In December 2008 I flew Royal Jordanian from Amman to Iraq’s southern city of Basra. Because of the Muslim holiday of Eid, embassies were closed; a contact in the British military promised to obtain visas for me and a colleague upon arrival. The Iraqi customs officials were offended that we did not follow procedure, but a letter from the British commander got us in. It might not have been necessary: when the five Iraqi policemen who examined luggage at the exit saw my colleague’s copy of Patrick Cockburn’s excellent book on the Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, they turned giddy. One of them kissed the picture of Muqtada’s face on the cover and asked if he could keep the book. It was not their sentiment that surprised me, but rather their comfort expressing it publicly.
Since the occupation began, Muqtada has been the most controversial public figure in Iraq. A populist anti-American leader, he came from a lineage of revolutionary Shia clerics who opposed the Saddam’s regime and who gave voice to Iraq’s poor Shia majority. Capitalizing on his slain father’s network of mosques and the family name, Muqtada and his followers, called Sadrists, seized control of Shia areas in Iraq when Baghdad fell, especially the slums of Basra and the capital. He rallied marginalized Shias against the occupation, its puppet government, and eventually against Sunni extremists as well. His movement provided social services, and his militia, Jeish al Mahdi—the Mahdi Army or JAM—fought the Americans and defended Shias from extremist Sunni terrorism.
But the Mahdi Army and its rivals eventually propagated sectarian violence, fighting in the civil war and expelling or killing innocent Sunnis. After the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine, a Shia holy site, the two-year-old civil war intensified. With attacks against Sunnis escalating, the largely Shia Iraqi police often looked the other way. The bloodshed was indiscriminate.
By 2007 Muqtada was no longer in control of the militias, many of which had become mere criminal gangs. In August of that year, fearing that the Surge would mean an all-out American assault on Shia communities controlled by his militias, he called for a ceasefire. But he did not tell his men to disarm, and fighting continued, especially resistance attacks against the Americans by recalcitrant former Mahdi Army fighters, who viewed Muqtada’s ceasefire as a betrayal.
Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s government tacitly supported Shia militias throughout the civil war, but in March 2008 Maliki surprised everyone by launching “Charge of the Knights,” a 15,000-man Iraqi Army operation intended to crush Shia militias—especially Muqtada’s followers—who had Basra in their grip. The assault floundered until American backup rescued the beleaguered Iraqi security forces and drove the militias out. Maliki managed to chalk it up as a victory, and his decision to crush Shia militias in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere won him the support of many Sunnis.
Jassim Ahmad, deputy head of the Sunni Islamic party in Basra, confirmed the offensive’s impact. He told me that their previous headquarters had been destroyed following the 2006 Samarra bombing with the complicity of local police. Many Sunni sheikhs had been murdered as well. But some Sunnis had returned after Charge of the Knights, with about 400 of them in the local police and army by the end of 2008, according to his figures.
In downtown Basra the campaign’s success was plain. The local economy was thriving, and women could once again walk on the streets without wearing the veil if they chose to. As Ahmad put it, “now the Sunni sect doesn’t have problems in Basra.”
After the operation, local officials held a conference to discuss rebuilding. Despite the conference’s distinctly Shia tone, speakers expressed relief that the militias and “criminals” were gone. They praised Iraqi forces for providing security. There was no mention of the British or the Americans. It felt like a post-occupation Iraq, and the mood of the meeting inspired hope that when the Americans inevitably reduced their numbers, the country would not again fall into civil war.
In a nearby slum, four Mahdi Army men complained that the army stole from homes, but they vowed to support Maliki, despite his crackdown. “We obey Muqtada, and whatever he says, we do, and he said, ‘don’t fight the government,’” they told me. “We are not against the government or the people, just against the occupation. We are giving the government an opportunity.”
It was clear that something significant had changed in Iraq. While resentment lingered and murders continued, the sectarian violence had subsided, and there was a willingness to think about a future in which different Iraqi communities would live together in peace.
Still, talk about a “post-sectarian future” is premature. The situation is complex and fluid, and people in the communities most ravaged by the civil war understandably tell each other a range of conflicting stories about the roots of the change. One explanation that few are prepared to discuss openly is that Iraq’s civil war ended because Shias won: violence against Sunnis ceased after Sunnis were brutally cleansed from Basra and large swaths of Baghdad, and Shias gained firm control of government ministries and local police. Sunnis knew they were defeated and Shias no longer worried that Ba’athist oppression would resume. With no external enemy, Shia militias began to fight each other and turned into criminal gangs terrorizing their own communities. The defeat of the Sunnis and divisions among Shias created space for new possibilities, and the government and American forces occupied that space.
Other stories emphasize the resurgence of a latent pan-Iraqi nationalism, the consolidation of Iraqi national security forces, the exhaustion of sectarian violence, the shift in views about the militias—from heroes to enemies of the people—and the massive pay-off of mostly Sunni militiamen.
The Madhi Army men told me, ‘We obey Muqtada, and whatever he says, we do, and he said, “don’t fight the government.”’
Indeed it was a combination of all these things, the early 2007 “Surge” in U.S. forces playing a smaller role than American claims often suggest. The Surge benefitted from other changes. Troop increases and a determined counterinsurgency policy came at a time when they could finally be tolerated in anti-occupation neighborhoods because the main struggle had shifted from liberating Iraq from the Americans to inter-Iraqi fighting. Had the Surge occurred a year earlier, it would have met far greater resistance.
Like Basra’s slums, Sadr City and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of Baghdad are shocking in their neglect. But Washash, in central Baghdad, stood out during the insurgency for its poverty and violence and thus offers both a microcosm of changes since 2007 and a test of post-civil war Iraq.
Talk about a post-sectarian future is premature. In communities ravaged by the civil war, people tell each other conflicting stories about the roots of change.
I first visited Washash in April 2003. Sewage flooded the streets, and an arms market thrived nearby. When American vehicles approached, weapons dealers would hastily conceal their wares. About 60,000 people lived in an area just larger than one square kilometer. As soon as Baghdad fell in mid-April, revenge killings started, and the murders in this Shia-majority neighborhood took on a sectarian tone. In October 2003 a Sunni Sheikh, his brother, and a teenage assistant were riddled with bullets as they walked home from mosque. In August 2004 a police chief and a patrolman were killed in an explosion. In December 2004 several members of a Sunni Salafist group were killed. Sunni and Shia clerics issued a futile joint edict banning sectarian fighting, and by the middle of 2005 sectarian violence was endemic.
American soldiers raiding a house in 2006 found evidence that Shia militias were cleansing Sunnis from Washash. There was a list of nearly 70 homes where Sunni families were expelled and a list of “good” families who were not be disturbed. There were letters threatening Sunnis, as well as copies of a DVD with a message from the Mahdi Army: images of exploding houses. That same month Washash leaders asked the Iraqi government to intervene in a crime wave that had produced 60 corpses. In the summer of 2007 the violence continued to escalate after some Mahdi militiamen who were ousted from nearby Huriya by American forces took up residence in Washash.
Because there was little American activity in Washash until spring 2007, the Mahdi Army ran rampant there. It grew notorious even among other Mahdi Army units for its brutality toward Sunnis and disobedient Shias as well as its gang criminality.
In late July 2007 the American First Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment set up a combat outpost near Washash. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ed Chesney, the unit partnered with the Iraqi Army and National Police to provide security and controlled the area until July 2008. “Our challenge,” Chesney told me, “was to gain the trust of the people and to work towards building their trust in their own security forces.”
Building trust was, indeed, a huge problem. By 2007 the fear of sectarian violence had effectively segregated neighborhoods; any intervention appeared partisan. “When the army arrested people in Washash, they were almost always Shia, so the people thought [the arrests] were sectarian,” Chesney explained. “But in Jamia they arrested all Sunnis.” In addition, according to Chesney, Iraqi junior leaders performed poorly at times because they were afraid to confront either the Mahdi Army or al Qaeda. “The army around Washash, especially the rank and file, was sympathetic to JAM. . . . We suspected corruption in many areas but were unable to prove it.”
U.S. and Iraqi national forces targeted “the criminal JAM element,” which at the time was lead by Hamudi Naji, disliked even by Mahdi Army counterparts for his mafia-like operations. Chesney described him as a formidable opponent responsible for attacks on Sunnis in nearby Mansur. “The Sunnis to the south were petrified of him, and what police there were in the area did not garner trust in the Sunni population.”
Chesney’s problems worsened. Violence against Sunnis escalated after Naji was assassinated in September, although it was not clear who killed him. Hundreds fled Washash, and many were killed, including whole families.
Then, in October, over one thousand men in Washash marched, chanting anti-American slogans in protest of an American-constructed wall around their neighborhood. The Americans hoped the new six-foot tall concrete barrier would effectively seal Washash and stem the violence. Soon it was covered in political and religious posters and graffiti.
By the time I returned to Washash in late 2007, there was only one entrance for cars, and it was guarded by Iraqi soldiers. Elsewhere a few narrow openings between the concrete blocks allowed pedestrians to enter one at a time. About 5,000 families lived there, but most of the Sunnis were gone. The streets remained unpaved; many were flooded with water or sewage. Electric cables hung low from rooftops and criss-crossed like cobwebs. There, I saw more posters and banners honoring Muqtada and his father than anywhere else in Baghdad. It was quiet.
‘You are Shia, one of us,’ the Mahdi Army commander said. ‘I am secular,’ Captain Mushtaq replied, ‘I don’t care if you’re Sunni or Shia or Hindu, I have orders.’
Because it was so dangerous for outsiders, my driver, whose cousin lived in Washash, arranged in advance that we be met by Sheikh Kadhim al Saedy, the head of the local tribal council and a Sadrist, who guaranteed my safety.
We walked down the muddy streets and were soon surrounded by throngs of Mahdi Army men and other residents of Washash, desperate to voice their anger. “We consider the Iraqi Army to be our sons and brothers,” al Saedy told me.
“They are dealing with us in a sectarian way,” al Saedy added, “not 100 percent, 1000 percent. Most of the prisoners are Shias, most of the arrests are of Shias.” The Iraqi police were different, he said. “The police are peaceful people. If anyone files a complaint, they will respond to him properly. We don’t have any problem with the police.”
On the corner, women in abayat sat by dozens of colorful jerry cans, waiting for kerosene. They had been waiting for four days.