One way to understand Moqtada al-Sadr is to think of him as a young Mafia don. He aims for respectability, and is willing to kill for it. Yet the extent of his power isn't obvious to the untrained eye. He has no standing army or police force, and the Mahdi Army gunmen he employs have no tanks or aircraft. You could mistake him--at your peril--for a common thug or gang leader. And if he or his people were to kill you for your ignorance, he wouldn't claim credit. But the message would be clear to those who understand the brutal language of the Iraqi Street.
American soldiers who patrol Sadr's turf in Baghdad understand. They can spot his men. "They look like they're pulling security," says First Lt. Robert Hartley, a 25-year-old who plays
cat and mouse with the Mahdi Army in the Iraqi capital. The Sadrists use children and young men as lookouts. When GIs get out of their Humvees to patrol on foot, one of the watchers will fly a kite, or release a flock of pigeons. Some of Sadr's people have even infiltrated top ranks of the Iraqi police. Capt. Tom Kapla, 29, says he knows who they are: "They look at you, and you can tell they want to kill you."
Sadr is a unique force in Iraq: a leader from the majority Shiites who has resisted American occupation from the start. He's a populist, a nationalist and an Islamic radical rolled into one. Part of his power is simply that he's powerful. Large numbers of impoverished Shiites view Sadr as their guardian--the one leader who is willing not just to stand up for them but to strike back on their behalf. "People count on the militias," says Lieutenant Hartley, who deals with Sadr's thugs on a regular basis. "It's like the mob--they keep people safe."
The longer Sadr has survived, the greater his prestige has grown. Iraqis and foreigners who meet him are impressed by the transformation. He's more diplomatic and commands more respect. He used to greet visitors at his Najaf office sitting on pillows on the floor. Now he has a couch set. His concerns are high-minded: he speaks of fuel shortages and cabinet politics. In the past, Sadr was shrugged off as a rabble-rouser and a nuisance. Now he is undeniably one of the most popular leaders in the country. He is also its most dangerous, for he has the means to wage political or actual war against any solution that is not precisely to his liking. He is driven by forces America has long misread in Iraq: religious sentiment, economic resentment and enduring sectarian passions.
And he is now a primary target of Sunni insurgents bent on provoking all-out civil war. Last Thursday, Sunni militants carried out their deadliest attack since 2003. Multiple car bombs, accompanied by mortars, killed more than 200 people in Sadr City, a Shiite slum of 2 million people in Baghdad that is dominated by the Mahdi Army. Shiite forces responded immediately by firing mortars at a revered Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and by torching other holy places. Only the presence of U.S. troops--and a wide curfew over the city--prevented far bloodier revenge attacks.
More than anyone, Sadr personifies the dilemma Washington faces: If American troops leave Iraq quickly, militia leaders like Sadr will be unleashed as never before, and full-scale civil war could follow. But the longer the American occupation lasts, the less popular America gets--and the more popular Sadr and his ilk become.
To many, Sadr's brand of Shiite politics--homegrown, populist and ruthless--seems a natural outgrowth of the ruin left in Saddam Hussein's wake, and a powerful part of what Iraq has become. The United Nations calculates that an unprecedented 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October. Death squads connected to the Mahdi Army, as well as to other Shia and Sunni groups, capture and execute civilians in cold blood, sometimes dragging them out of hospitals or government ministries. Corpses turn up on the street with acid burns on their backs, or electric-drill holes in their knees, stomachs and heads. Among ordinary Iraqis, the United States bears much of the blame for the bloodshed--just for being there. As Sadr put it to NEWSWEEK earlier this year, "The occupation is the decision maker ... any attack is [America's] responsibility."
The story of the U.S. confrontation with Moqtada al-Sadr is, in many ways, the story of American folly in Iraq. It's a story of ignorance and poor planning, missteps and confusion. Key policymakers often disagreed about the importance of Sadr and about how to deal with him. The result was half-measures and hesitation. But the story isn't just about past failures. It also contains lessons--and warnings--about the future.
Little More Than 'Mullah Atari'
Moqtada al-sadr did not appearon anyone's radar screen ahead of the 2003 invasion. Even among Iraqis, although he came from an important clerical family he was seen as a weak figure. Moqtada's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, had been a leading ayatollah, a rival to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other top clerics. But gunmen--assumed to be working for Saddam--murdered the elder Sadr along with two of his sons in 1999. Moqtada was 25 at the time.
On the evening after his father's funeral, Moqtada presided over a memorial service at the Safi al-Safa Mosque in Najaf. A storm was raging outside. At about 8 p.m., three men wearing suits and ties swaggered into the mosque. Their jackets bulged where handguns were holstered. They were smirking, recalls Fatah al-Sheikh, a family friend who was present. Everyone in the mosque knew they were Saddam's men. One of the visitors offered Moqtada a package: a brick of bank notes wrapped in crisp white paper. "It was a message from Saddam Hussein," Sheikh recalls. "They wanted to tell Sayyid Moqtada, 'We killed your father.' They wanted to see if Sayyid Moqtada could be bought."
Moqtada declined the money, refused to shake hands and told the men to leave the mosque. A cleric followed the men out, apologized on Moqtada's behalf and accepted the money--knowing that to refuse it would mean a death sentence. Fearing immediate retribution anyway, Moqtada cut short the memorial and canceled two days of official mourning.
Sheikh says that for the next four years, Saddam's secret police followed Sadr wherever he went. One hot summer day, Sheikh recalls seeing Sadr leave the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. Sheikh walked up and said hello. Sadr squeezed Sheikh's hand tight and opened his eyes wide. "He was trying to give me a signal." Then Sheikh saw why: two men dressed in dishdasha s, standing behind Sadr and near a Toyota with tinted windows, were watching.
Saddam kept a close eye on Sadr because the young man inherited a wide network of mosques, schools and social centers built up by his father. The network was focused on the impoverished masses of Iraqi Shiites--the sort of people other religious and secular leaders didn't have much time for. Even some educated Shiites dismissed Moqtada as a zatut, or ignorant child. Some called him "Mullah Atari," because he apparently enjoyed videogames as a kid. He certainly lacked his father's stature: in his theological studies, Moqtada never reached beyond the level of bahth al-kharij (pregraduation research), according to a study by the International Crisis Group. But it's clear now that most everybody underestimated him.
The Time Bomb Starts to Tick
Top american officials may have been misled, as in so many other things, by depending heavily on well-heeled Iraqiexiles for advice. The outsiders, who had lived for many years in London or Washington or Tehran, disagreed vehemently with each other on what an invasion would mean. But some told Americans what they wanted to hear: you will be greeted as liberators, especially by the Shiites and Kurds long oppressed by Saddam.
American officials listened to Ahmad Chalabi, the well-known scion of a secular Shiite banking family. Another prominent exile was Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was supposed to be a key guide to the Shia religious community. Both had been away from Iraq for many years, and were strangers to the place they had left behind.
Al-Khoei paid with his life. The London-based exile returned to the holy city of Najaf, where he was born and raised, under U.S. military protection. He quickly organized a local council to get electricity and water flowing again, apparently with CIA money. (The CIA declined to comment.) But al-Khoei's father had been Iraq's top ayatollah--and a bitter rival of Sadr's father--during Saddam's rule. Now the sons were competing for power and influence. Sadr castigated al-Khoei as a U.S. agent, and demanded that he turn over the keys to the tomb of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law. A gilded cage surrounding the tomb contains a box for pilgrims' donations, a huge and vital source of income for religious leaders.
As al-Khoei and a colleague visited the shrine on the morning of April 10, 2003, an angry mob attacked them with grenades, guns and swords. "Long live Moqtada al-Sadr!" the mob cried out. Al-Khoei was stabbed repeatedly, then tied up and dragged to the doorstep of Sadr's headquarters in Najaf, where he was still alive. A subsequent investigation by an Iraqi judge found that Sadr himself gave the order to finish him off: "Take him away and kill him in your own special way."
Yet it wasn't clear at the time of the killing what Sadr's personal role was, and "we didn't want one of our first acts in country to be taking out one of the most popular leaders," says a U.S. military officer familiar with Army intelligence on Sadr. The officer, who did not want to be named discussing intelligence matters, says the Army was worried about provoking riots. When Sadr's father was killed in 1999, Saddam violently crushed protests by angry Shia mobs. "We thought that tens of thousands would take to the streets in Nasiriya, Karbala and Baghdad. It always comes back to that--not enough guys on the ground."
One courageous Iraqi judge, Raid Juhi, doggedly investigated the case. He exhumed the bodies of al-Khoei and his colleague, and wrote up a confidential arrest warrant for Sadr in August 2003. "From that moment through April 2004, the issue was whether we were going to enforce the arrest warrant," says Dan Senor, a senior official in the Coalition Provisional Authority at the time.
The CPA, the Pentagon and the military on the ground were in disagree-ment. The Marines in southern Iraq were particularly wary of stirring up trouble. As it was, the United States was preparing to hand off the area around Najaf to a multinational force with troops from Spain and Central America. Still, the Coalition had a secret arrest plan, and momentum toward nabbing Sadr was building. "The pivotal moment was Aug. 19, 2003," says Senor. "We were down to figuring out the mechanisms of ensuring that the operation was seen as Iraqi, executed on an Iraqi arrest warrant. I remember it was late afternoon and we had just received a snowflake from [U.S. Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld ... with nine different questions, rehashing how we were going to do this, to make sure it was not seen as an American operation." (A "snowflake" was a Rumsfeld memo.)
Suddenly word came that insurgents had detonated a massive truck bomb at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Senor recalls rushing to the scene with Hume Horan, a top U.S. diplomat and Arabist. Horan leaned over to Senor and said, "We should take down Sadr now, when no one's looking." But there was enough chaos to deal with already. The U.N. bombing was "a huge distraction," says Senor, "and the Sadr operation was forgotten."
Taking On Iraq's New Taliban
The u.s. invasion had destroyed an economy already crippled by years of international sanctions. Countless young men were unemployed, invigorated by the atmosphere of violent change but also poor and fearful. They wanted to be part of the new order--whatever it would be. The country was also awash in guns and other weapons, including those looted from Saddam's vast and unsecured arms depots. The Sadrist network was perfectly positioned to capitalize on the situation. Sadr himself wasdetermined to lead a national movement--using a potent mixture of anti-occupation militancy and millennial preaching about the coming of the mysterious 12th imam, who Shiites believe will save mankind. "Moqtada is absolutely hooked on the concept of the reappearance of the Mahdi," says Amatzia Baram, the director of the Ezri Center at Haifa University.
The first sighting of black-clad militiamen identifying themselves as part of Mahdi Army seems to have come in September 2003 in the southern town of Kufah. "I do not care what the Americans have to say about this, and I never did," said Sadr when asked about the new militia by reporters later that month. "Only the Iraqi people can choose who they want to protect their country." The U.S. military, fighting an ever-growing insurgency by the minority Sunnis, who had lost power with Saddam's downfall, didn't want to instigate a two-front war. But that left the United States without a strategy. If American forces weren't going to fight Sadr, it made sense to try to entice him into a political process. But other Iraqi leaders, including prominent Shiites, may have opposed that idea.
In the winter of 2004, a senior adviser to Ambassador Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq, was traveling in the south, meeting with friendly clerics and community leaders. "I could see how frightened they were of [Sadr] and his Mahdi Army," recalls the aide, Larry Diamond. "I was driven past an area, a kind of compound where his black-clad army was training for the upcoming revolution to seize power and take over. It just dawned on me that these people were going to make this place an authoritarian hell of a new sort, Taliban style, and would murder a lot of our allies in the process."
Diamond went to Bremer and gave him his assessment: the United States urgently needed to act against Sadr. Bremer responded that he was waiting for a new plan from Coalition forces. "I first wanted to go after him when he had probably fewer than 200 followers," Bremer recalled in an interview with NEWSWEEK last week. "I couldn't make it happen ... the Marines were resisting doing anything." But in the meantime, on March 28, 2004, Bremer suspended publication of Sadr's newspaper after it ran an editorial praising the 9/11 attacks on America as a "blessing from God."
The response was swift: mass demonstrations, which led to the first of two Sadr uprisings in 2004. In a final meeting between Diamond and Bremer on April 1, Diamond pressed the point that the United States needed more troops in Iraq. It was around 8 p.m., and Bremer's dinner was sitting on a tray un- eaten. He looked exhausted. "And he just didn't want to hear it," says Diamond. "In retrospect, I think he had gone to the well on this issue of more troops during 2003, had gotten nowhere ... and had just resigned himself to the fact that these troops just weren't going to come. I think the tragedy is that everyone just gave up."
When fighting did break out, American forces hammered the Mahdi Army in Baghdad and Najaf--first in the spring and then again, after a broken ceasefire, in the late summer. Some of the worst fighting came in August, as Sadr's militiamen made their stand around the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. They turned the area into a no-go zone, sniping at any sign of movement. U.S. forces retaliated by laying waste to large swaths of central Najaf. In the end, Ayatollah Sistani brought his influence to bear on the renegade cleric and encouraged a ceasefire. Attempts to enforce the arrest warrant against Sadr and several aides were dropped, and Sadr's forces disarmed in Najaf or headed out of town. They were badly bloodied, and some militants were shellshocked. Others bragged about how they had fought back tanks with AK-47s, or disabled Humvees with a single grenade. Scores of militiamen were dead, but Sadr's prestige was, if anything, enhanced: he had fought the mighty United States to a stalemate.
Getting Sadr Inside The Tent
Sadr needed a new strategy, how- ever. He wasn't strong enough to defeat the occupier head-on, nor could he eliminate his Iraqi rivals. So he took up what he calls "political resistance"--working from within the system. Chalabi played an important role here. Washington's favorite Iraqi had found that he had little popularity in his homeland, so he was seeking alliances. Chalabi also felt, as did many other Iraqis and Americans, that it was better to bring Sadr inside the process than to have him trying to destroy it. "Sadr is respected because of his lineage and because he speaks for the disenfranchised, the scared and the angry," says a Chalabi aide, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "In that sort of situation, it makes absolute sense to try to get him inside the system."
Sadr made the most of the opening. Politicians in his Sadr bloc won 23 of 275 seats in the January 2005 elections and, after fresh voting nearly a year later, now hold 30 seats. In both cases, because of divisions between other large Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties, Sadr was able to play kingmaker. Two prime ministers since 2005--Ibrahim Jaafari and the current Iraqi leader, Nuri al-Maliki--have depended on his swing votes for their majority. But Sadr himself stayed out of government, and kept his distance. That way he could pursue a dual strategy--rebuilding his militia even as he capitalized on his control of key ministries, like Health and Transportation, to provide services to the poor and jobs to his followers.
The Sunni insurgents were pursuing a new strategy, too. In early 2004, U.S. forces had intercepted a worried letter from the Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi fretted that his fight against American forces was going poorly. But he had a plan: "If we succeed in dragging [the Shiites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger," he wrote.
Throughout 2005, Sunni insurgents launched increasingly vicious attacks on Shiite civilians and holy places. Sistani regularly called on his followers to exercise restraint, which they did with remarkable forbearance. But Sadr, who had long positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist--and who had cooperated with Sunni fighters in the early stages of the insurgency--now publicly called for Sunnis to disavow Zarqawi. New battle lines were being drawn.
The turning point came on Feb. 22, 2006, when assailants bombed the golden-domed Askariya Shrine in Samarra. This was the burial place of the 10th and 11th imams, and one of the holiest sites of the Shia faith. After the Samarra bombing, many Shiites felt compelled to lash back. Caught in a vicious street fight against Sunnis, they decided that they'd rather have a dirty brawler in their corner (like Sadr) than a gray-bearded holy man (like Sistani). "We have courage, large amounts of ammunition, good leaders, and it is a religious duty," says Ali Mijbil, a 26-year-old mechanic who serves in the Mahdi Army. "So why don't we fight them? We've been kept under Sunni rule for more than 14 centuries. It is the proper time to rule ourselves now."
Sadr still insists his main fight is with foreign invaders. He's the one Shia leader who has opposed the U.S. occupation from the beginning, and who has continued to call for a strict timetable for American withdrawal. An overwhelming majority of Iraqis now agree with him. A September poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that 63 percent of 501 Iraqi Shiites surveyed supported attacks against Americans. Even in Baghdad, where ethnic tensions are worst, Shiites agree with Sunnis on one thing: the poll found that 80 percent of the capital's Shiites wanted U.S. forces to leave within a year. That number has changed dramatically in a matter of months. A January poll found that most Shiites wanted U.S.-led troops to be reduced only "as the security situation improves."
In Washington, some politicians still talk about "victory," while others aim only to stabilize the country and leave with some semblance of dignity. Many in the U.S. capital are dusting off yesterday's proposals for tomorrow's problems--more training, more troops, disarming the militias, more stability in Baghdad. The GOP presidential front runner for 2008, John McCain, would prefer to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by 20,000, at least temporarily. He has also called for Sadr to be "taken out." But it may be too late.
The movement may now be more important than the man. Sadr "is faced with a common problem," says Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "He can't control the use of his brand name, the use of his legitimacy." Some elder followers of Sadr's father have broken away, disillusioned with the son. And some young toughs seem to be freelancing where they can. Renegade factions could eventually threaten Sadr's power. If he were to fall, "you'll end up with 30 different movements," says Vali Nasr, a scholar and author who has briefed the Bush administration on Iraq. "There are 30 chieftains who have a tremendous amount of local power. If you remove him, there will be a scramble for who will inherit this movement ... It's a great danger doing that. You may actually make your life much more difficult."
How the Mahdi Army Works
For now, sadr and his mahdi army have the initiative. They can stir up trouble without much fear of retribution. A case in point: When kidnappers grabbed an Iraqi-American translator in Baghdad last month, U.S. soldiers sealed off the Sadr City neighborhood where they believed he was being held. But Prime Minister Maliki--who depends on Sadr for political support--quickly ordered the Americans to remove their roadblocks. Maliki has also forced the U.S. military to release men picked up during raids in Sadr City on suspicion of belonging to Shiite death squads.
When the U.S. fails to respond to provocation, it loses credibility. And when it does respond, it can also lose. Last week, before the massive car-bomb attacks, U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out a pinprick raid in Sadr City to get intelligence on the kidnapped military translator, Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie. Like so many other U.S. military strikes in Iraq, however, it came at a price. American forces captured seven militiamen, including one who might have information on al-Taayie. But police said a young boy was among three people killed in the raid. A member of Parliament from Sadr's movement promptly showed up at the morgue, and held the corpse of the boy in his arms as he railed against the American occupation.
U.S. forces have tried hard to win hearts and minds. They've spent $120.9 million on completed construction projects in Sadr City, for instance--building new sewers and power lines--and projects worth an additional $197 million are underway. But the United States doesn't always get credit for the good works. When the Americans doled out cash to construct four health clinics in Sadr City during the past year, Sadr's men quickly removed any hint of U.S. involvement. They also put up signs giving all credit to their boss, according to Lt. Zeroy Lawson, an Army intelligence officer who works in the area.
The Mahdi Army has other sources of cash. It's taken control of gas stations throughout large parts of Baghdad, and dominates the Shia trade in propane-gas canisters, which Iraqis use for cooking. Sometimes the militiamen sell the propane at a premium, earning healthy profits; at other times they sell it at well below market rates, earning gratitude from the poor and unemployed.
A key source of Sadr's income is Muslim tithes--or khom s--collected at mosques. But his militiamen also run extortion and protection rackets--demanding money to keep certain businesses and individuals "safe." One Iraqi in a tough neighborhood, who did not want to reveal his name out of fear, says he pays the local Mahdi Army the equivalent of $13 a month for protection.
Analysts believe that Iran has also provided support to Sadr, but not much. Tehran began supplying Shia insurgents, including the Mahdi Army, with a special type of roadside bomb, using a shaped charge, in May 2005. These are often disguised as rocks and are easy to manufacture locally. But diplomats say they are made to the exact design perfected by Iranian intelligence and supplied to Lebanese Hizbullah in the 1980s.
Yet Tehran's main Shiite clients in Iraq are rivals of Sadr, who is often critical of Persian influence. Sadr worries that Iran may be trying to infiltrate his movement, and he's almost surely right. Fatah al-Sheikh, who is close to Sadr, says the boss sent a private letter to loyal imams around Baghdad in the past two weeks identifying 10 followers he believed were suspect. They had been using the Mahdi Army name, but Sadr believes they're really tools of Iranian intelligence, says Sheikh.
Sadr has tried to distance himself from atrocities, insisting that they're carried out by renegades or impostors. Many Sunnis, to whom Sadr has become a dark symbol of Shiite perfidy, don't buy it. "If he says, 'Kill Alusi,' I will be killed," says Mithal al-Alusi, a moderate Sunni member of Parliament. "If he says, 'Don't kill Alusi,' I will not be killed ... Nobody can go against his orders or wishes." The Association of Muslim Scholars, which is loosely linked with Sunni insurgents, says the Mahdi Army has attacked some 200 Sunni mosques, and killed more than 260 imams and mosque workers.
All the killings will be remembered, and it will be a miracle if they go unanswered. Memories of martyrdom--and the desire for revenge--can last forever. Last Friday marked the anniversary, on the Islamic calendar, of the killing of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two eldest sons. After the previous day's bombings, Moqtada told government officials that he was out of the country. But that seems to have been a feint--to keep possible enemiesoff balance. In fact, heappeared at the Kufah Mosque, where his father used to lead worshipers in chants of "No, no to America; no, no to Israel; no, no to the Devil!"
As word spread that Moqtada would lead prayers, people crowded into the mosque, most of them clad in black as a sign of mourning. Sadr asked worshipers to pray for his dead relatives, and also for those who had been killed in Sadr City. He again called for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He urged a top Sunni sheik to issue three fatwa s: one against the killing of Shiites, another against joining Al Qaeda and the third to rebuild the shrine in Samarra. He compared his father's followers to those of the Prophet Muhammad. "After the prophet died," he intoned, "some of his followers deviated from his teachings, and the same has happened with followers of my father." The "cursed trio"--Americans, British and Israelis--were trying to divide Iraq. "We Iraqis--Sunnis and Shia--will always be brothers."
No one in Iraq talks about arresting Sadr for the murder of al-Khoei anymore. That seems like ages ago--back when Sadr's armed supporters were estimated in the hundreds, compared with many thousands today. Now diplomats speak of trying to keep Sadr inside the political system, hoping he can tame his followers. He's a militant Islamist and anti-occupation, they say, but he's also a nationalist, and not as close to Iran as some of his rivals. Nobody knows whether Sadr is dissembling when he speaks about Iraqi unity, or preparing for all-out war. What is clear--more today than ever before--is that it's time to stop underestimating him.