In Iraq, cemetery is symbol of militia's vow to fight if U.S. forces delay exit
NAJAF, IRAQ -- The followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr call this plot of land on the edge of this holy Shiite city the Freedom Cemetery.
It is barren, nondescript desert ground, a two-acre section within the Sadrist Martyrs' cemetery. The graves have not been excavated. But it is reserved for a purpose: the possibility that U.S. forces might stay beyond the Dec. 31, 2011, departure deadline mandated by a security agreement between the United States and Iraq.
If that happens, members of the Mahdi Army, a militant Shiite group that bills itself as a resistance force against the U.S. occupation, have promised to rise up and fight to the death. Their bodies would be buried in the cemetery.
"If the Americans leave, which we don't think they will, we'll make it a burial site for our parents," said Abu Mohammed, who oversees the Sadrist cemetery, where 4,250 fighters and Sadr supporters are buried. "If their exit is delayed, we will fight and give our blood.
"This will be our solution," he said as he waved toward the reserved plot.
The cemetery is a reminder that even as the United States is about to declare the end of its combat mission in Iraq, armed groups still see U.S. troops as combatants. Shiite militias, including the Mahdi Army, remain armed and continue to attack U.S. troops. Assassinations are on the rise, and rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone and U.S. military facilities have spiked.
U.S. troop levels have decreased to about 59,000 from a high of more than 165,000. By Sept. 1, there will be 50,000; by the end of next year, U.S. troops are to fully withdraw from Iraq, which has no new government more than five months after inconclusive national elections.
The Obama administration says the United States is on track to withdraw all of its forces, despite concerns from some Iraqi officials who say they worry that the drawdown is premature. Regardless of the assurances, many Iraqis say they're convinced that the Americans will never leave.
U.S. military officials say that Shiite militias will remain a threat to Iraq's security and U.S. troop security. They are working with the Iraqi government to arrest militia members.
"They are outside the security mechanism, and they have said they will continue to attack the U.S. forces," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. The U.S. military is on track to end its mission at the end of next year, he said, calling the cemetery in Najaf "rhetoric" and "propaganda."
A 'different' war
The Mahdi Army, created in 2003, is the militant wing of Sadr's movement; he inherited a grass-roots following from his father, an influential Shiite ayatollah. After fighting with U.S. forces in 2004, the group grew out of control in the worst days of Iraq's sectarian war in 2006 and 2007.
Sadr froze the militia's activities in 2008 and has since divided most of his men into two unarmed civic organizations called Mumahidoon, Arabic for "those who pave the way," and Munasiroon, "the supporters." The groups provide services to the poor Shiite communities that make up their base, protect mosques and study religion.
Although the militia is armed, only a small and extremely secretive armed wing called the Promised Day Brigade, whose purpose is to attack U.S. troops, is permitted to fight. DVDs of their attacks are often distributed after Friday prayers at Sadr-controlled Shiite mosques.
"The war is different now; it's intellectual, political, and we have a military wing," said Sheik Kadhim al-Saadi, a prominent Sadrist sheik in Baghdad. He sat recently in a Shiite mosque in eastern Baghdad, under a woven rug depicting Mahdi Army fighters carrying AK-47s beneath the watchful eye of Sadr's visage.
The militia has largely laid down its weapons, and the movement made a powerful political showing in the March 7 elections by winning 40 seats, the largest showing by a Shiite coalition.
"We cannot predict what happens in the future," Saadi said. "But if anything comes up, Sayed Moqtada wants to ensure that all the men of the Sadr trend are prepared physically and mentally." Sayed is an honorary title used to refer to Sadr.
Arranged by battles
The Sadrist Martyrs cemetery is divided into plots by battles.
One plot is for fighters who rose up in Najaf in 2004 to fight U.S. forces in the holy city. One is for Sadr supporters killed in insurgent attacks, and another is for those who were killed after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an offensive against the militia in the southern port city of Basra.
A handful of graves in a separate part of the cemetery are the resting places of the Promised Day Brigade fighters. No one speaks of them. Only recently did people begin to mark the graves, after hesitating because of fear about repercussions against martyrs' families by government security forces.
Abu Moqtada, a Mahdi Army fighter from Baghdad who laid down his weapons and joined the Mumahidoon, recently walked through the graveyard to mourn his fallen brothers. Every grave is marked with the words "The Happy Martyr." He said he has lost as many as a dozen friends since the 2004 Najaf battle.
Abu Moqtada, who used a nickname to protect his identity, was imprisoned by the U.S. military for more than two years. He was arrested at a friend's funeral and accused of attacking U.S. troops. The detention intensified his anger toward the United States. He is free now. He no longer fights U.S. troops because Sadr has forbidden him to. But he is ready to fight again.
One day, he could be buried in Freedom Cemetery.
"We are ready at any moment, but we are waiting for one word from the Sayed," Abu Moqtada said.