Wed, Oct 06, 2004 - Page 6 News List

In one corner of Iraq, loyalty to a Shiite rebel burns fiercely

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD, IRAQ

On the groom's last night as a single man, a bachelor party on his front lawn kicked off with song and dance.

"We love you to death, Moqtada," a pair of singers crooned in praise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric who, though absent, overshadowed the groom. "We love you as much as there are leaves on a tree."

Out came one of the groom's best friends, waving his arms like a carnival barker.

"Those who follow the Americans are dogs," he yelled. "We swear by Moqtada that we won't let our machine guns stop!"

Loyalty to the Shiite cleric burns fierce here in northeastern Baghdad, and especially in Sadr City, a vast slum of 2.2 million people, despite frequent US raids and almost nightly airstrikes. The US military has stepped up its campaign to rout the Mahdi Army, al-Sadr's militia, on its home turf here, to drive him to the bargaining table. But it is often impossible to distinguish between civilians and fighters.

A reporter, photographer and interpreter with The New York Times recently spent nearly 24 hours being guided through the battleground streets -- and even to a guerrilla bachelor party -- by one of al-Sadr's midlevel aides. It became apparent that the Mahdi Army here is less a discrete military organization than a populist movement that includes everyone from doctors to policemen to tribal sheiks, and whose ranks swell with impoverished men willing to die.

The day began with a drive to the home of the al-Sadr aide, a slim, balding 35-year-old man who gave his name simply as Muhammad. Donkey carts plied the dusty streets, mounds of trash lined wide avenues and posters of chubby, black-turbaned al-Sadr were plastered across every block. Graffiti in English decorated some walls: "Vietnam Street -- We'll make your graves in this place."

Muhammad's home was tucked into a narrow alley in the Chewadar neighborhood. A reeking open channel of sewage ran along the street. A boy dashed around with a toy rifle propped on his shoulder like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Nearby, other children played soccer in dirt lots, and women in black robes peeked out from their doorways.

The home was typical of many in Sadr City: a two-story ocher building, with an extended family of 35 squeezed into 1,500 square feet. Muhammad's family moved here in 1962 from Amara, a southern city, before his birth. He is the second oldest of six brothers, many of whom are members of the Mahdi Army.

"If the Americans didn't try entering Sadr City with their tanks, I can guarantee you not a single bullet would be fired," Muhammad said over a lunch of lamb kebab; a framed portrait of al-Sadr was on the wall behind him. "Everyone here is part of the resistance."

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