Muqtada al-Sadr wants to become "the third martyr," if he is not already by the time you read this. His great-uncle, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, is known as "the first martyr." A leader of the Shiite movement, Baqir al-Sadr wrote books about Islamic politics and economics to prove that Islam provided solutions to all social questions. He was killed in 1980 for opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The legacy of the first martyr was inherited by his nephew Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who declared himself the wali, or leader of the faithful, a position higher even than Ayatollah Khomeini's. Sadiq al-Sadr focused on the Mahdi, or Shiite messiah, who is expected to return on judgment day. Sadr established a network of followers in towns and villages throughout Iraq during the 1990s. He and his two eldest sons were assassinated by the regime in 1999 for opposing Saddam. So Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr became known as "the second martyr," and his serene black-turbaned visage dominates the walls of Shiite neighborhoods alongside posters of his uncle and other radical figures like Khomeini.
Immediately following the collapse of the Ba'ath regime a year ago, Sadr's last remaining son, Muqtada, who had been living in hiding, used his father's network to establish offices throughout the country, seizing mosques, religious centers, former Ba'athist headquarters, and even hospitals. Muqtada's representatives provided security and social services, filling the power vacuum. They even changed the name of Saddam City, the vast Shiite slum of eastern Baghdad that is home to about three million people, to Sadr City.
Muqtada attracts alienated and angry Shiites, pitting his movement against the American occupiers and more traditional clerics such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who eschewed political activism. Tens of thousands of devout Shiites attend the Friday prayers in hundreds of mosques throughout the country affiliated with Sadr, listening to sermons unanimous in their hostility to American plans for Iraq.
Muqtada dresses in a black robe and a black turban. He tries to maintain a permanent scowl to give himself more gravity. Unlike other Shiite leaders, whose education bestows upon them a rich vocabulary and an eloquent fus-hah, or classical Arabic, Muqtada speaks in a strong colloquial Arabic, replete with slang and street expressions.
His associates are young like him and have the same arrogance when dealing with others. An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada last April after his followers allegedly murdered a rival cleric. He is very aggressive and tactless, which is highly unusual for a Shiite leader.
Last June, when Muqtada's name was proposed as a possible member of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, other Shiite members rejected the idea. This snub radicalized Muqtada and his constituency. He gravitated toward Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, his father's top student and intellectual heir, who was living in Iranian exile.
Though Muqtada's politics were inchoate, lacking ideology, and seeking only inclusion and power, Haeri was a rigid Khomeinist.
At first viewed by the Shia establishment as nothing more than a young punk, Muqtada fast became the most charismatic and popular leader in Iraq, condemning all others except Haeri, who Muqtada and his followers hope will return to assume the position of wali.
"Today, there is no tyrant greater than America," Haeri wrote in a recent letter posted on walls in Shiite neighborhoods. He condemned the "slavery" Iraqis were living under and predicted that "the day will come when we will expel the occupation forces the same way we expel dogs and pigs." He added that this day was very close.
Interviewed last May, Muqtada claimed, "I will fight America when the Mahdi will appear because this is the land of the Mahdi, and they occupy his land." (Shiites believe that the twelfth iman, or successor to the prophet in leading the Muslims, Mohammed al-Mahdi, a descendant of Mohammed, will one day return to the world, accompanied by Jesus, and restore justice.) Meanwhile, Muqtada has established rival government institutions, including his Army of the Mahdi, his own religious court system, and even prisons. Muqtada also has a sophisticated communications system, reaching his supporters throughout the country by the distribution of his sermons on CD and paper, the posting of his announcements on neighborhood walls, and the sale (until the Americans foolishly closed it) of his newspaper.
And clerics echo his messages during their own sermons.
After the March 2 bombings of Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and Karbala, which killed 200 people, Muqtada's centers, as well as compact disc stores in Shiite neighborhoods, offered a video CD of the events in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, where one of the bomb attacks took place. Anyone seeing these CDs would have known what Americans should have expected.
The film, made by a member of Muqtada's Army of the Mahdi, begins by showing the shocked people outside the Kadhim shrine. Pickup trucks and ambulances carry piles of dead bodies, and a loudspeaker asks people to leave the shrine. There are many shouts of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great!" Some people are standing and sobbing, others have their hands on their heads, and some slap their faces as Iraqi Red Crescent ambulances drive by. "The infidels!" somebody shouts as guards with machine guns stand around helplessly. The street is full of empty slippers of the dead and wounded.
The mosque loudspeaker says: "We blame the Americans, let's expel the Americans, let's unite to expel them from Iraq, let's unite as one religion." Empty blood-stained stretchers return to pick up more bodies, and then about four American Humvees, a truck, two armored personnel carriers, and a medical vehicle, clearly marked Red Cross, arrive with American and Iraqi soldiers on foot patrol next to them.
"Throw shoes at them," somebody shouts, as more and more shoes rain down on the soldiers. Then people hurl stones, bricks, and branches at the soldiers, who get in their vehicles.
The Americans shoot in the air. "La ilaha il Allah!" people shout, "There is no God but Allah." A confused soldier on top of a vehicle swings back and forth with his gun, not knowing which way to turn.
The Americans retreat back to their base as the mob of many thousands chases after them. One cleric shouts, "Go back, this is chaos, don't fight the Americans." But the mob ignores him.
"By our spirits and by our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for the Hawza," some men shout, referring to the Shiite religious academy. A voice on the loudspeakers from inside the base calls: "I am an Iraqi and your brother, the Americans have told me, 'If your brothers will not leave the base they will be shot.' Please leave the base, they are serious!"
"We sacrifice ourselves for you, Husayn," people sing in reference to a revered Shiite figure, and then U.S. soldiers fire more shots. Some more people leave, but hundreds remain throwing stones. American smoke bombs go off, yellow, purple, and green.
"It's a miracle," someone shouts, "the Americans shot the gasses at us, and God stopped the air so the gas won't come to the demonstrators!"
The CD, which is hawked as a depiction of the first Shiite victory over the Americans, is sold next to sermons of Muqtada, his father, and other like-minded clerics, along with the ubiquitous books on Jewish conspiracy theories.
Muqtada's strength grew after the Americans closed his weekly newspaper, Al-Hawza al-Natika al-Sharifa, which means "the honored activist Hawza."
Al-Hawza was published every Thursday and sold throughout Iraq. It displayed the text of Muqtada's sermon from the previous Friday on the front page. Here are some headlines: "America Kills Then Apologizes" (with a picture of Americans abusing an old man), "America Releases Prisoners After the Hawza Threatens Them," "Iraqis of All Religions and Sects Refuse to Watch Half Naked Women on Television," "Facing the Arrests and Assassinations from Our Common Enemy: And Do Not Let Them Tell You That We Have Many Enemies, We Only Have One."
One article began, "We are still under the rule of Saddam but with an American face." It denounced the "moral corruption" that the American occupation brought. "They are showing pornographic movies in the cinemas and people are drinking alcohol in the streets and showing bad and immoral movies on the Hebrew media network [a reference to the American-established Iraqi media network] and Hura TV [a U.S. government-produced television station] and even in children's movies in order to create a new generation that is far from the Islamic religion and has Western ideologies that do not oppose the Anglo-American Zionist ideology," the article said. "We ask the Governing Council about these malicious operations against Islam and why they do not prevent them."
After many threats to arrest Muqtada, the American occupying forces accused Al-Hawza of fomenting violence against them and closed its offices for sixty days, padlocking and chaining the doors. Buses brought protesters into the central Baghdad al-Hurriya circle, where they waved flags and shouted "No to America!" and "We don't want another Saddam!"
The move played directly into Muqtada's hands, confirming the worst views Iraqis have of Americans, and drawing parallels with the censorship imposed by the previous government. Al-Hawza had a circulation of only a few tens of thousands. Closing Al-Hawza did not prevent Muqtada from reaching his audience; it only swelled the ranks of his supporters.
At a typical store in Sadr City covered with pictures of Shiite celebrities, the manager, Satar, sits behind his computer making copies of CDs. "The American occupation is no better than Saddam," he says. "One completes the other." He, too, believes that America came to fight the Mahdi. "We belong to the Army of the Mahdi," he says. To make his point, he reaches under his desk to remove a pistol and Kalashnikov and casually waves them about.
Satar's employee Jalil had spent two years in a Ba'athist prison for selling tapes of subversive sermons. "Saddam left and his teacher replaced him," he says. "We are waiting for Muqtada to order us to resist the Americans." His friend Sheikh Jalil, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of the second martyr, brags that "when we begin resisting, the Americans will leave in less than twenty days."
Jalil explains that "Iraq is the capital of the Mahdi and the center of Islam, and they [Americans] want to destroy Islam. They fear the Mahdi."
"Iraq will be the end of America," says Seyid Hasan Naji al-Musawi, the thirty-eight-year-old leader of Sadr City's Muhsin mosque and commander of Sadr's Army of the Mahdi in Baghdad. "The Mahdi will be coming soon, and when he comes he will kill the Jewish leadership," which he equates with the Americans.
Before escaping inside his mosque, Muqtada urged his followers to "make your enemy afraid," assuring them that he would not abandon them. "Your enemy loves terror and hates peoples, all the Arabs, and censors opinions." In Shiite towns throughout Iraq, coalition troops were attacked. So-called moderate cleric Ayatollah Sistani denounced the Americans and voiced his support for Muqtada's cause, though he called for peace. This allowed Muqtada's supporters to say they were fighting for Sistani, as well.
In his first sermon following his supporters' clashes with the Americans, Muqtada announced that "truce negotiations are useless," and that he would not dissolve his Army of the Mahdi. He demanded that the nations in the occupying coalition desert America and leave it "to battle by itself."
"I seek martyrdom," Muqtada said. "Know that this war is a war against our religion."
Shiites joined Sunnis to protest the American siege of Fallujah in April, and Sunnis from the west were seen carrying rocket-propelled grenades together with their Shiite brethren. It was a mistake to assume that Shiites would side with the Americans against the Sunnis.
Shiites joined their Ottoman Sunni oppressors in 1917 to fight against the British occupation, just as many of them side with their former Ba'athist Sunni oppressors today against the Americans.
Sunni-Shiite cooperation against the Americans emerged immediately after the war. Iraq's most important Sunni scholar, Dr. Ahmad Kubaisi, led a protest in April of 2003. Young men held banners proclaiming "One Iraq One People," "We Reject Foreign Control," "Sunnis Are Shiites and Shiites Are Sunnis, We Are All One," "All the Believers Are Brothers," and similar proclamations of national unity.
Baghdad had been occupied by the Mongols, Dr. Kubaisi said, referring to the sacking of the capital of the Muslim world in 1258. Now new Mongols were occupying Baghdad, and they were creating divisions between Sunnis and Shiites.
The rhetoric has grown only more strident. Shekh Harith Suleiman al Dhari, the general secretary of the Council of Sunni Ulema, or clerics, Iraq's most important Sunni organization, spoke in a Baghdad mosque on the Friday following the first siege of Fallujah. He called for national unity and a general strike, and he asked Allah to seek revenge for the spilled blood and to destroy America and Britain and their supporters. "Do not spare any of them!" he said.
The entente between Sunnis and Shiites is likely to be only temporary. Though they are united in their hatred of America, when the common enemy has left they may not celebrate long before turning on the Kurds in the north and then on each other in a bloody civil war over who will define the borders and nature of the new theocracy in Iraq.
"We don't talk about civil war," one Sunni tribal leader told me. "We just prepare for it."
But the threat is America now. Only America can thwart the long suppressed Shiite desire to control Iraq and establish a theocracy.
It is possible that there is a silent majority in Iraq that supports liberal democracy, but they have no leaders, organizations, or firepower. The civilian and military elements of the occupation are increasingly sequestered in their bases, unwelcome by the people they liberated, facing a popular resistance. Had they been curious about the nature of the country they would occupy they would not be surprised by the nationalist and Islamic fury that seeks to drive them out.
The coalition believes that arresting or killing Muqtada will end the resistance. But that will make no difference.
Muqtada knows there were anti-Ba'athist riots when his father was killed, and the Americans are not as scary as the Ba'athists were.
The problem is not a single individual. The problem is the occupation and the false premises it was predicated upon.
It will get worse before it gets even more worse.
Nir Rosen is a freelance writer who has reported extensively on the Iraq War.