IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Old U.S. foe rises again in Iraq

Beyond Baghdad, Iraqis see a new boldness in the Mahdi Army militia in cities like Nasiriya, Basra and Amarah, all south of the capital and all patrolled by foreign forces allied with the United States.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Over the loudspeakers set up in this small town in a backwater of southern Iraq, the commands came in staccato bursts. "Forward!" a man clad in black shouted to the militiamen. "March!"

Column after column followed through the dusty, windswept square. Some of the marchers wore the funeral shawls of prospective martyrs. Others were dressed in newly pressed camouflage. Together, their boots beat the pavement like a drum as they goose-stepped or double timed in place.

Over their heads flew the Iraqi flag, banners of Shiite Muslim saints and a portrait of their leader, Moqtada Sadr -- symbols of their militia, the Mahdi Army, twice subdued by the U.S. military last year but now openly displaying its strength in parts of the south.

"At your service, Sadr! At your service, Moqtada!" the men chanted in formation. "We hear a voice calling us!"

"The tanks do not terrify us," others joined in. "We're resisting! We're resisting!"

The military parade this week lasted an hour, long enough for 700 men brandishing swords, machetes and not a few guns to pass a viewing stand of turbaned clerics and townspeople gathered in front of low-slung brick buildings.

It was also long enough for the militiamen to deliver the message that has distinguished their organization from Iraq's other Shiite groups -- implacable hostility toward the U.S. occupation. They delivered it far beyond the purview of the U.S. military, in one of the many towns and cities in southern Iraq where the Mahdi Army has emerged as kingmaker, and where the lines between authority and lawlessness are still ambiguous.

Iraq's most prominent religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, stepped between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military in Najaf last August, ending fighting that destroyed parts of Iraq's most sacred Shiite city. Since then, an uneasy truce has held there and in Karbala, another holy city, and in the vast Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.

U.S. military officials say they believe the toll they inflicted during last year's fighting sapped the young cleric's support. While still a threat, the militia is less so than when it first took up arms in April 2004, the officials say.

"We believe Moqtada's militia is generally marginalized, and there is little to be gained from taking a military role," said Lt. Col. Bob Taylor, chief intelligence officer for the 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees Baghdad. "But it could still be a threat."

Beyond Baghdad, though, Iraqis see a new boldness in the militia in cities like Nasiriya, Basra and Amarah, all south of the capital and all patrolled by foreign forces allied with the United States.

Amarah is stronghold
In Basra, the Mahdi Army is widely viewed as the force that can put more armed men in the street than any other. Amarah remains its stronghold. In Nasiriya, it has struck an alliance with the secular police chief, who views the group as a counterweight to other militias.

"The silent majority is not with him, but the majority of active people are," said Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mudarrassi, a cleric in Karbala, referring to Sadr. "If you count the ballot boxes, the balance is with the moderates. If you count those in the streets, it's the opposite."

The enduring appeal of Sadr's militia speaks to the forces still shaping Iraq: nationalism, religion and guns.

For the militia, the axis on which those forces spin is the messianic cult of personality the movement has built around Sadr. The movement maintains a presence in the U.S.-backed political process -- about two-dozen sympathizers serve in Iraq's new parliament. But it fosters the militia as insurance, a political calculation based on a much older notion of Iraqi politics: Arms and the men who wield them convey power and ensure survival.

Time and again, after battles that left hundreds of Sadr's followers dead, the movement has managed to rewrite the notion of winning and losing: The very act of fighting is a victory. There is no defeat.

"We still have the weapons, we still have the army, and we still have the leader," said Sahib Amari, a spokesman for Sadr in Kufa, where the movement came of age in the weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque, the shrine a few miles from Najaf where Sadr's father preached in the 1990s and where his son built his movement after the U.S. invasion, are akin to street theater. Religion is less pronounced than politics, and politics help to rally the thousands of men who gather each week in the open-air courtyard.

"Long live Sadr!" the men chant as they file through the arched brick entrance. "Moqtada is the bridge to heaven!"

The prayers led by members of Sadr's movement have long drawn some of the largest crowds in post-invasion Iraq -- in Baghdad and Kufa. The numbers seem to have dwindled little, if at all, over the past year.

‘The occupier’
Just as constant is the message of protest, delivered in the sermon by Nasser Saadi, a rousing, swaggering cleric built like a wrestler. The enemies of the Shiites are not their Sunni brothers, he insisted. The adversaries of Iraq are not fellow Arab countries.

"I am addressing my call to the honest Iraqi people who stand against the occupation, who reject the occupation and who demand freedom," he shouted, dressed as others in a funeral shawl. "The enemy is one enemy, and that enemy is the occupier."

The crowd erupted, fists in the air: "No to the occupier! No to terrorism! No to the devil!"

"Wherever America is present, then there is terrorism," Saadi said. "When they ask the terrorists why they're here, they say we came to fight America. If America leaves, there would be no terrorism. Terrorism would leave with it."

In the mosque, and the markets that spring up around it each Friday, what has changed during the past year is the emphasis of the appeal the movement makes to the poor and young. Gone is the celebration of Sadr's father, a revered cleric assassinated in 1999. In its stead is the cult built around his son and a glorification of arms.

In posters spread out on plastic mats, Moqtada Sadr's image hovered over portraits of Mahdi Army militiamen waving rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.

"Victorious by force and faith, God willing," one read.

Najah Musawi is the Mahdi Army's version of a fighting priest.

A 30-year-old from Kut with seven years in the Shiite seminary, he fought in both battles last year in Najaf. He was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle; his wife helped cook rice and lentils for his fighters posted along a famous street that leads to Najaf's gold-domed Imam Ali shrine. To his men, he was simply Sayyid Najah, an honorific bestowed on clerics descended from the prophet Muhammad.

"Clerics are themselves fighters," said Musawi, a gaunt man with wispy beard. "We defend our doctrine and our principles."

Najaf still bears the scars of last year's fighting. Along main roads, rubble occasionally spills into the streets. With time, it has faded into the ramshackle brick construction of many of Najaf's houses. Some walls are still charred, and bullet holes puncture the facades of buildings and the colonnade in the street where Musawi and his men fought.

Hardship in battle
Stories of the fighting and death they encountered have become celebrated among the militiamen, another chapter in what they fashion as a legitimate uprising against the Americans. Musawi recalled how they faced tanks with their Kalashnikovs, how they recited the Koran over gunfire, how they fought on four hours' sleep, and how his six brothers served with him, one of them with shrapnel in his right leg.

"In those last days, 10 fighters would share one bottle of water," he recalled.

These days, Musawi said, he commands 500 new recruits in Nasiriya. He heads one of 18 Sadr offices in the city, all of which have their own militia units. There are no ranks, he said, only platoon and company commanders. As in Amarah and Basra, rumors are rife of the militia gathering more arms and men.

"We stood up to the Americans for 21 days, day and night, and the spirit of resistance is still there," he said. "If we get an order to resist the occupation, we'll do it -- with more determination, more numbers, more experience and more skills."

Sheikh Aws Khafaji is Sadr's representative in Nasiriya and Musawi's boss. Khafaji, 32, joined the seminary in 1996, then spent more than two years in prison. Gen. Mohammed Hajami is the provincial police chief. At 47, he is a father of eight. He served 24 years in the Iraqi military, reaching the rank of colonel. He considers himself insistently secular.

On Feb. 10, their paths began to converge. Before long, the Mahdi Army and the Nasiriya police would be staunch allies.

That night in February, Hajami said, 70 men attacked his office with machine guns, small arms and grenades. The gunmen belonged to the Badr Brigades, a militia loyal to one of Iraq's biggest Shiite parties and a rival of the Mahdi Army; the gunmen were angry that the government had dismissed their leader and appointed Hajami. More than 30 of his policemen took part in what he called an attempted hit.

The next day, Khafaji denounced the attack in his Friday sermon. He said the gunmen weren't Badr Brigades, they were ghadr -- Arabic for betrayal.

Those words were the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"It's a matter of balance," Hajami explained.

"Without the presence of the Sadr current, the Badr forces would seize every government building in the province. From my point of view, their presence is useful to us," he said. "We heard the Badr forces would like to do it again, so the Sadr people warned them, 'If you try it another time, we're going to throw your bodies into the streets.' "

A billboard-size painting of Sadr's father stands at the entrance to the police station, protected by rows of sand-filled barricades. On the wall of the reception room, in a glass case, was a copy of Saadi's sermon in Kufa, a call to gather for a Sadr-led protest in Baghdad this coming Saturday and a leaflet from the Sadr office titled, "The First Letter from Sayyid Moqtada Sadr to the Iraqi Police."

"You are from the people, and the people are from you as long as you detest the occupier and refuse the oppressor," it read.

Hajami says he is steadfastly pro-American but that survival is survival. His 5,500-man force is 2,500 short of what he said he needed to guarantee security. He suspects just 30 percent are loyal to him; the rest answer to the city's handful of Islamic parties. So, in a city where alliances are necessary, the Mahdi Army is his ally, he said.

"The Sadr trend has the biggest popular influence in the streets," Hajami said. "The relations are good, and there is cooperation. We keep in touch. Any problem that happens, I call them and see if they need help, or they call me."

Unyielding message
Hajami was invited to the military parade this week in Gharaf, about 12 miles north of Nasiriya. He didn't attend, but four of his police cars provided a high-speed escort, with sirens and loudspeakers, for Khafaji and other Sadr leaders. A few militiamen with bandoliers and heavy machine guns rode in the back, clad in the trademark black of the Mahdi Army.

At the parade, the Mahdi Army provided security. About 30 men in new uniforms, ammunition belts and assault rifles were posted on roofs and in the street. Another militiaman toted a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the background.

In white turban and clerical robes, Khafaji took the podium.

In private, he can be measured and militant. In one sentence, he will denounce the U.S. presence, warning of calamity if American troops fails to depart. In another, he strikes a more mainstream, nationalist tone -- outreach to Sunnis, cooperation with police, even holding out the prospect of formal participation in the political process once the Americans leave.

At Gharaf, he spoke to the militia assembled before him but addressed his words to the Americans.

"There is no place in the land of Mahdi except for the people of Mahdi," he shouted. "There is no place for you on this ground. Our people exist to force you out by means that are peaceful and then by means that are military.

"We are able to do that," he said, "God willing."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.