Iraq

READY FOR JIHAD

If Iraqi rebels unite, America will face its worst nightmare, writes ADNAN R. KHAN

May 3 2004
Iraq

READY FOR JIHAD

If Iraqi rebels unite, America will face its worst nightmare, writes ADNAN R. KHAN

May 3 2004

READY FOR JIHAD

Iraq

If Iraqi rebels unite, America will face its worst nightmare, writes ADNAN R. KHAN

It was another bloody week in Iraq as suicide bombers struck in the southern city of Basra, killing some 70 people, including more than 20 children on their way to school. Those attacks, as well as another in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh that left four dead, were blamed on al-Qaeda-connected terrorists. They came as U.S. forces were trying to contain a Sunni uprising in Falluja and ease tensions in Najaf, where they have been involved in a standoff with militant Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia. Maclean’s Contributing Editor Adnan R. Khan, who is based in Istanbul and currently on assignment in Iraq, filed this report on al-Sadr and the threat he and his forces pose.

“SADR WINS.” If al-Hawsa, the now banned newspaper of Muqtada al-Sadr, were still operating in Iraq, that would probably have been its headline last week. Those words were certainly on the lips of his followers after U.S. forces agreed to pull back from their siege positions on the outskirts of Najaf in southern Iraq. Al-Sadr has been holed up in Shia Islam’s holiest of cities for nearly three weeks, dodging an arrest warrant for complicity in the murder of a rival cleric last year—and calling on Iraqis to rise up against the occupation. U.S. authorities still vow to capture or kill the 31-year-old cleric, but throughout the standoff al-Sadr has remained defiant, even threatening suicide attacks against coalition forces. What comes next could prove to be a defining moment for post-war Iraq. The U.S. retreat in Najaf marks a critical stage in the occupation. With a ceasefire deal in the city of Falluja disintegrating, and U.S. forces preparing for what could be a major confrontation, defusing tensions in Najaf became a top priority before the coalition faced the possibility of a united insurgency. The stakes in Najaf are high. As Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the ranking American soldier in Iraq, said: “The problem of Sadr is bigger than Sadr.” It boils down to religion: fighting the Mahdi militia in a holy city would be devastating.

But the chilling prospect of Iraq’s insurgency becoming an all-out religious war remains. For weeks, al-Sadr’s representatives throughout the Shia-dominated south have been inciting his followers to resist the occupation on religious grounds. “Death is paradise,” Sheikjabri al Khataj, al-Sadr’s spokesman, intoned at the mosque in Kufa, 30 km north ofNajaf, during recent Friday prayers. “Sunnis and Shias must unite against the great Satan.” And the people were listening.

In smaller centres, and in Sadr City on Baghdad’s eastern fringes, heavily armed fighters—members of al-Sadr’s newly formed Mahdi army—took to the streets. On April 7, they routed Ukrainian troops in Kut, a small Shia town on the banks of the Tigris River 200 km southeast of Baghdad. “We are keeping the peace now,” Sheik Abdil Jawad, al-Sadr’s 30-year-old representative, proclaimed outside Mahdi headquarters in the town’s market district. “If anyone wants to fight us, we are ready.” In Kufa, one Mahdi fighter declared that his men had Spanish troops cornered “like rabbits.” Sadr City oscillated between eerie calm and fierce firefights. And all the while discontent over the occupying forces increased—as did the rhetoric flowing from al-Sadr’s lieutenants.

In the holy city of Karbala, during the Arbaeen festival commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered of Shia saints, al-Sadr’s representative invoked religion to justify the Mahdi uprising. “This is the time for the return of al-Mahdi,” he said, referring to the messianic figure in Shia tradition whose return will mark an era of peace and prosperity for Shias worldwide. “Sheik Muqtada was told in a dream that the time has come.” Who told this to al-Sadr was up to interpretationsome said it was an angel, others hinted it was al-Mahdi himself—but no one dared question the veracity of the vision.

The 34-year-old representative, who refused to give his name, preferring instead to be called simply “the sheik,” went on to proclaim that Iraq’s Muslims, Sunnis and Shias alike, were united in the cause. “We’re all Sunnis and Shias,” he said. “There is only one God, and if the Americans want to kill Muqtada then they have to kill all Iraqis.” He claimed Ansar al-Islam, the Sunni terrorist group connected to al-Qaeda and based in northern Iraq, had sent a letter to his office announcing its support for the Shia uprising (Ansar al-Islam is widely believed to be behind the most devastating bombings over the past year, including the attack last week in Basra). “They’ve sent 200 fighters to Karbala,” he claimed. “They’ve melted into the city and are waiting for the call to jihad.”

The possibility of Iraq’s various anti-coalition forces uniting could be America’s worst nightmare. Up to now, the Sunnis have been in disarray, with the closest semblance of unified resistance, in Falluja, contained by a sustained U.S. military offensive. The bulk of Sunni attacks have been uncoordinated, sometimes opportunistic roadside ambushes that have had little impact on the occupation as a whole. Meanwhile, al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, a ragtag organization of up to 10,000 discontented youth armed with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifles, have so far presented little serious resistance to the overwhelming military capabilities of their American opponents. Mahdi fighters may have taken Kut, but their sojourn there was brief: U.S. tanks, backed by 1,000 troops, rumbled into the city to retake it a day later.

But coalition forces can’t be everywhere at once. The Mahdi militia controls other cities such as Diwaniya, 300 km southwest of Baghdad. And in Karbala, youthful fighters roam the streets, tossing their Kalashnikovs over their shoulders like baseball bats. “We haven’t even begun to fight,” alSadr’s representative there warned. But neither have the Americans, it seems. Faced with a group of fighters who believe they represent the will of God, coalition planners have opted for a wait-and-see approach, aware that a miscalculation could upset the balance between restraint and all-out war.

It may not be long before a violent confrontation becomes inevitable. “These Mahdi really believe they are fighting a holy war,” Hussain Abdil Amir, a businessman whose clothes shop overlooks the Imam Hussain shrine in Karbala, said during Arbaeen. “They are not going to stop. They feel they are privileged. Often they’ll push their way past other worshippers waiting to pray at the shrine, saying they deserve to be first. They have no respect for our traditions.”

As he spoke, a large group of al-Sadr supporters marched past Amir’s shop, chanting anti-American slogans and brandishing an updated version of the Iraqi flag, replete with references to al-Mahdi and the Islamic nature of Iraq. Amir could only shake his head. “They don’t understand Islam,” he said. “Sadr has taken advantage of their inexperience. He uses young men because he knows their minds are easy to control.”

The situation has been in the making for more than a decade: after the collapse of Iraq’s education system during the 12-yearlong UN-imposed economic embargo, many young people, especially those living in poverty in places like Sadr City (it used to be Saddam City) and the neglected south of Iraq, turned increasingly to religious studies. The pattern is all too familiar in the Muslim world: impoverished youth are indoctrinated at schools where an absolute duty to religion is hammered into their minds.

Now, by all accounts, enrolment in the Mahdi army continues to rise, and the retreat of U.S. forces at Najaf will likely increase the flow of recruits. A BBC estimate suggests that up to 2.5 million Iraqis—10 per cent of the population—support al-Sadr. If even a fraction of them decide to take up arms, the result could be overwhelming.

The Americans aren’t taking any chances; 20,000 troops already deployed in Iraq have been told that their tour will be extended by 90 days. Planners are considering sending as many as 10,000 more. But with coalition partners such as Spain and Honduras heading for the exits, bulking up on military might may prove too little, too late. If insurgent rhetoric is reflected in action, and al-Sadr’s Shias merge with Sunni fighters, backed by the ruthless tactics of terrorists, Iraq is destined to endure far more bloodshed than it has already seen. fifl