Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Inside the Militia Strongholds

IWPR journalists venture into areas held by supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
By Dhiya Rasan

The Office of the Martyr, the headquarters of the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, the Shia suburb of Baghdad, was closed.


At the back door, a lone gunman wearing the green headband of the Mahdi Army, the militia following of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, stood guard as Coalition tanks sat just a few hundred metres up the street.


Outside, men of the Mahdi Army dug holes in the pavement, planted explosives, and ran the wires to nearby buildings to stop Coalition troops storming into this Baghdad slum district to break the militia's power.


It was August 13, and for more than a week, Sadr City and other strongholds of the Shia rebel movement had been up in arms in solidarity with their leader Muqtada al-Sadr, now camped out in Najaf’s shrine of the Imam Ali.


Although the guard could not get us a meeting with Sadr representatives, he gave us the phone number of the Mahdi Army's official spokesman, Abu Dhara al-Kinani, who confirmed recent reports that Muqtada had been wounded by shrapnel during the fighting.


Kinani also confirmed reports that local officials across the Shia south had vowed to disobey orders from the interim government of prime minister Iyad Allawi in Baghdad if fighting in the holy city did not stop.


"We want an immediate ceasefire in Najaf, and the withdrawal of Americans from Najaf," he said confidently.


Soon afterwards, the sound of gunfire echoed through the streets as the Mahdi Army fired into the air to get the attention of locals.


A car filled with militiamen cruised down the street, with a loudspeaker blaring out a summons to the people of Sadr City, "To all the faithful: Come to a demonstration outside the Conference Centre [the seat of Allawi's government] Come peacefully."


In just a few minutes, men, women and children emerged from the narrow streets, climbing aboard cars, minivans, and other vehicles moving toward the centre.


They disembarked several kilometres away, in Tahrir Square, just across the Tigris river from the convention centre. The crowds, now easily in their thousands, began to move across the bridge.


"It's a peaceful demonstration... We are to have no confrontation with the police, army, or Americans," announced an unarmed young man, with a nametag pinned to his chest identifying him as a Mahdi Army member.


Sadrist militiamen had set up a makeshift checkpoint on the bridge, frisking demonstrators to ensure they had come unarmed.


The chant "Allahu Akbar" – “God is Great” - swelled from the crowd as it moved across the bridge, marching toward the Green Zone, the main seat of Coalition power in Baghdad.


From houses and shops on the other side, residents emerged bringing water to the thirsty marchers.


The crowd halted outside the Green Zone, with Mahdi Army organisers linking hands to prevent any clashes with the American troops and Iraqi police standing guard.


From a vantage point atop a nearby hospital, we could see the crowd stretching along the entire two-kilometre route back to the bridge. Another avenue leading to northern Baghdad was also swollen with marchers.


Sheikh Abd-al Hadi Al-Daraji, one of Sadr City's most famous preachers, announced his movement's demands over a loudspeaker.


Fighting must stop in Najaf, he said. Mahdi Army prisoners must be released, the interim government must resign, and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his defence and interior ministers must stand trial for "war crimes” alongside deposed President Saddam Hussein.


Allawi, he said, had given the "green light to the Americans to strike Najaf".


Word circulated in the crowd that the Muslim Clerics' Board, a conservative Sunni organisation with links to Sunni insurgents, had issued a fatwa in solidarity with Sadr banning any Iraqi policeman or official from cooperating with the resistance.


"It's a great step. Bless them," said one of the demonstrators.


The time came for noon prayers. As demonstrators made their preparations, Sadrist sheikhs announced that the faithful should make the journey down to Najaf itself, to demonstrate at the gates of the holy city.


Iraqi police stood by. Some joined in with the marchers, while others, standing on the top of their police station, held up pictures of Muqtada to applause from the crowd.


The call to prayer rang out over the loudspeakers of a police car.


When prayers ended, the marchers dispersed, walking to a square on Baghdad's outskirts where trucks were assembling to take them south.


That evening, we heard news that the US military had suspended operations in Najaf.


Provincial governor Adnan al-Zurufi declared his hope that negotiations would be a success, and that the Mahdi Army would shortly leave the holy city.


Sadr - bandaged but clearly not seriously injured - was televised delivering a confrontational address to his followers outside the Imam Ali shrine.


He told them to continue fighting, and called on the interim government of Iyad Allawi to resign, declaring it "worse than Saddam."


IWPR contributors had attempted to enter the holy city four days earlier. It was a nervous journey south, especially as we were accompanied by an American reporter.


The road took us through such citadels of Sunni radicalism as Mahmoudiya, Latifiya and Iskandiriya, where foreigners had in the past been attacked and in some cases abducted.


Rumours that policemen at checkpoints along the road might actually alert local insurgents to foreigners on the road did not make us any more comfortable.


As it turned out, the journey went smoothly, with only one checkpoint manned by the Iraqi National Guard stopping our car.


After two hours, we came to the huge stela outside the ruins of Babylon - which once bore the portrait of Saddam Hussein, but now carries images of the Imams Ali and Hussein.


This was a sign that we had left the mixed Sunni-Shia communities south of Baghdad, and were now in the almost exclusively Shia south.


Local drivers informed us that the direct road to Najaf was blocked, so instead we headed to the sister city of Kufa, home of the Sadr family, only 10km away.


No Coalition, police, National Guard, or Mahdi Army forces stopped us as we drove over the bridge and into the streets of Kufa.


In front of a mosque in which Muqtada formerly addressed his followers, policemen directed traffic as a militiaman, a canvas bag with eyeholes over his head to guard his identity, kept watch.


Other Sadrist paramilitaries moved through the streets, heavily laden with ammunition for RPG-7 launchers and in one case what appeared to be a captured American anti-tank rocket.


In an attempt to speak with a Sadrist spokesman, one of us entered the mosque escorted by a young black-turbaned cleric. We were led to an office at the back of the building, and asked to wait outside a door.


From inside, we could hear a more senior official angrily refuse to speak to us, telling his subordinate, "Didn't I tell you no one was to enter here? Get him out right now. We do not talk to journalists here."


The young cleric explained that if we wanted an interview we would have to visit the Sadrist office in Najaf itself. He claimed the road was open, saying he had just sent five other journalists up there.


We took the dusty back roads through Najaf's industrial and residential suburbs. We stopped a passer-by, who directed us to a nearby hospital where he said the Mahdi Army could be found.


Then he added, "Are you Sadrists? If not, I'll kill you." We could not tell whether this was black humour or not.


Outside the hospital, we met a group of men who claimed to be Sadrists and told they’d take us to Najaf if we followed their car.


But we decided not to follow. For all we knew, these men could be a criminal gang luring us into a trap to take our car or kidnap the American travelling with us.


We drove on.


In an empty street, a few hundred metres from where locals told us the Americans and Iraqi National Guard had set up a roadblock, we paused to consider what to do next.


We considered the wisdom of going further on foot.


As we stood there, shots rang out. We couldn’t tell where they came from.


"Get back to the car," shouted our driver. He had just seen a police car cruise up the street, and gunmen open fire on it from their hiding places in alleyways.


We sped off, then parked near a row of shops.


As we considered our options, a white-turbaned cleric emerged and we approached him for comment.


He was a junior cleric in Sadr’s organisation named Sheikh Ahmed Ibrahim.


"I accuse the Iraqi police of escalating the situation," he said. "They don't serve the people. They serve the government which belongs to the Americans.


"Police abroad - in Europe or America - would not shoot demonstrators or opponents of the regime ... [Here] they kill the demonstrators, they fire in the air to frighten people."


We decided to leave Najaf for the day. But as we headed back, a convoy of Iraqi National Guardsman came tearing around the corner, firing into the air.


We watched as they piled out of their vehicles outside a factory. Some took cover behind mounds of earth, while others stormed inside.


As the shooting continued, we took shelter in the courtyard of a house owned by an elderly shopkeeper.


He asked us only to identify him as Abu Jaafar, for fear that the Mahdi Army would take revenge on him for what he had to say.


Sadr’s militia had used the factory as an ambush position, he said, although he added that they had probably departed some time before.


He had no problems with the National Guardsmen, he said - they never shot at civilians.


But for the Mahdi Army, who had occupied his town and forced him to close his store, he had nothing but scorn.


"Outsiders and outlaws," he said, echoing the belief expressed by many in Najaf that the Sadrists are mostly troublemakers either from Baghdad or from other parts of southern Iraq. Locals blamed the militia for turning the town into a battle zone and destroying the religious tourism on which it had survived.


Some 15 minutes later, the National Guardsmen drove off. On the advice of locals, we decided to take the road running north to Karbala.


An hour later, we found ourselves in the second of Iraq's Shia holy cities.


There, we were told, good relations between the police and the Sadrists, plus the intervention of senior clerics, had prevented an uprising such as happened in Najaf.


After lunching in a restaurant favoured by religious tourists, we continued on our way back to Baghdad.


Dhiya Rasan and Mohammed Fawzi are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.