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Sadr City Dispatch

A few days after American troops entered Baghdad, I went to Saddam City, a sprawling slum inhabited almost exclusively by Shia Muslims. But, by the time I got there, Saddam City was gone. Yes, the people were still there, as was the poverty—the kids playing barefoot soccer on dirt lots and the young men carrying AK-47 assault rifles. But it was Saddam City no longer. THIS IS SADR CITY, announced a spray-painted sign as I drove into the slum, renamed for Sheik Mohammed Sadek Al Sadr, who was killed along with two of his sons in 1999 for speaking out against Saddam Hussein. Another sign welcomed me to REVOLUTION CITY.

My first stop was the local hospital, which was surrounded by gunmen and presided over by an imam who refused entry to my colleagues and me. Our next stop was a nearby mosque, but the gunman at the entrance told us we could not speak to the imam and told my interpreter that Western journalists only tell lies. We then went to El Hekmah, the main mosque in the slum. The gunmen there were not warm, either, though a mid-level cleric agreed to speak with me outside the mosque for a few minutes. He told me they were under orders not to talk to journalists. As we chatted, a stream of stern-faced imams came and went, all of them surrounded by the sort of no-nonsense gunmen with whom you do not mess unless you have a death wish.

Although Iraqi police and American troops had begun foot patrols in other parts of Baghdad, they were nowhere to be seen in Saddam/Sadr/Revolution City. That’s true throughout Shia population centers in Iraq. In Karbala, which contains the holiest Shia shrines, and Najaf, home to the main Shia seminary, the imams are in control. The gunmen are theirs, the hospitals are theirs, the banks are theirs, the streets are theirs. They have filled a vacuum, and they have lost no time in letting their long-repressed followers know that there is no reason to thank the American invaders and that the time has come to build an Islamic republic. This is one of the ironies of post-Saddam Iraq: The people who are happiest that Saddam is gone are eager to see the departure of the American troops who got rid of him. While the invasion of Iraq has accomplished many good things, it has also let loose the genie of Shia fundamentalism, the same strain that swept through Iran when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power there. In the coming months, we’ll probably find out if secular Shia can stand up to the fundamentalists. But, for now, the fundamentalists are in charge—in Sadr City and beyond.

A DAY AFTER I was turned away from the El Hekmah Mosque, one of Iraq’s most powerful and radical Shia imams, Muhammed Fartousi, spoke at a prayer meeting there. He warned Iraqis to no longer indulge in the bad Western habits they acquired in recent decades, such as drinking, going to discos, singing, and dancing. Throughout Iraq, radical Shia clerics are delivering similar messages. These have been a long time coming. Although more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population is Shia, Saddam is Sunni, and his regime was dominated by Sunnis. The Shia were horribly repressed, and more so following their failed uprising in southern Iraq after the Gulf war twelve years ago. That failure, and Saddam’s subsequent crackdown that killed tens of thousands of Shia, not only deepened Shia discontent, it embittered them toward the United States, which was seen as having encouraged the rebellion and then doing nothing to help it succeed.

From the perspective of Iraqi secularists, the only thing worse than Shia clerics taking power is a struggle for power among them. The other day, I had lunch at a Baghdad restaurant with a prosperous Shia businessman, and, when I asked, over kebabs, hummus, and mint salad, what most worried him, he replied with two words: civil war. Not between Sunnis and Shia, but among Shia. After telling me that he listens to the Doors and the Moody Blues and then reciting some of their lyrics, he said he would not stick around if the clerics begin fighting among themselves. “I will leave the country,” he said. “I will go to England. I can sell carpets there.”

The businessman used the word “fanatics” to describe the fundamentalist imams. But, right now, there is no one he trusts. The U.S. government, or at least the Pentagon, appears to want the political vacuum filled by Ahmed Chalabi, the opposition leader who has lived in exile for the past 45 years. Chalabi was flown into Baghdad on a U.S. military plane just a few days ago but appears to have little support here because many Iraqis see him as an interloper in the pocket of the U.S. government. When I asked what he thought of Chalabi, the businessman just laughed.

Generally speaking, two movements are emerging among Shia fundamentalists, who represent the only organized force among the Shia and whose religious celebrations this week have pulled in large crowds. The more radical one is known as the Sadr movement, named after Al Sadr, the upstart sheik killed on Saddam’s orders whose followers have renamed Saddam City in his honor. One of his surviving sons, Sayyid Muqtada Sadr, who is 30 years old, has taken up his mantle and is urging his followers to delve into politics to achieve their goal of an Islamic state. The other faction, considered more moderate, is led by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani shies away from political action, viewing it as beneath his religious status. His son, however, acting as his spokesman, has said that American troops are not welcome in Iraq and should leave. That’s not good enough for Sadr’s followers: A group of them surrounded Sistani’s home shortly after the regime collapsed and demanded that he leave the country because he had been insufficiently active in the struggle against Saddam. The standoff was defused, but the split remains, and it is an uneasy time for many clerics. In Najaf, two moderate imams were killed by a mob shortly after Baghdad fell. Sistani has been in hiding, as has Sadr.

In the best of scenarios, there will be no civil war and the clerics will stay in their mosques or, if they venture into politics, will share power with secularists and representatives of Iraq’s other religious and ethnic groups. The slogans I saw in Saddam/Sadr/Revolution City included this hopeful one: SHIA, SUNNI, KURDS, CHRISTIANS, WE ARE UNITED. WE ARE ALL IRAQIS. The problem is that revolutions, like invasions, often begin with good words and fine intentions and then move in other directions.

This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.