By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 7, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 6 -- As verses from the Koran floated from a loudspeaker, the Shiite militia commander's face glowered. Inside the cavernous funeral tent, a large portrait of his 16-year-old son, Mustafa, hung over the mourners. Abu Abdullah, who fought U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents for five years, never expected his son to die before him. Now, he said, his anger was directed at other Shiites.
An Iraqi soldier, he said, had shot Mustafa two days earlier as he approached a checkpoint in Sadr City, where Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army rule. Abu Abdullah blamed Sadr's Shiite rivals, who lead the Iraqi government.
"What do I feel inside me?" asked Abu Abdullah, dressed in black. "I want to do to them exactly what they did to my son, and even more."
In this volatile Shiite redoubt, animosity toward Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki and his allies has deepened in the aftermath of Iraq's worst violence in months, threatening to escalate a conflict among Shiites that could further draw in U.S. troops.
Sadr's followers view a recent U.S.- and British-backed Iraqi government offensive in the southern port city of Basra as an attempt by their Shiite rivals to weaken Sadr's movement ahead of provincial elections later this year. Iraq's security forces, they say, are tools used against them by their rivals. Clashes erupted across southern Iraq and Baghdad, diminishing only after Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their weapons.
But tensions remain high. On Sunday, fighting again broke out in Sadr City, leaving 11 dead and 55 injured as a joint U.S. and Iraqi military operation began. Maliki and other lawmakers issued a statement Sunday urging political parties to disband their militias or face being banned from the elections, an act clearly directed at Sadr.
Mahdi Army commanders and fighters spoke on Saturday of a military and political landscape starkly altered by the Basra offensive. They vowed revenge against Maliki and his Dawa party and against the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a powerful Shiite party led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a key U.S. ally and Sadr's main rival.
The hostilities highlighted how intra-sect struggles, after five years of war, are increasingly defining the nature of conflict in Iraq, as violence lessens between Sunnis and Shiites.
"Now, our fight is with Badr and Dawa, along with the Americans," said Abu Abdullah, a burly man with a rugged face, thick beard and stern voice. "They are bigger enemies" than the extremist Sunnis, he added.
On Saturday, U.S. Stryker armored vehicles and Iraqi Humvees cordoned off Sadr City. They blocked all roads, and no cars were allowed to enter or leave. U.S. combat helicopters and drones circled above. Unlike the rest of Baghdad, the sprawling district was still under curfew. This correspondent entered Sadr City on foot.
Inside, traffic bustled. The streets, brimming with people, appeared normal, save for the presence of U.S. tanks. But fresh slogans scrawled on walls spoke of the potential for upheaval. "Maliki is a coward and agent of Americans," read one. On another wall: "Badr and Dawa are thieves and killers."
Iraq's Shiites have long contested each other for the mantle of their community. Under Saddam Hussein, Hakim and Maliki fled, preferring to fight from exile. Sadr, the son of Iraq's most respected populist cleric, who was assassinated by Hussein's government in 1999, remained inside the country during the repression. That helped Sadr to gain credibility among impoverished Shiites, enhancing his power on Iraq's streets. His followers deeply resent that former Shiite exiles, whose power is derived largely from their American backers, now lead Iraq's government.
For years, the rivalry unfolded mostly in the political arena. Sadr and Hakim have different visions for Iraq. Hakim, whose party is part of the ruling coalition, wants a separate Shiite region in the south. Sadr, who considers himself a nationalist, wants to keep the country unified. Under heavy U.S. pressure, Maliki turned against Sadr, his political benefactor, and over the past year has ratcheted up efforts to isolate Sadr, who withdrew from Maliki's coalition last year.
In recent months, tensions have grown. Iraq's security forces, with Badr and Dawa loyalists in senior command positions, have detained hundreds of Sadr followers across southern Iraq. The government insists it is arresting criminals, but Sadrist leaders say the actions are politically motivated and intended to take advantage of a cease-fire Sadr imposed in August, a key reason violence has dropped in Iraq.
"Badr and Dawa are wearing the military uniforms," said Abu Hussein, a young fighter in a blue baseball cap and striped T-shirt. "We are not fighting the military. We are fighting them. They have legal cover under the uniforms."
Inside a shattered, shell-pocked apartment building, Ayed Abdul Amir walked into a neighbor's top-floor apartment. As a breeze blew through broken windows, his shoes crunched thousands of pieces of glass. Bullet holes riddled the walls. Amir stared at the destruction and shook his head.
He remembered seeing Mahdi Army fighters entering the building two days after the Basra offensive began, aiming their weapons at a checkpoint manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops on a nearby street. "When the gunmen started shooting, they started shooting back," said Amir, a day laborer. He fled for his life.
He worries that violence could erupt again at any instant. Once oppressed under Hussein's Sunni-ruled government, Amir said he had voted for the ruling Shiite coalition, thinking that Shiites like him would benefit. Now a Shiite power struggle has engulfed his life. "I never expected this," Amir said. "But now I am expecting anything. These are political issues, and the people are suffering for it."
"We are sorry we voted for this government," he said, his voice rising in anger. "I will never vote for anyone. No one can fool me again."
Nadal Fahiri, his wife, stood in the living room of the battered apartment listening to every word. She had given up hope on getting electricity and other basic services, she said. Nor did she care about the soaring prices of food and cooking gas under the curfew.
"All we want now is to be able to sleep at night," she said.
Near their building, a group of Mahdi Army fighters gathered at a local community office. They had defended their neighborhood, they said, against the Americans and their Shiite rivals, and they vowed to fight again if necessary.
"They are our brothers," said Abu Zahra, a Mahdi Army leader. "But their political positions have changed them."
Tall with a thick moustache, Abu Zahra said the Supreme Council and Dawa were "trying to show muscle" before the provincial elections. "They want to have full control over the south."
He added with disgust: "They are not real Iraqis. They never lived here. They never knew how we lived. The Americans planted them here."
Some fighters believed that Iran was using Dawa and the Badr Brigade, which was originally founded and trained in Iran, to foment violence against Sadr, whose movement has long been wary of Iran. All saw American influence. Abu Haider, a senior Sadrist leader, said the U.S. military was using their Shiite rivals to keep the Mahdi Army busy in order to prevent them from attacking U.S. troops. "They will not change," said Abu Zahra, referring to Badr and Dawa.
"They are like the knife. But the hand is the Americans," said Abu Noor, a top Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City.
At the funeral tent, Abu Abdullah seethed. After his son was shot, an Iraqi officer refused to allow an ambulance to take him to the hospital, he said. He believes his son might have lived. "They are behaving like the Americans," he said.
Mustafa, he said, was killed after Sadr had ordered Abu Abdullah's 60 fighters to stand down. And that order, he said, was the only barrier between him and "a revolution" against his Shiite rivals and U.S. forces. "Every day now is worse than before," he said.
Down a narrow street, in a warren of oatmeal-colored houses, children played near fetid pools of water. The smell of rotting garbage wafted in the air. Portraits of Shiite saints graced walls. Scrawled on one house was "Down With Badr," directly across from "Long Live Sadr."
In a house, Abu Noor sat beneath a portrait of Sadr. He said the "gap" between Sadr and his Shiite rivals had "widened so much that it could not be closed." The only way, he said, was for Badr and Dawa to honor the conditions Sadr demanded in exchange for ordering his fighters to stand down last week. They included a halt to arrests and amnesty for Mahdi Army fighters. Otherwise, he warned, they will "reap what they have sown."
Abu Noor paused, then said: "I am expecting many uprisings like this."