Middle East

Oh no, not again

By Paul Belden

BAGHDAD - 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 about it.

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?

As it 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!"

All of 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.

Lieutenant Michael 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.'"

At 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 Al Fartusi."

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 arrest.

"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".
Shortly 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.

And now - for the first time - the crowd waded into politics: "No, No Chalabi!" they chanted, again and again and again. "Down, down with Chalabi!"

Earlier articles in this series:

Freedom unbound, and out of control Apr 22

All according to the notebook Apr 19

Suddenly, a war without a border Apr 18

A lady with real attitude Apr 18

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Apr 23, 2003


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