Oh no, not
By Paul Belden
- On Friday it took a fiery sermon by the Sunni cleric
Dr Ahmad Al Qubaisee to unleash Baghdad's full-throated
Muslim religious fury at US occupation forces.
On Monday, they didn't need a cleric at all.
Or, make that, rather, that they did need
a cleric. To be precise, they needed the Shi'ite
Ayatollah Muhammed Al Fartuzi - and they needed him now.
Trouble was, nobody seemed to know where he was.
In what is quickly becoming a recurring metaphor
for the multi-layered political and religious paradox in
which the United States finds itself deeply immersed in
Iraq, Monday and Tuesday afternoon witnessed an angry
throng of chanting Muslims facing down a badly
outnumbered US military contingent in Baghdad, with the
poor soldiers sitting there in harm's way having not the
least clue as to why this was happening or what to do
The first sign of trouble was not
something you'd normally take much notice of in
Baghdad's post-invasion chaotic sprawl: a snarled
traffic jam at the circular park in the Karada district
where life-sized statues of the leaders of the Ba'ath
Revolution still stand surveying their now-blasted
accomplishments with chin-lifted pride. The cause of the
jam soon became apparent: several large flatbed trucks
trying to nose their way through the traffic circle in
the direction of the river several blocks away.
But the flatbeds were decorated with
green-and-black flags, and they were filled to the brim
with chanting fist-waving Shi'ites. Something here
wasn't right. If they were trying to get to Karbala,
they were a little late: the culmination of the annual
pilgrimage was set for the next day. And weren't they
supposed to be walking to Karbala anyway?
turned out, Karbala wasn't their destination. About 4pm
on Monday, two separate armies of the faithful riding in
flatbeds and flying green-and-black flags converged like
two rivers flowing from opposite directions in front of
the Palestine Hotel, the psychological center of the
occupation forces in Baghdad. At the order of a cleric
with a megaphone, they immediately dismounted, formed in
ranks in the street and began chanting, in unison, "We
want our leader Muhammed Al Fartusi!"
this hit the soldiers guarding the Palestine Hotel
behind double-stacked rolls of concertina wire without
warning. The soldiers could only stare and check their
weapons as the demonstrators shook their fists and
chanted, in Arabic, "No, No for America! Yes, Yes for Al
Howza [the supreme Shi'ite religious council in Iraq]!
Yes, Yes for Fartusi!"
With a clash of gears and
a roar of its engines, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle backed
and spun until its machine-gun faced the crowd. Not
wanting a bloodbath, a line of clerics responded by
joining hands in front of the demonstrators to prevent
them from rushing the wire.
There were many
stories circulating in the crowd of demonstrators as to
what had happened to Al Fartusi, the Baghdad
representative of Al Howza. "The ayatollah was moving in
the night, and the colonial army arrested him in Dourra
[an industrial neighborhood in southern Baghdad] for
violating the ban on movement last night. We don't know
where he is, but we want him released." Another man said
he had heard that the cleric had been picked up not in
Dourra, but somewhere on the highway between Baghdad and
Karbala. This man said the sheikh had been found with a
gun. "But the US forces promised that the problem would
be solved within four hours, but that was at 11 o'clock
this morning. And we still haven't seen him."
The demonstrators were overwhelmingly poor
Shi'ites from the slum area of Baghdad formerly known as
Saddam City and now called Al Sadr City after the late
Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam
Hussein in 1980. There were many portraits of Al Sadr in
the crowd, with his flowing white beard, as well the
black-bearded Prince Hussein, the martyred hero of
Karbala. "They took Mohammed Al Fartusi, and they have
to return him," they chanted.
Jones, the executive officer in charge of the sector,
arrived on the scene and radioed to his superiors the
demands of the crowd. But there was no help to be had
from that quarter: "They said, 'Who?' So, hell - I got
stuck with it. And I don't know who this guy [Al
Fartusi] is, either. I wanted to tell [the
demonstrators], 'Hey, look around - do you see him here
anywhere? Because I don't have him, man.'"
one point, a cleric whom the demonstrators recognized
stood up on a post to address the crowd, and they stood
up with fists waving and rushed forward, pressing up
against the wire and bending it back. The cleric was
persuaded to step down, and the crowd soon moved off to
the west down Al Saadun Street. "We have no problems
with the Americans," said another cleric who was helping
to get the crowd moving away from the US checkpoint. "We
want this understood. Their war against Saddam is
nothing to do with us. But we want our leader Muhammed
But the next day they were back, in
even greater numbers, and with an enlarged theme as
well. The previous day, there had been no distinct
political tone to the protests, other than that
expressed by the chant: "The Iraqi people will choose
their leader - no other!" But now the crowd focused its
anger more directly against the policy of arbitrary
"Down with the jails and the prisons!"
said Dhafer Al Sannaf, a man in his twenties who had
made the trip from Adhimiya to join the protest. "This
was the way of Saddam. Now it is the way of America,
too. We're fed up with this." About noon on Monday, an
imam took the megaphone and shouted that Fartusi had
been tortured by coalition forces. "We will not be
silent!" he screamed, and the crowd boomed back: "WE
WILL NOT BE SILENT!" A man held up a small hand-lettered
sign that read: "No, No for Detention".
after noon, an Iraqi man standing on the US side of the
concertina wire stood up on a post and announced that Al
Fartusi had been released, "because of the actions of
this gathering." The man, who was wearing an expensive
suit, turned out to be Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the
erstwhile mayor of Baghdad and a follower of Ahmed
Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress.
- for the first time - the crowd waded into politics:
"No, No Chalabi!" they chanted, again and again and
again. "Down, down with Chalabi!"
articles in this series:
unbound, and out of control Apr 22
according to the notebook Apr 19
a war without a border Apr 18
lady with real attitude Apr 18
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