Feature: Marines walk tightrope in Najaf

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent   |   July 29, 2003 at 10:31 AM   |   0 comments

NAJAF, Iraq, July 28 (UPI) -- Moqtada Sadr is an angry young man. He is also a suspect in a double murder investigation, but that's not official yet. For now he is simply a pest.

He is a pest to the point the U.S. First Marine Division has, just for him, designed a psychological operations campaign, which they are relatively quiet about. They don't want to confer the legitimacy as an anti-American firebrand that he seems to crave. So they publicly ignore him and in subtle ways undermine him where they can.

"He's more of an annoyance than a threat," says Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, the commander of the Marines' 1st battalion, 7th regiment, in residence at a dusty technical college on the outskirts of the city.

Conlin doesn't look like your stereotypical Marine. He's lithe and small, with thick black brows that arch over clear gray eyes and make him look perpetually bemused. Conlin is credited by both headquarters and the lowest grunt in his unit for his deft touch with the notoriously touchy Iraqis. The city, the spiritual center for Shiites the world over, should have been a powder keg for the U.S. occupiers. Instead it has been an oasis of tranquility relative to Baghdad, just 60 miles to the north.

Take last Sunday: Some 4,000 of Sadr's supporters (though Sadr says there were 10,000) staged a demonstration on the college that serves as home to the small military team charged with restoring Najaf. It holds the tomb of Ali, who, as the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammad, is the martyred father of Shiites.

Conlin is all for pubic demonstrations -- what better way to practice democracy? But this one was getting ugly. Marines in town had been roughed up and a quick reaction force had to be called out to guard the barracks.

Conlin has worked long and hard to win the trust of the people of Najaf through his soft-power approach: His Marines don't wear body armor when they are out in town. They pass out candy to kids. They take off their sunglasses when talking to people, so they can look into the Americans' eyes and know they are not threat. It works. Not a single Marine has died in Iraq from hostile fire since April 20. The Army has lost nearly 40 soldiers over the same period.

These demonstrators -- hooligans, by Conlin's estimation -- were not from Najaf. They had come in buses and cars from Baghdad and Falluja at Sadr's urging, specifically to cause trouble.

The Friday before, Sadr preached at the nearby Kufa mosque against the Americans, feeding the fears and hostility of his predominantly out-of-town congregation. Before they boarded buses for home, some of them beat up a newly minted blue-shirted Kufa police officer who had been directing traffic.

On Saturday, Sadr called the local television station -- there is only one -- with a cry for help. His house, the house of his late and beloved father, was under siege by the Marines. They had surrounded him and were going to take him to jail, or worse.

The station manager aired the report, despite the fact his reporters on the scene were unable to detect an American presence, Conlin said.

"We don't even know where he lives," he said. "We weren't there."

Sadr's followers came to his rescue the next day, marching on the partially built university that serves as home to the government support team, soldiers and Marines overseeing the rebuilding of hospitals, schools, roads, sewers, electricity and much more.

As the crowd surged toward the compound singing songs in praise of Sadr, Conlin had his Marines sing back to them the songs they use to keep time when running. Not the bawdy ones, he noted with a sheepish smile.

"We were trying to orchestrate a theater of the absurd," Conlin laughs.

But when the crowd turned angry, he ordered the guards to "fix bayonets" -- strap a knife to the end of their rifles and prepare for hand-to-hand combat. It would kill fewer people than using the guns. If these demonstrators wanted trouble, they were going to get it.

"You don't hear that order every day," one of his officers laughed later. "Pretty much not since World War II."

The threat of bayonets did the trick. The crowd, made up of young men who have lived with the constant threat of violence under the Saddam Hussein's Baathists for so many years, backed down, and Conlin told them his men did not surround the house.

"You write up your statements, and I'll write up mine, and we'll present them to Sestani (the leading cleric in the area) and let him decide," Conlin told the demonstrators. They did not take him up on his offer.

They boarded their buses for the north -- many for "Sadr city" the vast Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad, but not before Sadr had accomplished his goal. The dramatic footage from the protest condemning the U.S. occupation of Iraq was broadcast around the world on CNN and al-Jazeera. Sadr was now one to watch in the eyes of the media.

The station manager, apparently in league with Sadr, resigned his post Monday. The Marines found out he was pocketing a large percentage of the generous salaries they had arranged for the 42 employees in an attempt to kick start a free media. He was given a choice: Retract the statement and resign, or they would tell the staff about the money he had been stealing from them. He recanted the report and quit his job.

Back at the Marine post, the crowd had trampled a local farmer's new crop and broken his irrigation pipes. The Marines paid for their repair.

"He's got little green shoots already, did you see it?" Conlin said.


Sadr says he is 30, but he's probably closer to 22, military officials say. In the Western world where youth is so highly prized, people shave years from their ages. Here in Shiite country it is age and its attendant wisdom that carry the day. Sadr is not content to wait.

He fled to Qum, Iran, four years ago after his father, the respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadr, was assassinated. He was until his death the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites.

For people in the United States, Shiism has been defined since the 1970s by the images of the revolution and hostage crisis in Iran, by the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon.

But in Iraq, Shiism is far more nuanced. It's core teachings advocate peace and universal justice, and there is a strong tradition of separating church and state -- in part because the Shiites have never had power and have been repressed. They want the freedom to practice their religion without harassment and to conduct their own affairs without interference from the government.

Although they make up an estimated 60 percent of the population in Iraq, the largely rural group have never had power with any of the rulers in Baghdad -- not the Ottoman Empire, not under the British and their puppet kings and certainly not with Saddam.

Indeed, they were brutally victimized by the regime over the years, but the campaign of terror stepped up after the Gulf War. The Shiites -- thinking they would have U.S. military backing -- rose up against Saddam. The response, led by his younger son, Qusay, was overwhelming and immediate. Probably more than 100,000 Shiites were killed, including the then-Grand Ayatollah Abdul Qassim al-Khoei. Mass graves are still being found.

Shiism is a belief that confers power by consensus on the most learned scholar of the religion rather than on the most popular or charismatic preacher. It's good to draw a crowd on Friday, but the key to influence in the religion is wisdom, study and scholarly works interpreting the Koran.

It was this way the elder Sadr captured the loyalty of Iraq's Shiites after his predecessor was assassinated by Saddam following the Gulf War. Sadr advocated a total reformation of the government and a redistribution of wealth, and rose to the exalted state of grand ayatollah. He refused, however, to seize political control as he adhered to the Shiite tradition of keeping clerics and politics separated.

Beloved and respected, it did not take long for him to bring the weight of Baghdad down on his house. He and his two sons were killed by the regime in 1996. His wife and other children, including his young son Moqtada, escaped to Iran.

Sadr was succeeded by the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sestani, who at 72 still holds the position. He has continued the elder Sadr's practice of eschewing politics and is revered by Shiites all over.

The now-bearded, slightly overweight Moqtada returned to Najaf in early April, days after it was liberated from Saddam's grip by U.S. forces.

No one in the U.S. military establishment is quite sure when he began preaching at the Kufa mosque, across town from the major Ali mosque.

But Moqtada was not the only son of an important cleric to return to Najaf.

Abdul Majid al-Khoei went home April 3 with the help of U.S. Special Forces. He was the son of the Grand Ayatollah Abdul Qassim al-Khoei, who was assassinated in 1991.

Abdul Majid fled to London, where over the next decade he would befriend Prime Minister Tony Blair and the U.S. government, who saw in him the moderate voice of Shiism they needed to set Iraq's majority demographic on the pro-U.S. path.

On April 10, al-Khoei went to the Mosque of Imam Ali. The mosque was built over the tomb of Ali, the caliph who had been assassinated by religious and political enemies after evening prayers in a Kufa mosque. Religious tradition says just before he died he requested that his body be strapped to the back of a camel and buried wherever the camel first knelt. That was Najaf.

A decade later it was the slaughter in Karbala of his son, Hussein -- the grandson of the prophet -- that caused the great schism in Islam in 680 A.D. The followers of Ali and Hussein believed that leadership of Islam should be traced by bloodlines back to the prophet, and that the religion should be characterized by piety, simplicity and justice. They were repulsed at the killing of Mohammed's grandson and broke away from the orthodox Sunni branch.

Today, the gold-domed Imam Ali mosque is contained in a high-walled courtyard, the outer walls decorated with mosaics and punctuated by grand arches. Fatwas, or directives from the leaders, are posted on bulletin boards outside.

Outside the doorways to the inner sanctum is a plaza that serves as marketplace and town square. On April 10, al-Khoei made what he hoped to be a triumphant and peaceful return to the mosque. He came, his followers said at the time, to negotiate the handover of the mosque intact for the safe exit of the Baathists who controlled it.

Exactly what happened next remains unclear, and the joint military-Najaf police investigation is ongoing. But a few minutes after al-Khoei arrived to make peace with Haider al-Kadr, an employee of Saddam's ministry of religion, the crowd turned angry and hacked them both to death.

The Baathists were initially blamed, and indeed merchants in the square still believe Saddam's followers killed the men, they said in interviews with United Press International. But Sadr is on the short list of suspects being investigated as well, U.S. military officials confirm, on the condition of anonymity.

Three days later, on April 13, Najaf threatened to break out in violence again. About 100 members of a newly organized group known as Jamaat-e-Sadr-Thani converged on the house of the Grand Ayatollah al-Sestani, demanding he leave the city. The siege lasted three days; media reports indicate al-Sestani was secreted in a safe house and was never in immediate danger. Clerics from the five-member Hawza -- who oversee religious instruction at the more than 500 religious schools in Najaf and are akin to a council of cardinals -- eventually sent the group home without incident.

Sestani remains in Najaf. His home is in a crowded alley a few yards from the mosque of Imam Ali. But he does not appear publicly and communicates with his followers through his writing and the Hawza.

The Hawza stepped in again to help calm the demonstrators at the U.S. compound last week.

"They definitely don't love us, but they see us as useful," a Marine operations officer told UPI. "They know that the sooner things are on track here the sooner we will leave."


"Sadr wants to be the guy that America picks on," an intelligence officer told UPI.

If he can't claim age, scholarship and wisdom as his calling cards, he seems willing to embrace demagoguery, the officer and others said. They refuse to give him either the legitimacy or the satisfaction.

"He's possibly trying to provoke an overreaction" from U.S. forces, to give him ammunition to rally his supporters," the officer said. "The trick is to try to shut him down without it looking like we are.

"He's like a Chihuahua. If you ignore him he'll stop barking."

By Wednesday, the plan was in place. Conlin would not allow Najaf's peace to be shattered by Sadr, and he had appealed to the Hawza and the newly installed city council for help. He would handle the security end of things if they would do what they could to discourage violence Friday.

He arranged for multiple teams of military and Iraqi police to be on the main roads all night, checking cars and buses for weapons. They turned back 20 buses that displayed banners advocating an uprising or that didn't have registration papers. They arrested nine people -- all with guns without permits -- and confiscated 19 weapons, mostly AK-47s, which one officer likened to "man jewelry."

"Every guy around here has an AK except the police," he said.

Their orders were explicit: Root out the troublemakers but don't impede access to Sadr.

A small Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle was deployed to keep an eye on the crowds with streaming video, piped directly back to headquarters, to give early warning if something were about to happen.

"We're going to make the streets here look blue with police officers," Conlin told his staff Thursday night, wearing faded and dusty sand-colored camouflage. "Before they see tan they should see blue."

But Conlin's approach wasn't a total crackdown. On Friday morning, he set up a giant water truck, so any protesters who arrived at his gates could slake their thirst. On Thursday night, he deployed a team of 150 Iraqis, 15 tractors and three dump trucks to clean the main streets connecting the Mosque of Imam Ali to the U.S. compound.

Not accidentally, Sadr preaches not at the Ali mosque but in Kufa, across town.

"It's another way of marginalizing him," Conlin explained.

Another controversial imam, Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has begun preaching at the Ali Mosque every Friday. He also just returned from Iran in April but to a lukewarm reception from Najaf. Posters announcing his arrival are plastered all over the city. He said 20,000 came out to greet him, but Conlin said it was more like 2,000. They were respectful but more curious than anything else.

"To tell you the truth, no one really cared. He looked a hell of a lot like Saddam when he would come through, new white cars, flowing robes, his picture everywhere," an intelligence officer said.

Older and with more credentials, he and Sadr have been locked in something the Marines refer to as "the battle of the mosques," each busing in their supporters from parts north to pack the services and gain fame for their sermons.

Najaf is like the song about New York, Conlin explained.

"If you can make it here, ..." he smiled.

The battalion executive officer, a stocky bald Marine named Maj. Rick Hall, put it this way: "He has force and political backing. But what he doesn't have is religious background. That's why he is in Najaf and not up in Sadr City. He knows he has power in Sadr City."

In this Friday's competition with Hakim, Sadr definitely won: some 11,000 people showed to hear him at the Kufa mosque. Fewer than 2,000 came out for Al Hakim, Conlin said.

But neither of the imams seem to be a threat to Sestani's pre-eminence in the eyes of Najaf. Sestani, after all, was the one who stayed with them during the Saddam's rule.

In the messages Marines have been carrying to their contacts in town this week, they never mention Sadr by name, to avoid legitimizing him as a threat, and to deny him the ability to cry martyr. If he does not have the age or experience to be taken seriously in Najaf as a religious power, they refuse to give him political traction as an anti-U.S. force.

"Sadr certainly presents a threat of violence to the coalition, but he presents a far more serious threat to Shia, to their ability to get things done," Conlin said.

Unlike in the more restive parts of Iraq -- around Baghdad, in the so-called Sunni Triangle -- Najaf and the southern cities under Marine control are making progress. They are relatively secure -- women walk the streets where children play free from fear. The Marines on patrol do so unmolested and are mostly welcomed. If there is a barometer of the people's sentiment, said Lt. Michael Mullins, a logistics officer, it is the older kids. Little children will always wave, because Marines are the source of candy and soccer balls. But kids above the age of 9 of 10 understand what their parents tell them about the Americans. If they wave and greet the Marines, things are OK. It can change from day to day, Mullins said.

There are big problems, to be sure: Fuel lines are long and never seem to move and there are rumors the United States is stealing Iraqi oil. Jobs are few. But things are improving slowly, Conlin insists.

"From what they were telling us we were going to have ourselves a bit of a Dien Bien Phu. It was going to be the last-ditch fight of this battalion as we held out for reinforcements," he said. "Instead of having to shoot at people we were able to work with people and get things solved."

Early Friday morning, checkpoint guards reported more than 150 buses had made it to Najaf for Sunday services, nearly all of them -- the 11,000 -- bound for Sadr's Kufa mosque and, they worried, to the concertina-wired perimeter of the college.

Conlin had learned from city elders they were planning a counter-demonstration. He thanked them but discouraged it. Although he appreciated the sentiment, the last thing he wanted was for the two groups to clash, which would force his Marines into the fray.

Around noon, when prayers had begun, Conlin wondered aloud where the media were. Just a few days ago, they were out in force, documenting every angry, screaming face in the crowd and the stoic Marines who stood against them. Television news quickly provided an answer. Journalists in Baghdad had been invited to view the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein. There was a bigger story.

The morning started quietly. Sources inside the mosque told Marine intelligence that Sadr's hourlong speech had been almost entirely political. He had insisted the Marines had surrounded his house. He railed against the national governing council appointed by Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer. He complained about the checkpoints. But he told his congregation to go home over the Kufa bridge -- a route that would take them straight back to Baghdad, rather than through Najaf and toward the Marines.

There would be no demonstration.

By 3 p.m., the shrine district was largely empty, most people having gone inside for lunch and rest during the hottest part of the day. Merchants selling figs, dates, sodas and pictures of Sestani outside the Ali mosque gathered to talk about Sadr.

"He's a good religious man," one said. The troubles last week came from Baathists, they insisted.

Police officers said much the same thing.

"We respect him. Sadr believes in peace. He is not a dangerous man, but some of his followers are," said Ibrahim Karim, 20. "All the people off Najaf are peaceful. But people of Baghdad and Fallujah invade Najaf."

Another officer added, "We know around here they want to make prayers. We ask the U.S. forces to be patient. And yes they are patient right now."

With the tension of the day draining away, Conlin was able to declare it a success -- but said the credit went to the city of Najaf.

"This is their victory," Conlin said, on a break from periodic forays into the city, and from the radio room that collected reports from reconnaissance units in town. "Najaf has come a long way."

Conlin is convinced Sadr's quest for power and influence will continue to be a problem.

"But what's good is the city stood up and he backed down," Conlin said.

Whether it was because the religious elders had warned Sadr not to cause trouble, or because the Marine campaign to subtly marginalize him worked -- or if Sadr was media savvy enough to know they were not leaving Baghdad to cover his protest -- Conlin could not say. What's important is he proved there is another way for the military to counter violence in Iraq than with bayonets and bullets.

"It's an indication it doesn't have to look like Falluja," Conlin said, a reference to the city to the north that seethes with violent demonstrations and attacks on U.S. soldiers.

At the night's staff meeting, Conlin handed out congratulations for a job well done -- the protest that wasn't.

Said one of staff member to another, as the meeting wound to a close: "They have it easier up there in Falluja. They just go and get the bad guys. We're down here treading water."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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