By Ellen Knickmeyer and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
NAJAF, Iraq -- In a shabby but spotless living room in the holy city of Najaf, a top deputy of Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr quietly sketched out his vision of the Iraq to come, after the Americans withdraw.
First, "there will be a civil war," said the aide, Mustafa Yaqoubi, as his three young children wandered in and out of the room. The rising violence and rivalries under the American occupation make a shaking-out all but inevitable once foreign forces go, Yaqoubi said. "I expect it."
"No matter the number of people who would lose their lives, it is better than now," he added. "It would be better than the Americans staying."
When the tumult ends, the Sadr aide said, Iraq's Shiite majority will finally be able to claim its due, long resisted by the Americans -- freedom to usher in a Shiite religious government that Yaqoubi said would be moderate and perhaps comparable in some ways to Iran's. The bespectacled, bearded cleric's mild tone buffered his talk of the blood that would have to be spilled to achieve this goal. No matter when the Americans withdraw, "the first year of transition, it will be worse," Yaqoubi warned. "After that, it will gradually improve."
Yaqoubi speaks as one of two or three longtime intimates of Sadr, the young heir of a revered Shiite clerical family. Sadr's rough-edged, strongly anti-American street movement of poor, largely uneducated Shiites has burgeoned into one of the strongest political and armed forces in Iraq.
When Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was shot to death with two of his sons in 1999, in an assassination blamed on Saddam Hussein, Yaqoubi helped Moqtada al-Sadr, then only 25, keep the family's mosque-based network alive, despite unrelenting pressure from Hussein's intelligence services.
Yaqoubi's arrest by U.S.-led coalition troops, on charges in the brutal stabbing death of a Sadr rival, ignited full-scale street battles between Sadr followers and U.S. forces in April 2004.
Freed in August 2005 after 16 months in prison, Yaqoubi helped preside over a remarkable political transformation that culminated with elections last year that put Sadr in charge of the largest individual bloc in parliament.
While Sadr and his aides, including Yaqoubi, stayed in Iraq throughout the darkest years of Hussein's rule, others among Iraq's current leaders went into exile in London, Tehran or Detroit, returning here only after Hussein's overthrow. Leaders of the other main Shiite religious parties were quick to make accommodation with the U.S.-led occupying forces. Overnight, many of them adopted a life of secondhand splendor in the former palaces and villas of Hussein's regime.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for example, who leads the Shiite religious party that most nearly matches Sadr's movement in strength, moved into the marbled villa of former Hussein foreign minister Tariq Aziz, who is now in U.S. military custody. Sadr and his aides, in contrast, make their homes in the Shiite neighborhoods of the capital and the Shiite holy cities of the south. Sadr lives in a gleaming, whitewashed concrete mansion behind high walls in Najaf. His top aides there have more modest houses, less freshly painted.
Yaqoubi is considered an intellectual, in the vanguard of Sadr's Shiite movement. In an interview over the course of an afternoon, he outlined his views of an organization that is scarcely known to Americans. His children occasionally came in to interrupt, putting a hand on his knee to whisper a message from the women out of sight in the back of the house.
Despite their ascendancy now, Yaqoubi said, Iraq's Shiites owe no gratitude to the Americans. "The Americans are not saving us from Saddam for the sake of the Iraqi people," he said. "They gave Saddam clearance in the 1990s to strike at the Shia people. It was in their own interest to get rid of Saddam."
According to Yaqoubi, the Americans brought the armed resistance on themselves by staying after the invasion and by ignoring Iraqi protests. For example, he said, tens of thousands rallied this summer in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City to protest the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but the Americans ignored them. "It was the largest rally in the world. But with them, it's useless," he said, referring to U.S. officials. "No one ever reacts, no one responds to these protests."
Ordinary Americans, on some level, must understand the resistance to the foreign forces, he said.
"We believe the American people are not coming from Mars. They see on their televisions how it is here," Yaqoubi said. "They have the same mentality we have. We believe that if the Americans were occupied by another country they would do the same as we are, or even more."
Yaqoubi said the U.S. failure to meet even the simplest security needs of Iraq was to blame for much of the current instability. As a result, he said, "when the Americans pull out, there will be a civil war. They are using that now, as an excuse for staying."
The Sadr deputy spoke confidently and simply of which faction would emerge the winner. "I don't want to use this expression, but you have an expression," he said. " 'Survival of the fittest; the strongest survive'?"
He added, "If there may be other forces to use their strengths, I don't think they have the capability to match us."
Sadr's armed followers are often accused of enforcing strict Islamic codes; commanders of his militia, known as the Mahdi Army, have acknowledged beating up alcohol vendors.
How would a Sadr government look, should the cleric come to full power? "Our main goal, by our nature, we are Islamists," Yaqoubi said. "Our only desire is to obey God. We want the heavenly laws to be applied, in a normal way."
Yaqoubi described a gentler version of Shiite Islamic government. He insisted that Iraq would not model itself on Shiite Persian Iran next door. But he spoke approvingly of Iran in hinting how Iraq might look, saying, "There is freedom of journalism, women can drive, can go without veils."
Many Western analysts say Iran's religious government and its people have learned to coexist. Newspaper editors now tend to self-censor, and women, while often allowing a generous display of hair to show, still wear head coverings.
Asked if Iraq might adopt the same de facto tolerance as Iran, Yaqoubi replied, "Possibly."
Yaqoubi suggested that statistics support his vision for Iraq. Shiites make up at least 60 percent of Iraq's people, he said, and millions of them follow century-old traditions of fealty to the instructions of their religious leaders.
"The Americans wanted elections and wanted democracy," the Sadr aide said. "This is what they wanted."
Special correspondent Naseer Mehdawi in Najaf and correspondent Karl Vick contributed to this report.