The Swift Rise and Fall of Iraqi Cleric Nadhim Khalil

Muthanna Youssef Hammoud, a businessman, says Nadhim Khalil was behind his 2006 kidnapping.
Muthanna Youssef Hammoud, a businessman, says Nadhim Khalil was behind his 2006 kidnapping. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 14, 2009

THULUYAH, Iraq -- In October 2006, as the heat of an Iraqi summer was finally breaking, the blue eyes of Muthanna Youssef Hammoud glanced at four cars pulled to the side of the road in a tumultuous swath of northern Iraq then beholden to insurgents. "We didn't pay much attention," the wealthy businessman recalled.

Minutes later, a beige Toyota barreled in front of his blue BMW. A white Toyota blocked the street behind them. Alongside, the other two cars disgorged eight masked gunmen clad in black who fired a staccato burst in the air, then stuffed Hammoud and a friend into the trunks of the cars for a four-hour drive.

Their captors called the mastermind of the kidnapping "the sheik," orchestrating an odyssey that imprisoned the men in a half-dozen hideouts, some no more than a crumbling mud pen two feet high. Three weeks later, the sheik's men freed them after they paid $180,000 in ransom, collected in part by selling a gas station in Thuluyah.

The incident was so anonymous as to be forgotten. Hammoud and his friend survived, a feat in itself in the nadir of Iraq's carnage, where civilians in this town of vineyards and orchards along a bend in the Tigris River were sometimes beheaded with a shovel. But the voice of the mastermind lingered with Hammoud, and his recollection led Iraqi and U.S. soldiers this month to arrest Nadhim Khalil, a former insurgent leader known to his followers as Mullah Nadhim, who had become an American ally here.

Khalil's rivals have hailed his detention. His colleagues call it caprice. Either way, it underlines the free-for-all of elusive loyalties, stinging betrayals and unrequited vengeance as the U.S. military withdraws, its erstwhile allies splinter, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains tentative and everyone vies for power ahead of national elections.

In short, no one is in charge in Thuluyah. Khalil was -- until his arrest.

"Unbelievable," Khalil called the charges in Hammoud's kidnapping and another case that accuses him of ordering the execution with a bullet to the back of the head of 14 Shiite Muslim workers. But, he promised his opponents in a telephone interview conducted from detention through his brother, "I'll be back."

"Justice," said Hammoud, whose captors had handed him a green Koran as a parting gift when they freed him in the town's cemetery. "In my opinion, it's justice."

A cautionary tale in a fickle Iraq, the rivals of Khalil described it. "He was flying high, but he eventually came to the ground," said Abdullah al-Jabbouri, a gruff and bearish tribal leader. "Take this as a rule. Has he fallen or not?"

Changes in Allegiance

Just 31, Khalil was no ordinary insurgent turned repentant. His home town was long a bastion of support for Saddam Hussein, who courted its Sunni inhabitants, as many as a fourth of whom worked for the army, state or intelligence. "Long live Saddam," reads graffiti still at its entrance. In those days, Khalil was a lonely voice as a Muslim cleric, castigating Hussein's government for lacking the justice of Islam's forebears, from the pulpit of Thuluyah's largest mosque, which he had inherited from his father.

After Hussein's fall, powerful tribes with the names of Jabbouri, Khazraji, Ubaidi and Bufarraj filled the void. But Khalil soon played his own role. The Americans persuaded tribal elders to make him a member of the city council, as a representative of the town's clergy. The honeymoon was brief, and by year's end, Khalil's zeal against the occupation, what he called a cancer in his sermons at the Caliphs Mosque, brought him into the insurgents' ranks. By August 2006, he had joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, a homegrown Sunni movement that U.S. officials say is led by foreigners and that soon seized control of Thuluyah, imposing a vision of Islamic law that banned smoking in the street.

Even today, Khalil is forthright about his past. "Four Years of an Insurgent Life," he titled a book he wanted to publish this year.

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