BAGHDAD-”I am a soldier in the Mehdi Army,” said Adnan Al-Safey, a round-faced, soft-spoken fellow of 40 who looked much less like a soldier than a merchant or a poet, which he also happened to be.
It was early June, and Mr. Al-Safey was early for an appointment at the headquarters of the radical Shiacleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad. Back in May, Mr. Al-Safey had left Baghdad to join Mr. al-Sadr’s militia in its armed rebellion against the forces of the U.S.-led coalition in the holy city of Najaf-a rebellion that had been sparked, in part, by the decision of the U.S.-led coalition to close down Al Hawza , a newspaper published by partisans of Mr. al-Sadr. His comrades, however, sent him right back to the Iraqi capital, where, they told him, he was needed more. Mr. Al-Safey proudly handed over his contribution to the cause: the latest copy of a new weekly newspaper called Al Salaam (“Peace”), of which he was the editor in chief. Asked whether Al Salaam had been founded in response to the closing of Al Hawza , Mr. Al-Safey allowed a flicker of mischief to play on his face. “You can say that,” he replied.
At the time of that conversation, Mr. Al-Safey’s goal was to puncture a myth that he also viewed as an insult: the myth that Mr. al-Sadr’s following derived entirely from the ranks of the dirt poor and the plug ignorant, which he clearly was not. But in light of this week’s big news that Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has approved the reopening of Al Hawza , Mr. Al-Safey-simply by virtue of his job description-proved another important point: Practically from the moment that Al Hawza ceased to operate, publications that are as supportive of Mr. al-Sadr and as critical of the U.S.-led coalition’s presence in Iraq have been up and running.
Not that the decision to reopen the newspaper has no significance. It does expose the decision to close it in the first place as the needless, hypocritical provocation it was. It seems to indicate some awareness on the part of the new Iraqi government that some nemeses are better killed with co-optation. And insofar as it returns Mr. al-Sadr briefly, and somewhat respectably, to the headlines, it highlights America’s Slim Fast strategy for telling its story in Iraq.
For purposes of public consumption, the coalition approaches stubbornly problematic figures and situations in Iraq exactly the way a diet-product manufacturer approaches a persistently fat celebrity spokesmodel. If the problem (flab, insurgency) actually disappears, great: take the real photos and tell the real, triumphant tale. If not, ad lib: crop it (the still-prominent derrière, the ongoing, underlying conditions of the insurgency) or swap it (a Fergie for a Whoopi for a Lewinsky; a Shia firebrand for a Sunni one). The key is, make the problem appear to disappear.
Moqtada’s before-and-after is just one example of this application, but it is an instructive one. As of April, as portrayed by the coalition, Mr. al-Sadr was both a threat and a joke. On the one hand, he was the prince of darkness and king of thugs; an accused murderer whose arrest, in connection with the death of a pro-American Shia leader, was so urgent that it was worth forcing urban warfare to make good on a year-old warrant; a source of propaganda so deadly that it had to be stopped, even if the act of stopping it had the clear effect of spawning much more of it.
On the other hand, he was the self-declared, semi-educated, mysteriously funded “cleric” who commanded the allegiance only of the aforementioned rabble, and merited the disdain of most Iraqi Shia. Now, however, he has publicly called upon his militia to disarm, stopped making noise about killing Americans, and started making noise about joining the political process. Presto, he’s no worry at all.
The truth is much different. No question, Mr. al-Sadr has diminished as a factor in recent months-but this is not only, or even mainly, because many of the supporters who did battle with the Americans ended up dead; if this were a question of sheer volume, there would always be plenty of fighters to replace, and avenge, the fallen. Casualties aside, the Moqtada problem has not been solved. Rather, the Moqtada problem has merely been submerged in another, much larger problem. Right now, the central political fact of life in Iraq is the fact that the resistance movement based in and around Falluja has served increasingly to isolate that area and to set it up in opposition to the rest of the country. The springtime show of Sunni-Shia militant unity, motivated by coincident anti-American antagonism and evidenced by the flow of aid from Shia areas of Baghdad to a Falluja then under American siege and by the concurrent flow of mujahadeen from Falluja to the Shia bastion of Sadr City, has already revealed itself to have been just that: a show. Never trusted by those Sunnis who benefited under the Saddam Hussein regime, always despised by the Salafi and Wahhabi fanatics who are now driving the resistance, the Shia are now being treated as enemies by those two groups. They are responding in kind. This backs them into a position of cooperation with the Americans.
To be sure, this position is by default and temporary. But so long as it is the position, the bulk of Shia will view Sunni extremists, Iraqi and not, as their primary enemy, and their enemy in common with the Americans. The fact of Mr. al-Sadr’s recent alliance with Falluja has not won him any friends lately, but it hasn’t lost him many, either. The dynamic is, a few months ago, there was hay to be made in railing against the Americans, and Moqtada-never aligned with the invader in the first place-was the guy to make it. Now, the only percentage a Shia leader can gain vis-à-vis the Americans is in getting them to root out the insurgency in Falluja. But that is a very long parade of Shia leaders, and Moqtada is, at best, just bringing up the rear.
Otherwise, the forces that shaped him are all still in place. His newspapers are no more or less incendiary than they ever were, and in terms of impact, they don’t matter any more or less than they ever did. And in one key particular, the Mehdi Army is as big a threat as it ever was.
The Mehdi Army has ceased to appear in American rhetoric and more or less ceased to be a threat to American lives. This apparently leaves the less scrupulous of its ranks plenty of time to terrorize Iraqis.
“Ninety percent of this neighborhood is against Moqtada and 10 percent is for,” said Sahar Hani, 22. She was at home in Sadr City with her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. On the wall were photos of one famous Iraqi cleric and one not so famous: the late Ayatollah Khomeini, of Iran, and 35-year-old Faez Al Mutawey, a supporter of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and therefore an antagonist of Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sahar’s ratio was undoubtedly lopsided, but her point was well taken. For months elsewhere in Baghad, I had been meeting and hearing about Shia who lived in Sadr City but hated Moqtada al-Sadr. Whether or not such people constituted a majority, they were undoubtedly silent: afraid to take Moqtada’s picture down or fail to put it up; afraid to say a word against him or in favor of one of his rivals; afraid, in short, of retribution from the Mehdi Army.
By the time I met Sahar, I had just passed funeral tents for fallen Mehdi Army fighters. It was a fairly creepy scene. Inside the tents were people mourning militants who were dead. Outside the tents were militants who were, as yet, alive; young men were standing around in clusters, AK’s hanging casually at their sides, making no attempt to pretend that they were not looking at the car. In the car with me was my fixer, Salaam, and a young Shia scholar named Jameel. Jameel lived here and hated Moqtada and wanted me to speak with some neighbors who hated him, too. It had taken some arranging, but three families had agreed to meet me. However, as we approached each of the first two houses where we had appointments, Jameel noticed that our host was standing in front. Then he noted that our host had seen him, but was choosing to look right through him-a way of asking us not to stop the car.
Sahar’s house was the third house.
About two weeks before, some guys from the Mehdi Army had come to her door at 4 o’clock in the morning. They knocked down the door and woke up the neighbors. Their faces were masked, and they had guns. They asked the whereabouts of her brother, a truck driver who, she said, regularly made the run to Tehran. According to Sahar, “They said, ‘If he comes in the future, we will kill him and send you his head.’”
I believed it. For at least one Iraqi family I know, there is no before and after when it comes to Moqtada al-Sadr.
On May 13, when it was still at the height of its prominence, the Mehdi Army assassinated 29-year-old Riyadh Jassim Hussein Al-Badali, a translator for the U.S. Army. Riyadh was a native son of Sadr City, an Agatha Christie aficionado, a devout believer in the future of a free Iraq and a beloved friend of mine. A few months after the war, using money he had saved from the Army work and other translating gigs, Riyadh had been thrilled to purchase a used car in fair condition. I still don’t know whether he was in that car or that of his fellow translator, Ali, when he drove to work on the last day of his life. I do know that both men were ambushed.
A week or two ago, long after it had ceased and desisted from garnering major international publicity, the Mehdi Army kidnapped Riyadh’s 26-year-old nephew, Saddik, and subjected him to torture by electric shock. He was released after two days, but upon his release he was told that if he cooperated with the Americans he would be murdered and dumped in the street, just like his uncle.
I heard about this when I received a call from Riyadh’s eldest brother, Nsaif. He had also worked as a translator for the Army, as well as for a humanitarian organization that was monitoring the restoration of Sadr City’s schools. When Riyadh was killed, he had quit both jobs. Now that Saddik had been abducted, though, he did not feel safe.
He needed my help, Nsaif said. Could I please help him get a bunch of passports? Since the war, he elaborated accurately, his entire family had dedicated their lives to helping the Americans. Now, one life had been lost and all their lives were in danger, and all he wanted was for the Americans to help him escape the new Iraq. Could I please help him get political asylum in the United States?