Son of Hidden Imam rises

Under the lazy afternoon sun, a dozen men stood guard this week inside the coiled barbed-wire fence that surrounds the police station in Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf. They were well-armed, most carrying Kalashnikovs, one a sniper’s rifle with another two hand grenades tucked into his vest, but not one was a policeman.

Dressed all in black and with strips of black cloth neatly wound around their heads, these were the men of the Jaish al-Mahdi, the Army of the Hidden Imam, an illegal Shia militia loyal to the young rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr whose followers rose up in revolt across southern Iraq and Baghdad last Sunday.

Almost exactly a year since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, the United States’s war in Iraq has come to this: its generals are now fighting off armed rebellions from both Sunnis and Shias in Iraq.

From his headquarters in Hussein’s old palace in Baghdad, US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer dismissed Al-Sadr as an “outlaw’‘. But in Kufa on Monday it was only this cleric’s tightly organised band of followers who laid down any law.

“We need to be here to protect the police station from looters,’’ said Syed Qasim, a polite, bearded unemployed man in charge of the Jaish al-Mahdi contingent manning the police station.
He said the police had run off to their houses last Sunday when a demonstration by Al-Sadr’s supporters turned into a three-hour gun battle with Spanish, Salvadorean and American troops. It left 24 dead and about 200 injured.

“We told the police we have nothing against them, just against the Spanish,’’ he said. “We are here to serve society. We are working for the face of Allah.’‘

A few minutes later, trying to prove his point, Qasim re-emerged from the police station with Major Kaseem Mazal, the actual police chief for Kufa. He looked sheepish, wore no uniform, carried no gun and was watched over by several of Al-Sadr’s militia as he spoke.

“We were trying to tell the demonstrators we supported them,’’ the major said. “We didn’t leave our station, we just stopped work. Now we are cooperating with the Jaish al-Mahdi and there are no troubles between us.’‘

They were wise words from a man whose police force is widely regarded by most in Kufa as collaborating with the US occupation.

The source of all power in Kufa and the driving force behind two days of armed uprisings across southern Iraq was just across from the police station, inside the town’s heavily guarded mosque. Hidden from view in a back room and receiving no visitors, Al-Sadr (30) spent the day in prayer and preparing a series of statements damning the US occupation.

The courtyard of the mosque, built on the site where the prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali once lived as caliph of the Muslim world, was crowded with pilgrims and families bringing the dead for a final prayer before burial. Incorporated into the prayers chanted by the kneeling crowd was their support for Al-Sadr: “Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada,’’ they cried. “Bring back the Hidden Imam. Damn his enemies. Support his son Moqtada.’‘

Green flags flew from the minarets of the mosque and gunmen armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades patrolled the ramparts, looking down on the crowd.

The young cleric has built himself an astonishing position of strength over the past year. He taunted the US occupation authorities with threats immediately after the war, but was dismissed as a minor irritant. Several months later he has returned, this time with a large, armed militia and a highly organised militant political force with roots in several cities across the south and in the eastern Shia slums of the capital, Baghdad.

Its intellectual core is based around a large group of young clerics in their 20s and early 30s, all students at the Hawza, Iraq’s pre-eminent religious school in Najaf.

Most notably they all reject Najaf’s more conservative traditions, which insist that religion should remain separate from politics.

Al-Sadr, a dour man with a thin, dark beard, trades largely on the name of his father, a respected moderate cleric, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Hussein in 1999 and on his virulent criticism of the US occupation.

“Syed Moqtada al-Sadr has expressed in a public way, in a brave way, the pain in the hearts of the Iraqi people,’’ said one of his senior deputies, Sheikh Qais al-Qazali (30) a science graduate who has studied at the Hawza since 1995. “What happened in the demonstrations was a popular reaction by the Iraqi people. The Americans have seen the demonstrations and the sacrifices of the martyrs. Now they should judge what would happen if they arrest Syed Moqtada.’‘

That the Shias are fighting the US military and its allies at all is a stunning condemnation of the past year’s occupation. This was the group, after all, that suffered most acutely from Saddam’s persecution and which has so much to gain from his fall.

Al-Sadr’s great strength is that he, above so many other competing Shia groups, has harnessed the bitter frustrations of the poorest sections of the Shia community and turned it into a powerful militant movement.

Early on Monday, 160km north of Kufa in the narrow streets of the eastern Baghdad suburb known as Sadr City (named after the cleric’s assassinated father), a crowd of young men gathered to survey the wreckage of last Sunday night’s running street battles, in which at least 25 Iraqis and seven American soldiers died. Some were students, others unemployed. All were loyal to Al-Sadr and explained how the last year had brought only disappointment and frustration.

First, the crowd pointed to one side where there was a white Chevrolet saloon car, its windscreen broken, its bodywork riddled with bullets. The driver, Adnan Hattab, and his friend died in the car when it was torn apart by a machine gun fired from a US tank.

Then they pointed to the piles of garbage and stinking sewage in the middle of the street. “You can see the rubbish. There is no electricity, no water. Nothing has changed for us. We are still unemployed, the water is still dirty,’’ said Samir Hamid, an out-of-work daily wage labourer.

“It is not a matter of hating the Americans,’’ said Abbas Radi, a student at the local college of education. “At first we trusted in them, but we saw nothing from them and we trusted in the governing council until we discovered they are cowards.

“Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement is the only one that calls for the rights of the Iraqi people. He has no ambitions for a position in the government and no support from countries outside Iraq.’‘

They admire the movement for its often aggressive public stance, with demonstrations and threats of violence. Here there is little time for the measured stance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior and respected of the Shia clergy in Iraq. “He is the leader of the clerics, but he didn’t take any steps and he didn’t say anything about what has happened,’’ said one man.

“It is not safe any more for the Americans in this city. There will be no more peaceful demonstrations. They should remember Vietnam.’‘

For now Al-Sadr has told his followers to halt their protests and to stage sit-ins and a general strike. At some schools in Baghdad his supporters ordered teachers to close for a strike. Police stations around Kufa and Najaf and in some areas of Baghdad were still under the control of his militia.

Back in Kufa in the late afternoon, pilgrims continued to pour into the mosque until a convoy of four Spanish armoured personnel carriers briefly drove past the mosque. Minutes after they left, the Jaish al-Mahdi promptly closed the roads around the mosque and emptied the streets. Shops and stalls closed early as gunmen dressed in black took up positions around the mosque and pulled out dozens of rocket-propelled grenades, apparently fearing an assault on the building. US officials in Baghdad said an arrest warrant for Al-Sadr, accusing him of involvement in the murder of a moderate cleric in Najaf last year, had already been drawn up. American military officers said they wanted his imminent arrest. — Â

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