Iraqis marked the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad—and of their liberation from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny—in eerie silence and fear. Though April 9 was officially a national holiday, Baghdad’s shops were shuttered and its streets deserted because of the emergency curfew declared by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite head of Iraq’s government, who in late March attacked radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces in the southern port of Basra with no advance warning to either his cabinet or his American protectors.
As I drove through the capital in an armed convoy of vehicles with blue and red flashing lights, Baghdad was silent, save the Muslim call to prayer that ricocheted like bullets from the city’s minarets, the sound of mortars or rockets falling somewhere, and the thumping of American helicopters flying fast and low over the city. For a reporter who had not visited Baghdad since the invasion, the scene was surreal. CNN and FOX video clips of a deadly IED bombing or a burning Humvee fail to capture the scale of the destruction: the camera presents only a sliver of tragedy. But few buildings downtown remain untouched by the war or its far bloodier aftermath. And the widespread looting that coincided with my last visit, and that destroyed so much of the country’s infrastructure, has obviously continued. In the once fashionable Mansour district, the theft of steel rods from the gargantuan Mosque of the Merciful made one of its 75 domes collapse, and its other domes are also in danger.
In addition to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, the areas hardest hit by the fighting between Maliki’s government forces and Sadr’s militias are the two mainly Shiite parts of Baghdad: Sadr City, a northeastern suburb of well over 2.2 million people—known, when I first visited the capital over two decades ago, as “Saddam City” in homage to the dictator—and Shula, another stronghold of Sadr’s Mahdi Army, where over a million live. Over tea, Rahim al-Deraji, Sadr City’s mayor, told me that the more than 3 million Shiites in both districts had been suffering from food and medicine shortages since the government imposed a virtual siege on their areas last month. People couldn’t get to their jobs or buy food; no vehicles could enter or leave the enclaves, not even ambulances—the only way in or out was on foot. A statement by Iraq’s parliamentary committee on human rights last Thursday called the humanitarian crisis “acute.”
By the time the government lifted the vehicular ban in Shula about a week ago and followed suit in Sadr City for a few hours shortly afterward, the prices of food, medicine, and other necessities had soared. Bread had tripled in price. Many people remained reluctant to leave their homes, fearful of being caught in crossfire between roving gangs of young Sadr militia and the American-backed Iraqi army. On April 11, Iraqi police said that American air strikes had killed 13 people in Sadr City and that street fighting had claimed nearly 90 lives. Sadr City doctors call this a gross underestimate, and claim that the Iraqi army or American support fire killed at least 230 people.
The American military found itself in the unenviable position of supporting an Iraqi government that was firing on the same long-suffering Shiites whom the U.S. invasion five years ago was intended to free. It says that it had little choice but to back Maliki in his potentially catastrophic campaign: without American support, the Iraqi army would most likely have collapsed in Basra and stalled in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhoods as well. But several American officers and veteran students of Iraq made clear that they resented having been dragged into, at best, an ill-conceived, poorly planned confrontation, and at worst, an intrasectarian, strictly Shiite power struggle that threatens to undermine much of the ostensible progress achieved by President Bush’s surge.
A senior Iraqi official said that in demanding that Sadr’s forces and all other militias disband and turn over their weapons, Maliki was defending the rule of law and attempting to consolidate respect for the central government’s authority. He described the struggle as one more round in a proxy war between America and Iran. “It is also an integral part of the strategy of the surge,” he told me.
But on the telephone from London, Patrick Cockburn, a journalist who has visited Iraq often and who is publishing a book on Sadr this week, reinforced my hunch that the prime minister grievously erred in attacking Sadr’s forces. Maliki’s young Shia rival may be a ruthless thug, but he is also a canny survivor, as previous bloody clashes with coalition forces have unfortunately shown. Moreover, he retains a well of sympathy and support among many Shiites throughout Iraq for both his family’s valiant struggle against Saddam Hussein and his opposition to America’s “occupation.” Maliki’s move risks opening a new round of intra-Shiite warfare in Iraq’s already deeply fractured political landscape.
Indeed, as the Shiites of Sadr City were suffering from their underreported siege, General David Petraeus was warning Washington that the reduced violence that he attributed to the surge was both “fragile and reversible.” The fragility is more apparent from the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates than it is from the Potomac. In Baghdad, American soldiers and pro-American Iraqis agree that the increased number of American forces enabled what one might call “community soldiering,” after its policing equivalent. American troops were finally numerous enough to have a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood presence, which emboldened the Sunnis to turn against al-Qaida and the other violent extremists whom they had tolerated out of fear. But another key factor in the surge’s military success is surely the cease-fire that Sadr declared last September, and that he honored until Maliki attacked in Basra.
Iraqis see the attack as an effort by Maliki—and by his ally of convenience, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, another Shiite leader who heads the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq—to neuter Sadr and his more numerous, better-organized network in advance of provincial elections next October. Sadr, like the Sunnis, sat out the last contest, an error that neither is likely to repeat. The silver lining, if it is one, is that this latest, now-abating spurt of violence had no sectarian overtones. The Shiite-led government was killing militant Shiites last week, not Sunnis.
My last visit to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq in late 2006, when Baghdad and the rest of the country were still fighting al-Qaida and an anti-American insurgency, made me optimistic about what Iraqis could achieve. Despite the violence, Turkish and other foreign investment was pouring into the north, and the Kurds had managed to bury deep-seated, self-defeating political divisions. Along with the Kurds, Iraq’s Shiites also stood to benefit from Saddam’s overthrow. But now the Shia, who fought Iran when Saddam invaded a generation ago, have turned to Teheran to mediate a truce among the different Shiite factions battling it out in Basra, most of which Iran both finances and encourages.
As we Americans ponder our own election choices next fall, we should ask questions about what I saw in Iraq. Why isn’t the Maliki government spending more of its ample resources on Iraqi refugees who have been forced to flee their country and doing more to rebuild Iraq and provide essential services? If Americans are truly making not just military but political progress in this war, why are the hundreds of brave Iraqis who work with us forced to live in American-guarded compounds for protection and hide their identities behind masks and sunglasses? Why are Foreign Minister Hoshar Zebari and Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Shiite activist who lobbied Washington to topple Saddam Hussein and who is now an advisor to Maliki, the only senior political figures brave enough to live outside the protective walls of the Green Zone? And finally, does it serve America’s interests to risk further entanglement in an internal power struggle among Iraq’s Shiites, who constitute some 70 percent of the people?