April 30, 2004


THE UPRISING: Shia and Sunnis put aside their differences. (JON LEE ANDERSON, 2004-05-03, The New Yorker)

The American plan to install friendly Shiite former exiles in positions of power in Iraq began to go wrong early on, most spectacularly on April 10th last year, the day after Baghdad fell, when Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a member of an important clerical family, was murdered near the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of the holiest Shiite shrines. Khoei had been flown into Najaf in early April, and Ayad Jamaluddin met him there. They were staying with American military forces on the outskirts of the city. Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon’s primary Shiite candidate for a leadership position, was bivouacked a hundred and forty miles south, in Nasiriyah, with his little band of Free Iraqi Fighters.

Jamaluddin had not been in Najaf for more than twenty years. Khoei had left in 1992, in the aftermath of the Shiite uprising against Saddam following the Gulf War. His father, a Grand Ayatollah who was Sistani’s immediate predecessor, died under house arrest in Najaf soon afterward. In 1994, his older brother was hit by a truck on the road between Najaf and Karbala. Abdel Majid al-Khoei and his wife and four children lived in London, where he ran the Al Khoei Foundation, a well-endowed charitable organization. His principal American contacts were with the C.I.A., which disapproved of Chalabi, whom it believed to be untenable as a future leader.

Jamaluddin said that he and Khoei found themselves in circumstances that were unfamiliar and disorienting for two urbane sons of the upper class. “The place where we were was dusty, and it was exhausting,” he said. “It was not very suitable for us, but our sublime purpose in being there, which we were both anticipating, was the liberation of the Iraqi people. It was a meeting in a place for which we both felt a great responsibility.” They went to Ayatollah Sistani’s house with specific requests in mind. “My aim was to secure his protection and that of the holy shrines,” Jamaluddin said. “I learned afterward that Abdel Majid”—Khoei—“was seeking Sistani’s legal approval—a fatwa—for the U.S. military forces to be in Najaf.” The city was by no means secure then, but there were only a few young guards at Sistani’s house, and his son told them that the Ayatollah had gone somewhere else, for protection. When Khoei asked about Sistani’s position regarding the American forces, the son said that his father didn’t get involved in such matters. According to Jamaluddin, this made Khoei angry, and he said, “Then the people must find a new religious authority,” and he left. Jamaluddin was more sanguine. “The whole city was in a panic,” he said. No one knew for sure that Saddam was really out of power.

Jamaluddin shared a room with Khoei in those early, tumultuous days, and says that he warned him that he had heard people speaking against him. There are many factions among the clerics in Najaf, and it is easy to imagine that the resident clerics would be threatened by the newcomers, especially since they arrived with American soldiers and a great deal of money to distribute. Jamaluddin left for Kuwait on the evening of April 8th, and his brother Qusay, who is a doctor, and several of their friends stayed with Khoei. On the morning of the tenth, Khoei went to the mosque with the official custodian, Haidar Raifee, who was generally disliked because he was suspected of stealing from the shrine and diverting funds to Saddam and the Baath Party. Jamaluddin says that people began gathering around the men, demanding Haidar’s ouster, but that Khoei spoke of reconciliation and tried to calm things down. “Then the people became violent, breaking glass and pulling knives,” Jamaluddin said. His brother told him that Khoei pulled out a gun and fired it in the air. “Suddenly, everyone had pulled out guns—pistols and Kalashnikovs—and started shooting.” Three of Khoei’s fingers were blown off. “Then they tied him up and took him out of the mosque and began attacking him and Sayyid Haidar with knives,” Jamaluddin said. Haidar was killed at the gate of the mosque. Khoei “had on a flak jacket and so the knives were not so effective, but he was bleeding. About a hundred metres from the mosque, he found a shop and asked the shop owner to kill him”—to put him out of his misery. “The shop owner said he couldn’t, but gave him water. Then people came and got him again, and one man, using a sword, stabbed him in the neck. But he was not dead yet. Then they dragged his body perhaps ten metres in the street, and he was stabbed until he died. My brother called me from his cell phone and told me what was happening. He was too upset to describe it in detail, but he did later, and another friend who was there said the same thing.”

Jamaluddin’s account corresponds in general to the report from an Iraqi judge that led to the arrest warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr, the extremist Shiite leader who has been more or less at war with the Coalition for the past several weeks. Eyewitnesses said that Sadr’s men killed Khoei. On April 3rd this year, nearly a year after the murder, the Coalition arrested Mustafa Yaqoubi, Sadr’s deputy, as an accomplice. [...]

Early in April, I had sent a message to James Steele, Paul Bremer’s Counselor for Iraqi Security Forces, asking if we could talk. [...]

Steele advocates robust military action, “combined with the right political moves,” to quell the insurgencies. “In Fallujah, a heavy hand makes sense,” he said. “That’s the only thing some of those guys will understand. Down south, too. We can’t be seen as weak. Otherwise, this kind of thing can happen everywhere.” He said that the problem in Najaf was strategically more important than the one in Fallujah: “We can’t afford to miscalculate with the Shia. Most of them are in our corner and do not support Sadr, and we can’t lose them.” He hoped that, once Sadr was “neutralized,” his organization would fall apart, although “Sadr’s got something going for him now, in that he is playing to the underlying resentment against us. There’s a lot of people who don’t want us here. At some level, people feel pride when they see Sadr thumbing his nose at us. They think to themselves, You tell ’em! But if Sadr can be discredited, then his followers, many of whom are uneducated and without jobs, will probably back down again. Sad as it is to say, they’re used to being defeated here.” [...]

“Sadr’s followers are simple people,” a Shiite friend of mine said recently. “They are easily led by someone who says he is defending their interests. They listen to him because there have been so few visible reforms in the last year. The Iraqis suffered terribly under Saddam, and yet not one of the war criminals from his regime has been put on trial. None of the people who found relatives in mass graves have received compensation. The garbage in Sadr City is symptomatic of the bad conditions they live in. That’s the kind of thing that makes people join a mob.” [...]

Now, as Salaam and I drove up to the mosque, we saw a couple of large dump trucks being loaded with sacks of flour and boxes of cooking oil and bags of rice. The provisions were being transferred from small pickups that arrived in a steady stream. One of the pickups flew two black flags, Shia flags, like battle standards. An Iraqi man who was standing near me commented, in good English, “You see that. It’s from a Shiite mosque.” He said that mosques all over Baghdad were accepting donations from people and dispatching them to be sent on to Fallujah. “Before, there was no common ground between Sunni and Shia,” he said, “but now there is. The reason is because the Iraqi people are tired of the occupation and the humiliation of soldiers pushing in their doors and stealing from them and bothering their women and sticking guns in their faces.”

The conclusion of the article seems odd because after delineating what an aberration al-Sadr is among the Shi'a, that he is in fact at war with his fellow Shi'ites, Mr. Anderson asks us to accept that some signs that al-Sadr is supporting the Sunni, who also oppose the Shi'a generally, indicates that there's now a unified front of all Iraqis. The reality is that if the Shi'a and Sunni did join forces we'd have no choice but to kill 23 million people or leave. Instead the low levels of violence show how limited is support for the resistance.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2004 7:59 AM

Unified fronts don't form suddenly overnight. They take time, and we've been doing everything possible to feed it--in fact, the polls you so highly credit back that up. The Sunni and Shia Arabs are rather alike in their opinions, though the Shia lag in their anti-Americanism.

Our surrender (and that's what it was) at Fallujah may be part of a plan to create a rift by promoting a separate Sunni Baathist power, but I hesitate to credit the Pentagon with that much competence.

Of course, if they're doing this, seriously returning the Ba'ath officials to power and playing wedge politics, one has to wonder why in the hell we invaded in the first place. No WMD's, no Al-Qaeda and now we're sticking the old boys back in power.

Posted by: Derek Copold at April 30, 2004 10:23 AM

Because Kurdistan and Shi'astan will be liberal democracies and the Sunni face fight, flight, or reform.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 10:40 AM

Hey, you want some Oklahoma beachfront property?

I'll make you a real good deal, Orrin.

Posted by: Derek Copold at April 30, 2004 11:44 AM

I've always liked Lake Texoma.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 11:56 AM

Unfortunately those "low levels of violence" is enough to prevent order in Iraq, something the Iraqis desperately need if democracy is to work. The government has been far too flippant in providing the necessary public order and represents the greatest failing of the Bush administration to date. Much of the criticism of Bush is misplaced, but this is one area where the President has clearly failed.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 30, 2004 2:30 PM

Like a hyper 8 year old, they'll keep tossing the ball against the wall until the wall is gone--July 1.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 3:43 PM

I don't generally agree with Derek, but he's got you there. It took an unusual degree of imbecility to end up with the liberated against us and the oppressors for us.

If, in fact, that's what going to happen.

My guess is that the weapons we give the Baathists will be given to the Sunni and used against us.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 30, 2004 10:16 PM

The liberated are for us, they're the Kurds and Shi'ites.

The oppressors oppose us, they're the Ba'athgists in particular but most of the Sunni. Doesn't really matter who dominates the Sunni right now. In the long run it'll be the Shi'ites or they'll have to leave Iraq.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 11:42 PM