Muslim Rivals Unite In Baghdad Uprising

Posted in Iraq | 07-Apr-04 | Author: Karl Vick| Source: Washington Post

BAGHDAD, April 6 -- On the streets of Baghdad neighborhoods long defined by differences of faith and politics, signs are emerging that resistance to the U.S. occupation may be growing from a sporadic, underground effort to a broader insurrection by militiamen who claim to be fighting in the name of their common faith, Islam.

On Monday, residents of Adhamiya, a largely Sunni section of northern Baghdad, marched with followers of Moqtada Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric whose call for armed resistance was answered by local Sunnis the same afternoon, residents said.

As protesters chanted anti-occupation slogans in Abu Hanifa Square, militants were seen hustling toward the site carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, residents said. The guerrillas opened fire on the U.S. armor deployed near the demonstration, attacking from positions in a neighborhood where militants appear to be not just tolerated but encouraged.

"I saw three mujaheddin on this street, and another three moving up this side," said Abu Hassan, pointing toward narrow lanes running toward the square on either side of the bakery where he works. On the other side of the counter, a customer spoke excitedly of guerrilla fighters arriving in several Toyota Coaster minibuses, then melting into the neighborhood.

"Everywhere among the houses they hid," said the young customer, who left without giving his name. "Then they started shooting at the American army."

"It's all so we will have a resistance, Adhamiya and Moqtada combined," Hassan said.

The bakery did brisk business Tuesday afternoon. In a city where the ordinarily jammed streets had light traffic for a second straight day, residents confided that they were ordering enough bread to last two or three days, stockpiling a staple in expectation of street fighting in the days ahead.

"What Moqtada Sadr did simply woke up the people," said Sarmad Akram, 36, who owns the small food shop next door. "Now the people have the guts to resist."

The exchange, in a middle-class Sunni quarter, was one scene Tuesday that appeared to challenge the assessment by U.S. military officials that Sadr speaks for only a radical fringe in Iraq and that his calls for mass resistance will resonate only with his followers.

Directly across the Tigris River, in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, shops were shuttered and residents kept their own watch for the approach of armored columns from an occupation base at the top of the street.

The scene was calm, but a half-hour earlier a rocket-propelled grenade had ripped into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the neighborhood, killing a U.S. soldier, the third killed in Kadhimiya in two days.

"We didn't do it," Sayyid Adnan Saafi said into his cell phone. The black-turbaned Sadr official was surrounded by armed men, but most of the several hundred males loitering in a broad pedestrian mall were local civilians, chatting, chewing salted nuts and nominally participating in the general strike Sadr's office had demanded of all schools and government offices. "Not supporting this strike means not supporting religion," a flyer warned.

"We told the people to take the students out to protest in a quiet and peaceful way," Saafi said. One principal said most officials felt obliged to obey, despite a contrary order from the Education Ministry, which is controlled by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

Like complaints about home searches that leave Iraqis feeling defiled and humiliated, disappointment with the Governing Council is a grievance that binds many Iraqis. The panel is widely condemned as dominated by exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader far better known and loved in Washington than in Baghdad. The complaint gained new energy when Shiite clerics began a campaign against sections of the basic law the council produced with U.S. oversight as a basis for a constitution.

"We lost faith in the Americans," said Asaam Al Jarah, principal of a Kadhimiya high school. "Everybody was waiting for the transition, waiting and waiting. Then we saw the law was rubbish.

"Now everything is different."

The neighborhood, though Shiite, is not normally regarded as Sadr turf. Most Kadhimiya residents, like most of Iraq's majority Shiite population, look to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for instruction. But Abu Ali Hashem, a Sistani follower and an official of a hallowed Shiite shrine, estimated that half of the neighborhood's Sistani followers were joining in Sadr's protest in the absence of any instruction otherwise from their own leader.

That drift toward the young cleric appeared to challenge another critical calculation of U.S. commanders and officials. Occupation overseers have counted on the well-known tension between the revered Sistani and the upstart Sadr as a check on Sadr's influence. But the rivalry apparently is being overtaken by a more immediate conflict -- the scores of clashes since Sunday pitting occupation forces in Baghdad and several southern cities against militiamen who claim to be fighting in the name of a common faith.

"We send you this letter from your brothers in al Anbar governate and the city of Fallujah, to say that we are with you under the banner of 'God is Greatest' and the mantle of Islam." So began a letter read over loudspeakers Monday outside Sadr's headquarters in the Shiite slum named for his late father and uncle, clerics who held the same rank as Sistani when they were killed, reputedly by Saddam Hussein's forces.

The letter was read on the morning that U.S. Marines began an offensive in Fallujah, a volatile seat of Sunni resistance just west of Baghdad. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force reported steady military progress, but also that insurgents who used to hit and run were, for the first time, standing and fighting.

"We are all behind Sayyid Moqtada Sadr, may God give him victory . . . on the subject of liberation," the letter read. Several hundred members of Sadr's irregular militia, the Mahdi Army, cheered and waved pistols and swords at the words.

"We are cooperating with our brothers the Shia," said Abu Ahmed, 52, standing on the main street of Adhamiya, where every storefront was closed behind steel shutters at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Forty-five minutes earlier, a red BMW had scooted through the neighborhood warning people to clear the streets. U.S. tanks had been spotted, and the community was spreading the word that a fight was coming.

"Move away! Move away!" a boy called out from near the remains of a taxi crushed by a tank in the previous day's fighting, which left four Iraqis dead. "The mujaheddin are behind me. They're attacking!"

The street emptied in moments, but the column of tanks did not arrive.

"You have not seen anything yet," said Akram, the shopkeeper. "You will see a new style of resistance in the city. Well-organized. Advanced. They will be surprised. They won't know what to do."

He smiled, but refused to say more, except that the plan would involve children as young as 8 and men as old as 80, drawn from across the district.

"When we all sit together, the groups of this city, it's something new. You'll be surprised. Something really very new. We have not started it yet.

"If I talk about it, it won't be a surprise," the shopkeeper added. "And you won't see the beauty of it."

The men on the shuttered main street had the same message.

"There's a new style of resistance," said an elderly man who, like the baker, gave his name as Abu Hassan.

The lines in Hassan's face deepened as he spoke bitterly of a year under occupation in a neighborhood long regarded by U.S. forces as hostile. The raids on private homes were the worst, Hassan said. He repeated familiar stories of American soldiers taking money and leaving only a receipt that proved impossible to redeem. He told of an old woman left behind when everyone else in her home was first arrested, then declared innocent after four months in detention.

"So we will keep killing them!" he snapped, his eyes flashing. "We found our way, just now. We gather together now."