Iraq: Guerrilla War in Sadr City

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

Michael Schwartz

“Cities all over Iraq are totally outside the control of either the U.S. forces or the government of Iraqistan.  Not only Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra, but other population centers in central Iraq are virtually self-contained city-states.  The Kurds run their little enclave all by themselves.  Parts of Baghdad are no-go zones for Americans.  And in the south, fascist Shiite militia and armed gangs controlled by Iranian-backed mullahs and the likes of Ayatollah Sistani run things without any help from Baghdad.”  (Robert Dreyfuss, Independent, quoted in, July 22, 2004).

IN ATTACKING FIRST Najaf, then Tal Afar and Samarra, and finally tackling the center of Sunni resistance in Fallujah, the United States was seeking to reverse this process.  But these attacks were not designed to restore order; they were, instead, intended to prevent the consolidation of a very orderly anti-American status quo in a constantly expanding set of “liberated” areas.  Ironically, the American attacks in the Fall of 2004 underscore the larger contradictions in American policy in Iraq: that the chaos American leaders keep saying there are preventing will, in fact, occur only if U.S. military forces succeed in destroying these nascent city-states.

To see this we need only begin by a detailed examination of the development of an indigenous regime in Sadr City, Baghdad.

Sadr City—the overcrowded, under-serviced three million-person Baghdad slum that has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq—is the linchpin of the war. Though there have been more spectacular battles in Fallujah and Najaf, Sadr City is of paramount importance because it is the center of the Shia rebellion, and the Shia represent 60% of the Iraqi population.

As a consequence, the al-Mahdi army—the military arm of the Sadrist Movement that has dominated the area’s politics for the past quarter century—has become the most important of all the insurgent groups, and a close look how it operates in its home base yields some startling conclusions about the trajectory of the struggle for control of Iraq.

  • The Sadrists have developed an effective political-military strategy aimed at converting Sadr City into a “liberated area,” in the classic guerrilla warfare model.
  • Their main military strategy is to expel the U.S. forces from their domain; only when they are under attack themselves do they venture outside Sadr City to attack U.S. bases or supply routes.  * The Al Sadr organization is attempting to construct a coheren “dual” government that replaces the central government and which administers the usual set of public services—from traffic control to apprehending street criminals—within limits set by their inability to coordinate with a national government.  This proto-government has been particularly assiduous in addressing the number one problem of public order, street crime; it has actually cooperated with the local police in this campaign.
  • Al-Mahdi soldiers—the guerrilla forces led by the Sadrists—though prone to thuggery, are largely under the control of this dual government, which is led civilians—tribal leaders and Muslim clerics.  The al-Mahdi soldiers act as the police force within the community.
  • The Sadrists have been surprisingly successful in co-opting the Iraqi police, by rewarding them for working on community issues and fighting them when they participate in efforts to suppress the rebel political-military structure.  American military complaints about the unreliability of their Iraqi trainees is actually a reflection of successfully applied guerrilla policy.
  • The Sadrists have begun to enforce strict Islamist fundamentalism by suppressing such “moral crimes” as liquor sales and prostitution.  The have utilized an ugly brand of vigilantism (firebombing, assaults and even homicide) to remove moral criminals from the community.
  • The Sadrists, and parallel groups in other cities (notably Fallujah), have publicly denounced the spectacular bombings perpetrated by various terrorists groups, complaining about their negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of Iraqi civilians and calling for an active alliance with the Iraqi police in suppressing foreign jihadists and domestic terrorists.
  • The organization in Sadr City is an echo of similar developments in Sunni Cities (with Fallujah as the center),and it may foreshadow similar developments in the all-important Shia South.  The American attacks on various Iraqi cities, including the brutal battle of Fallujah, are an attempt to reverse this trend toward self-governed cities into which American forces rarely intrude.
  • The existence of these dual governments in many cities rebuts American claims that U.S. withdrawal would result in chaos.  Ironically, just the reverse is true; U.S. success in defeating the guerrillas would result in chaos, whereas a guerrilla victory would bring greater stability (and perhaps too strict an order) to the Iraqi cities.

To understand these non-intuitive conclusions, we begin with the two battles in Najaf, which converted Muqtada al Sadr—a young seminarian (junior-status Muslim cleric—ed.) who inherited the leadership of the Sadrist movement after his father and uncle were martyred—from a rather obscure militant into the one of the most visible and admired leaders in Iraqi society.

Muqtada al Sadr and his al-Mahdi army were thrust into the center of Iraqi politics by the two battles with American troops in Najaf in April and August.  In both battles the U.S. military sought to recapture the Shrine of the Imam Ali from the al-Mahdi army, and the battles were concentrated in the historic cemetery near the Shrine and the densely packed residential and commercial district surrounding it.

The second battle, particularly, annihilated the neighborhood and inflicted irreparable damage on the lives and livelihoods of the local residents.  Dexter Filkins of The New York Times described it as:

…a scene of devastation.  Hotels had crumbled into the street.  Cars lay blackened and twisted where they had been hit. Goats and donkeys lay dead on the sidewalks.  Pilgrims from out of town and locals coming from home walked the streets agape, shaking their heads, stunned by the devastation before them.”  (Aug. 28, 2004)

Both sides claimed victory in both battles, and each had good cause to do so. But beneath this disagreement over outcomes lay a larger mystery: Since both sides agreed (particularly in the second battle) that the U.S. military was determined to deal a death blow to the al-Mahdi army, why weren’t the attacks launched at its principal base in Sadr City, particularly since the presence of the sacred Shrine in Najaf made it much more difficult to unleash the most devastating U.S. offensive weapons?

The difference between the two settings lies in a simple fact.  In Sadr City, the al-Mahdi soldiers were protecting their home neighborhoods from the ongoing U.S. military incursions; in Najaf they were outsiders who had entered the city for the precise purpose of protecting the Shrine, and had brought with them a ferocious battle with the U.S. marines that devastated the city.  The U.S. army chose to attack the militia in Najaf—after experiencing frustration with attempts to assault Sadr City——”because Sadr’s ragtag militia doesn’t enjoy local support.”  (Christian Science Monitor, Aug 13, 2004)

While Mahdi’s army could be seen as courageously defending Najaf from U.S. invasion (and this is exactly the view taken by many residents and the vast majority of the international Shia community), many local residents and pilgrims felt that the militia could have prevented all the carnage if they had never come to Najaf.

Before the militia arrived, there had been almost no fighting, as demonstrated by the huge throngs of pilgrims.  During the Saddam Hussein regime such pilgrimages had been severely limited, and thus his demise resulted in a mini-economic boom for local merchants.  Once Mahdi’s Army arrived and the fighting began, the tourism died and the lives and livelihood of innumerable citizens were destroyed.

During the first siege, the opinion of many was expressed by local cleric Sadr al-Din al-Kubanchi who told NY Times reporter Abdul Razzaq Al-Saeidy:

It’s not brave to take refuge in the house or the mosque or the markets and use women and children as human shields….  If that happens, the [U.S.] soldiers will attack Najaf and our enemies will happily see our blood flow.  (April 24, 2004)

This sentiment was elaborated during the second battle by Abu Muhammed, a pilgrim from Kut, who told Times reporter Filkins:

I blame Moktada al-Sadr for what happened here, and the Iraqi government, too,” said an old Iraqi man, identifying himself as Abu Muhammad…We, the simple people, are paying for their mistakes.

Mr. Muhammad seemed to speak for many Iraqis here, who in dozens of interviews over the last several days denounced not only Mr. Sadr but the Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, as well.  With their homes and businesses in ruins, it seemed for many Iraqis that most of Iraqi’s new leaders had failed.  “Look at all the damage,” an Iraqi man said to a friend as he walked down a street whose every building had been broken and crushed.  “Let God take revenge on the Americans for this.”

Though their hatred for the U.S. was undiminished, many residents and pilgrims bitterly resented the presence of the Sadrist militia.  In this view, the al-Mahdi, no matter how well intentioned, had creating a war that killed many innocent civilians, destroyed a large part of a holy city, and devastated the lives of a whole community.

Sadr City As Classic “Liberated Area” Things operated very differently in Sadr City, where the al-Mahdi army was integrated into local life.  The Sadrist movement had erected a governing structure that could viably lead the community, including a legislature (made up of tribal leaders) and an executive branch made up of movement activists (including key clerics), with Mahdi’s Army playing the role of the police.

For the near term, this incipient government had two key tasks: to make Sadr City inaccessible to the U.S. troops (and whatever allies it could muster among Iraqi armed forces); and to institute a “law and order” within its boundaries.  These dual goals, if successfully achieved, would offer Sadr City a semblance of a normal existence that had been disrupted when the U.S. invasion toppled the Hussein regime.

It could not, of course, solve the larger economic and infrastructural problems that were preventing the reconstruction and revival of Iraqi society; those problems could only be addressed if and when the national government stopped being a part of the problem.

Looking first at the relationship with the American army, we note that Mahdi’s army adopted a distinctly defensive posture.  Militia members rarely attack American convoys outside Sadr City, nor do they lob grenades into American bases located around Baghdad, two strategies they used regularly during the Najaf battles.

On the other hand, once the Americans enter Sadr City the al-Mahdi usually resist ferociously.  They are determined to carve out areas into which Americans are at least hesitant to come, and, over time, make these areas more-or-less immune to American incursion.  This goal may be unreachable, in the sense that U.S. military superiority will always allow it to mount an attack from the air or else to march through the community by massing a force of sufficient size; but if the result is that Americans come to Sadr city infrequently and stay briefly, then the guerrillas will have won a sufficient victory to proceed with their broader plans.

Phillip Robertson, writing in, described how this strategy played out in practice when he described the reaction of Sgt. Reggie Butler (the ranking NCO of the 1st Platoon of the 1st Cavalry) to orders that his unit patrol one of the areas in Sadr City that the al-Mahdi were most determined to defend:

Butler instantly understood that the officers in the operations center had given the 1st Platoon the worst patrol in the Shia ghetto, a loop around the entire northern side of the city.  It was also a provocative one. The Bradleys would go within blocks of the al-Hekma mosque, a place where the al-Mahdi Army has laid many ambushes and constantly fires at American patrols.”>

During this patrol, there was no fighting be cause both sides stayed within certain unspoken boundaries.  The Americans did not attempt to actively search for guerrillas, contenting themselves with a “snap checkpoint,” which involved “choking off traffic in both directions, while Iraqi soldiers searched cars full of young men.”  The al-Mahdi spotters, for their part, contented themselves with tracking the progress of the patrol:

At each of the stops, someone fired a few shots from a rifle.  “When you hear that pop-pop from an AK, they are tracking you. That’s how they tell everybody where you are,” a gunner explained.  The invisible men were watching us and holding their fire…Three hours later, the cease-fire hadn’t collapsed and Butler’s platoon had only had to endure a hail of rocks thrown by Iraqi boys.  They had trouble believing their good luck.

But this “truce” was only situational.  Several days earlier, a vicious firefight had erupted.  In this case, the patrol that invaded Sadr City was intent on searching a residence that the Americans suspected was being used to sell arms.  Robertson described the events this way:

On a busy street in the middle of the day, the people and traffic disappeared.  Spotters for the al-Mahdi Army had seen the Americans coming in their convoy and signaled the fighters, who were ready to shoot from alleys and rooftops.  As the street cleared out, a heavy soldier named Barron was yelling over to me in the back of the last Bradley…”See that?  No people.  That’s bad.”

Seconds after he said it, the street around the Humvees disappeared in clouds of dust where the al-Mahdi Army bullets hit the ground.  The dust came up around the wheels.  It looked like the Humvees were sinking.  The heavy guns on the vehicles shuddered.  Gunners standing up in the Humvees were returning fire, but it was hard to see if they hit any of the al-Mahdi fighters who were trying to hit the convoy.  It was a gun battle on an empty street against invisible men…

When we drove into the ambush, the 1st Cavalry soldiers were on their way to meet the Iraqi police and search an arms dealer’s house.  As the convoy arrived at the dealer’s street, the four Iraqi police trucks slowed down but didn’t stop.  The Iraqis were supposed to conduct the search while the Americans provided security…With the Iraqi police missing and the locals firing rockets at the convoy, Alpha Company abandoned the cordon-and-search and headed for the base at 50 miles an hour, narrowly missing a roadside bomb.

There are three noteworthy elements to this event that speak to the strategy of Mahdi’s Army in Sadr City.  First, this incursion involved the invasion of someone’s home, one of the most provocative acts the U.S. military routinely undertakes.  (For a vivid description of the standard procedure in such cases see Edmund Sanders’ report in the Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2004.) The rules of engagement for such action call for smashing the door (rather than giving the suspect a warning by knocking) and extremely aggressive behavior inside; actions that are pregnant with the possibility of greater violence, including death, if the residents resist or act in a suspicious manner.  Sadr City residents consider this terrifying procedure a heinous attack on respected members of the community.

Because of notoriously faulty intelligence, the suspects are usually not guilty of anything; but even if the this suspect were an arms dealer, his neighbors would not see this as a crime.  After all, an arms dealer supplies his neighbors with needed guns to resist crime or the Americans.

Because the resistance has spies within the Iraqi police, they knew the destination of this mission; they were able to prevent an American assault on a respected resident of the neighborhood, and to create a deterrent against future house invasions.  This sharply contrasts with the actions in Najaf and Karbala, where the battles were between militia members and U.S. troops, both of whom did not live there.

Second, the conduct of the battle was designed to protect the guerrillas from casualties.  By occupying strategic places in the buildings above the convoy, the al-Mahdi were able to fire at the American and Iraqi soldiers while using the buildings to protect themselves from the superior weaponry of the American troops.  As Robertson put it, “It was a gun battle on an empty street against invisible men.”

Typically, the guerrillas sought to start and finish battles before gunships could arrive, thus reducing the danger to themselves and to the buildings.  They could easily hide their guns and pose as civilians to escape capture, a strategy that often did not work among the frequently unsympathetic townspeople in Najaf.  This posture of protectiveness to the guerrilla cadre reflects classic guerrilla strategy, which seeks to fight battles which only when casualties can be limited.  (Of course, it completely precludes suicide attacks, a strategy that has not been practiced by the Sadrists.)

Third, the community was forewarned about the impending action, and given a chance to evacuate the area.  Our attention is called to this by Robertson’s dramatic remark, “on a busy street in the middle of the day, the people and traffic disappeared.”  They disappeared because of the warnings issues by the guerrillas that a battle was brewing.

It is important to note that warning the civilians also warned the Americans, since the quiet streets were a sign that the American 1st Cavalry noticed and understood.  Mahdi’s Army was therefore sacrificing the element of surprise in order to reduce civilian casualties.  Evacuation of civilians from the battlefield is a central element in winning a guerrilla war. High levels of civilian casualties alienate the local population (even if they hate the invader).

This sort of consideration is part of the explanation for the almost unanimous respect for Muqtada al Sadr in Sadr City.  His standing is indicated by the following incident reported by Washington Post reporter Scott Wilson during a patrol conducted by American and Iraqi troops:

A column of six U.S. military vehicles and a flatbed truck carrying Iraqi National Guard soldiers stopped in traffic next to an outdoor market.  A child emerged from the roadside stalls, carrying a cardboard poster of Muqtada Sadr….

On tiptoes, the child handed the poster to the Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun, as U.S. soldiers watched in dismay.  The Iraqi soldier, part of a nascent security force trained and funded by the United States, held Sadr’s picture aloft for a gathering, cheering mob…  “If we took it from them now, this whole place would explode,’ said Sgt. Adam Brantley, 24, of Gulf Shores, Ala., watching from behind the wheel of a Humvee.”  (July 6, 2004)

The Mahdi Army’s strategy contrasts sharply with the orientation adopted by much of the Iraqi resistance.  Many groups try to undermine the viability of the Occupation army by attacking convoys and bases in order to inflict casualties, by fighting sustained battles designed to use up huge amounts of the American’s ammunition, and by bombing supply convoys in order to deprive the military of needed ordnance.  Their intent is to exhaust the army and the American people by making the war expensive in every respect.

The Sadrist strategy abandons all these goals in favor of carving out liberated areas free of American influence and—most particularly—free of the havoc and destruction caused by the various activities of the American armed forces.  It involves withdrawing into Sadr City, not engaging in battles or even demonstrations outside its confines, but creating a strong deterrent against incursions by American armed forces.  Sadrist Dual Government

Insofar as this military strategy is successful, it enables the creation of a viable governing structure.  Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter described how this looks in practice:

From directing traffic to organizing blood drives, the militia overseen by firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr is taking control of Baghdad’s largest neighborhood, even as Iraqi and U.S. officials demand that the group disband.  Al Sadr’s office, not the beleaguered police station, is often the first stop for Sadr City residents who want to report a crime in this teeming slum of three million.

“Who runs Sadr City?  Only the Mahdi Army,” said Ali Qassim, who works in an ice cream shop off one of the area’s dusty boulevards…

On Tuesday morning, Iraqi police near downtown Baghdad arrested at least 500 Iraqis in a round-up targeting petty crooks and organized crime groups, but the sweep didn’t extend to Sadr City.  To do so would require the Mahdi Army’s cooperation.  “If there is something wrong in this city, they will fix it,” said Jasem Jaber, an Iraqi policeman assigned to Sadr City…Most residents interviewed said the Mahdi Army—named after the Shiite Muslim messiah—doesn’t need to carry weapons anymore because it’s in charge.  (Houston Chronicle, July 17, 2004) Christian Parenti, in a thorough Nation article put it more bluntly: “If there is anything like ‘progress’ in Iraq it takes place here, under the radar, in the rubble of occupation.  Sadr’s followers, despite many faults, including thuggishness and misogyny, are central to creating what order there is in this ravaged ghetto.”

This assertion of Mahdi’s Army as the backbone of law and order is not a simple usurpation of power by an armed gang.  The Sadrists, like most successful guerrilla armies, are the enforcement arm of a politically controlled revolutionary movement.  Parenti provides a vivid snapshot of how this larger structure operates in his description of the Sadrist functionary in the Al Thawra district of Sadr City:

I try to meet Muqtada’s local representative, a 29-year-old sheik named Hassan Edhary, but he is on the run. The First Cav wants him, dead or alive.  His two predecessors are already in Abu Ghraib.  A few weeks ago, U.S. tanks blew up this office.  Reconstruction [of the office] started the next day at dawn.

When Edhary arrived suddenly at his office later that week, he sounded and acted very much like other politicians:

A stream of supplicants files through Edhary’s little office, asking for advice, money and letters.  One lives in an IDP (internally displaced people) camp and has no roof.  Can the organization help?  Edhary says, “I don’t have enough people to go investigate your claim.  But if you can find a religious sheik in your area to write a letter on your behalf, then come back.”

A young doctor explains that a group of medical workers has some money and wants to open a free or low-cost pharmacy to serve the people.  Can the office contribute some money?  The sheik leans close and plays with his string of black prayer beads as the young man talks.  Finally, he tells the doctor that Hussein, our hacker pal [and Parenti’s interpreter], can help the clinic with its computers.  Hussein and the doctor exchange numbers.

There are several interesting elements to this situation that help us to understand ways in which guerrilla war is essentially connected to a larger political structure.

  • Most visible is the fact that Edhary is the accepted political authority.  While such petitions, in principle, could be carried to the U.S.-appointed interim administration, in practice virtually all local residents look only to the Sadrists.
  • Almost as visible is Edhary’s extreme resource poverty.  He is unable to help a clearly worthy medical cause, except to provide donated computer advice.  This is a symptom both of the poverty of Sadr City and of the fact that the guerrilla government has no sure means of accumulating resources.  (We should note, however, that they have by and large refused to extort funds from the community through the coercive power of the al-Mahdi—a mistake some al-Mahdi soldiers made in Najaf.)
  • Somewhat less visible is the rest of the governing structure.  Edhary refers the IDP resident to his local cleric, who must validate the claim before he passes on it. This could easily be a temporizing action (like so many other public officials), but it also reveals the existence of an elaborate tribal and clerical structure that is the skeleton of the dual government.

Though the resources are meager and Edhary’s presence is made episodic by his “wanted, dead or alive” status, the dual government is nevertheless visible and accessible to the local community.  As long as his decisions are even-handed, as long as his authority is buttressed by both Mahdi’s Army and by respected community leaders, and as long as he can avoid the clutches of the Americans, Sheik Edhary will probably retain legitimacy among his constituents—a legitimacy that is aggressively withheld from the American and its appointed Interim Administration.

Law and Order in Sadr City

Sheik Edhary is one element in a much larger system of administration headed by the Tribal Council, a legislative body made up of 28 members.  The Council issued its most dramatic edict in June, 2004 in response to a year of problematic public order after the fall of Hussein.  (Though order was largely restored in the Fall of 2003 after Mahdi’s army was formed, things became much worse when the U.S. forces began their campaign to eliminate the al-Mahdis).

The new edict, circulated by leaflet throughout Sadr City, sought to reverse this trend with comprehensive bans on a daunting range of anti-social activities, all enforced by al-Mahdi’s army and punishable by death (NY Times, July 16, 2004).  Among the offenses were:

  • Street crime, notably hijacking (a favorite of street criminals who resell stolen vehicles and/or the contents of stolen trucks), kidnapping (a lucrative and widespread criminal activity targeted at prosperous citizens, who pay as much as $50,000 to redeem family members), and robbery (both from commercial sites and from individual homes).  Street crime is, by all measures, what most Iraqis consider the worst problem of post-Saddam Iraq.
  • Political crimes, including both collaboration with the U.S. government and terrorist activities.  The leaflet specifically mentioned members of Al Qaeda as well as locally bred Wahabbis and Saddam loyalists.  This should not be construed as anti-Sunni sectarianism; the Sadrists vocally and physically supported the Sunni guerrillas in Fallujah and elsewhere.
  • Moral crimes, including prostitution, pimping, pornography, gambling, and alcohol sales.  These crimes reflect the deep streak of Islamist fundamentalism that forms a core part of the Sadrist movement.

There are several noteworthy elements to this policy.  First, the list was circulated so broadly that even the American mass media took notice of it. The broad circulation reflects confidence among Sadrist leadership that the campaign would find favor with local residents.

Second, the list of crimes, particularly the moral crimes like selling liquor, was more than a little offensive to Western sensibilities.  We will address this issue at length below, but in this context, we need to point out that extremely hostility toward these moral crimes is organic to the Sadr City community, and not something imposed from the outside.

While many Iraqis are secular and oppose such laws, the Sadr City community is dominated by tribal leaders, clerics and citizens whose fundamentalist version of Islam supports such bans (even if some or most of them find the punishment excessive—see below).  For most Sadr City residents, therefore, the morality expressed in this leaflet was very resonant; it did not generate the revulsion experienced by most Western observers.

Third, capital punishment for thievery is excessive at least, while it is unimaginably brutal for gambling or selling liquor.  The Sadrists themselves preferred to use much less drastic (but often extremely brutal) means of enforcing their new legal system.  As long as the Americans controlled the larger political context, however, the Sadrists had no way to detain prisoners or punish them with normal judicial sanctions.  Their ability to threaten perpetrators therefore depended upon punishment that could be enforced without courts and jails.  Most such punishments are morally troubling.  (More on this below.)

Fourth, for most residents of Sadr City the moral crimes were secondary to the promise that Mahdi’s Army would act decisively against the most pervasive problem faced by virtually everyone in Iraq: street crime.  In a survey conducted (ironically by the American Interim Government) at about the same time, an overwhelming proportion of Baghdad residents had listed personal safety as the most important problem they faced (

Street crime (like robbery, hijacking and kidnapping) was by far the most important; IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices designed to destroy American humvees and tanks, but which all too frequently also injured or killed civilians) came a distant second; and the American troops themselves (whose reckless shooting whenever they chased guerrillas accounting for a substantial proportion of civilian injuries) was a close third.  (The devastating use of gunships and bombers had not yet begun when this survey was completed.)

Mahdi’s army was proposing to eliminate all three: by arresting and/or executing street criminals, by driving out Al Qaeda and other terrorists who were responsible for the IEDs in heavily populated areas, and by keeping the American forces out of the community (see my article on crime, ZNet July 18, 2004).

The Sadrists and Street Crime

In the next few days, the al-Mahdi army proudly advertised the results of its enforcement campaign, including the arrest of an organized ring of thieves who had been stealing from a food warehouse that services the local community.  Rather than execute these thieves, they delivered them to the Iraqi police, an option made available by their quasi-symbiotic relations with formal law enforcement. (NY Times, 7/17/04)

The complexity of the al-Mahdi policing function is illustrated by Sheik Edhary’s handling of a crisis that occurred while Michael Parenti was observing his office hours:

Some sweaty Mahdi men rush in. They’ve just busted looters with four stolen trucks full of sugar.  It turns out the trucks belong to a European NGO, not the government or some rich company.  The sheik wants the vehicles and sugar returned, via the police, to the NGO.

“We have the trucks in storage.  Can we turn them over tomorrow?” asks the rotund Mahdi man in charge of the bust.  He’s wearing a dirty football jersey.  “I am your servant.  I have given my whole life to the religion, but I really cannot do this tonight.”…

Edhary leans away from the men at his desk and snaps taut a section of his black prayer beads, then counts the little glass balls.  He is “asking God” for advice.  An even bead count means yes; odd means no. “No! No! Absolutely not,” the sheik bounces up from the desk, his outer black robe slipping from one shoulder.  He’s addressing the sweaty man. “The trucks must be returned tonight.  If the trucks do not move now we will be blamed.  Either you do it now, or just go and don’t do it at all. I will find someone else.”  The sheik is electric with stress but dignified.

“I am your servant, as you wish,” says the Mahdi guy, but he looks pissed as he and his posse sweep out to deal with the trucks.

Much is revealed here:

  • This scene underscores civilian control over Mahdi’s army.  It dispels the image of the al-Mahdi as undisciplined fanatics dictating to a cowed civilian population.  Instead, the al-Mahdi soldiers follow the orders of a religious/civil authority, much like normal urban government operations.
  • Edhary’s decision demonstrates that the guerrilla government operates within a logical legal framework.  If the owner of the trucks had been the government, or the United States, or “some rich company” (read, “non-Iraqi corporation”), then the truck and its contents could be confiscated and utilized by the guerrilla government.  Since the truck belonged to an NGO, it had to be returned.

    The apparent illogic is unraveled if we reference this fact of war: the Iraqi administration, the U.S. occupation, and the multinationals are all part of the occupying force and therefore the enemy.  Since time immemorial, warring countries have confiscated the goods of their enemy, even when they were first illegally taken by pirates or thieves.

  • Edhary’s insistence on the immediate return of the trucks reveals his politician’s concern about public opinion.  Any delay might result in community residents thinking that the guerrillas themselves were involved in the theft.  That is, Edhary is determined to convince his constituency that the local authority follows both a larger morality and its own laws.
  • Edhary’s consultation with God is more than symbolic; it represents the marriage of religion and government.  The dual government that the Sadrists are erecting is embedded in Shia Islam, and the functionaries work simultaneously as clerics and government officials.  This integration is a source of major complaint by secular Iraqis, and a key point of condemnation by the occupation.

When the Americans could not control the looting after the fall of the Hussein government, the al-Mahdi soldiers were established by local clerics as alternate law enforcement (Miami Herald, 4/13/04).  The uprising in April, 2004 transformed them into an insurrectionary Shia army, but they have retained both their police function and their subservience to civilian authority.  By Spring of 2004 their police credentials were so entrenched that the al-Mahdis often patrolled their neighborhoods or directed traffic without firearms (Washington Post, July 9, 2004).

The Sadrists and the Police

The local insurrectionary leadership cooperate with the police around issues of mutual interest (like street crime and traffic control), but unrelentingly attack the police when they participate in American attempts to enter the community or attack the guerrillas.  We have already seen that during the Summer of 2004, the police left criminal enforcement in Sadr City to the al Mahdis; and that the Sadrists delivered arrested criminals to the police rather than executing them.

If this was the carrot of cooperation, we have also seen the stick of violent confrontation.  In the aborted attempt to apprehend the suspected arms dealer, the Iraqi police drove right past the house in order to avoid the inevitable battle if they attempted to complete the operation.  In other circumstances, when the police did not or could not avoid American-sponsored operations, the al-Mahdis fought them as ferociously as they fought the Americans.  (Scott Wilson, Washington Post, 7/5/04)

In one incident, the Sadrists co-existed peacefully with an Iraqi police station until the Americans used it as a launching place for an incursion into the community.  The next day, the station was attacked and burned to the ground.

American media has repeatedly reported the unwillingness of Iraqi military forces to fight the guerrillas.  In one instance, an attempt to ambush guerrillas setting bombs was canceled because “Iraqi troops refused to participate.”  The American commander concluded “They don’t want to work,” but the same troops worked hard on other assignments.  (Washington Post, July 9, 2004).  The problem is not cowardice, but an unwillingness to engage the guerrillas.  In a rare moment of public candor, Iraqi Major Mehdi Aziz told New York Times reporter Ian Fisher, “We are not going to fight our people.”  Or, as reporter Anne Barnard wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

Police officers such as Razak Abdelkarim, 20, say that their friends and neighbors are members of the Mahdi Army and that the police cannot function without their consent.  “We are in the middle,” he said.  “If we join the Mahdi Army, the Americans will kill us, and if we go and work with the Americans, the Mahdi Army will kill us.”  (Sept.  6, 2004)

The problem of police refusing to fight guerrillas became so pervasive that it gave rise to what might be an apocryphal story of by Prime Minister Allawi, reported by Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald.  McGeough talked to three eyewitnesses to Allawi’s alleged execution of seven suspected insurgents.  According to one of the eyewitnesses:

“The prisoners were against the wall and we were standing in the courtyard when the Interior Minister said that he would like to kill them all on the spot.  Allawi said that they deserved worse than death—but then he pulled the pistol from his belt and started shooting them.”

Re-enacting the killings, one witness stood three to four metres in front of a wall and swung his outstretched arm in an even arc, left to right, jerking his wrist to mimic the recoil as each bullet was fired.  Then he raised a hand to his brow, saying: “He was very close.  Each was shot in the head.”  (7/16/04,

Whether or not this incident actually occurred, it is the rationale for the action that is most important.  One of the witnesses, defending the act, stated: “Allawi wanted to send a message to his policemen and soldiers not to be scared if they kill anyone—especially, they are not to worry about tribal revenge.  He said there would be an order from him and the Interior Ministry that all would be fully protected.”

This incident (or the myth of this incident) is persuasive testimony to the power of the guerrilla movement, not just in Sadr City, but in all the regions where the resistance has taken hold.  The Iraqi police are reluctant, resistant and even mutinous when asked to fight locally-based guerrillas because they themselves are members of the communities that nurture, protect and applaud the guerrillas.

The Sadrists and Moral Crimes

Because the Interim government is secular and because the Americans frown upon both the content and harshness of Islamist morality, the al-Mahdis cannot deliver moral violators over to the Iraqi police.  As a consequence, their ad hoc enforcement of these rules tends toward vigilantism.

This is illustrated by a July, 2004 edict that all stores in the Kadhimiya district stop selling liquor within 48 hours, adding that “alcohol, songs and prostitutes” were no longer permitted in what would henceforth be a “sacred” zone (Washington Post, 7/20/04).  This enforcement philosophy was explained by Malek Suwadi al-Mohamadawi, a tribal sheik who helped draft the original proclamation outlawing liquor sales: “If they admit they are doing something wrong and say they will give it up, this will be fine.  But if they don’t stop, they should face these punishments.”  (NY Times, 7/16/04)

In the next few days, many stores eliminated liquor from their offerings, while some of those who refused were firebombed.  At least one store owner died in these attacks.  In an even more spectacular incident, the Sadrists demolished a village known for sexual libertinism:

A Shia militia group loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr has wiped out a large village in central Iraq which refused to adhere to its puritanical creed, killing many of its inhabitants and forcing the rest to flee.  Hundreds of militiamen from the Mahdi’s Army group besieged the town of Kawali, 10 km south of the city of Diwaniya, with mortars, and smashed walls with sledgehammers three weeks ago, reducing to rubble the entire village famed for its dancers and prostitutes since the 1920s. (Financial Times, April 1, 2004)

The Sadrists made no attempt to deny their role in this demolition.  Sayid Yahya Shubari, the commander of the Mahdi’s Army in Diwaniya, told Financial Times reporter Nicolas Pelham that the al-Mahdi’s attacked “after receiving reports that pimps had kidnapped a 12-year-old girl.  ‘It was a well of debauchery, drunkenness and mafia, and they were buying and selling girls,’ he said.  He said Kawali was flattened after the villagers shot an emissary he had sent to negotiate with them.”

Once again, this was no ex cathedra activity by a self-appointed vigilante force.  FT reporter Pelham found considerable support for the destruction of Kawali among the local population:

In Diwaniya, a town where women are all but absent on the streets, many younger residents and some policemen praised the Mahdi’s Army methods as salvaging their town’s reputation.  “People would come from all over the south, and even Baghdad to dance with the Kawali girls,” said Bassam al-Najafi, a Diwaniya restaurateur.  “Women were leaving their husbands to work there.  They are cleansing the town.”

The Sadrists have a great deal of energy for eliminating moral crimes, and are willing to impose severe penalties on those who resist them.  Even taking into account their guerrilla status, which deprives them of the routinized methods of law enforcement that might make the penalties less harsh but more certain, the zeal and determination that animate these moral crusades presage a strict Islamist civil society if they consolidate their leadership in the Shia regions of Iraq.

This combination of questionable morality and murderous vigilantism is abhorrent to liberal sensibilities.  But it is also apparent is that the social base for these policies is very broad.  As the above account indicates, Diwaniya—even without Sadrist leadership—is a town were “women are all but absent on the streets,” and Sadr City has long been known for the fundamentalism of its population.  The campaigns to align local law enforcement with Islamist fundamentalism is not an imposition by a small, morally righteous, minority.

The question of religious tolerance in Sadr City and other fundamentalist areas, therefore, represents one of the enduring dilemmas of popular sovereignty in Iraq.  The Sadrists and numerous Sunni Muslim tendencies have repeatedly indicated their willingness to impose their morality on the non-believers in their communities and in the country as a whole (though they have at times enunciated a more tolerant approach to their secular neighbors).  Journalist Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation, summarized the political dilemma for Western liberals:

There is no question that Iraqis face a mounting threat from religious fanaticism, but U.S. forces won’t protect Iraqi women and minorities from it any more than they have protected Iraqis from being tortured in Abu Ghraib or bombed in Fallujah and Sadr City.  Liberation will never be a trickle-down effect of this invasion because domination, not liberation, was always its goal…Sadr is being hunted—not because he is a threat to women’s rights but because he is the single greatest threat to US military and economic control of Iraq.

Sadrists and the Terrorists

The Sadrists—and to a lesser extent, the Sunni leadership in Fallujah—have attempted to dissociate themselves from resistance fighters who utilize kidnapping, suicide bombers and other tactics designed to attack the civilian base of the Occupation.  Though the official edict quoted above listed Al Qaeda, Wahabbis and Saddamists as criminals subject to the death penalty, other pronouncements indicate that the denunciation extends to all “terrorists,” both foreign and domestic.

The Sadrist opposition to terrorism rests on much more than philosophical grounds; they view the terrorists as killing innocent civilians with bombings that fail drive the Americans out, while giving U.S. military an excuse to remain in Iraq.  Their general attitude was expressed by Aws Khafaji, a Sadrist cleric, after a day of coordinated terrorist attacks in June:

We condemn and denounce yesterday’s bombings and attacks on police centers and innocent Iraqis, which claimed about 100 lives.  These are attacks launched by suspects and lunatics who are bent on destabilizing the country and ruining the peace so that the Iraqi people will remain in need of American protection.”  (Washington Post, June 25, 2004)

A few days later, Muqtada al Sadr spoke out against beheading: “We denounce those who decapitate prisoners.  Islamic law does not permit them to do this, and anyone who does can be counted a criminal and be punished if seized” (NY Times, July 24, 2004).  A few days later, he condemned the bombing of Christian Churches.  (NY Times, Aug. 3, 2004)

Later that fall, the Sadrist freed 15 Iraqi national guards who were being held to exchange for an arrested Sadrist cleric, declaring “Kidnapping is not our style, let alone killing.  The time has not yet come for us to follow this method.”  (, Sept. 25, 2004)

Moreover, the Sadrists widely circulated a leaflet declaring their willingness to work with the police in protecting the country’s infrastructure from terrorist bombings: “The Mahdi Army is ready to cooperate actively and positively with honest elements from among the Iraqi police and other patriotic forces, to partake in safeguarding government buildings and facilities, such as hospitals, electricity plants, water, fuel and oil refineries, and any other site that might be a target for terrorist attacks.”  (Washington Post June 25, 2004)

They even aligned themselves with the Interim Administration for this endeavor.  Sayeed Rahim al-Alaq, deputy head of the committee that drafted the list of offenses described above, told New York Times reporter Fisher: “We are with the government.  We are antiterrorists.”  (July 16, 2004)

The importance of this clear denunciation of the terrorists was nicely expressed by independent reporter Rahul Mahajan:

I think that what has happened with the resistance in the last few days is really a dramatic, important and positive development.  Last week, as you know, there was a single day of violence on which over 100 people were killed.  Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s jihad claimed responsibility for it….  Across the country, anti-occupation figures—militant Sunni clerics, Muqtada al Sadr’s organization, even a representative of mujahadin in Fallujah—all made open, public statements denouncing his acts and distinguishing between terrorism committed by foreigners—much of which is directed at Iraqis—and what they call legitimate resistance.  It marks the emergence of the resistance as a political force….” ( June 28, 2004)

In Sadr City the on-the-ground policies vis-à-vis the terrorists have yet to be definitively developed.  In the absence of clear policies, the terrorists represent an ongoing threat to the viability of the resistance, since their indiscriminate attacks antagonize Iraqi citizens while providing the principal rationale for the presence of Occupation troops.

Liberated Areas and “Law and Order”

Despite important differences in religious beliefs, the proto-government in Sadr City is similar to the proto-governments that developed in Fallujah and other Sunni cites after the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004.  (For a detailed portrait of the Fallujah government before the November reconquest by the Americans, see the extraordinary series of articles by Nir Rosen in Asia Times, July 15-24, 2004.)

The Summer of 2004 saw an increasing number of liberated cities, with the American troops on the outskirts, unsuccessfully trying to reconquer them, leading to Tom Engelhardt’s elegant portrait of the new Iraqi reality:

Think of Sunni Iraq—and possibly parts of Shia Iraq as well—as a “nation” of city-state fiefdoms, each threatening to blink off [the U.S.] map of “sovereignty,” despite our 140,000 troops and our huge bases in the country” (TomDispatch, July 25, 2003).

Engelhardt also quoted Independent Reporter Robert Dreyfuss, in the passage at the beginning of this essay, to the effect that this process is in fact very far along.

While there is ample room for concern that the consolidation of al-Mahdi power might result in the forcible imposition of fundamentalist orthodoxy, there appears to be little chance that law and order would disintegrate.  Without underestimating the thuggish tendencies among the al-Mahdi (see, for example, reports from Najaf in the Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 2004), and granting that there is currently far too much street crime in Sadr City, the Sadrists are the only effective governing force in the Baghdad Shia community.

The removal of U.S. troops would allow Sadrist civilian authorities to operate openly and thus consolidate their daily supervision of the militia.  This would enhance their ability to control the excesses of the militia and systematically reduce street crime, and would almost certainly result in an orderly (perhaps too orderly) daily existence in the areas they control.

The same prognosis could have been made with even more assurance, in Fallujah and the several other Sunni cities that were off limits to the Americans during the Summer of 2004—before the U.S. upset this guerrilla-imposed order with invasions followed by ongoing battles with the resistance.

In the early winter of 2005, therefore, the choice in the Sunni areas appears to be between peacefully run cities controlled by the resistance, or chaotic, constantly disrupted cities in which large numbers of American troops prevented the guerrillas from exercising control.  In the meantime, the Kurdish provinces had a peaceful existence based on a much more fully developed form of local control, resting largely on their own militia, the pesh merga, and the two political formations that control them.

In the Shia areas of the country, the U.S. military maintains a form of technical control, but most troops are stationed outside the cites and do not pacify or disrupt daily lives.  There is no evidence to suggest that the American presence has reduced violence or prevented chaos.  In fact, accepted wisdom has been that American entry into the cities would be a disruptive, not a pacific, force.  Another form of chaos, less frequently invoked, is civil war, triggered by longstanding friction among the key groupings in Iraqi society.  Such issues as the disputes over hegemony in Kirkuk, the degree of autonomy to be granted to the Kurdish provinces, and the Sunni and Kurdish fears that Shia dominance would lead to tyranny of the majority are all real points of division that require attention whenever Iraq becomes a sovereign state.

American presence, however, can do no more than postpone resolution of these frictions.  And while there is no predicting the course of the negotiations, there is some reason to be optimistic.  The key factor is the Shia, since they are the overwhelming majority, and Ayatollah Ali al Sistani seems to be able to lead the Shia toward compromise on these issues.  (See, for example, Juan Cole’s description of negotiations between Sistani and the Kurds, or his long analysis of Sistani’s politics ( July 18, 2004; June 9, 2004)).

Ironically, the greatest barrier to Sistani’s leadership (besides the Occupation) is the soaring popularity of Muqtada al Sadr, which rests on his militant resistance to the United States.  Though the Sadrists have consistently endorsed cooperation with Sunni and Kurds, they appear to be more volatile and less committed to this stance than Sistani.

The longer the U.S. presence remains, therefore, the more the ongoing guerrilla war strengthens the position of the Sadrists and weakens the leadership of Sistani.  As a consequence, the continuing U.S. presence may be undermining the chances of a peaceful resolution on the key divisive issues in Iraqi society.

The final irony is that U.S. success against the guerrillas would almost certainly guarantee longterm chaos in Iraqi society.  The evacuation and destruction of Fallujah certainly suggests this, but the chaos there is so monumental that it is probably not typical.

The situations in Samarra, successfully reconquered by the U.S. military just before Fallujah, and Mosul—the main battleground after Fallujah—are more representative.  In each city, the fall and early winter of 2004-05 were marked by the ongoing guerrilla war, the constant disruption of city life, an absence of any orderly law enforcement, and degenerating economic and social conditions.

The U.S. effort to destroy the insurgency can only succeed if it also destroys the ability of the Iraqis to govern their own communities.  Since the local clerics and tribal leaders, from the very beginning, have been instrumental in the resistance, defeating the guerrillas involves detaining or killing the leaders who form the backbone of local civil society.

This became apparent in the Fall of 2004, before the demolition of Fallujah, when the United States failed to convince “moderates” in key cities to negotiate truce agreements that would deliver militant leaders to the Americans for arrest and punishment.  (See my “The New U.S. Strategy after the Battle of Najaf,” ZNet, Sept. 25, 2004.)

The failure of these negotiations left the U.S. military with the choice of conceding rule to the insurgents or attempting to reconquer the cities and removing the local leadership.  In Fallujah, U.S. military leadership decided that they could only accomplish this by demolishing much of the city and converting the vast majority of residents into refugees.  Contrary to the almost universally accepted mantra, the U.S. is not preventing chaos in Iraq, it is creating it.

So far, Sadr City has escaped the frontal assaults visited upon Tal Afar, Samarra, Mosul and Fallujah.  In some sense, the failure of the American military to complete the pacification of these cities may be Sadr City’s main protection, since the U.S. troops have been stretched thin by the ongoing fighting there.  Sadr City’s status as the center of Shia insurgency is another protection, since an full scale attack there could well trigger insurrections throughout the currently quiescent Shia areas of Iraq.  As this article goes to press, the U.S. military has honored a semi-official truce that keeps American troops out of the guerrilla held area, and therefore allows for the Sadrist government to continue its rule of the nascent city-state.  As long as this lasts, there will be “law and order” in Sadr City, even if the law is anti-American and the order is fundamentalist Islam. 

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics.  His work on Iraq has appeared on TomDispatch, ZNet and Asia Times, and in Z Magazine.  His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo).  His email address is

ATC 114, January-February 2005