Inside The Iraqi
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
25 June, 2004
the time I arrive in Kerbala, in the last week in May, the clashes between
Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia and the Americans have been going on
for weeks. Apart from the scores of Shia militiamen running around the
streets with RPGs on their shoulders, the streets are empty. The police
have evaporated, leaving only their burned-out cars from previous skirmishes
with rebel fighters.
We park our car
on the outskirts of the shrine area. Normally, thousands of devout Shia
pilgrims from Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia would be bustling around
on buses, taxis and donkey carts, but today there are no buses, no donkeys,
and certainly no pilgrims.
The main street
leading to the shrine is terrifyingly empty, with shattered windows
and piles of garbage everywhere. As we start along the street, a bunch
of militiamen from the Badr brigade, one of the main Shia factions,
demand our press passes. They are all dressed alike - in flip-flops,
black T-shirts and pyjama pants - and all are carrying AK47s. "I'm
sorry," says one ugly militiaman. "You are not allowed in.
We have instructions not to allow journalists to take pictures of the
shrine because this will compromise the safety of the shrine."
As if the hundreds of Americans and militiamen shooting at each other
just metres from the shrine are not compromising its safety.
We ask him to check;
after a few minutes of creaking noises from the radio, he comes back
with a big grin: no journalists allowed.
It takes us a little
while to figure out the game that we will have to play for the next
three days. The Shia factions, we work out, are very keen not to allow
journalists to go into the centre of the city and report the activities
of the other Shia factions - they are not yet fighting each other, but
they don't like each other much. After all, it's a family issue, and
we Iraqis don't like foreigners to mess with our affairs.
So we do a big loop
and sneak through the alleys, telling the guards at every checkpoint
that we are not here for the fighting but have an appointment with Ayatollah
X, Y or Z.
We finally come
out of one alley to find ourselves face to face with three gunmen, their
heads wrapped in keffiyehs, Kalashnikovs and RPGs in their hands (this
is now considered the new Iraqi dress code, or the "muj style").
They are the Mahdi army, a militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr, which, according
to the US army, includes highly trained former Iraqi military officers.
I manage to convince
one of them to take us to their HQ. He puts his AK on his shoulder and
points at the end of the street - "Snipers. Run very fast"
- and we sprint across the street.
He leads us through
a maze of alleyways which make up part of the old covered souks of Kerbala,
the shops heavily barricaded with steel bars, the streets piled with
weeks' old rubbish, fighters sitting in groups of three to five, smoking.
Every once in a while someone shouts, "Americans, Americans!",
and one or two move into a sniping position, shout at each other, and
then come and sit down again. They look tired, hungry and bored, fiddling
with their RPGs and rifles.
Finally, we arrive
at the HQ, 50m from the shrine and a street corner where most of the
fighting has taken place in the past few days. They take us to the "sheikh"
for permission, a young guy in his early 30s with a big bushy beard
who is the local Mahdi commander. I spend the next two days with these
men on a clutch of street corners from where they take occasional pot
shots at the Americans.
This is the front-line
elite, a bunch of badly equipped men with rusted AKs and decade-old
RPG rockets. When we first arrive they are brewing tea, piles of RPG
rockets stacked on the walls two feet away from the fire.
"So how long
you have been here?" I ask one of them.
now." He says he is here because he wants to defend the shrine
of Imam Ali. "I'm unemployed and have nothing else to do."
He is 17.
Others start to
gather around us. "Don't talk to them." "No, do talk
to them, they must know what's happening." "Are you Americans?"
"Are you spies?" "Who sent you here?" "Take
my picture." "No, take my picture with an RPG." "No,
don't let them photograph the RPGs - they'll sell the pictures to the
are some explosions, and three of them run towards the corner. We hear
heavy machine-gun fire and I see American APCs firing at a building
in the street.
"I don't know!
You had it yesterday!"
"No, you had
"No, no, it's
there with Ali."
"He went home."
"So where is
the machine gun?"
So they decide to
fire RPGs without machine-gun cover. They hop into the street, fire
off a grenade, and hop back. All the while we are squeezed behind the
corner. All I can think is that I have to stay alive otherwise my girlfriend
will kill me.
They can't see what
they are shooting at but shout Allahu-Akbar all the same, and everyone
starts giving numbers of how many Americans they have killed.
Then another man
shows up, shortish and in his 40s, and while everyone is ducking or
hiding behind columns, he strolls about as if he is in the park. Another
fighter loads an RPG for him and the guy turns with the thing on his
shoulder as if looking for the direction he should shoot in. Someone
shouts: "Push him into the street before he fires it at us!"
Another fighter grabs him around his waist and pushes him to the corner
where he stands, bullets whizzing around him, takes his time, and -
boom! - fires his RPG. He stands there until someone grips his pants
and pulls him in.
His eyes are not
even blinking at the sounds around him. They give him another one and
he spins again and everyone hits the ground. Someone shouts: "He
can't hear you, go and show him!"
The deaf mute is
getting support fire from a kid who shoots off a few rounds, then jumps
back to fix his AK, which is falling apart. "If you take a picture
of me fixing this, I will kill you."
We wait for the
fire to subside and run across the street to the other side, the same
dark alleys in which the same bored fighters are sitting doing nothing
but chewing over the same old conspiracy theories. The walls and the
ground are varnished with fresh blood. In the market a couple of shops
are on fire from earlier fighting. A man is hiding behind a pile of
empty banana boxes with his eight-year-old son.
That is when we
catch sight of a small boy with a stunned look on his face. He says
his name is Amjad and he is 11 years old.
"How long you
have been here?"
Since my brother was killed. There, at the end of that street."
"And why are
a martyr like my brother."
I ask him why he
wants to die. "We should all die for the sake of our leader!"
shouts one of the militiamen who have gathered around us.
On the last day,
while I am trying to leave this crazy place, we are chased by an overheated
young muj ("muj", from mujaheddin, means simply a religious
fighter - since the Shia started fighting the Americans, they too have
been happy to call themselves "muj"). He demands that we give
him all our films. "You are foreigners working with the Americans!"
We tell him it's not true. He click-clicks his AK, and points it at
us. "I said, give me the films or I will shoot!"
them alone," someone calls out, "they have been with us for
the last three days, the sheikh knows about them."
Shaking, we leave,
and head to the shrine to see if there are any pilgrims there. As we
are sitting on the pavement, three men with AKs come over and tell us
we are under arrest.
I wish I had taped
the previous conversation.
They take us to
the shrine of Imam Abbas, and into a marble-clad room filled with big,
ugly guys with thick beards and an arsenal of automatic weapons. These
men are from the Shrine Protection Force, a militia loyal to the grand
Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and so loosely allied with the Americans.
"It is all
because of journalists that all this is happening," says a guy
dressed in black, sitting behind a big wooden table. He says that the
Mahdi are manipulating the media. "They are thugs and assassins,
they have paralysed the holy city of Kerbala, they have desecrated the
shrines and shoot from behind them, trying to provoke a response.
[thank God], the Americans are very wise and respect the shrines. Our
brothers, the Americans, are taking very good care of this thing, but
as far as the Shias around the world and in Iraq are concerned, they
hear that the Americans are fighting 'close to the shrines', and that
Shias are being killed. They see the smoke on your films so they come
en masse to fight and they are immediately brainwashed by Moqtada and
If that's the case,
I ask, why doesn't the Ayatollah come out publicly and denounce those
people, and show his support for these "brothers"?
"Are you crazy?
It's haram [forbidden by Islamic law] to support an infidel, even when
he is right, against a brother Muslim."
"So what is
"We will pray
for Allah to stop this."
I decide that Allah
has a few other things to solve in Iraq first.
In any case, once
they discover that we are photographers and not video cameramen, the
detention comes to an end pretty quickly. And I decide to stop chasing
bullets and RPGs and find somewhere calm. So I resolve to head to Falluja
- after all, the Americans have managed to install peace over there,
Falluja is very
calm by the time I arrive. I have been to Falluja once before, in April
during the "great battle", as they now call it up there. Back
then it was like Apocalypse Now, with muj running in the streets and
American marines firing at any house they suspected had "enemies"
inside. Falluja is a peaceful town now; shops are open and cars are
in the streets, and Iraqi security forces are every where: ICDC (the
US-trained civil defence corps), policemen, traffic police, and the
new Falluja brigade, known as the "brigade of the heroes"
by the locals. You can even say that things are normal.
After a devastating
military campaign that left more than 800 Iraqis dead, the US liberators
established the Falluja brigade out of the former military, some of
whom had been fighting the Americans but are now on their payroll. Falluja
is now like a deja vu from the good old times of Saddam; there are so
many former Iraqi military in khaki uniforms, big moustaches and bellies
that I am scared that someone will come up and ask me for my military
But, as everything
in the new Iraq, the picture is totally blurred, and no one in Falluja
can figure out what the new arrangement actually means. For some Fallujans,
it meant that their people would get paid again and they would be in
charge of their own security without being seen as collaborators. For
the Americans it meant the new force would work with them to enforce
law and order in the city, helping to build a new Iraq.
But for other Fallujans,
he who works with Americans is seen as the enemy of God. Which means
that we now have Falluja versus Falluja in the biggest stand-off of
the year: who really controls Falluja?
The city is now
like a loose federation of Sunni mosques and mujaheddin-run fiefdoms.
These have become the only successfully functioning "civil society"
institutions, although the only form of civil society they are interested
in is a 1,400-year-old model.
So they raid houses
where sinners are believed to be drinking alcohol, and insist on forcing
their own version of the hijab. If you have a record shop in Falluja,
it had better be selling the latest version of Koranic chanting; Britney
Spearscould get you flogged.
A bunch of Falluja
kids, just finishing their exams, are hanging around their school when
two muj trucks surround them and pick up all the kids who don't have
a "decent" hair cut. They will be taken to get their heads
shaved. (Bear in mind that we are talking about Falluja, which is already
one of the most conservative towns in Iraq. There aren't too many funky
haircuts here to begin with.)
As I arrive at the
main entrance to the city, two shaking Iraqi ICDC are handing flyers
to Fallujans driving into the city. The leaflets are designed to advise
how to file a complaint for compensation, and to reassure them about
what the Americans are up to: "The marines came here originally
to help the people of Falluja, and they will work together to defeat
the enemies of the Iraqi people."
I head towards one
of the mosques where people are going to get aid and charity donations.
A guy in his 40s approaches me with the famous welcoming smile of the
Fallujans - a look of, "What the fuck are you doing here?"
I tell him that
I'm a journalist and would like to meet the Sheikh.
"How did you
manage to get in? Didn't they stop you at the checkpoint?"
Thinking he is talking
about the marines' checkpoint, I say, "No, everything was fine."
"Did they see
your camera?" I tell him I was hiding it.
"This Abu Tahrir,
I don't know what kind of mujaheddin cell he is running! I told him
that every car should be thoroughly searched and all journalists should
be brought here!"
I am ushered inside
where, surrounded by three muj fighters, the new mayor of Falluja gives
me his geopolitical analysis of the American plot to control the world
by occupying Falluja. "You know, we were all very happy when the
Americans came, we thought our country would be better with their help,
but Allah the Mighty wasn't pleased," he tells me. The Americans
started making mistakes, he explains, and now, "It's all Allah's
plot to stop the believers from dealing with infidel foreigners."
He opens his drawer
and pulls out two sheets of paper: the demands and the strategies of
the resistance. One details an American-Shia plot to kill the Sunni
clerics, technocrats and former army officers. "Be careful, oh
brothers, because the Americans and their traitor allies, the Kurds
and the Shias, are planning to come after your leaders." The other
is a letter sent by the joint committee for the Iraqi resistance to
Lakhdar Ibrahimi, the UN envoy working to form a new government. Its
demands can be summarised as a request to hand Iraq to a bunch of wacko
Sunni army generals.
The meeting is interrupted
many times, once when a small kid comes into the room and everyone stands
to shake his hand. "He is our best sniper here. He has killed three
Americans, he wants to call the Americans out for a sniping competition."
One of the local
muj cell leaders, Abu Tahrir ("father of liberation"), is
complaining how part of the muj corps has deserted and joined the Americans.
He is in his late 30s, overweight and a bit grim; a typical former mukhabarat
officer who mixes bits of the Koran with chunks of nationalist and Ba'athist
Ten minutes later,
another muj comes into the room complaining that different muj groups
haven't shown up to take their positions. The mayor makes a few phone
calls using his mobile phone - "We have cellphones now, you know"
- before returning to his thesis of where the American invasion went
wrong. "The Iraqi army has been staging coups and counter-coups
from 1958 to 1968; it was the army who managed to get everything under
control, instead of those stooges on the governing council. The Americans
should have counted on the real Iraqis" - and so on, until the
muj who brought me in comes back and says: "You have to leave now.
The commanders of the mujaheddin cells are going to have a big meeting
in Falluja in 15 minutes, and soon there will be muj checkpoints everywhere.
As we leave the mosque, he waves to a passing police car and orders
them to follow, so that we drive out of Falluja escorted by both the
muj and the police.
Sadr City in eastern
Sadr City is an
easy job for a journalist: all you have to do is cruise around looking
for trouble. It is a Soweto kind of slum: rubbish-filled streets, ponds
of sewage, and thousands of unemployed kids.
It is Saturday,
and we are driving through the streets for the second time in the day.
It is late afternoon when we see a bunch of kids directing the traffic
away. By now we are able to sniff trouble from miles away, but I tell
my driver to head to that street. Makeshift barricades are laid in the
middle of the road, made of stones, tyres and chunks of car metal. Someone's
house has even been dismantled for the barricade.
there are Americans down the street," shouts one of the kids, so
we duck into a side road. The battlefield is an empty plot of land by
a mosque, surrounded by alleyways.
In one of them,
a dozen teenagers, three or four of them wearing Arsenal T-shirts and
flip-flops, are emptying a car boot of a mortar tube and a sackful of
shells. I am allowed to stay and take pictures, but with the usual proviso:
"If we discover that you are working for the Americans, we will
The target is a
police station and three Humvees parked in front. Masked like a western
cowboy, the shooter, or the "expert" as they call him, takes
measure of the angle and shouts to another fighter: "Give me one!"
The other guy produces what looks like a rusted, 2-ft long shell. The
fighters here are also Mahdi, and the fighting in Sadr City often feels
like one big carnival. All the kids are by now doing their cheering
chant: "Ali wiyak, Ali!" "Ali with you, Ali!" If
I were an American soldier, I would be expecting a flying shell every
time I hear kids cheering in Sadr City. After all, this is the only
fun they get, shooting at the sitting ducks.
The expert tosses
the shell into the barrel, and a big explosion follows. "Right
a bit!" shouts one of the kids at the end of the street. "It
fell on a house!"
The second one falls
much too far to the left. "It fell on another house, move to the
right a little bit!"
The third one falls
something like 10 metres away from us, but doesn't explode. The fourth
lands by the Americans, and detonates. "Ten dead, I saw it with
my own eyes!" shouts another kid. The fifth doesn't leave the tube,
and he has to up-end the tube and shake it.
In all, the firefight
lasts for an hour, at which, after a few more rounds and a few more
civilian houses destroyed,the fighters jump into their car and drive
Then the RPG session
starts, kids aiming at the Americans and hitting whatever target they
fancy. As one prepares to fire his RPG, the rusted rocket doesn't launch.
can use mine," says a man who is standing by, watching. Helpfully,
he goes to his nearby home and returns with his RPG, as if he were lending
a neighbour his Hoover.
are coming, they are coming!" and everyone starts to run; the 50
or so kids who have gathered to watch the game, break into a sprint.
We jump into the first open door, where a man pulls us inside and closes
The house is nothing
but two rooms and an open courtyard; home to two families with countless
tiny kids. "So they shoot and run, and soon the Americans will
come and start breaking into the houses and firing at us," says
Within a few minutes
we hear a Humvee pull up by the door, and - boom! boom! boom! - they
start firing what sounds like a heavy machine gun. Everyone jumps to
the ground, and Ali is asked once again to show his mercy upon us. "This
has been our life for the past few weeks; we don't know when we will
be killed and who will kill us," says the father. After a while
the Humvees go, and we hear the sound of the kids in the streets again.
Everything back to normal.
That evening, after
another session of shooting and counter-shooting, we are sitting with
the fighters by the office of Moqtada al-Sadr. We are prepared for a
long night waiting for American mortar shells. I think to myself, here
we go, another dozen houses gone.
A young muj extends
his hand and says: "Do you want a beer?" I am stunned, and
what remains of my religious belief rapidly evaporates. But the beer
is good and I sit all night with the great religious fighters, drinking
beer and waiting for the shells that never come.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004