recent days struck at Sunni insurgents in western Iraq with air strikes, and towns like Fallujah and Ramadi remain insurgent strongholds.
The fighting has further tarnished America's image in the eyes of Iraq's Shiites. The shrine's outer walls were lightly damaged in the fight, which saw the American military dropping massive precision-guided bombs just yards away from the complex. The Mahdi Army took up positions in Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery, Shiism's most sacred graveyard. The fighting there left graves smashed and riddled with bullets.
Kareem Abdul Hussein al-Zubaidi, 41, makes his living cleaning bodies to prepare them for burial in the cemetery. He did not fault the militia for using the cemetery and the shrine for cover. He said the Americans, in attacking militants in the cemetery and around the shrine, reminded him of the Iraqi military's actions in putting down a Shiite uprising in 1991.
"They are doing what Saddam has done before," he said.
But Abbas Kemal al-Assidi, sitting in the lobby of al-Faham's hotel, faulted the militia for making its stand on sacred ground. "They are the ones who brought the Americans here," he said.
While the standing of the Americans and the militia may have fallen, the Iraqi government risks looking irrelevant.
Since the crisis ended with Sistani's dramatic return the government also cannot claim the role of peace-maker. The Iraqi government's numerous public attempts to negotiate an end to the fighting fell flat.
The deal secured by Sistani leaves Iraqi police nominally in control of Najaf and al-Sadr's stronghold in nearby Kut, but it remains unclear if Iraqi government forces have the training, equipment and morale to turn back another Mahdi offensive on their own.
While the Mahdi Army agreed to leave Najaf it has not given up its weapons. Militiamen departing the city carted away rockets and rifles underneath blankets. It is unclear how tightly organized the Mahdi Army is, and many of its members believe there eventually will be another round of fighting.
In Baghdad's Sadr City slum, where ten Iraqis were killed in clashes with the American army Saturday, members of the Mahdi Army claimed they had prevailed in Najaf simply by having survived and kept Americans out of the shrine. The American military said Sunday talks to end fighting in Sadr City had not resulted in an agreement.
Mahdi Army members at Sadr City's Hikma mosque said Sunday they would participate in Iraqi politics, but expressed skepticism that the government would be fair and allow them to achieve their aims peacefully.
"We are the majority," said Kasim al-Shimary Sunday. The 34-year old was clad in the black shirt many militiamen use as a uniform. "Other political movements need to cooperate with us, because we are the majority."
He said he was unconcerned about participating in the interim government.
"This is not our ambition," al-Shimary said. "Our ambition is when the elections happen."
If national elections scheduled for January are postponed, or if Sadr's movement feels it is under-represented or excluded, several Mahdi members at the mosque said the militia would fight again.
"After the first and second uprisings, we are going to prepare for the third uprising," said Fatah al-Sheikh, who edits a pro-Sadr newspaper.
I can't recall the exact quotation, but in the past couple days Donald Rumsfeld said he'd never seen worse reporting than the stuff coming out of Iraq about the American battle with the Mehdi Army. This has become a tradition in the civilian wing of the Pentagon, with Paul Wolfowitz essentially having called western reporters in Baghdad cowards a while back (he quickly made a tactical apology).
It's encouraging to know that leaders in the highest reaches of the military's civilian leadership are taking an interest in the quality of reporting coming out of Najaf, and out of Iraq in general. Since they would presumably do anything within their power to make sure reporters are able to find and report the truth, they might be interested in how the Iraqi Police are behaving in Najaf.
Apparently the IP, who've been notably unenthusiastic about fighting insurgents, take much more pleasure in harrassing journalists. Word is they're sniping at reporters on the streets of Najaf, and tonight they raided the hotel there where the press has set up shop. They yelled, roughed some people up, fired guns over people's heads, and took scores of people to the police station. There was a lecture about reporting "the truth," accusations that press stories were giving away police positions, and then a bus ride back to the hotel.
Far be it from me to ask the American military to intervene in the domestic law enforcement affairs of a sovereign nation, but perhaps someone in the US could gently admonish our Iraqi allies that this isn't the way to win American hearts and minds. I'm naturally outraged, on a visceral level, that my friends down there are being roughed up, shot at and intimidated by goons from the Iraqi government. Since these goons received their weapons, their uniforms and their training from the United States, and since the Iraqi government was hand-picked by Washington, it's worth considering where overall responsibility for this kind of behavior really lies. Certainly not with the Pentagon, with its well-documented respect for the work the American media are doing in Iraq.
Bear in mind that if the western media are being treated this way, Arab media are being treated worse, and those with no connection with or access to mass media are being treated worse still. It's easy to push people around if no one will hear their protests. And fewer people will be around to tell the stories if the Iraqi and American governments continue to intimidate the press.
My friend Chris
has a great description of his trip to the Imam Ali shrine. It speaks for itself, so I won't recap it. He brings up a point that's worth dwelling on, though--what, exactly, have been the conseqences of American military action near the shrine and in the cemetery, and what would happen if Iraqi security forces, backed with American firepower, stormed the shrine?
As Chris notes, there's been a lot of talk about horrifying consequences if Shiite sensibilities are offended. I agree with him that apocalyptic visions of a Shiite revolt are over-heated. But while the immediate worst-case scenario may not be in the offing, it's worth considering what the long-term conseqences of the Najaf fight will be. Whether you think it makes sense or not, the reality is that Shiites look at a vastly superior American force pounding away at a rag-tag militia around Imam Ali's shrine and sympathize with the underdog. They do so for reasons that are universal (taking the side of people like you against outsiders) and for reasons that are specific to their religion, which venerates martyrs who chose death rather than surrender in the face of insurmountable odds.
Many Shiites in Najaf and elsewhere dislike Sadr, and hold him responsible for the violence in Najaf. But that doesn't mean they endorse American actions against the Mehdi Army. While it doesn't necessarily come through in the American press, the battles in Najaf and Sadr City are one-sided slaughters, with the overwhelming firepower, manpower, and superior training of the US military grinding the Mehdi Army to dust. Even if many Shiites dismiss Sadr as a boorish upstart and his men as criminals, they will still be moved by the spectacle of their countrymen and their co-religionists dying in the shadow of Shi'ism's holiest place. They will still remember American airpower sending missiles into Shi'ism's holiest cemetery, turning a sacred place into an abatoir.
They won't respond by rising up to support Sadr. But they'll remember Najaf when American soldiers come to Sadr City, expecting that the promise of trash collection and drinking water will win over the population.
I was in Sadr City this morning and early afternoon with my friend Chris
, and we spoke with one of Moqtadr's Baghdad spokesmen. We met him in a mosque, and there were maybe a dozen young boys hanging around the mosque courtyard hassling us. First they wanted money, then they wanted to have conversations in Arabic.
Chris speaks at least a little Arabic, while I only know a few phrases. While I was idiotically proclaiming, "thank you" and "no problem" and "Irishman," Chris was accidentally adopting Iraqi foster children and implying that he wants Sistani dead. Not really, but apparently someone mis-interpreted his repetition of one kid's pantomime of Sistani taking a nap. The guy proceeded to walk up to a Moqtadr poster and wave his hand at it dismissively. Chris and our translator explained the misunderstanding. Eventually we sat down in the courtyard and the kids observed us and clamored for our attention like we were zoo animals.
The drive into Sadr City was the usual mess. Traffic was heavy. It came down the wrong side of the street, crossed rocky medians, and skirted or sloshed through lakes of sewage. Sheep grazed by the side of the road amidst piles of garbage. On the way out Chris noticed that we were driving over improvised explosive devices that had been none-too-subtly buried in the pavement. Wires snaked out of the roughly replaced asphalt and off the road.
The Mehdi Army is a strange beast--not nearly as clever tactically as Sunni insurgents who pick off Americans one or two soldiers at a time, and not in the same moral sewer as the terrorists who kidnap and execute foreign civilians. They seem committed to fighting the American military army-to-army, a suicidal endeavor. If casualty counts from the past few weeks are anywhere near accurate, scores of militiamen have died for each U.S. soldier lost. This speaks in large part to the superior equipment of the U.S. military, which uses night-vision, surveillance aircraft, attack helicoptors and armored vehicles against an enemy armed with mortars, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. American soldiers have ceramic body armor, Kevlar helmets and months of training; Mehdi militiamen have nothing like that kind of training or protection. And yet, in spite of this, the Mehdi Army has hit the streets for the second time this year to do battle with American soldiers and Marines. Their best defense against American military superiority is their knowledge that religious and political realities make an all-out assault on the Imam Ali shrine an unpalatable option for the United States and the Iraqi government.
We met Sadr's spokesman inside the mosque, and sat on carpets in a corner near a microphone stand and a painted wooden pulpit. The spokesman said the United States has scuttled negotiations, and that the Mehdi Army is protecting the shrine against desecration at the hands of the Americans. I don't buy the politics, but I find myself respecting the militia's demented commitment to engage the U.S. in a straight-up military contest. It speaks to their religious zeal, certainly, and their opposition to American occupation. For the young men who were given a raw deal under Saddam and have seen little material improvement in the past year, it may also speak to their hopelessness.
The crisis may be resolved with the hand-over of the shrine to Sistani's representatives. But the young men who have followed Sadr--the ones who survived--will still be looking for leadership. They've fought for Sadr's political program: getting rid of the Americans and their hand-picked Iraqis, establishing strong central authority using religious law is the guide, respecting, in some roundabout way, the will of the "people" (I think the "people" are mostly just the members of Sadr's militia and their families, but they obviously wouldn't see it that way). The question is whether these men can be brought into a political process managed by Americans and their allies if that process begins providing them with real benefits--refurbished schools, jobs, drinking water, streets free of garbage and sewage. With things so far gone already my guess is they'll continue to follow either Sadr or whoever takes his place if he's killed or otherwise neutralized.
I'm sorry I haven't posted lately, and for the sporadic way I've been posting in general.
There's been quite a bit of news lately, and I've had the misfortune of covering some of it. That meant getting up before six am Tuesday for the "last" day of the National Conference. They'd closed the roads for several kilometers around the Green Zone, so I got dropped off on the other side of the Jumriya bridge and trudged to the Convention Center. Once inside I waited with my colleagues for several hours, since the delegates weren't arriving until mid-morning. The breakfast we'd been promised turned out to be three pieces of bread (different kinds of bread, but still). The water I'd brought along completed the metaphor.
By afternoon, when they brought out lunch--chicken, rice and a meager side salad in styrofoam boxes--ravenous journalists, braving the contempt and slaps of Convention Center staffers, were ambushing food carts to steal entrees meant for Conference delegates. That, at least, was more of a challenge than the journalism, which mostly involved fighting fatigue and hunger to gather in crowds to interview whichever delegates spoke English (translators weren't allowed).
By late afternoon Chris and I had decided to split, given the overwhelming likelihood that nothing would be decided on the Conference's "final" day. We walked out onto the street in front of Checkpoint Three--usually a busy intersection, but today deserted because of the road closings. There was a bombing there a few weeks ago, and I'm always a bit on edge there because Iraqis and westerners coming and going from the Green Zone are an attractive target. But today the place seemed almost peaceful.
"It's weird to be standing out here," I said, "without having to worry about security."
On cue, a mortar exploded in the middle-distance.
The Conference itself was a disaster, as even its organizers and its American patrons admitted obliquely when asked directly. I'll try to write about it tomorrow. Daily newspaper journalism is draining--the hours are long and unpredictable, and I'm running all over town. Especially in a car without air conditioning, that's a drag. I can't tell yet if this level of work is something I could ever get used to.
At the moment I'm writing too much, working too much and sleeping too little to keep up with the blog the way I'd like to. I'm going to try to start posting everyday again. Tomorrow's a good day to turn over a new leaf. One of the saving graces of working for USA Today is that it doesn't publish on weekends, so Fridays are either a day off or a very slow day. I'm going to sleep in and hope I have more energy tomorrow.
The Iraqi government has ordered all reporters out of Najaf, and told locals stringing for newspapers to quit. This, coupled with the government's one-month ban on al Jazeera, isn't a promising sign. It would be bad enough if the situation here is so unstable that the government truly fears that negative press coverage could be dangerous. But it's probably more likely that the government is falling into the habit of simply banning the media when it views its reporting as inaccurate, overly critical, or potentially inconvenient.
I had a small taste of this attitude at the Interior Ministry when I was writing a story on Mehdi Army bombings of CD shops. I wanted permission to talk to the neighborhood police, and was told that I should go to the south of France for three months and come back when the police were in better shape. There was so much corruption and incompetence, I was told, that the government had decided any publicity would be bad publicity. The publicity was worse than it would've been if police officials had spoken to me--I found a couple low-level officers in New Baghdad who were happy to chat about how much they liked the Mehdi Army and how little they cared about liquor stores, CD shops and beauty salons being bombed.
Last night Iraq's soccer team won again at the Olympics, beating Costa Rica. Like last time, this prompted heavy celebratory gunfire. After waiting on edits for a story I'd come down to the pool to join a party, and five minutes after arriving we were walking inside at the behest of NBC security contractors who feared (prudently, I suppose) that falling bullets might wreck the evening.
Today is Day Two of not attending the National Conference. Yesterday I interviewed a bunch of people who weren't attending the Conference--Sadr spokesmen, members of the insurgent-tied Muslim Scholars Association, and a couple students at Baghdad University. Conference organizers have been lowering the bar for what constitutes success. Today's New York Times article quotes the Conference organizer saying it's a success that the Conference was held at all. But if it's really a major step on the road to democracy, I think success can be defined in two ways:
1. The Conference is significantly democratic, in that reflects the will of the Iraqi people and brings new voices into the government
2. Iraqis view the Conference as democratic
The Conference has definitively flunked point two, I think. I've talked to few if any Iraqis outside the government and the major parties from the ex-Governing Council who think the Conference will do much more than pick a legislature that reflects the will of those already in power.
Point one is more complicated, but I'm not encouraged. Twenty-one seats in the 100-person legislature have already been set aside for former members of the Governing Council. Everyone, including Conference organizers, acknowledges that there was fraud and violence in the caucusing process. Critics accuse Conference organizers of allowing more powerful parties to pack the gathering with stealth delegates--people who supposedly represent non-government organizations and institutions of civil society, but are actually in the pockets of politicians.
Maybe most importantly, the Conference is by necessity limited to the peaceful range of the Iraqi political spectrum. Sadr and insurgent-affiliated Sunni groups have refused to attend. It's not a "failure" of the Conference that those who want to see this government overthrown aren't attending. But as major fighting continuing with the Mehdi Army and the Sunni insurgency continuing apace (a few recent bombings have been pushed out of the headlines by Najaf) I wonder just how many Iraqis really have faith in the political process they're being asked to endorse. As was the case this spring, the most passionate Iraqis seem to be fighting the government, not supporting it.
Obviously I'm tremendously relieved that James has been released, for all the obvious reasons. He's a good guy and a good reporter. I'll understand if he hops the next RAF flight for a vacation in England (not London, of which I know he's not fond). But if he comes back to Baghdad I'm going to throw him one hell of a party.
The U.S. military sent out a press release which I think is worth reproducing in its entirety:
MNF-I PUBLIC AFFAIRS
COALITION PRESS INFORMATION CENTER
Aug. 13, 2004
Journalist rumored to be missing
BAGHDAD, Iraq – There have been unconfirmed reports that a British journalist has been kidnapped by anti-Iraqi forces in Najaf. None of the 23 international journalists who have been officially embedded with Multi-National Forces have been reported missing.
Multi-National Forces cannot guarantee complete safety for journalists, but security risks are minimized by being officially embedded. Journalists are also provided food, shelter and medical care if needed.
Journalists who travel into Najaf on their own do so without these extra measures of security.
Terrorists and other criminals who kidnap innocent people are fundamentally against the rule of law of the sovereign Iraqi nation.
I have no doubt that the United States military is sincere in its belief that journalists are safer as embeds. It's true. Embedded journalists have the most powerful military in the world to insulate them from the violence, uncertainty and instability engulfing much of Iraq. Unlike journalists who travel to places like Najaf on their own, they are at minimal risk of ending up on the wrong side of the awesome destructive power the United States can bring to bear against its opponents. The military makes protecting embeded journalists a top priority. Journalists I know who've been to Sadr City this week are much more worried about being killed by American tanks than by the Mehdi Army.
I don't like the implication that a journalist like James, whose work illuminates the world outside the cocoon of American military protection, is being reckless. Recklessness implies ignorance of or indifference to risks. James knew the risks, and worked to minimize them to the extent that he could. Journalists like him are the reason we have some idea, for example, of how the people of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, are reacting
to the fighting in Najaf. Don't tell James to play it safe and stay out of Basra if you want information, in English, about what's going on there.
My friend James Brandon has been kidnapped
in Basra, and his captors are saying they'll kill him in 24 hours if the Americans don't withdraw from Najaf. It's important to remember that most foreigners held by militants here are eventually released. If James is in the hands of the Mehdi Army (as some reports indicate) he has a good chance of going free, I think. Whatever else can be said about him, Moqtadr Sadr neither advocates nor condones the kind of murder/kidnappings favored by the insurgents and terrorists operating west of Baghdad. He has condemnded some of the hostage-taking, though I think those incidents involved non-Iraqi Muslims, not westerners. In any case, a Sadr spokesman has called for James' release.
When I met James he was living at a hotel I'd never heard of. It was March or April, and with the security situation getting dicey he was looking to move behind some security into the Dulaimi. He's a quiet guy, but we've become good friends. He's young--23--and, in the scheme of western journalism over here, so am I. He came out to Iraq last year just out of college. We have a similar take on Iraq--a kind of bemused cynicism about everyone and everything.
We've also had a lot of goofy experiences that you probably have to be here to fully appreciate. A few of them have involved the waitstaff at the Hamra restaurant, including this exchange:
Me: I'll have the deluxe beefburger with egg and cheese.
James: I'll have the chicken sandwich, and can I get that with cheese as well?
Waiter: No, no cheese.
James: All right.
Me: But mine will have cheese, right?
Waiter: Yes. [Exits quickly]
This was towards the end of April, a very stressful time here, and for whatever reason this made us both lose our shit for about five minutes. When we recounted the story to our friend Ramsey he didn't think it was nearly as amusing. Service at the Hamra moves in geologic time but we eventually got the meals: my burger with cheese and James' sandwich with none. At the end of the meal, as we were preparing to ask for the check, a waiter emerged with a cold slice of cheese on a plate and deposited it in front of James. If I recall correctly, he talked his way out of having to pay for it.
I wrote a while back about drinking beers on the roof of the Dulaimi, which James and I did a few times before I moved out. Baghdad, James said once, could be a beautiful city if the country ever gets its act together.
The British government is involved with this now, as are people of some influence with the Mehdi Army. I'll post again as soon as I know more.
I ran around town today in an un-air-conditioned beater with my new translator, Mohammad, and my driver, Amar. I was collecting interviews for a story I'll be writing tomorrow about the National Conference. All in all, I preferred hanging out with the Mehdi Army--less driving, less waiting, and a story that has more relevance to Iraq's political future.
The National Conference was postponed for two weeks because several important political actors had refused to participate. Those actors included Sunni Islamic parties and Moqtadr Sadr (who wasn't fighting openly with American troops at the time). There were also "irregularities" in the caucusing that selected conference delegates. A spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party said, for example, that 700 votes were cast in a hall where only 600 people had gathered. A conference organizer, after I mentioned "problems" with the caucuses, volunteered that no one would deny that some of the caucusing had been marred by violence.
In a country with a history of political violence, and only recently freed from totalitarian governance, a little corruption and violence might be expected in the early-going. But many, many, people and organizations have opted out of the political process altogether--the Sunni insurgents, Sadr's militia and its supporters, and others. The violence and corruption marring the national conference is the work of people at least nominally committed to democracy.
It's questionable to what extent conference participants really care about democracy. The big players this weekend are likely to be parties that sat on the Governing Council. Some of these parties, like Dawa, have real support among Iraqis. Others don't, but GC members who weren't picked for the interim government have already been guaranteed seats in the interim legislature.
I spoke this morning with Iraq's Minister of Culture. He looked and behaved like a Minister of Culture--he wore a gray suit and a perfectly-knotted tie, his silver hair was swept back from his forehead, and he spoke enthusiastically about the importance of using art and books to inspire a pluralistic, peaceful, and humane political climate in Iraq. I might once have been tempted to dismiss this guy as an irrelevant dreamer, and focused more on the down-and-dirty of politics and violence. But inspiring democracy in Iraq with books seems like a more realistic concept these days than inspiring democracy through the political process now backed by America and the interim government.
What I've been thinking were mortars hitting the Green Zone may actually be American heavy ordnance landing on Sadr City. One of the rumors today--which I haven't seen confirmed on the news--is that the US is hitting Mehdi Army positions with F-16s. In Najaf there are American armored vehicles in the cemetary and buildings a few hundred yards away from the Imam Ali Shrine are being blasted. The Iraqi government has given the American military permission to enter the shrine. Iraqi security forces in Najaf have been brought under US command.
My friend Chris called a minute ago to let me know that the Mehdi Army may be wreaking havoc in the city--shooting up police checkpoints, kidnapping people, and traveling around dressed as police. Given the Iraqi Police's track record, it's also possible that actual police are in league with the Mehdi Army. Yesterday Abu Saif told me the Mehdi Army and Iraqi policemen pray side-by-side in Sadr City's mosques. A reporter staying at the Sheraton told me tonight that a Sadr City imam broadcast calls from the minaret loudspeakers for Mehdi militia to storm the Palestine and Sheraton hotels. Apparently that request went unmet, but it's yet another reason (in addition to better rooms, a better pool, and no rocket attacks) to prefer the Hamra the competition.
None of the day's news bodes well if you've bought Moqtadr Sadr futures. American actions indicate they're going to take the shrine in Najaf and pound militiamen to dust in Sadr City. Iraqi government actions (and inaction) indicate they're going to let it happen. If the militia is marauding around Baghdad that's a sign of desperation, not initiative--Mehdi strength is in Sadr City, and Mehdi's appeal to Iraqis lies in its claim to be defending itself and Iraq against aggression.
Maybe there's still time for Sadr to give up, as Allawi and the US seemed to be tempting him to do by claiming Sadr wasn't responsible for the violence (anonymous American commanders in Najaf admitted in print that those claims weren't true). Sadr's claimed he'll fight to the death, but he said that last time and struck a deal instead. This time the Americans may take him up on that offer whether he craves martyrdom or not.
I'm not sure what will happen if Sadr is killed. Especially if he's killed by Americans inside the shrine, his death will outrage Shi'ites. But whether that outrage will spawn riots and more armed resistance is hard to tell. Presumably the people most likely to fight for Sadr, dead or alive, are currently being cut down by American firepower in the alleys of Sadr City and the tombs of Najaf. In the short-term the violence may subside. Killing Sadr and putting Iraqi security forces in charge of Najaf and Sadr City might temporarily bring things under control and burnish Allawi's image as a tough guy--the image that has made him a popular guy with many Iraqis.
But it's difficult to imagine that people will respect Allawi when they know that his victory was won by American troops. Iraqis are savvy and I doubt they're buying American and Iraqi government claims that Iraqi security forces are heavily involved in the fighting.
It will take more than killing Sadr to placate the Shi'ites, many of whom have basic objections to the American presence in Iraq, to America's refusal to sanction immediate direct elections that conservative Shi'ites might win, and to the new government's flouting of Islamic law. In some ways having Moqtadr as an enemy is a good thing for the Americans and the Iraqi government--he's popular because he opposes the US, but he's young, uncharismatic and not much of a tactician. If he's killed and Shi'ites flock to a Sadr lieutenant with more savvy, more magnetism and more impressive clerical credentials, look out.
This morning one of Sabah's drivers picked me up at the Hamra. We drove over to pick Sabah up at his house in Mansour, and then headed to an internet cafe on the outskirts of Sadr City. I watched as a large convoy of armored vehicles and Humvees (which, nowadays, are pretty well-armored, too) rolled down the street.
At around noon our contact showed up. He's the editor of a pro-Sadr newspaper that publishes in Sadr City, and he was wearing a t-shirt and a baseball cap he'd occasionally turn backwards. He's a genial guy with a bit of a swagger--more than once he picked up a copy of his newspaper and pointed triumphantly to his name on the front page. That, combined with some genetic serendipity, made the guy look like the Iraqi Tone Loc
After Tone used the computer at the cafe's front desk to email pictures of Mehdi Army fighters to western news organizations, we piled into my driver's car and headed into Sadr City. There were three of us in the backseat, and the right side of my body was pretty much wedged behind the Iraqi sitting next to me. Before we left the Iraqis had put flimsy black mesh curtains up on the back windows. They roll down like window shades, stick to the glass with suction cups, and are anchored with a velcro strip. I think they were designed to cut down glare from the desert sun. They're also not a bad way of keeping people from fingering the gringo driving around in Sadr City.
More important than the window shades was the presence of Tone. His driver, who took over behind the wheel when we left the internet cafe, put a copy of Tone's newspaper on the front deck. As we crossed into Sadr City we passed a row of American armored vehicles--from what I saw, mostly Bradleys (Bradleys
are significantly smaller than Abrams
tanks, but they're so big in absolute terms that I can never tell the difference without looking for a Bradley's much smaller turret-mounted gun).
After that, though, I didn't see another American or Iraqi government vehicle. After suffering through multiple traffic jams on the way to Sadr, it was a relief to be in a part of town where civil strife keeps a lot of people off the roads. Trash lined the curbs, and in some places it spilled into the street in stinking piles. Having been in Sadr City before that didn't seem remarkable, but Tone told me, through Sabah's translation, that the trash concealed improvised explosives ready to detonate when American vehicles passed.
We slowed as we approached a checkpoint "manned" by a couple of Kalashnikov-toting teenaged boys. One wore a black shirt, a tell-tale sign of Mehdi army membership. The other was wearing a t-shirt which, for some reason, he had pulled up over his hair and ears. Tone leaned over to talk to the black-shirted kid, who seemed to recognize him and waved us through.
We turned off the main road, drove slowly down an alley, and stopped. Tone asked a young boy a question in Arabic, to which the kid replied enthusiastically. We parked the car and entered a simple courtyard shaded a bit from the sun by a laticework of dried reeds. We took off our shoes and entered the sitting room. It had no furniture, unless you count the stand on which the radio sat. The lights were out and the ceiling fan was still--as in much of Baghdad and, particularly, much of Sadr City, the power was out. I shook hands and exchanged formal greetings in Arabic with Abu Saif, who said he was a commander in the Mehdi Army.
Abu Saif said he was 35, but looked older. He still looked strong, though--a big man with light gray eyes and a full, neatly-trimmed beard. He wore a gray dishdasha and sat across from me, his back against the opposite wall. We sat on the floor on long thin carpets like you'd find in a hallway in the States. Abu Saif's pistol lay on the carpet next to him. A bit later I noticed what looked like a paper towel tube gift-wrapped in white tissue. That turned out to be a stick of home-made dynamite. One of Abu Saif's sons made up for the lack of air conditioning by intermittently (but aggressively) fanning me with a light orange towel.
The walls were decorated with portraits and photographs of Shiite martyrs. The photographs showed ordinary-looking middle-aged men and wizened old clerics. But since no one knows what Imam Hussein or Imam Ali looked like, artists have turned them into pin-up boys. Abu Saif's portraits are the slightly cheesy renderings that Iraqi Shi'ites love, but that remind me of velvet Elvis paintings. No one does bedroom eyes like the Picture of Imam Ali.
I think that Abu Saif is roughly what he claims to be--a mid-level Mehdi Army commander. He had some interesting things to say about the organization of the militia--his mobile phone connection to Najaf, the speed with which the militia in Sadr City leapt into action after fighting broke out in Najaf early last week.
There was also a lot of what I think were either lies or that weird middle-ground where exageration meets bullshit. There were claims that the Mehdi army has disabled American tanks (which, according to the laws of physics, their weapons are extraordinarily unlikely to do), claims that the Mehdi Army has lost fewer than ten men killed (when the US is claiming they've cut down hundreds of militiamen), and so on.
But I definitely buy the man's commitment. At one point Abu Saif, in the course of explaining the depth of is loyalty to Moqtadr Sadr, said that he would fight until all his children had been killed. He said he'd turn his youngest son into a stick of dynamite and send him to the Americans. This prompted one of his other sons, a kid of about ten, to haul his naked younger brother (who'd been wandering around a bit earlier) into the living room so we could get a look at him. The toddler scooted into the next room and started bawling.
A bit later Abbas, a 25-year-old Mehdi Army fighter, arrived to be interviewed. He wore beige track pants and a black short-sleeved shirt with buttons down the front. It was less wrinkled than my shirt, which is a neat trick after five days of urban warfare (then again, it's not like these guys are in trenches--they can probably walk to their houses to change clothes and eat). Abbas had been sent for by Tone, and explained with a shy smile that fighting the Americans is fun. I couldn't get a read on the guy--he seemed a bit too relaxed and goofy to have spent the past several days in mortal combat with the 1st Cavalry Division. Then again, who knows how someone in that situation is supposed to behave? If I do this long enough I suppose I'll find out.
I was about to ask if we could go with Abbas to the mosque where he and his comrades were stationed. In the distance I heard something that sounded like static, and quickly recognized the incessant crack-crack-crack
of rifle fire. The intermittent thuds, my companions told me, were rocket-propelled grenades. Sabah told me that the Mehdi Army was attacking the American column I'd seen from the internet cafe. Tone got off his cell phone and told Sabah that the Interior Ministry had announced a 4 pm-8 am curfew, and that it was time to leave. Out in the alley I bumped into a photographer I know from around the Hamra; we exchanged greetings and then the crew I was with jumped in the car and headed back to the cafe.
There's been a lot of thudding lately--the insurgents seem to have upgraded their mortars and have been chucking them at the Green Zone for a couple days now. Now that I'm on the eighth floor of the Hamra I'm high enough to hear the explosions clearly. A second ago a far-away explosion rattled the windows here just a bit. Most of the time, though, it's just the sound. That leads to exchanges like the following, from last night's party at the Time
Me: "Was that a mortar or a door slamming?"
Max: "Ha, ha!
That was a mortar."
As occasionally happens, a long message I'd just finished got eaten instead of being posted. I'm going to go to bed and re-write it tomorrow.
I was on a foot patrol with the 1st Cavalry and the Iraqi National Guard today, which involved a bit of walking, a bit of driving, and quite a bit of sitting around at checkpoints surrounding a church that was threatened yesterday. I'm too tired from walking in the sun in body armor to write much tonight, but there were some interesting moments that I'll write about tomorrow.
In the interest of not turning the blog into a series of promises that there's more to come in the future, here are a couple random anecdotes:
I had a dream over the weekend that I was on top of a very tall building in Manhattan. In the distance, further north on the island, there were two very large explosions. I decided to take the elevator down to the ground floor, to get out of the building as quickly as possible. My hotel, the Hamra, has terrible elevators, and in my dream the elevators behaved like that--I heard gears grinding somewhere, but the doors wouldn't open. It turned out to be less of a nightmare about terrorism and more of a journalism anxiety dream--I was watching television accounts of what had happened (suicide rafters attacking LaGuardia--don't ask), but couldn't get out to cover the story myself.
In lighter news, I've discovered a delectable new recipe:
Step one: Buy two dozen eggs.
Step two: Leave eggs in the trunk of your roommate's driver's car.
Step three: Let eggs sit overnight and through the following day.
: car-boiled eggs. No kidding--you can soft boil an egg by leaving it in the trunk of a car in Baghdad for 24 hours. Personally, I'm going to steer clear of actually eating the things. But if anyone wants some and will pay for shipping I'll FedEx them.
Not much time to post at length today. Tomorrow I ought to have some down time in the evening to write about the church bombings and about what I've been up to the past couple days. I went to the scene of a couple of the bombings, but didn't see any of the injuries or anguish I saw when the Mount Lebanon was bombed back in March. I was only a few blocks from that bombing, and had run with Ray to the scene within minutes.
This time Chris and I were in the Hamra and heard a thump, which we noted but mostly ignored. Then my editor in Virginia called to tell me churches in Karada had been hit. Chris and I headed out to the balcony and looked towards Karada, which is only a couple kilometers away. There were two pillars of gray smoke snaking into the sky. To the south a huge black cloud was rising. We didn't know it at the time, but this was the Dora church bombing. My translator and driver arrived after about thirty minutes and we headed to Karada.
By the time we arrived the US military had cordoned off the streets leading to the two churches (which were very close to one another). A few blocks away street life was totally normal--crowded sidewalks, lots of traffic, old men selling vegetables in front of their produce shops. On the sidestreets you walked over glass scattered from blown-out windows and silent crowds looked past Humvees to get a glimpse of the damage.
I'll try to write more about this tomorrow.