/ / Language: English / Genre:nonf_publicism,


Nir Rosen

Nir Rosen’s Aftermath, an extraordinary feat of reporting, follows the contagious spread of radicalism and sectarian violence that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing civil war have unleashed in the Muslim world. Rosen—who the Weekly Standard once bitterly complained has “great access to the Baathists and jihadists who make up the Iraqi insurgency”— has spent nearly a decade among warriors and militants who have been challenging American power in the Muslim world. In Aftermath, he tells their story, showing the other side of the U.S. war on terror, traveling from the battle-scarred streets of Baghdad to the alleys, villages, refugee camps, mosques, and killing grounds of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and finally Afghanistan, where Rosen has a terrifying encounter with the Taliban as their “guest,” and witnesses the new Obama surge fizzling in southern Afghanistan. Rosen was one of the few Westerners to venture inside the mosques of Baghdad to witness the first stirrings of sectarian hatred in the months after the U.S. invasion. He shows how weapons, tactics, and sectarian ideas from the civil war in Iraq penetrated neighboring countries and threatened their stability, especially Lebanon and Jordan, where new jihadist groups mushroomed. Moreover, he shows that the spread of violence at the street level is often the consequence of specific policies hatched in Washington, D.C. Rosen offers a seminal and provocative account of the surge, told from the perspective of U.S. troops on the ground, the Iraqi security forces, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents that were both allies and adversaries. He also tells the story of what happened to these militias once they outlived their usefulness to the Americans. Aftermath is both a unique personal history and an unsparing account of what America has wrought in Iraq and the region. The result is a hair-raising, 360-degree view of the modern battlefield its consequent humanitarian catastrophe, and the reality of counterinsurgency. From Booklist This could not be a more timely or trenchant examination of the repercussions of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Journalist Rosen has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Harper’s, among other publications, and authored In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (2006). His on-the-ground experience in the Middle East has given him the extensive contact network and deep knowledge—advantages that have evaded many, stymied by the great dangers and logistical nightmares of reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. This work is based on seven years of reporting focused on how U.S. involvement in Iraq set off a continuing chain of unintended consequences, especially the spread of radicalism and violence in the Middle East. Rosen offers a balanced answer to the abiding question of whether our involvement was worth it. Many of his points have been made by others, but Rosen’s accounts of his own reactions to what he’s witnessed and how he tracked down his stories are absolutely spellbinding. — Connie Fletcher

Nir Rosen


Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World

To my mother and father for making me who I am,

To Tiffany, my love, my challenge,

To Dakota, may you defy the world

the way you defy me.


“A searing, first-hand account of the consequences of America’s ‘war on terrorism’ by one of the most respected voices on the Middle East. Honest, fearless, devastating. No one but Nir Rosen could have written this book.”

—Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism

“A brilliantly told story of post invasion Iraq—and the Middle East’s descent into a sectarian hell mess we’ll all pay for generations to come. There’s no one out there more courageous or better equipped to tell it than Nir Rosen. And when Rosen speaks, I listen.”

—Robert Baer, author of See No Evil

“Nir Rosen has been reporting from Iraq for years the way it should be reported—from the inside out. He spends his time in Iraq not at American news conferences in the secure Green Zone, but in the villages and cities of the battered nation, interviewing the victims of Saddam Hussein as well as the victims of our seven-year-old war. His dispatches, and this book, reflect the madness of the mission.”

—Seymour Hersh

“Nir Rosen is always provocative—he makes you see another side of an issue. In Aftermath, Rosen, at great personal risk, captured how Iraqis, Lebanese and Afghans from across society view U.S. actions in their nations. You may disagree and you will probably be angry, but if you wish to understand these conflicts and their impacts into the future, you need to read this book.”

—Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), author, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century

“For Americans, the story of U.S. military involvement in the Islamic world centers on ‘us’ not ‘them,’ with Afghans and Iraqis cast as victims or bystanders. In this brilliantly reported and deeply humane book, Nir Rosen demolishes this self-serving picture, depicting the relationship between the occupied and the occupiers in all its nuanced complexity.”

—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

“If you think you understand the war in Iraq, or just think you should try to, read this book. This is a deep dive through the last seven years of America’s foray into the Middle East. No one will agree with everything here, but anyone interested in what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan will benefit from reading it.”

—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Gamble

“The world would be a more dangerous place without Nir Rosen’s Aftermath. His bracing recounting of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent insurgency, and blunt dissection of the myths surrounding the surge are an essential antidote to the complacency that has set in as America exits Iraq—and which could lead to similar debacles in the future.”

—Parag Khanna, author of The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century

Aftermath is a masterwork, the product of a life devoted to a relentless pursuit of the knowledge and understanding of strange men who walk in nearly unimaginable paths across the far places of the world. I first met Nir Rosen when we sat together on a panel discussion on the ‘Newshour.’ I wondered then how this quiet young man could have acquired so much expertise so early in life. By the time of our next meeting years later I had learned of his incredible persistence and willingness to go and sit among those whom most of us would fear to meet at all. Over the years I have come to expect to hear from him or of him in his wanderings in places so perilous that one would expect that only soldiers would venture there. Nir Rosen’s marvelous book is the record of the disaster that ignorance, often willful ignorance produced in Iraq, continues to produce in Afghanistan and is likely to produce in places like Yemen and Somalia. Read Aftermath and hope not to repeat this history.”

—Colonel Walter Patrick “Pat” Lang, United States Army (Ret.), former executive at the Defense Intelligence Agency

“It is a painful experience to read Nir Rosen’s highly informed account of the destruction of Iraq and the spread of the plague of sectarian violence incited by the invasion to Lebanon and beyond. The image this meticulously detailed rendition brings to mind is of a brutal ignoramus wielding a sledgehammer to smash a complex structure he does not understand, with unpredictable but predictably awful consequences. Amazingly, Rosen finds rays of hope in the ruins. No less compelling, and distressing, is his vivid account of his experiences in Taliban-controlled territory. An indispensable contribution to the understanding of great contemporary tragedies.”

—Noam Chomsky

“Nir Rosen has almost single handedly rescued the name of journalism in the Middle East from a class of reporters who function as courtiers and propagandists for the military and our political elite. Rosen’s fierce independence and honesty, as well as an ability to see the wars we are fighting from all sides, make his book exceptional for its nuance, complexity and insight into our bloody march through the Muslim world. Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World is a stark, unvarnished account of the folly of empire, the futility of violence as an instrument of reform and democracy and the gross ineptitude of our political and military class. Rosen lays before his readers the anguished voices and experiences of those we occupy. He does this with a sensitivity and cultural literacy that is as rare as it is essential. Aftermath is one of the most important contemporary accounts of America’s misguided ‘war on terror.’”

—Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Empire of Illusion

“Nir Rosen has written a deeply reported, authoritative account of the American occupation of Iraq and the regional fallout from that adventure. Aftermath deepens our understanding of the events of the troubled past decade in a rich and satisfying manner. Rosen also gives voice, character and nuance to the Iraqi side of the story, which very few have had the courage or ability to do.”

—Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., and The Osama bin Laden I Know

“As a reporter, Nir Rosen scares the dickens out of me. He’s willing to go where few will follow and to give voice to those who are rarely heard. His reporting is all the more precious because of it.”

—Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower

Also by Nir Rosen

In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq


Gentlemen, you have transformed
our country into a graveyard
You have planted bullets in our heads,
and organized massacres
Gentlemen, nothing passes like that
without account
All what you have done
to our people is
registered in notebooks

—Mahmoud Darwish

Translation: As‘ad Abu Khalil

Research support for this book was provided by







Part One




ABDEL SATTAR AL-MUSAWI’S DECOMPOSED REMAINS LAY ON THE ground above his grave. His older brothers sat beside them, holding them, crying. Although he had been arrested in 1998 and killed in 2001, they had just learned of his death three days earlier, and now they had come to claim his body. “His crime was loving freedom,” said his friend Abdel Karim, who had come to find his own brother too.

It was April 2003, and I was beginning my career as a journalist. I had been in Iraq for only a few weeks, and I thought nothing good would come of the war: it was predicated on lies, and would subvert democracy and law at home as well as abroad. I was skeptical that a foreign occupation would be welcomed by Iraqis, and I knew that the American civilian and military leaders were ill prepared to understand a different culture, especially a Muslim one, and especially after the trauma of September 11. But I had come to Iraq wanting to give a voice to Iraqis, and this meant restraining my views and listening. As Iraqis rubbed their eyes and awoke to the new reality in a mix of shock, depression, and euphoria, I was as confused as they were; nothing seemed black-and-white.

With the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of thousands of political prisoners were finally being revealed to their families. Iraqis could find files on their loved ones and discover what had become of their fate. More often than not, the news was not good.

Several dozen members of the Musawi family had come to claim four of their brethren from the Karkh cemetery. The cemetery, in Haswa, just outside Baghdad, entombed political prisoners, many of whom had been murdered at the nearby Abu Ghraib prison. All four murdered members of the Musawi family were cousins: Abdel Sattar al-Musawi, born in 1966, hailed from the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad and was married with two children; Salah Hadi al-Musawi, born in 1974, was from Baghdad’s Thawra neighborhood; Salah Hasan al-Musawi, born in 1971, was also from Thawra, as was Saad Qasim al-Musawi, born in 1967, who was married with six children. The body of family friend Qasim Ahmad al-Maliki was here too. He was Abdel Sattar’s age, from Thawra as well, married, with no children. All had been killed in 2001. “They were killed for no reason,” a friend of the Musawis explained. “There was no justice, no court, no defense.”

The Musawis had traveled by bus and in a pickup truck. They carried with them flimsy wooden coffins made of boards and a black flag of mourning. At seven in the morning, they were the first family in the cemetery that day. The dafan, or grave digger, Muhamad Muslim Muhamad, was a small man in sweatpants with a buttoned shirt tucked in. He assisted with an obsequious eagerness, and I suspected that he was compensating for an unconfessed complicity in the crimes he helped bury.

Karkh was the size of a football field, surrounded by a brick wall fringed with eucalyptus trees. The ground was a sandy gray, with mounds to mark the shallow graves. Some of the mounds had holes burrowed into them where animals had fed on the corpses. On a stick in each mound was a card with a number on it. The Musawi family had the plot numbers for their dead, and Muhamad led them to the first one, casually strutting over other graves. It belonged to Abdel Sattar. When the family found the grave, the previously silent men collapsed in loud sobs. They kneeled on the ground and clung to one another, quieting down only when the grave digger began to undo his work. They watched in an apprehensive and lachrymose silence. Perhaps they still hoped that the grave would be empty? The digging slowed as the earth being removed turned to a wet, dark red, as if stained with blood. Muhamad abandoned his shovel and used his hands. Abdel Sattar’s exhumed body was the color of the earth, thin and dry. Amid calls for “my brother!” his body was placed on a plastic sheet and wrapped in a kiffin, or white cloth. It was then placed in the wooden coffin to await the trip to Najaf, south of Baghdad, where it would be buried in the City of Peace—the biggest cemetery in the world outside China, and the preferred burial site for all Shiites.

As Abdel Sattar’s brothers and a handful of others remained by his coffin, the rest of the family moved on to another cousin’s grave. The body emerged in separate pieces, and the bones were placed together in a pile around the skull. By nine in the morning six other families had arrived to reclaim their loved ones, and their wailing cries could be heard from all corners of the cemetery. I couldn’t help but cry too. Abdel Sattar’s former employer was also present. “He was a lovely boy,” he said. I asked if this had happened to many people he knew. He gestured behind him to the hundreds of graves and said, “See for yourself.”

I felt ashamed to be intruding on the Musawis’ private pain, and I sobbed with them. One month into my career as a journalist, I was not yet able to watch other people’s pain without participating in it.

Hussein al-Musawi told me he had served time in the Saddam City security prison with his four murdered cousins. He was jailed for seventy days beginning in July 2001 because the regime had learned that in 1991, after the failed uprising against Saddam following his defeat by the Americans, a relative of the family attempted to defect to Iran. The relative had visited Abdel Sattar before escaping, and this was the cause of the Musawi family’s suffering: eleven men were arrested. In prison Hussein’s interrogators had tortured him with electricity. They had tied his hands behind his back and hung him from them, dislocating his shoulders. And they had beaten him with cables and metal rods until he was drenched in his own blood. At the cemetery he told me he would still be able to recognize the faces of the security officers who had done this to them. “If I saw them I would seek revenge,” Hussein said. “I would eat them.”

Before leaving the cemetery, several men of the Musawi family voiced their resentment toward the Arab press. “They were a part of these crimes,” one said. “They covered it up. They always said Saddam was a hero, and they took his money.”

Baghdad—City of Decay

The Musawis had not known whether their lost sons were dead or alive until three days before they dug up the bodies. They received the information from a remarkable organization called the Association of Free Prisoners. Located in the confiscated riverside villa of a former security official in the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad, the Association formed right after the war ended. Muhamad Jamal Abdel Amir, a twenty-eight-year-old volunteer, explained that the Association was created by four former prisoners. It was an entirely Iraqi project; the founders had not coordinated their activities with anyone foreign or received any outside help. After the war, when Iraqis began looting the headquarters of the security organizations that had terrorized them for so long, many handed over the files they found to the Association.

On the external walls of the Association hung sheets of paper with alphabetical listings of prisoners’ names. Hundreds of desperate people ran their fingers down the lists taped to the walls, hoping to learn their relatives’ fate. Inside, past the two boys with machine guns who guarded the Association, workers bustled back and forth, their faces blocked by the immense piles of documents they carried to different rooms in order to organize them by subject. They planned to enter all the information into a database, but for now the dozens of rooms were full of thousands of files going back to the 1960s. The files were stacked on top of one another, stored in sacks or kept in their original file cabinets. They were marked “Dawa” (for a banned Islamist party) or “Communist,” or had other labels that indicated independent political activity—all designating the subjects as victims of ruthless repression.

New files continued to come in by the thousands from all over Iraq. One revealed that a soldier accused of joining the Dawa Party in 1981 and criticizing the regime had been sentenced to five years in prison for his crimes. Another file documented the mass execution of sixteen people. Saad Muhamad, a volunteer at the Association responsible for gathering information, explained he was imprisoned for four years for criticizing Saddam. He showed me a Procrustean British-made traction couch that had been found in the general security headquarters. It was used during interrogations to stretch victims until their bodies broke and tore. He also showed me a meat grinder used for humans.

I found my own trove of records one day as I was walking through Baghdad’s streets. In the poor neighborhood of Betawin, I stumbled across an abandoned police station housing the Saadun General Security Directory Office on its second floor. It was clear that a systematic attempt had been made to destroy the documents on the second floor, presumably by the minor intelligence officials who had worked there. I found two overturned document shredders and thin strings of paper strewn all over the floor, along with broken glass and ashes, the only remnants of the bureaucratic records of various horrors. Most file cabinets and their contents had been thrown into a few rooms that were torched; all that remained in the drawers were ashes. A young Christian boy brought sacks for me to load files into. Those that were salvageable documented the mundane daily operations of a dictatorship’s local security station over the previous years, right up to March 2003, the final days before the war. The files recorded: the 2001 duties of security officers, changes of residence of ordinary Iraqi citizens, information from a snitch about a stolen antique sword, lists of people belonging to enemy or sectarian organizations, lists of people who criticized Saddam, lists of people under surveillance, reports on people observing religious ceremonies, information on participants in the 1991 Shiite uprising, weekly orders to spread proregime rumors and combat antiregime rumors, lists of executed political prisoners and the reasons for their execution, information on bank employees in Baghdad, lists of spies in mosques and churches, names of applicants to study in the Islamic university, reports on people who had tried to leave Iraq illegally, orders to spread rumors that Iraq could defeat the U.S. and would attack Israel and liberate Palestine, a list of people accused of belonging to a group seeking to avenge the murder of Shiite leader Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and a report about a man accused of breaking a picture of Saddam, among others.

One dense folder particularly caught my attention. It contained numerous security service memos concerning the arrest of Abed Ali Safai Ahmad, who had been accused of insulting Saddam and the Baath Party. According to the files Ahmad was a taxi driver, born in 1975, who lived in the Shiite slums then known as Saddam City. He was a veteran of the war against Iran, and one of his brothers had been killed in that war.

On July 4, 2002, the leadership of the Abtal al-Tahrir (Heroes of Liberation) section of the Al Aqsa group office of the Baath Party ordered the arrest of Ahmad for his “assault on the person of the master and leader the President may Allah bless and protect him.” Basically, he stood accused of assaulting Saddam, and it had been decreed that he undergo detention for “a reasonable period.”

Basher Aziz al-Tamimi, Ahmad’s neighbor, also a taxi driver living in Saddam City, testified against him. A staunch Baath Party member from the Al Aqsa branch, Tamimi alleged that he encountered a very drunk Ahmad on the night of July 3. According to Tamimi, Ahmad suggested they sell a privately owned car, but Tamimi reminded him that such a sale would be illegal. Tamimi then testified that Ahmad cursed Saddam Hussein, saying, “Saddam’s sister’s pussy over this law!” (In Arabic, as in any other language, referring to the vagina of a man’s female relatives is a terrible insult.) Tamimi asked Ahmad why he was attacking the president when he knew that Tamimi was a member of the Baath Party. Ahmad is quoted as replying: “Your sister’s pussy and the Baath Party’s sister’s pussy!” A fistfight ensued. Tamimi presently reported the case to his Baathist supervisor, Saad Khalaf: “He requested I file a written report, and then we went to Shahab because he is responsible for the branch security.” The men organized a group to go to Ahmad’s house and confront him. Apparently, when they arrived Ahmad hit Tamimi and threatened, “I will shave your mustache and the Baath Party’s mustache.” (In Iraq a mustache is often considered a symbol of manhood and honor, and threatening to shave a man’s mustache—like referring to the genitals of a female relative—is a terrible insult. A man can also take an oath, swearing by his mustache, and if he or his sister, for example, has been humiliated, he can shave his mustache and refuse to grow it until his honor has been restored.)

Other witnesses testified in support of Ahmad’s accusers. In his defense Ahmad claimed, “I did not assault the person of the master and the leader president, Allah bless him and keep him.” Ahmad insisted he had witnesses who supported his side of the story. He admitted that he had assaulted Tamimi on the night the party committee came to arrest him: “I was in a bad temper and I hit him, and as he does not have a mustache I said to him, I shave yours and the party’s mustache, and I did not mean to direct the assault on the party in my words. . . . I was under the influence of alcohol and was drunk and in a bad temper for I had a brother who was martyred in the great battle of Qadisiat Saddam. His name was Abad al-Radha, and he died in 1986. . . . I seek forgiveness, and this is my testimony.” Ahmad claimed that Tamimi owed him ten thousand dinars and that when he asked for it back they got into an argument. Ahmad was jailed but released in an amnesty granted two months later.

Another file I found documented the arrest of a woman accused of being a witch. I tracked down the accused witch, Aliya Jasem, who lived in the village of Huseiniya, north of Baghdad. Amid sewage and waste-filled unpaved roads where half-naked toddlers played, I finally found Aliya’s modest house. Her husband, Sadiq Naji Muhamad, was a tailor in Baghdad. They had four children. Sadiq had been a prisoner of war in Iran for nine years. He told me that Shiite prisoners were singled out for special punishment by the Iranian guards, who viewed them as traitors fighting for Sunnis. He was held in the Hashmetiya prison in Tehran, where he saw many fellow prisoners killed or tortured.

As an unrelated male, I could not meet Aliya; I could only catch a glimpse of her silhouette or the end of her dress, hear her voice as she spoke with her husband and hear her moving about in the kitchen. Sadiq related their shared story. Aliya was a fortune teller, psychic, and traditional healer. Many Iraqi Shiites believe that descendants of the Prophet Muhammad can treat the spirit using the Koran. Aliya was one such descendant. She treated spiritual ailments such as depression. If a woman had been expelled from her husband’s family’s home, Aliya could treat her and she would be taken back. If a dog had attacked a child, she would open and close the Koran three times in the child’s face in order to cure it. She cured women who were not wanted as wives by placing special stones in front of the afflicted woman’s house, washing her, and reading from the Koran and the sayings of Imam Ali, Muhammad’s nephew and a key figure for Shiites. Sadiq proudly related that even though Aliya could not read or write, she could know everything about a person by looking at her face.

When Aliya was a child, her legs were paralyzed. No doctor could treat her, so her family took her to a Shiite shrine near Hilla—where, Sadiq explained, she was able to stand and walk. Since that moment she had possessed special powers. “There are two types of magic,” said Sadiq, “the devil’s magic, practiced by some sects in Iraq but which is against the Koran, and merciful magic, which can combat the devil’s magic and which she practiced.”

Aliya was paid for her services, but very little. Traditional healing is very common in Iraq, and since every woman in the neighborhood knew about her (she only treated women), word of her abilities spread. Sadiq maintained that most women in his wife’s field were also security agents or collaborators. The security service wanted Aliya to work with them because she had access to every woman in the city and could discover the secrets of each home, such as who was involved in illegal political activity. Aliya refused to be an agent and was subsequently accused of harboring an anti-Saddam political group in her home. In describing this course of events, Sadiq accused the mayor of being a security agent and Baath Party official.

On August 10, 2002, Aliya was arrested by the Iraqi Security Forces. She was found guilty of witchcraft and spent two months in jail. The order to arrest her came from the national security directorate. The documents said she was released because of her husband’s request. He wrote a letter to the security service saying that she had only been using special spiritual techniques to cure ailments of the soul. She only had treated women and only had used the Koran. Sadiq asked for another chance, promising that Aliya would never practice healing again. He also mentioned that he had been a POW in Iran and had chosen to return to Iraq, unlike other Shiites who had joined Iranian-sponsored anti-Saddam militias.

Although Aliya was sentenced to six months, she was released after seventy days from the Rashas women’s prison (she was transferred from the Al Rusafa prison) in a general amnesty. Aliya had been beaten in the police station, and Sadiq was still bitter. “She is a good wife, and they put her in the same prison with prostitutes,” he complained. “She was so traumatized she has ceased performing her magic.”

After her release Aliya went to the tomb of Abbas, an important Shiite shrine to one of Ali’s sons, and said, “If I am really your relative, prove it by destroying Saddam and all his men within a year.” Six months later, his government fell. Sadiq explained that this happened because “God answered the prayers of those who had suffered.”

I AM OFTEN ASKED now if it was all worth it. Would it have been better to leave Saddam in power? Are Iraqis better or worse off than they were before the American war? I never know what to say. How do you compare different kinds of terror? Those who were spared Saddam’s prisons and executioners may be better off, though they have not been spared the American prisons, or attacks, or the resistance’s bombs, or the death squads of the civil war. The Kurds are certainly better off, on their way to independence, benefiting from their relative stability and improved economy. But the rest of Iraq? Under Saddam the violence came from one source: the regime. Now it has been democratically distributed: death can come from anywhere, at all times, no matter who you are. You can be killed for crossing the street, for going to the market, for driving your car, for having the wrong name, for being in your house, for being a Sunni, for being a Shiite, for being a woman. The American military can kill you in an operation; you can be arrested by militias and disappear in Iraq’s new secret prisons, now run by Shiites; or you can be kidnapped by the resistance or criminal gangs. Americans cannot simply observe the horror of Iraq and shake their heads with wonder, as if it were Rwanda and they had no role. America is responsible for the chaos that began with the invasion and followed with the botched and brutal occupation. Iraq’s people suffered under the American occupation, the civil war, and the new Iraqi government, just as they did under the American-imposed sanctions and bombings before the war and just as they did under the years of Baathist dictatorship.

While the spontaneous burst of repressed fury from one segment of Iraqi society often caused more damage to property than the American bombs, another segment demonstrated solidarity and a volunteer spirit eager to restore security and normalcy. Common civilians stood all day directing traffic in a country with no traffic lights or rules, where there was absolute liberty to drive anywhere, in any direction, at any speed. These volunteers protected neighborhoods and established order, but it was too late. After the war, looters pillaged the country, stripping everything but the paint from the buildings they preyed upon. Under the gaze of U.S. troops, looters destroyed the physical infrastructure of the Baathist state, while the U.S. occupation eliminated its bureaucracy.

The atmosphere of lawlessness that pervaded the country in those first few days and weeks never went away. Eventually it allowed for criminals, gangs, and mafias to take over; it replaced the totalitarian state and the fear it had imposed with complete indifference to the idea of a state. It was a shock from which Iraqis did not recover. In Baghdad the dominant man in any area was called a shaqi. He was normally a thug who would sometimes engage in extortion and other small crimes; after the war these shaqis were recruited into armed groups and even religious militias.

A few weeks after the war against Saddam’s regime ended and before the war against the resistance began, I moved into a house in the Mansour district, where I stayed for a month. I was stringing for Time magazine, but I clashed with my colleagues, who were focused on the English-speaking elite Iraqis, the American military, and the Shiite clerical establishment, but ignored the Iraqi street, the mosques, the Sadrists. At night, to the sound of gunfire and frogs calling, I would sit by the pool and watch bats swoop down to sip water, as I fought loneliness by making calls on the satellite phone to my future wife. Taha was our somnolent guard. He arrived in the afternoon and left in the morning. He had a chair in the driveway, where he sat with his Kalashnikov leaning lazily against the wall. I bought newspapers for him every day because I sympathized with the solitude and ennui of his job, but mostly so that he would remain awake a little longer. He was a sound sleeper. He sat reading the newspapers, or staring in front of him, his head hanging down wearily, and evinced no perceptible reaction when machine gun fire erupted outside our walls, as it did intermittently all night. I grew accustomed to it, but sometimes, when I was sitting on the lawn eating dinner and a burst went off on our street, I still jumped.

Five minutes from the house was a market that sold looted goods and heavy-caliber machine guns, bazookas, grenade launchers, RPGs, handguns, and ammunition. The grenade launcher was fifty dollars. I was inquiring about prices one day when a large burst was fired from right behind me. I leaped high in the air, checking my body for holes. The sellers were demonstrating their merchandise to interested consumers by firing them into the sky.

Not far from the neighborhood I was living in was the Washash district, its narrow streets awash with sewage. Like much of Baghdad, a greenish brown deluge had descended upon the streets, reaching from one side to another. Residents waded through the putrid liquid, and children ran barefoot through it. Women gathered in a loud gaggle, anxious to voice their complaints. There was no electricity, no gas, the water was dirty, and their children were sick. There was shooting all night, and they were afraid to go out. These families, like 60 percent of Iraqis, relied entirely on the state’s food distribution program to survive.

In a field in the Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad, I found every little boy’s fantasy. Several dozen abandoned Iraqi tanks lay beside bushes and palm trees. Their treads had been sabotaged by the Americans, but they had plenty of ammunition. Fifty feet away were mud houses, with cows beneath the shade of a tree. A troop of local boys, ages five to twelve, avoided the cluster bombs on the ground and climbed on top of and inside the tanks. They lit some explosive powder. Somebody blew up a tank, and the turret shot a few dozen meters in the air before embedding itself in the ground by a house. I gave an eleven-year-old named Ali a dollar to show me around. He was timid at first, denying ever having played with the tanks, so I asked him to show me the tanks others had played with, and then I asked him which one he had played with, and which one he and his friends had shot, and he admitted more and more. His cousins joined us and said they were scared to take me to the ammunition. I told them they were girls, and they said, “No, we are strong!” and puffed their chests. Then their uncle showed up and ruined our fun. He told me he was scared for the children, but it didn’t seem like he was making any attempt to control their behavior.

My driver’s children, about five and three years old, played with ammunition their uncle had found in a nearby arms depot that had been abandoned and looted. He showed me live anti-aircraft bullets and a bundle of detonation cords for explosives, which Iraqis were using to cook. Five-year-old Fahad lit one and watched the flame shoot through it while his three-year-old sister held one of the charges in her mouth. In a restaurant where I often had lunch, I took note of an increasingly common sight—a customer walked in with a pistol stuck in his belt behind him.

We assumed with egotistical condescension that Iraqis were “used to” the ubiquitous hardship that has been their unearned fate, as if they were different from us, suffered less than we did, and did not have the same hopes for a prosperous, peaceful life. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, and Iraqis were in no way used to the nadir to which life had sunk. Since the Gulf War they had slowly watched their heavily developed, educated, and industrialized society deteriorate and regress to a preindustrial era. Power, water, and security were not just abstractions; they meant life or death.

Imagine bombs raining on your city, the ground shaking, the walls reverberating. Imagine your city losing its power, its water, its security, its communications, and its government. Law and order disappear, weapons abound, machine guns rattle, and bullets fly. Mountains of garbage grow higher on the streets as goats, donkeys, and children sift through them, dispersing the waste everywhere. Rivers of sewage cut through neighborhoods and roads, and people wade through them. The food supply dwindles, dead dogs litter the streets, their legs frozen in midair with rigor mortis, and a modern city becomes a jungle. Hundreds of thousands of foreign occupiers are ensconced in the bedrooms and barracks of the former dictator, their leviathan tanks dominating traffic, but the newcomers do not replace the system they destroyed. Armed gangs roam freely, and dogmatic religious organizations attempt to fill the power vacuum, though they too have no experience in governance and espouse an intolerant and regressive political ideology.

A UN representative explained to me that after the war Iraq had “gone back to the stone age.” It was a stone age lived in the midst of a modern state. Sheep were herded through traffic jams, unexploded bombs hid like snakes, diarrhea killed children minutes away from immense hospitals, and tantalizing glimpses of a different possibility beckoned on satellite television—it was not an impossible or unfamiliar dream but a return to the future Iraqis had taken for granted only a decade or two ago.

Baghdad in 2003 was a neglected city, broken like the spirit of its people, who seemed ashamed that they had not put up more of a fight against the occupiers, as was expected by the rest of the world. Um Qasr in the south took a week to fall, but the Republican Guard protecting the city barely put up a fight. They were perceived outside Iraq as the elite, as those who would fight to the death for their city, but this mythic status had more to do with their privilege than anything else. The American military was warned that the battle for Baghdad would be the most bitter and desperate. The Republican Guard felt no loyalty to Baghdad, though. They were terrified of the American juggernaut, and they could see what had already transpired in the rest of the country.

The media showed Iraq only during the day, when stores were open and Americans patrolled. At night, darkness and fear emerged. Most people had no electricity and resorted to oil lamps and fans made from straw to cope with the heat—which drove some to sleep on their roofs, under the moonlight.

There were rumors that Americans were paying three dollars for every cluster bomb returned. It did not matter if the rumors were false. If people believed them, they would touch a cluster bomb; and if a bomb was moved, it would explode. Children played with them, attracted to their shape. A child threw a stone at one and blew up a nearby house.

Iraq had thousands of locations serving as weapons depots that contained unexploded ordnances, abandoned missiles, armored vehicles, and tanks. Even if the Americans had known where to look, there were not enough soldiers to protect all of the sites from looters. Removing them required a delicate expertise, which meant that some locations might take several days to clear. Baghdadis would have to wait years for their city to be free from the dangerous detritus of war that the American and Iraqi militaries had left behind.

On streets throughout Baghdad people tried to hawk their wares, hoping that buyers would be interested in the screws, pipes, sneakers, computers, soccer balls, AK-47s, and grenade launchers they had likely stolen. Every neighborhood had its own weapons bazaar, an unofficial collection of a few dozen men, who displayed heavy weaponry of every variety and eagerly demonstrated their use by firing them repeatedly into the air right next to you. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher could be found for fifty thousand dinars, or fifty dollars. When an American patrol drove by, the men hid their goods under boxes or in the trunks of their cars, and then took them out again as soon as the patrol moved on. The chatter of Kalashnikov shots and exchanges of fire punctured the empty silence of Baghdad nights. Iraqis evinced no perceptible reaction to these new sounds; they were normal, and no thought was given to the unknown circumstances and actors responsible for nearby violence or to its many victims.

The victims usually ended up in Baghdad’s Criminal Medicine Department, which squatted on a muddy congested road next to the Ministry of Health. On the morning I visited it in May 2003, a busload of sobbing women sat in the entrance. An old man vomited on a wall to the side, while several other men sat glumly on the floor. An empty coffin made of wooden planks lay abandoned by the entrance, a large blood stain in its center. The sour stench of death wafted out into the halls. Ninety percent of Baghdad’s violently killed passed through the Criminal Medicine Department before burial. Ever since Baghdad fell on April 9, Dr. Lazim had been seeing an average of fifteen to twenty-five corpses a day—all murdered, he said, pointing to a large stack of files on a shelf and opening a drawer to show another stack. Before the war he would see about five such cases a month. The state had a monopoly on violence, but victims of the regime were taken elsewhere. He said it was also possible to accommodate oneself to life under Saddam, and to live without arousing the state’s ire and incurring its wrath. The new violence was random, and Lazim attributed it to the lack of security.

“Weapons are easy to find, and Iraqis are full of anxiety from three wars and the economic circumstances after 1991,” Lazim said. Since it was so easy to obtain a weapon and there were no legal consequences, disputes were often settled violently and with impunity. “I am afraid to argue with any person on the street,” he said. “There is no regime, no order.” He added, “It is the duty of the international forces to create security.” Lazim recently had begun seeing female victims for the first time. One was a teenager found by American soldiers with her throat slit. Two others set a ghoulish precedent—they had both been raped and then murdered.

For those wounded in Baghdad’s gun battles, there was little hope of finding help. Yakub al-Jabari, a microbiologist at the National Blood Transfusion Center for Iraq, located in the complex of buildings known as Medical City, summarized the situation when asked if there was a shortage of blood. “There is a shortage of everything,” he said, “blood, equipment, staff.” He had not received his salary for three months. The labs looked like a dusty basement where a hospital might store its obsolete machines. The staff used food refrigerators to store blood, though frequent blackouts made Jabari’s efforts worthless, as everything became contaminated. “If you want to save people’s lives, bring us more of these machines—you will go to paradise,” he said, opening a dirty refrigerator and pointing inside. “We kill people here, we don’t save them.” He smiled bitterly. “Many people are dying because of our shortages. We lie when we give people hope, but we can’t be honest with them.” Iraqis in need of blood must bring their own, which meant bringing a friend or relative to donate. I heard shooting from outside the blood center as I hurriedly asked Jabari about HIV and other concerns the center faced without the ability to screen donors. He told me he knew of only two cases of HIV in the past decade. He believed Saddam had executed them.

Baghdad’s hospitals had collapsed at a time when improved health care was needed more than ever. Hospital directors and doctors complained that they had received no assistance from the coalition forces, only promises. They relied on generators, because they got only a few hours of electricity a day. Sometimes they were forced to operate by candlelight. Most hospitals and clinics received contaminated water or none at all. Contamination resulted in outbreaks of typhoid, gastroenteritis, and diarrhea. They had no air-conditioning, medicine, oxygen, or anesthesia. And there was no one to clean the floors, so they remained stained with blood.

Chaos reigned, as staff were overwhelmed. They had no computers and they recycled carbon paper. Ambulance crews had no gas or security escorts, and Americans stopped them at night for violating curfews when they transported patients. Security concerns led staff to leave work early in order to get home safely. When hospitals did receive supplies, staff worried about attracting looters. Hospitals had no cooling systems because of electricity shortages, so medicines and vaccines were routinely destroyed.

A visit to a hospital coincided with a car screeching to a halt in front. A shrieking, black-clad woman was thrown onto a broken wheelchair; relatives had to hold it together as she was wheeled in, blood pouring from her womb. A midwife had botched her labor. A thick trail of blood led from the hospital driveway to the reception and down the hall to the emergency room.

Iraqis grumbled about their invisible ruler, the proconsul Paul Bremer, who rejected representation for them, declaring Iraqis too immature to decide their own fate. The country had three dictators in three months: Saddam was replaced by the bucolic Gen. Jay Garner and then the urbane Bremer, while others, such as Gen. Tommy Franks and President George W. Bush, issued edicts that affected their lives, and Arnold Schwarzenegger visited but did not greet his Iraqi fans. Even the name of the government changed three times: the Baathist regime became the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which was replaced by the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority (OCPA). In his “freedom message to the Iraqi people,” Franks, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, announced that the Americans had “come as liberators, not occupiers,” adding that they aimed to “enforce UN resolutions requiring the destruction of weapons of mass destruction.” These weapons, of course, had not existed for years.

The foreign troops became an onerous presence as the burden of Saddam was removed. Iraqis had to suffer numerous intrusive checkpoints, roadblocks, and lines for gasoline, and there were raids, killings, arrests, and property damage. They were awakened by the rumbling of tanks through streets. Unaware of the fact that many soldiers chewed tobacco, they asked me why Americans spit so much. Frustrated young soldiers pointed their machine guns at grand-mothers and teased Iraqi youths about how easily they could kill them.

In the face of the American juggernaut, Iraqis were lost and confused. They were used to the way ministries got things done. Now they had to march through long paths carved out with barbed wire and stand in the sun with gun barrels facing them. They were searched, patted down, and questioned; their IDs were declared unsuitable; they were told they could not be helped, or sent elsewhere, their protests and supplications falling on deaf ears. Tempers were lost, and Americans screamed in English as Iraqis shouted in Arabic, neither understanding the other. American soldiers did not sympathize with the inconvenience. “We stand in the sun all day,” said one soldier, looking at hundreds of men standing or squatting, waiting.

Falluja 2004

A year later I was in Falluja, a small town forty-three miles west of Baghdad on the Euphrates, in the Anbar province. Before the American invasion Falluja was rarely thought of unless Iraqis were stopping to get kabobs on their way to a picnic at Lake Habbaniya, an artificial lake in the middle of the desert with bungalows and a 1960s-style resort built along its rocky banks. True, it had a reputation for being conservative, with tribal mores still important, and its claim to fame was having the highest per capita number of mosques, earning it the nickname City of Mosques. But Falluja was conservative, not radical; it had not been a center of religious extremism or loyalty to the former regime. But it became a case study of how American policy in Iraq promoted sectarianism and armed resistance.

The city, once a Sufi bastion, suffered at the hands of the former regime because of the importance of religion there. Its Sufis began to depart in the 1990s, when Saddam stopped oppressing Salafis. Named after “al-Salaf al-Salih” (the virtuous predecessors), meaning the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and their followers, Salafis seek to purify Islam of innovations introduced over the centuries since Muhammad received his revelations, and they seek to return to a way of life similar to that of the early Muslim community, basing life only on the Koran and the Sunna, the deeds and words of the Prophet. Saddam began to encourage their revival, perhaps to counter a perceived Shiite threat. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion Falluja also suffered political purges, uprisings, and killings of tribal members who had served the previous regime. It was not a wealthy town, with little signs that it received preferential treatment. It was a trucking and smuggling hub, which would later prove useful to other clandestine networks.

Although it is common to blame the American decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and security agencies in May 2003 for the emergence of the resistance, the truth is that resistance in Falluja and elsewhere in the Anbar province began before this order. No hostile shots were fired at the Americans from Falluja during the invasion, and the city saw little looting. Instead, after the war, local officials and dignitaries took control and tried to establish order. It took two weeks before the Americans even established themselves in Falluja. Key influential foreign fighters later told me that they had tried to organize an armed resistance in Falluja and failed in those early days, because Falluja’s people wanted to give the Americans a chance. But the American perception was that Sunni Arabs were loyal to Saddam and thus to be treated with hostility. The Americans took a more aggressive posture in Sunni areas than in Shiite ones.

The Americans set up an imposing presence on the main street in the center of town, using a school as their base, and mounted aggressive patrols. Their presence in other civilian areas, and their practice of observing neighborhoods from rooftops, offended traditionally minded locals. The elites who had taken control of the town following the war were not recognized by the Americans. Little interest was shown in improving the local economy. A demonstration in April calling for the Americans to leave the school ended up with nearly twenty dead civilians, as the Americans met it with extreme force. There was no public American inquiry or attempt to reconcile with the locals. One foreign fighter I spoke to would later name this as a turning point. Similar demonstrations occurred in Shiite areas, but they were met with a different response from the Americans. In Diwaniya, a Shiite city that was also a bastion of the former army, anti-Bremer demonstrations following the disbanding of the army featured pictures of Saddam and Baathist slogans, but the Americans did not respond aggressively.

More demonstrations and more killings followed in Falluja, and the Americans adopted the attitude that “Arabs only understand force.” Tanks on the streets, low-flying helicopters, frequent patrols—Fallujans felt like they were under a foreign occupation. Local leaders who sought to avoid violence would eventually change their minds. The American view that there was a monolithic group of Iraqis called Sunni Arabs had always been mistaken, just as it was a mistake to identify a Sunni Triangle. The Baath Party was incorrectly viewed as an exclusively Sunni party, and Saddam’s regime was incorrectly viewed as a Sunni regime, since not all Sunnis were loyal to it. Many Sunnis felt they were victims of Saddam, and even Sunni clerics had been executed by the former regime. Some tribes were given privileged status, while others were weakened or marginalized. That there were no obvious Sunni leaders after Saddam was removed was but one sign that his own community had been weakened by his regime. But Sunnis would soon consider themselves the targets of collective punishment. Treated as the enemy, many of them soon became just that, fearing that they were about to be exterminated. These fears would be manipulated by those interested in promoting violence.

THOSE FEARS WERE the political effect of ideas and decisions that were fermenting thousands of miles away from Iraq. Much of what we have come to know about Iraq has come from self-styled “Iraq experts” or “terrorism experts”—celebrity pundits—who catered to the political demands of the occupation and the American administration. Most of these experts could not speak or read Arabic, had not been to Iraq, and had only a superficial experience of the Middle East. They hailed from Washington think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic International Studies, and others. If they visited Iraq (or Afghanistan), they hopped from base to base, with the military as their baby-sitter and escort. They invoked terms that were barely in use before 2003, such as “Sunni Arab.” Geographical regions were simplistically layered onto Iraq’s ethnic groups, and simplistic labels like the “Kurdish north,” “Sunni Triangle,” and “Shiite south” were popularized. The importance of class identity—and the revolutionary potential of the poor, who supported Communists in the ’50s and the Sadrists in the ’90s and later—was ignored, as was the heritage of nonsectarian nationalism.

The Iraqis the Americans installed after the invasion, however, came mostly from the former opposition parties, many of which were formed on a sectarian or ethnic basis. None had a broad base of support. The American approach to Iraq was sectarian, as Iraqis quickly complained. The Americans viewed Sunnis as the bad guys and Shiites as the victims, and the U.S. media followed suit. The Iraqi Governing Council, a symbolic body created in July 2003 as a concession to Iraqi demands for representation, was established on purely sectarian grounds, as Iraqis were quick to note. Members were chosen for being Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, or Turkmen, rather than for representing Iraqis. Even the Communist Party member was chosen for being a Shiite rather than for being secular or leftist. Barbara Bodine, a veteran Arabist from the State Department and former ambassador to Yemen, was briefly put in charge of Baghdad and then fired when the CPA needed a scapegoat to blame for the descent into chaos. “One of the first mistakes we made was to put Iraq into three neat little packages, homogeneous, monolithic,” she told me.

The occupation empowered Shiites and Kurds, specifically the most sectarian and ethnocentric leaders, and punished the Sunni population. It also empowered parties with little grassroots support (with the exception of the Kurdish parties), which meant that their members had to appeal to sectarianism. Sunnis and some Shiites were driven to resist the occupation. At first the resistance was a nationalist one. Foreign Arabs had flocked to Iraq during the war to defend their brethren. Some were radical Sunnis who sought a jihad. Their numbers grew as volunteers flocked to kill Americans and Shiites, often at the behest of Sunni clerics and theologians throughout the Arab world. The most radical among them sought to destroy the American project in Iraq by provoking sectarian warfare, setting off suicide bombs at key religious sites. Although the Iraqi government under Saddam had not been a Sunni regime, as many outside observers have claimed, the new sectarian Sunni parties in Iraq have come to view that era as a “Sunni golden age.”

Arabs are often criticized for their “conspiracy theories,” and it was common in Iraq to view the Americans as new colonists intent on dividing and conquering Iraq. But the approach implemented by Paul Bremer attempted to do just that. In Bremer’s mind the way to occupy Iraq was not to view it as a nation but as a group of minorities, so he pitted the minority that was not benefiting from the system against the minority that was, and expected them to be grateful to him. Bremer ruled Iraq as if it were already undergoing a civil war, helping the Shiites by punishing the Sunnis. He was not managing a country, in his view; he was managing a civil war. As a result, he helped to create one.

The Bush administration believed that Shiites could lead the Arab world to an Islamic reformation that would increase secularism. Bremer claimed that Saddam had “modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler’s,” and he compared the Baath Party with the Nazi Party. This was sheer fabrication: there is no proof or mention of this in any of the copious literature about Iraq. (If anything, Saddam’s inspiration was the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin or Michael Corleone from The Godfather.) The Iraqi Baath Party was established by a Shiite, and the majority of its members were Shiites. So Bremer created this Nazi analogy and imagined himself de-Nazifying Iraq, saving the Shiites from the evil Sunnis. (Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also often compared Baathists to Nazis.) Indeed, one of the reasons Bremer performed so horribly in Iraq is that he viewed the country through this distorting lens.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was unwilling to commit resources to the stabilization of Iraq. When Larry Di Rita, Rumsfeld’s de facto chief of staff, arrived in Kuwait to serve as the political commissar over ORHA, he met with the humanitarian assistance team led by Chris McMullen. McMullen began the briefing by saying, “What we intend to bring to the Iraqi people,” but he never got to finish his sentence. Di Rita slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “We are bringing freedom to the Iraqi people! We don’t owe them anything more!” Later Di Rita explained that the U.S. military would not be in Iraq for long. Rumsfeld considered Bosnia and Kosovo to be failures, and he considered Afghanistan a potential failure because U.S. troops were still there. The doctrine of the day was “shock and awe” and a hasty U.S. withdrawal.

President Bush had approved of a plan to take over the Iraqi army, but Bremer and Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Walter Slocombe reversed the decision, casually agreeing to fire more than three hundred thousand armed men without a second thought. ORHA officials had not planned on maintaining the Iraqi army indefinitely. Instead they had hoped to put the army to work until they could get it through a demobilization process. The men of the Iraqi army thought that they would be part of the solution. Iraqi generals did not acknowledge defeat, and the Iraqi army did not feel defeated. The CPA’s refusal to maintain state industries led to the loss of a further 350,000 jobs. In August 2003 the Americans removed agricultural subsidies, forcing many farmers off their land.

Bremer later claimed that Iraqis hated their army, which was, in fact, the most nationalistic institution in the country and one that predated the Baath Party. In electing not to fight the Americans, the army had expected to be recognized by the occupation; indeed, until Bremer arrived it appeared that many Iraqi soldiers and officers were hoping to cooperate with the Americans. Bremer, however, treated Iraqis as if they harbored ancient grievances, claiming in an article after he retired that “Shiite conscripts were regularly brutalized and abused by their Sunni officers.” This was not true: although Sunnis were overrepresented in the officer corps and Shiites sometimes felt there was a glass ceiling, there were Shiite ministers and generals, and at least one-third of the famous deck of cards of those Iraqis most wanted by the Americans were Shiites. Complex historical factors account for why Sunnis were overrepresented in majority-Shiite areas. Many attribute this to the legacy of the Ottomans and the British colonizers, while others theorize that minorities took power in several postcolonial Arab countries—Alawites in Syria, Maronites in Lebanon, and Sunnis in Iraq. Although there is debate about these matters, nobody has ever argued on behalf of Bremer’s ludicrous view of a Nazi-like regime where Sunnis were the Germans and Shiites were the Jews. There were many Shiite officers in the army. The elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard were dominated by Sunni tribes from Anbar and Salahaddin, as were sensitive security services, but there is a false notion that Shiites had no access to power. It implies that there was an open political field for Sunnis from which Shiites were excluded.

Iraq had a legacy of statism. The state controlled the country’s oil wealth as well as production in industries such as agriculture. The government also employed the majority of the Iraqi workforce. Strict regulation governed the economy, controlling the movement of capital. The American occupiers found an Iraq where the state had played a tremendous role in the lives of citizens, and they assumed this was a timeless character of the culture that they would have to repair, but in fact it dated to the sanctions imposed from 1990 to 2003. The sanctions led to a huge increase in the role of the Iraqi government in the daily lives of the population.

Denis Halliday, the UN assistant secretary general and the humanitarian coordinator of the oil-for-food program in Iraq, resigned in 1998 in protest at the economic sanctions on Iraq. The oil-for-food program was meant to alleviate the impact of the sanctions, but Iraq could not pump enough oil to get enough money to cover its food and medicine needs, and the drop in oil prices at the time made it even worse. Halliday admitted that Iraqi children were dying directly because of the sanctions. The UN itself estimated that about half a million children under five died because of the sanctions.

Iraqis had few political or civil rights under Saddam, but they had economic rights and a decent standard of living. The sanctions took even those. Halliday’s successor resigned in 2000 protesting the “tightening of the rope around the neck of the average Iraqi citizen. . . . I felt that I was being misused for a United Nations policy that was punitive, that tried to punish a people for not having gotten rid of their leader.”

To prevent the Iraqi people from starving, the Public Distribution System was established to deliver rations to the population via more than fifty thousand local agents. Rations included soap and basic food needs. For the first time, the people now depended on the government to eat, giving Saddam more control over them than ever before, and making dissent more difficult and dangerous than ever. The middle class, which might have formed the base of that dissent, was wiped out as savings were made worthless. Many Iraqis were driven from towns back to a rural and agricultural life, and the power of feudal landlords increased.

A stated goal of the American occupation was to transform Iraq into a free-market economy. One of the first measures taken by the American occupation was to impose laws that liberalized capital accounts, currency trading, and investment regulations, and lifted price regulations and most state subsidies. An important principle guiding the occupation was not to invest in any state institution that could be privatized in the future, in anticipation of the liquidation of state assets.

Extreme measures such as these radically changed the lives of Iraqis as they struggled with higher inflation and reduced state subsidies while imported consumption goods flooded the market at lower prices. Consumer spending increased drastically. This was coupled with the growth of new private institutions that sought to replace the role formerly played by the state. National industry and the export sector were severely undermined. The entire structure of the Iraqi state has been shattered and the central state in Iraq has been vitiated, as shown by the clauses in the Constitution that address control over oil. Although similar attempts at “shock therapy” techniques applied to countries in the 1980s and ’90s showed poor results, often only damaging countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America, these same techniques were imposed on Iraq in extreme form. The measures taken in Iraq were neither democratic nor successful, but their ramifications will be felt for years.

America’s relationship with Iraq did not begin in 2003. The U.S. encouraged and helped Iraq go to war against Iran in 1980. It was a war that devastated both countries. The U.S. and its Gulf allies also helped support Iraq’s massive army, which encouraged the adventure in Kuwait and which later, after the Americans disbanded this vast army, led to such a large group of unemployed armed young men in 2003. The American project in Iraq resembled and was sometimes even consciously modeled after other colonial endeavors in the region. The act of occupying a country, dismantling and rebuilding its institutions, economic structures, and even its political identity, is not a new feature in the modern history of the Middle East. But occupied Iraq has rarely been studied as a colonial case. There has been a clear effort to avoid labeling the American project a colonial one. This has led to analysis of Iraq through an ahistorical framework.

Outside observers, including American politicians, have a tendency to assume that the current political divisions, violence, and prejudices in Iraq have “always been there,” and the new conflict between Sunnis and Shiites has been conceptualized as “timeless.” But Iraqis were merely adapting to the American view of Iraq as a collection of sects and trying to fit into the political system the Americans were building around that idea. These observers disregard the fact that the American presence actively created many of these problems and “read history backward” in an attempt to minimize the American role in Iraq. But Iraq is not Rwanda, where Americans could watch Tutsis and Hutus slaughter each other and claim it was not their problem. The civil war in Iraq began with the American occupation.

The occupation was based on a vision that saw Iraqis as a collection of atomic sects. Even before the invasion, theorizers of the “new Iraq” such as Kanan Makiya sought to de-Arabize the country. They blamed Arabism for the ills of totalitarian Iraq and proposed ideas such as “regional autonomies” and federalism as alternatives to a centralized, top-down, state-sponsored identity. Prescient critics such as Azmi Bishara warned that if Iraqis ceased to be “Arab,” then they would simply adopt more primordial forms of identity that would not necessarily be less violent or damaging.

After the war Iraq was treated as a tabula rasa experiment, and the political institutions built by the occupation reflected these views. They were devised to undermine the idea of Iraqi nationalism that Saddam had tried to promote, and to correspond to the vision of Iraq as a trinational state. This further politicized sectarian forms of identity, making them the only avenue of political action in Iraq. Several incompatible views of Iraqi identity were promoted by the occupation and postwar Iraqi politicians: Iraq as a tribal society; Iraq as a liberal, multicultural polity, where a concept of Iraqi citizenship trumps other loyalties (promoted by Ahmad Chalabi, Kanan Makiya, Mithal al-Alousi, and other “liberal” politicians); Iraq as a collection of nations or sects. The last definition was the most potent. Electoral laws and sectarian violence played the largest role in cementing this vision. In addition, the Americans divided Iraq into winners and losers, and they soon made it clear to the Sunnis where they fell into that divide.

In late 2003 an American NGO arranged a meeting in the Green Zone between several representatives of Falluja’s major tribes (such as the Albu Eisa, Jumaila, Albu Alwan, and others) and representatives of the Coalition Provisional Authority. “We had a lot of hopes of big and meaningful projects that could show a more attractive future for the people,” said one of the organizers. “We were talking with the sheikhs about good projects for the city, and they were really interested in the business centers and the links with the foreign companies. They told us the ‘troubled kids’ were few and they could arrange with the bigger tribal leaders to control the situation as long as they can have something to show their people. Their other concern was about the Shiite domination. They said they would really appreciate it if the Americans promised to protect the city from the Badr Brigade [the huge Iranian-trained Shiite militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI]. They were really concerned about this point. The CPA attended the meeting, but they seemed so uninterested. I can say that their general feeling was, ‘You lost, and we don’t care about you.’ To everyone’s disappointment, the main representative of the CPA left fifteen minutes into the meeting. The sheikhs left to Falluja knowing they would have nothing to offer there. One of them was kidnapped and killed a couple of months after the meeting, and the other was attacked and his son was killed. One of them got connected to the armed groups and went on his own.”

In the spring and summer of 2004, I met many fighters and leaders of the resistance in Falluja. They believed they were defending their city, the country, and their religion. They clashed frequently with their rivals, the Al Qaeda-inspired jihadists and foreign fighters who had based themselves in the Anbar province and threatened to undermine the power of the more conservative Fallujan leadership. Many Sunnis had no alternatives even as the Al Qaeda men undermined the Anbar establishment and imposed a reign of terror, which not only bloodied communities but destroyed infrastructure, institutions, and businesses there. Their traditional leadership was more pragmatic and wasn’t ideologically opposed to an accommodation with the Americans at that time, though they had yet to be chastened by Shiite militias into reducing their expectations.

A FOREIGN MILITARY OCCUPATION is a systematic imposition of violence on an entire population. Of the many crimes committed against the Iraqi people, most have occurred unnoticed by the American people or the media. Americans, led to believe their soldiers and marines would be welcomed as liberators, still have little idea what the occupation is really like from the perspective of Iraqis. Although I am American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it feels like to be Iraqi than many of my colleagues. I often say that the secret to my success as a journalist in Iraq is my melanin advantage. I inherited my Iranian father’s Middle Eastern features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja’s worst neighborhoods, sit in taxis and restaurants, and look like every other Iraqi. My ability to blend in also allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were another “hajji,” the “gook” of the war in Iraq.

I first realized my advantage in April 2003, when I was sitting with a group of American soldiers and another soldier walked up and wondered what this hajji (me) had done to get arrested. Later that summer I walked in the direction of an American tank and heard one soldier say about me, “That’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced “eye-raki”] I ever saw.” Another soldier, who was by the gun, replied, “I don’t care how big he is, if he doesn’t stop movin’ I’m gonna shoot him.”

I was lucky enough to have an American passport in my pocket, which I promptly took out and waved, shouting, “Don’t shoot! I’m an American!” It was my first encounter with hostile checkpoints but hardly my last, and I grew to fear the unpredictable American military, which could kill me for looking like an Iraqi male of fighting age. Countless other Iraqis were not lucky enough to speak English or carry an American passport, and entire families were killed in their cars when they approached checkpoints. In 2004 the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that by September of that year, one hundred thousand Iraqis had died as a result of the American occupation; most of them had died violently, largely from American airstrikes. Although this figure was challenged by many, especially partisan backers of the war, it seemed perfectly plausible to me based on what I had seen during the postwar period in Iraq. What I never understood was why more journalists did not focus on this, choosing instead to look for the “good news” and to go along with the official story. I never understood why more journalists did not write about the daily Abu Ghraibs that were so essential to the occupation.

The occupation pitted Iraqis against one another as old scores were settled and battles for resources and Iraq’s identity raged. Sectarian differences that had previously been suppressed are now exaggerated. This book, which begins by looking at the events and trends that led to the outbreak of civil war in Iraq, tells the story of what happened to Iraq as it descended into the nightmare of sectarianism and militia fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. And it tells the story of what happened after “the Events,” or “the Sectarianism,” as Iraqis called their civil war, much as the conflict in Northern Ireland is called “the Troubles.” It is a story of Iraq after dark, so to speak, away from the glare of the Western media and far from U.S. patrols and, most important, away from the elite politics of the Green Zone. I focus on the Iraqi “street,” because after the overthrow of Saddam, power was distributed there.

I first came to Iraq when I was twenty-five years old, a former nightclub bouncer with a skill in languages who hoped to remake himself as a journalist. I have been traveling and living in Iraq ever since, and the longer I have stayed the more interested I have become in what Martha Gellhorn described as the “view from the ground,” a narrative of Iraq that transcends the clichés of much journalism about the region. As a new Iraq emerges, I hope this book will serve as a reminder of the terrible suffering millions of civilians have endured. This book also attempts to understand how the civil war in Iraq ended and what role Americans played in that. More specifically, it is an attempt to understand the role of the “surge,” the term for the increase in American troops that has become a blanket term for a change in the American strategy and military operations in Iraq (and later in Afghanistan). That the Americans began to have more influence on the Iraqi street during the “surge” is reflected in the chapters that cover this period, where they play a larger role in my narrative, and I show that the power dynamic between the Americans and the street was never as simple as one between an occupier and a puppet. For the surge also marked the period coinciding with the cease-fire of the main Shiite militia and the simultaneous cease-fire of most Sunni militias, who changed sides and allied themselves with the Americans. I was a surge skeptic, expecting the worst. I feared that the civil war in Iraq might become a regional war, and I did not immediately see the importance of the new American approach or foresee the role the serendipitous change in Iraqi dynamics would play. The civil war burned itself out faster than I expected, and the Americans went from being an oppressive occupying force, to a neglectful occupier allowing Iraqis to slaughter one another, to a power broker and quasi peacekeeper, and finally, perhaps, to an uneasy strategic ally and partner.

This book is not limited to Iraq, however. This is a book about what the Americans have wrought regionally, how the invasion and its aftereffects have spilled over into neighboring countries. It shows how Iraq underwent a process of Lebanonization and how the Middle East, in many ways, was Iraqified. I attempt to chart where Iraqi refugees fled to and how they lived. I also look at the effect of this Iraqi exodus: the radicalization and destabilization of Iraq’s neighbors, the exodus of ideas, weapons, and tactics from Iraq. In particular I focus on Lebanon and the extent to which it was Iraqified, with an Al Qaeda-inspired group leaving Iraq and establishing itself there at the same time as tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites led to clashes in its streets. The regional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites stoked by the Bush administration remain a legacy that can lead to future violence. The book ends in Afghanistan, a “virtual” neighbor of Iraq’s, where President Barack Obama, who inherited a more broken and unstable Middle East, initiated his own surge and where the American military tried to apply the lessons it thought it had learned in Iraq. COIN—the acronym for the counterinsurgency warfare in vogue after the “surge” in Iraq—is talked about as a war of the future, and its use and efficacy in Iraq and Afghanistan will determine the way America fights those future wars. As I write there is talk in Washington about whether American troops should be used to “solve” Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia. Regardless of where, there is a certainty that they will be used again. This book, then, as well as being a personal journey through the violence that has cascaded through the region over the last decade, is a reminder of the human cost of America’s wars to remake the Muslim world.


Road to Civil War

ALTHOUGH MANY SEE THE FEBRUARY 2006 SAMARRA SHRINE BOMBINGS by Al Qaeda in Iraq as the incident that ignited the civil war, ethnic and sectarian militias had been battling each other long before that. Since the invasion the lives of many Iraqis had become restricted to their small neighborhoods, with travel too treacherous to attempt. These neighborhoods became “purified” of minorities; mini-cities made up of a single sect or ethnic group were set up. Those conditions shaped the political consciousness of Iraqis; they became increasingly isolated, with no public spaces for debate or interaction. Even the new media in Iraq was segmented, with each institution targeting specific sections of Iraqi society. As a result, Iraqis stopped watching the same news, following the same issues, or even watching the same TV shows.

New parties emerged in postinvasion Iraq, and old ones resurfaced. Others formed new electoral coalitions. Most of this activity revolved around identity politics. Very few Iraqis voted for nonsectarian parties in any of the postwar elections, and most political groupings saw their main function as the “representation” of sectarian and ethnic groups rather than the proposition of ideas and projects for the future of the state. Identity was politicized and confessionalized, much as it is in Lebanese politics, in a manner unseen since the creation of Iraq.

The debates since the invasion pertained to the design of power-sharing formulas that represented the different communities. To newcomers this may have seemed like the true nature of Iraqi society, which many presented as three self-contained “nations.” But this simplified the concept of Iraqi identity and reduced it to a sectarian one. In the American view, the only way through which Shiites observed their surroundings was through their sectarian identity, and they participated in Iraqi politics only through their Shiism.

Sectarianism has always existed in Iraq, just as racism exists in every society. But pre-American invasion sectarianism was very complex. Since the capture of Mesopotamia (then compromising the provinces of Baghdad and Basra) by the Ottoman Turks in 1638, minority Sunnis had been Iraq’s ruling group. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate authority further empowered Sunnis in Iraq while Shiites remained mostly rural and confined to the laboring classes. By the 1950s many Shiites had migrated to urban areas; some filling the vacuum created by the departure of Baghdad’s Jewish commercial class, others working in the government. Sunnis and Shiites intermarried, and typically the father’s sect would become the dominant one in the family.

Sectarianism existed before the war; it was just muted and not very important politically. But it could always be used as an alternative interpretation of events as well. Abdul Karim Qasim, who led Iraq after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, increased the numbers of Shiites in the officer corps. Some Shiites believe he was overthrown by Sunni officers in 1963 because of that, since afterward Shiite attendance in the military academy declined. The regime that followed also expropriated some Shiite businesses. But politics in 1950s and ’60s Iraq was broadly aligned around ideological, not sectarian, fault lines, inspired by Nasser’s secular Arab socialist state in Egypt. The 1968 coup that brought the Baath Party to power, dubbed the “White Revolution,” got most of its legitimacy from its promise of stability and an end to the retributions and political violence that had scarred Iraqi society. Saddam, who participated in the coup and rose to the top of the military and government throughout the ’70s, officially took power in 1979. For a long time his approach to ruling was not sectarian. Although most neighborhoods in Baghdad had a clear sectarian majority, Saddam tried to prevent the emergence of “pure” areas in the city. The government regulated access to the city, and moving into Baghdad required the government’s permission. In the early 1980s, when plans were made to modernize the city, the government planned many neighborhoods to accommodate specific professions (military officers, teachers, professors, engineers, etc.) in order to assure that they were mixed. Most of these areas have now been rendered homogenous because of the violence and mass expulsions. The same applies to the government’s plans for social engineering (moving Arabs into the north and Kurds into the south). Internal displacement is a grave obstacle to peace in Iraq today.

During the ’70s the Baath Party, though not without sectarian bias, was focused on using its oil wealth for modernizing Iraq and building the Iraqi state. As Saddam accumulated more power it was often at the expense of rival Sunnis. Initially loyalty and competence were sufficient to advance in his regime. Saddam weakened ideological parties like the Communists but backed religious and tribal leaders who supported his regime.

But the Iran-Iraq War increased regional sectarianism. Arab states like Saudi Arabia expected Iraq to be a Sunni bulwark against Shiite Iran. The war created the first real fissures between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Some Shiite Baathists in the intelligence and security establishment and presidential palace began to feel marginalized and mistrusted, even targeted. Some who defected complained about this to Dawa Party officials in London, but the officials weren’t sure if the complaints were valid or just an attempt to penetrate the party. “If the Iran-Iraq War had only lasted one or two years, it wouldn’t have had an impact,” a Dawa insider and longtime official told me. “But it lasted eight years.” And the war was followed by the 1991 intifada, which was not Shiite at first—it grabbed anything around it to give it an identity, and Imam Hussein’s “revolution” against oppression resonated in the south. Saddam crushed the intifada, treating it as if it were a Shiite uprising. His brutal suppression was led by a Shiite, Muhammad Hamza al-Zubaidi, but Shiites would feel that a Sunni regime had punished them, and they would harbor these grievances following Saddam’s overthrow.

Some Shiite activists in exile circles belonging to Dawa and the Supreme Council began talking about the historical unfairness Iraqi Shiites faced. Abdel Karim al-Uzri was a secular Shiite and the godfather of this idea. He argued that Shiites had been treated unfairly ever since the state of Iraq was established. Uzri and a few others outside the mainstream of Dawa and the Supreme Council began talking about the political bias against Shiites. Dawa and Supreme Council rhetoric was about Islamic revolution, though. People like Sami al-Askari and Muafaq al-Rubaei, who would rise to power in postwar Iraq, were staunchly against talking about Shiite rights. “I was accused of being a foreign agent to undermine them,” said the Dawa insider. “It was about Islamists against evil powers of everybody else. It was about Islamic revolution, not Sunnis versus Shiites. At one point the Supreme Council even had Sunnis in its leadership.” But even this insider admitted Saddam was not sectarian. “Saddam played one community against another. He executed many Salafis and influential Sunnis. Saddam wasn’t a Sunni. He didn’t care about Sunnis and Shiites. After the 1991 failed uprising, there was a strategic shift in the Supreme Council. It wasn’t about Samarra; it was a strategic plan to destroy Sunni power.” After the Gulf War the Iraqi state became much more narrowly based. Shiites were removed from jobs, or kept out of jobs, while power became more and more concentrated in the hands of Sunnis from certain tribes. The regime responded to the threat from the uprising by closing ranks on a tribal and clan basis, mostly people from Tikrit and Mosul. To many Shiites, it felt like the state religion was Sunni Islam, and the public practice of Shiism was prohibited. At Saddam University, one of Baghdad’s biggest schools, the senior party official who had taught Baathist ideology just before the war told his students that if he found them visiting Shiite shrines, he would beat them. Naturally, he also condemned the Dawa Party—the party of the largely exiled Shiite intelligentsia—and described it as murderous.

State schools had mandatory religion classes, but only Sunni Islam was taught and the teachers were usually Sunni, at least in Baghdad. The religious endowment, or waqf, was an ostensibly ecumenical ministry, but many Shiites perceived it as being Sunni. They worried that collection money donated to Shiite shrines was used to build Sunni mosques. Shiite calls to prayer from mosques were often not allowed. When mosques challenged the government and broadcasted the Shiite call, they were punished. Many Shiite religious books were banned, perhaps because some of them condemned figures revered by Sunnis, so Shiites would exchange these books secretly. Sometimes Shiites found with them would be accused of belonging to the Dawa Party and executed. Between Iraqis, the level of social sectarianism often depended on whether or not they were devout practitioners of their faith.

Saddam’s faith campaign of 1993 was meant to bolster his legitimacy. It meant that Baath Party members had to attend classes on Islam. This would influence not only them but their sons as well, who ten years later would take part in the resistance. The generation raised in the 1990s also had much more Islamic education in school. The regime even introduced an Islamic-based mutilation as punishment for military desertion.

Many upscale whites living on Park Avenue in New York view blacks and Hispanics with disdain. Many minorities resent whites. Even in New York City one can hear blacks referred to as “niggers” and Chinese as “chinks.” But this racism does not normally translate into violence. It takes more than just resentment or even hatred. It takes fear as well as mobilization and manipulation by politicians and the media. This happened in the Balkans and Rwanda, and this happened in Iraq as well. For sure, the potential was there to be manipulated. In 2003 Shiites referred to other Shiites as “min jamaatna,” or “from our group,” to let somebody know that a stranger could be trusted. But the American occupation divided Iraqis against one another, pitting the winners against the losers, and persistent Al Qaeda-style attacks against Shiites combined with this manipulation to unleash an awful tempest. The occupation empowered sectarian, ethnic, and tribal parties that had no rivals thanks to Saddam’s legacy.

The Americans, much like the exile Shiite and Kurdish parties, identified the former regime and its security forces with Sunni Arabs. Most Iraqis viewed the army as the national army, not Saddam’s army or the Baath Party’s army, even if they viewed the Republican Guard as having a more sectarian hue. But despite the national embrace of the army, it was Sunnis who suffered the most and felt most vulnerable following its dissolution. Nearly four hundred thousand men lost their jobs following Bremer’s decision to disband the army and security forces. Shiites and Sunnis alike protested. The resistance would later benefit both from the chaos resulting from the dissolution of the security forces and from the pool of unemployed and embittered men it created. As Sunnis saw exile sectarian and ethnic parties taking over, their sense of disenfranchisement only increased—especially when the new government and its security forces became dominated by those same Shiite and Kurdish parties.

Bremer’s de-Baathification order led to the sweeping dismissal of Iraq’s entire managerial class. De-Baathification was not a neutral judicial process; it was politicized from the beginning. Former American ally Ahmad Chalabi used the process to target opponents. Shiite ex-Baathists were rehabilitated, but Sunnis often were not. In effect, the state was de-Sunnified. The American-selected Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) was dominated by sectarian and ethnic exile parties that had little support within Iraq, and its Sunni members were especially weak. The Sadrists, who had real indigenous support and had not been in exile, were excluded, while Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, perceived to be Iranian tools, were empowered. Crucially, this was the first time sect and ethnicity had been used as the official principles underlying politics and institutional formation. Although the IGC was weak and had little support, it wrote the interim Constitution. In June 2004 the IGC was replaced by the interim government, led by secular Shiite and former Baathist Ayad Allawi. The exile sectarian and ethnic parties remained dominant. Many Shiites reported that violence against them started with the formation of the “Shiite”-controlled government.

As the resistance adopted a more Sunni identity, the Americans, who already viewed Sunni Arabs as pro-Saddam and pro-Baathist, had their preconceived notions reinforced. The U.S. military’s brutal attempts to suppress the resistance also reinforced the Sunni sense of persecution, and there were no prominent Sunni leaders who could act as intermediaries between the resistance and the Americans.

The January 2005 elections were based on proportional representation, with all of Iraq as one electoral district. This weakened local parties with grassroots support but strengthened countrywide ethnic and sectarian blocs. Sunnis boycotted, strengthening the hands of Shiite and Kurdish parties. Sunnis were then locked out of the constitutional drafting committee. They feared that the federalism in the new constitution would deny them access to the country’s resources and wealth. In October of that year Kurds and Shiites voted for the Constitution in a referendum, while Sunnis overwhelmingly voted against it.

While it was once taboo to ask about somebody’s sect, it now became an essential part of daily interactions, with people asking indirect questions about where somebody was from, what neighborhood, what tribe, until they could figure it out. Many Sunnis, of course, also had a condescending and suspicious view of Shiites, encouraged by Saddam’s policies in the 1990s. To them, and to many Sunnis in the region, the new Shiite-dominated order was a shocking historic reversal. Iraqi Sunnis feared revenge, especially as they saw that Shiite-dominated security forces were indeed targeting them en masse. By 2005 mass-casualty attacks on Shiite civilians were widespread. Shiites were restrained in response to these attacks, thanks in large measure to their leadership. Following the January 2005 elections, things began to change. The Supreme Council took over the Interior Ministry, and its men from the Badr militia filled senior positions. That year Sunnis began to be killed during curfew hours, when civilians could not drive. The killers reportedly had official vehicles. Missing Sunnis would be found executed with signs of torture.

Sunni Arabs were the primary victims of the sectarian cleansing in part because they were the weaker party, subject to attacks by the Americans, the new Shiite-dominated security forces, and the Shiite militias. But Sunnis also were more likely to live in Shiite areas than Shiites were to live in Sunni areas. While there were few Shiites in the Anbar province or in the north, there were significant Sunni minorities in the south. Many have been expelled from their homes.

The Iraqi elections of January 2005 enshrined the new, sectarian Iraq. The Shiite government unleashed its vengeful militias on Sunnis, replicating Saddam’s mass graves, secret prisons, torture, and executions. Neighborhoods were cleansed of their minorities, and a once-diverse fabric frayed and came apart. Baghdad was slowly emptied of its Sunnis. Iraq fell apart. The violence was systematic and horrific. Rapes, beheadings, and extreme torture were used as strategic weapons. Kidnappings reached levels exceeding those of Colombia, Mexico, or Pakistan. Millions of Iraqis were internally displaced. Millions more became refugees in neighboring countries. Iraq’s middle class, business class, intellectuals, doctors—all left the country. It was one of the fastest destructions of a country and its polity in history.

The Rise of the Mosque

With the removal of Saddam’s regime, mosques and clerics acquired an inordinate power in Iraq. Though only one of many complex factors influencing life in the Muslim world, the mosque traditionally had an important role in the community, one that encompassed the religious, social, and political. The call to prayer echoed through neighborhoods five times a day, serving to regulate time and the cycle of life. The mosque was a place for men to pray, learn, talk, bond, and mobilize for collective action. The Friday khutba (sermon) was often a call to action, in which the imam—the head of the mosque, who led prayer—would lecture his flock about issues that mattered to the community, from religion to international affairs. Particularly in authoritarian states, the minbar (pulpit) is a rare source of alternative authority. Likewise, in authoritarian states that restrict freedom of expression, the khutba is an important alternative source of information and views. In post-Saddam Iraq the mosque became the most important institution in the state. It served to unite communities, functioning as a provider of welfare and a weapons depot, a source of news and a rallying point. Certain mosques became key locations in neighborhoods or even rallying points for movements and sects; they became the perfect vantage from which to watch how sectarianism became a dominant and destabilizing force in Iraq.

I first visited Baghdad’s Adhamiya district on Friday, April 18, 2003, for the triumphal return of Dr. Ahmad Kubeisi, Iraq’s most famous living Sunni theologian and a television preacher who had been based in the United Arab Emirates. A staunch Sunni bastion in majority-Shiite eastern Baghdad, Adhamiya was named for its mosque of Al Imam al-Adham, “The Greatest Imam,” as the 1,300-year-old mosque and tomb of Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man was called. Abu Hanifa was a ninth-century theologian whose legal judgments are still followed by about half the world’s Muslims. The Abu Hanifa Mosque is Iraq’s most important Sunni shrine, visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year. It had been a favorite mosque of the former Iraqi government; before the war Iraqi state television often broadcast Friday prayers from there. In the past, the imam, Sheikh Abdul Ghafar al-Kubaisi, had held up a Kalashnikov during his sermons, exhorting his listeners to protect Saddam and his regime. He was now in hiding.

Adhamiya sits on the east bank of the Tigris River, right across from the important Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya. Many of Iraq’s Shiites believe that Abu Hanifa was a treacherous student of Imam Kadhim, a key religious leader venerated by Shiites who participated in Kadhim’s killing, and some had a tradition of spitting in the direction of the shrine when they passed by it. Others told a story that Abu Hanifa had committed suicide by throwing himself in a barrel of acid. In fact, my friend Sayyid Hassan Naji al-Musawi, a close ally of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and a commander in Sadr’s Mahdi Army, once confided to me that Abu Hanifa was an “ibn zina” (son of adultery), and that a “dog is buried there.” Salafis, whose numbers in Adhamiya had grown in the 1990s, also despised the mosque, which was revered by Sufis, because of the Salafi rejection of all shrines and tombs. After the war, posters of Saddam could still be bought in Adhamiya, and some Shiites called it “Saddamiya.” Shiite mosques in the district were frequent targets of Sunni attacks.

Adhamiya was both very old and very rich, and the former regime found many supporters there. Up-and-coming Baathists would often purchase a house in the district once they could afford it. In March 2003, just before the war started, Gen. Mustafa al-Azzawi—who would command the Iraqi forces that fought the invading U.S. Army in Nasiriya, in southeast Iraq—began building a home in Adhamiya. Saddam himself hid there during the Gulf War of 1991. Afterward he appeared on Iraqi television to thank the people of Adhamiya for helping him, and declared it Baghdad’s original neighborhood.

On Wednesday, April 8, 2003, Saddam was spotted and filmed at a rally outside the Abu Hanifa Mosque. He wore his military uniform and was flanked by a man resembling his son Qusay. The cheering crowds lifted Saddam up onto a car hood, from where he waved. A voice in the film that was made of the event said, “Conquered people eventually triumph over invaders. Your leadership is not weakened.” On April 10 a fierce gun battle occurred in Adhamiya between members of the First Marine Expeditionary Force and what U.S. Central Command called “an Iraqi leadership group trying to get together for a meeting” in the house of a top Baath official. One vehicle was hit by three rocket-propelled grenades and at least one marine was killed in the seven-hour battle.

Adhamiya was the last part of Baghdad to fall. The defenders were mostly foreign fighters who regrouped from the rest of the country and tenaciously held out. Twenty-two prisoners were taken from the mosque, including its sheikh, Watheq al-Obeidi, and his two sons. Some of the prisoners were not Iraqi. Inside, a cemetery for “the martyrs of April 10” would be built. Before the gravestones were ready, the names of at least twenty dead foreign fighters—including Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Yemenis—were written on paper and put into soda bottles stuck into the ground. Foreign fighters who had survived were hidden in mosques or homes by sympathetic locals; some were even driven to the Syrian or Iranian border. The mosque itself was damaged, its walls pockmarked with deep holes and its minaret nearly cracked in two, with a gaping hole left by a missile launched from an American plane several hours after the April 10 battle. A nearby telephone exchange was destroyed by American bombings, and the buildings across from the mosque were blackened from the attacks. A dozen burned-out cars, including Sheikh Watheq’s blue Volkswagen Beetle, blocked traffic. To prevent looting after the battle, Adhamiya’s residents formed a committee of armed volunteers. Life began to return to normal, with the tea houses across from the mosque open and the neighborhood’s men gathering once more to chat and play dominoes.

A week after the gun battle, as looting was still occurring across Baghdad and the Ministry of Information was emptied and set aflame, loudspeakers atop the U.S. Army’s Humvees warned in Arabic that if the looters did not immediately leave, “there will be consequences.” Meanwhile, the recently returned Dr. Kubeisi warned the Americans in his sermon of the consequences they would face if they did not leave immediately. For Kubeisi’s triumphal return the mosque was covered in banners proclaiming “One Iraq, One People,” “No to America,” “We Reject Foreign Control,” “Sunnis Are Shiites and Shiites Are Sunnis; We Are All One,” “All the Believers Are Brothers,” “Leave Our Country, We Want Peace,” and similar proclamations of national and Islamic unity. Demonstrators chanted “No to America, no to Saddam, our revolution is Islamic!” The angular and white-bearded Kubeisi had been a strident opponent of the war, which he had warned would fail, but shortly after he was proved wrong he made haste from his comfortable life in Dubai for Baghdad, reportedly being flown in from Amman on an official UAE private jet.

The sermon that followed the prayers elaborated the nationalist sentiments on the banners. Baghdad had been occupied by the Mongols, Kubeisi said, referring to the sacking of what was then the capital of the Muslim world in 1258. Now, new Mongols were occupying Baghdad; they were destroying its civilization and creating divisions between Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites and Sunnis were one, however, and they should remain united and reject foreign control, he said. They had all suffered together as one people under Saddam’s rule. Saddam had oppressed all Iraqis and then abandoned them to suffer. There were no Sunnis or Shiites, Kubeisi said. All Iraqis were Muslims, and they had defended their country from the Americans and British as a united people. Kubeisi also thanked the Shiites of Basra for “defending their country against the foreign invaders.” He demanded an administration governed only by Iraqis and a council of Shiite and Sunni scholars to oppose any government the Americans tried to establish. “We fear that sectarianism will be exploited by our enemies,” he said, referring to the Americans, and urged unity between Sunnis and Shiites. “We will reconstruct our country,” he said, rejecting American interference and “a government that will oppress us,” calling instead for elections. He mocked the “continuous lies” that the Americans had come to get rid of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. “Where are these weapons?” he demanded. The Americans were the enemies of mankind, and had come for Iraq’s oil, he said. The American occupiers were the masters today, but they should not consider staying in Iraq. “Get out before we expel you,” he said, warning of the humiliation they would suffer. The sermon ended with shouts of “God is great!”

The parallel with the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 was ominous. It had shocked Muslims in the thirteenth century. Theologians like Taqi al-Din ibn Taimiya (1263-1328) from Aleppo in modern-day Syria blamed Muslims for failing to be sufficiently devout. A wave of conservatism spread throughout the Muslim world, trying to return Islam to its original purity. Often quoted by Osama bin Laden, Ibn Taimiya is the spiritual father of radical Sunnism, in particular the Wahhabi form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia and the general Salafi trend dominant in international terror movements like Al Qaeda. Taimiya viewed offensive jihad as a duty of every Muslim and expressed extreme hatred for Shiites, who were treated as apostates. He even blamed Shiites for the Mongol sacking of Baghdad. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian fundamentalist who acts as Al Qaeda’s ideologue, has also relied on Taimiya’s fatwas, written as the Mongols devastated Baghdad. The Saudi government has been distributing the works of Taimiya throughout the world since the 1950s.

Across from the Abu Hanifa Mosque I found a shop selling magazines that promoted Taimiya’s thoughts. Perhaps more ominous, many Sunnis blamed Shiites for the betrayal that led to the fall of Baghdad. In the thirteenth century the sultan had a Shiite adviser called Ibn al-Alqami, who was said to have sold out his people and helped the Mongols. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other Salafi jihadists would later curse Shiites as the “grandsons of Ibn al-Alqami” for their collaboration with the Americans, the new Mongols.

Also in attendance at prayers that day was Sheikh Muayad al-Adhami, whom Kubeisi appointed as the new leader of the mosque. Adhami was angered by the entry of American marines into his mosque the previous week. The marines, who had not removed their shoes and had carried weapons, had violated Iraqi dignity, he said. Kubeisi’s close ties with the previous regime in Iraq would allow him to galvanize the Sunni elite and lead the community that had become disenfranchised with the end of the regime. There were few other Sunni personalities as well-known. His previous five years in exile created the false impression that he too had been opposed to Saddam, and he would attempt to use this to forge ties with former opposition figures who had returned. In the early months of the occupation, Kubeisi’s followers held joint demonstrations and prayers with anti-occupation Shiites such as the Sadrists. Their constant message was “maku farq,” meaning “there is no difference” between Sunnis and Shiites: “We are all Muslims.” But in retrospect they were protesting too much; behind the stentorian insistence that they were all united was the fear that they were not and the knowledge of what would happen should this secret become known.

When Supreme Council leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim became head of the Iraqi Governing Council in late 2003, he began distributing land in Adhamiya to Shiites in order to increase its Shiite population, and he supported the construction of Shiite mosques there. But these mosques were often attacked, and some were blown up while still being constructed. Tensions continued to escalate. After Saddam’s capture in December 2003, rumors spread in Adhamiya that it was not their beloved leader after all. Residents emerged to celebrate, carrying pictures of Saddam and wielding Kalashnikovs and even RPGs. They clashed with U.S. troops, and locals maintained that U.S. forces were accompanied by the Supreme Council’s Badr Brigade. Others claimed that Iraqi police from Sadr City attacked the Sunni revelers. Residents of Adhamiya accused these forces of raiding the hospital to arrest those they had wounded. It was the first time Sunnis accused Shiite militias or security forces of attacking them.

Adhamiya remained a bastion of support for the resistance. Although most of the resistance in that area was not Salafist, following the destruction of Falluja by the Americans in late 2004, a large number of Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad fighters moved into a building called Ras al-Hawash, which was close to the Abu Hanifa Mosque. There were foreign fighters among them, and they enjoyed the hospitality of the neighborhood’s families and employed local youths to collect information on their behalf. One test of bravery they gave local youths seeking entry into their group was to challenge them to place the flag of Tawhid and Jihad on the walls of the Abu Hanifa Mosque.

At the same time as I was tracking the fate of the Abu Hanifa Mosque and the neighborhood around it, I was also curious about the neighborhood of Ghazaliya and would visit it often. Built in the 1980s for Baath Party members and Iraqi army officers, it had twelve Sunni mosques but none for Shiites, even though the area was mixed—Saddam had refused to allow Shiite mosques to be built there. Sunni mosques in Iraq rarely attracted the same large crowds as their Shiite counterparts. Sunnis merely went to the closest mosque in their neighborhood, which in this case was the Um Al Qura Mosque. Built by Saddam at the cost of $7.5 million, the mosque was originally named Um al Maarik (Mother of all Battles) but later changed to Um Al Qura (Mother of Villages), a reference to Mecca. The mosque served as a symbol of Saddam’s turn to Sunni Islam to legitimize his rule, and commemorated his glorious (albeit failed) battle against the United States and its allies in the Gulf War. A plaque by its door said it was “built by the order of President Saddam Hussein, may God keep him.” Its minarets are visible from a great distance, four of which are shaped like Kalashnikovs and four like Scud missiles, and its dome is taller than most in Iraq. The bright white marble mosque is surrounded by a moat shaped like the map of the Arab nations, and has a huge parking lot that has not been full since the heady days of the spring of 2004. Inside it feels more like a Gothic cathedral than any other mosque I have been to. It is silent, with natural light coming in from up high. It is more vertical in its orientation than most, which have a tendency to feel horizontal. Its walls are cream-colored with green and gold decorations. The imam’s voice echoes like a Gregorian chant.

On July 18, 2003, a day after the old Baath coup anniversary, more than a thousand men with white skullcaps gathered for the Friday prayer and sermon. Signs were still up displaying the mosque’s original name. An adjoining museum contained a Koran allegedly written with Saddam’s donated blood. That day, Dr. Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, warned that the Americans should think of leaving Iraq to spare them and the Iraqis time, blood, and money. “It is the right of occupied people to resist the occupiers . . . the Iraqis will resist,” Dhari said. Did the Arabs not have the same right to resist occupation and expel the occupiers that other nations had? The Americans had to leave at once, and the Iraqi people would establish their own government, unite, and live as brothers. Dhari commended the members of the resistance, calling them “an honest opposition” of which Iraqis could be proud. He called on them to continue defending Iraq and resisting the occupation.

Dhari condemned the Interim Governing Council, which, he claimed, had been established by “dishonest parties” and divided Iraq along sectarian lines. It would only cause hostility among the Iraqi people, he said. He was infuriated by the council’s declaration of April 9 as a national holiday, a day he described as “the downfall and surrender of Baghdad,” which should be commemorated with sorrow and pain. Dhari’s anti-Shiism came across obliquely, when he condemned the IGC for allowing one community (the Shiites) to dominate the others, despite statistics to the contrary (meaning he rejected claims that Shiites were the majority population in Iraq). Dhari also condemned exiled opposition leaders who came on the backs of U.S. tanks and called for killing former Baathists. Up to half the country’s population were former Baathists, he said, defending them as pious and well intentioned.

As his voice built to a piercing, shrill cry, Dhari screamed out about crimes the Americans were committing: breaking into homes, searching women. “Do you agree with this?” he demanded of the crowd. “No!” they shouted back. Dhari reminded his audience that the Iraqis knew how to resist occupation, recalling the 1920 revolution against the British, when Sunnis and Shiites had fought together. As prayers ended and the men streamed out of the mosque, their bellicose spirit continued with shouts of “No to colonialism!” “No to the occupiers!” The crowd chanted rhyming slogans calling for the extermination of the infidel army, for Baghdad to revolt, and for Paul Bremer to follow the fate of Nuri as-Said, the British-protected prime minister who was killed by mobs in 1958. Leaflets distributed during the demonstration contained a statement calling on Muslims around the world to come to their aid to confront the atheist occupying forces and to re-establish the Islamic caliphate to defeat the American and British aggression.

A few weeks later, on August 11, the Association of Muslim Scholars issued a statement condemning American violation of the mosques, which they said even the Mongols had not done. Iraq’s Islamic endowments were now being looted by criminals “from across the border,” meaning Shiites from Iran. The statement claimed that seventeen mosques had been robbed with the blessing of American forces. While acknowledging Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for his statements protecting Sunni mosques, they blamed the Americans for giving Shiites too much power, including control over the ministry of religious endowments. These Shiites did not protest the arrests of thirty clerics or the American violation of holy places.

The Rise of the Sadr Current

The Sadr Current, as its supporters describe it, was a surprise to all outside observers of Iraq and even most middle-and upper-class Iraqis, but there were clues in the 1990s that this was a growing movement. Following the Gulf War, many Iraqis fled to Saudi Arabia or surrendered to the Americans. In the refugee camps where they were housed, fighting erupted between supporters of the Sadr Current and the rival Supreme Council of Hakim. The Hakim family was perceived to represent the elite; it also backed Ayatollah Khomeini’s system of clerical rule, known as wilayat al-faqih. Although theological differences existed, the bitter rivalry between followers of Hakim and Sadr can best be seen as both a class conflict and a symptom of the resentment of Iraqi nationalist Shiites who stayed in Iraq toward Hakim and his followers, who were in exile in Iran.

The Sadrists are inspired by the example and teachings of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, arguably the most important Shiite theologian of the twentieth century, who challenged the quietist and traditional role of the Shiite clerical establishment, known as the hawza. He eventually confronted Saddam and was executed by him in 1980. His cousin Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr inherited his mantle, building an immense following among poor Shiites. Much as the Iraqi Communists once exploited the revolutionary potential of poor Shiites, so too did the Sadrists. The Shiite masses were attracted to these movements not so much for their ideology but for their anger. The hawza had historically been dominated by the traditional Shiite view that religious leaders should eschew politics and focus on the spiritual world and on advising their flock. In the 1950s, however, responding to government oppression and encroaching Western secularist trends, a more activist brand of Shiism developed. The activist Shiites sometimes referred to themselves as the outspoken hawza, or the revolutionary hawza, or active faala, and they disparagingly viewed their introverted counterparts as the silent hawza.

In many ways the Sadrists are the subalterns of Iraq, part of the recurring phenomenon of Iraqi mass politics. The Sadrists rejected the obscure theological obsession of the establishment because they had little to do with the daily struggles of real people. Although Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was killed in 1999 along with his more prominent sons, his surviving son, Muqtada, along with Muhammad’s top students, Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and Kadhim al-Haeri, led the movement in the underground phase it assumed until 2003. The Sadrists viewed attendance at Friday prayers, and particularly the Friday sermon, as an act of defiance and revolution, the moment when followers gathered, often pouring in the thousands into the streets, as a powerful collective. The Sadrists were fierce Iraqi nationalists and Arab nationalists, even pro-Palestinian. They were not Persianized, unlike Dawa and the Supreme Council.

Muqtada, the populist upstart who inherited his father’s network of mosques and clerics, led the revolutionary class of poor Shiites. Educated and middle-class followers of his father split from him and joined the Fadhila movement, led by Yaqoubi. A dialectic developed between Muqtada and the angry masses: he followed them as much as they followed him. Soon the CIA would order its analysts to stop using the word “firebrand” every time they described him, and to find some variety.

Immediately after the war, Muqtada and his network seized control of the Shiite sections of Baghdad and much of the south, and to occupy hospitals, Baath Party headquarters, and government warehouses, establishing themselves as the state in much of Iraq. Sunnis were the primary victims of the murderous settling of scores that began on April 9, 2003. The killers were usually Kurds or Shiites. Thousands of Arab families were also expelled from areas in the north of Kirkuk and Diyala, which Kurdish militias perceived as part of their territory. After Baghdad fell, angry Shiite mobs in the newly named Sadr City slaughtered radical Sunni foreign fighters, even burning tires around their necks. Many Iraqis wanted revenge. These foreign fedayeen had been given weapons and the authority to control Baghdad’s streets before the war. In April 2003 I met with a Shiite young man whose ear was cut by a group of Arab mujahideen because they accused him of being a deserter. Just as frightening for Sunnis was the seizure of their mosques throughout Iraq. Following the 1991 Shiite intifada, Saddam ordered the construction of large Sunni mosques in Shiite-dominated cities throughout the south. These were often named “the Great Saddam Mosque.” Immediately after the regime collapsed, these and other Sunni mosques were occupied by Shiites.

“It is the beginning of the separation,” one Shiite cleric explained to me with a smile in May 2003. Immediately after the war Sunni clerics complained that at least thirty of their mosques had been taken over by Shiites and issued statements in newspapers demanding their return, but they were never returned. In some cases Shiites were reclaiming places of worship that Saddam had seized and given to Sunnis. This was the case with the Shiite Hassan Mosque in Karbala, which was given to Sunni hardliners in the 1990s.

According to a friend of mine in Najaf, the cleric Sheikh Heidar al-Mimar, “There were no Sunnis in Najaf before the 1991 intifada, but Saddam brought all these Wahhabis to the Shiite provinces in order to control Shiites. These Wahhabis were very bad with us, and all Shiites were afraid of them. Saddam wanted to Sunni-ize Najaf and Karbala.” As a result, following the war these Sunni interlopers were immediately targeted by the inchoate Shiite militias.

Shiite pilgrims traditionally donated money to the shrines of the imams they visited. This money added up to millions of dollars every month. Shiites believed Saddam used it in the 1990s to finance his Faith Campaign, which involved promoting Sunni practices in Iraq and even, for the first time, tolerance toward Wahhabis, perhaps because of their deep hatred for Shiites. Shiites resented the alleged theft of their money for Sunni purposes and sought to impose justice after the war. In July 2003 members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia even debated seizing the giant Um Al Qura Mosque in Baghdad’s Sunni bastion of Ghazaliya. The mosque served as the headquarters for the Association of Muslim Scholars, the neo-Baathist body that had been formed just after the American invasion to protect Sunni interests and unite Sunni leaders under the command of the Baathists-turned-clerics who would soon control much of the insurgency.

The revolutionary Shiite wave that swept Iraq in the wake of the American invasion overthrew the order that had existed in Iraq until then. Shiites would not let history repeat itself. On April 7 Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, a cleric born in the Iraqi city of Karbala but exiled in the Iranian holy city of Qom since 1973, appointed Muqtada as his deputy and representative in Iraq for all fatwa affairs. Haeri urged Iraqis to kill all Baathists to prevent them from taking over again. In the southern city of Kut on April 18, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, brother of Shiite opposition leader Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim and leader of the Supreme Council’s ten thousand-strong Badr Brigade militia, proclaimed that Shiites were the majority in Iraq and hinted that they hoped for an Islamic government. That same day in Baghdad, Sheikh Muhammad al-Fartusi, Muqtada’s deputy for Baghdad, warned that Shiites would not accept a democracy that would obstruct their sovereignty. If Shiites did not have a say in the government, he said, it would be worse than under Saddam.

In late April 2003 Shiites staged a massive celebration of their identity and show of force. They descended in the millions upon Karbala for Arbaeen, the day marking the end of the forty-day mourning period for the Prophet Muhammad’s slain grandson Hussein. These ceremonies had been severely restricted under Saddam, and it was the first time anybody could remember openly expressing such pride in their identity as Shiites. Sunnis watched with concern and some disdain for rituals they rejected as un-Islamic or primitive. On my way down to Karbala, I was detained by armed Shiite men who feared I was a Wahhabi. I talked and smiled my way out of it. Being an American wasn’t so bad in those days. At the time the incident did not seem significant, but in retrospect I realized it was: members of a Shiite militia were protecting their village from Sunni extremists—as early as April 2003. Throughout the ceremonies it was clear that Shiites were terrified of a phantom Wahhabi threat. In centuries past Wahhabis had swept up from Arabia and sacked Shiite shrines. Now Shiites feared Wahhabis would poison the food distributed to pilgrims. Soon many Shiites would view all Sunnis as Wahhabis.

The ceremonies of Arbaeen and the more important holiday that precedes it by a month, Ashura, are not merely individual acts of contrition. They are performed collectively and publicly by Shiites, and these rituals unite and define the Shiite sense of community. For nearly two months of the year Shiites are engaged in these unique rituals and mourning processions. The messages are lashed into their bodies and minds. The virtues of Shiite leaders are contrasted to the alleged immorality of early Sunni leaders, who supposedly stole the mantle of leadership wrongly from Hussein and showed no mercy to his family, even the children. The founders of the Umayyad dynasty, perceived to be usurpers of the throne that should have gone to descendants of the Prophet through his cousin and son-in-law Ali (Hussein’s father), are condemned—and by implication so are their followers, Sunni Muslims. That first Arbaeen after the war was marked by Shiites not with the traditional sorrow or mourning that lead to flagellation and crying but with triumphalism. Iraq was now theirs. The Shiites who made their way to Karbala were united in one message: the hawza, or Shiite theological seminary and seat of the ayatollahs in Najaf, was their leader. Banners, songs, statements, all demanded that the hawza should lead Iraq. These sentiments did nothing to assuage Sunni fears, nor were they consistent with the promises of exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi, who promised that Iraq’s Shiites were secular and sought democracy. A few years later Shiite religious parties like the Supreme Council would control the country, and their militias would become the Iraqi police and army, running their own secret prisons, arresting, torturing, and executing Sunnis. Iraq now belonged to the followers of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his relative Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr—the first and second martyr, respectively. Even Ahmad Chalabi, during the December 2005 elections, waved posters of Sistani in Sadr City after Sistani was criticized on Al Jazeera.

IN MARCH 2004 I witnessed the Ashura bombings that killed nearly 200 Shiite pilgrims in both the holy city of Karbala and Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district. These attacks failed to provoke massive retaliation, but the sectarian violence did increase. A few days after the bombings, in Baghdad’s Shurta neighborhood, an SUV with masked men shot up a Shiite mosque; several days after that a Sunni cleric was killed in a drive-by shooting while walking to his mosque for the evening prayer. Hundreds attended his funeral, which was guarded by a phalange of very anxious armed men. Surrounded by his bodyguards, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Ghafur al-Samarai of the Association of Muslim Scholars spoke at the funeral, calling on the youth to protect their religious leaders. It was like calling for the creation of self-defense militias. Following the murder of another Sunni sheikh, Dhamer al-Dhari, Samarai blamed the Americans for paying mercenaries to commit murders and cause sectarian strife. At the same time, he blamed the Americans for favoring the Shiites and discriminating against the Sunnis, and criticized them for not disarming the Kurdish and Shiite militias. Samarai also called for uniting Sunnis to prevent other militias from taking over, and blamed the occupiers and the Zionists for playing with Iraq’s factions. No one seemed to be talking about Sunni-Shiite unity anymore.

Two nights after the Ashura bombings, the Qiba Mosque—a Sunni mosque in a Shiite stronghold in Baghdad’s Shaab district—was attacked. I had befriended a young man my age called Firas from the neighborhood; he called to tip me off about this, adding that the mosque was for “Wahhabis.” I asked the hotel where I was staying for its taxi driver, but I didn’t explain why I was going to Shaab. Not a single car was out as we drove for twenty minutes from the city center to the mosque. The streets of Shaab were misty and unlit. The road before the mosque was blocked by a truck and about twenty men holding Kalashnikovs.

They surrounded the taxi, and young men in shabby civilian clothes pointed their barrels in through our windows. They demanded to know who we were and what we wanted. They were very tense. I asked the one on my side who he was, but he ordered me out of the car. The taxi driver explained that I was not an Iraqi. “He’s a foreigner!” they shouted to one another, and all the men came to the car. We tried to explain that I was a journalist, but they had never seen an American passport or a press ID before. Why was I here? What did I want? It was clear from the fear in their eyes and the anger in their voices that they wanted to find somebody to kill. They used none of the polite expressions that color even hostile Arabic conversation. They only gave orders, as if we were their prisoners, their voices echoing against the empty city’s buildings.

The man with the slurred voice pointed his Kalashnikov at me and ordered me out of the car in a drunken rage. The driver and I protested that I was just a journalist, here to investigate an attack. Not knowing if they were Sunni or Shiite, I recited the names of every Iraqi Sunni and Shiite leader I could think of and said they were all my friends. I won over two men and they began struggling with the drunk man, who still wanted to shoot me. An argument broke out over whether or not they should kill me. The drunk man would not move the barrel down as they tried to push it, and I moved away from its swaying range. The others were undecided and nervously eyed me. One man rushed me into the mosque for safety. More armed guards stood inside. I tried to remember how to speak Arabic and felt ashamed that my knees were very weak. It was the first time I had ever been confronted with death. They confirmed that after the last prayer that night, as the devout were emptying onto the street, a car had driven by and opened fire. “Praise God, nobody was wounded,” they said, pointing to the white gashes in the wall where the bullets had torn chunks of plaster off. They added that only a few months ago, the same thing had happened. More men holding their Kalashnikovs in a ready-for-fire position came out.

The next morning I returned. Shaab’s streets were busy with children playing amid garbage and sewage pools. Donkeys pulled carts carrying gas for stoves, and boys banged on the containers to let the neighborhood know they were passing. Before the war many forbidden Shiite books were printed illegally in Shaab, and it was known as the “Little Hawza.” American soldiers manned a checkpoint along with fresh Iraqi recruits, searching suspicious cars. A house near the mosque was riddled with bullets and burned. It belonged to a Wahhabi Muslim who had been killed in the summer of 2003 by local Shiites.

Sheikh Walid Al-Dulaimi, the leader of the Qiba Mosque, was well liked in the neighborhood for being a friend to the Shiites, and locals said he even had problems with the previous regime because of this. Abu Hasan, the mosque caretaker, was busy fixing the generator, his hands and dishdasha robe blackened with grease. He explained that the attackers had opened fire from two cars, an Opel sedan and a Nissan pickup, at 7:30 the previous evening. They were dressed like police, he said, and before they managed to fire an RPG, one of the bystanders had grabbed it from them. “They want to create fitna [strife] between Sunnis and Shiites, but it won’t happen. I am sixty years old. I have never seen any problems between us. We intermarry and are friends. America is responsible for this.” Abu Hasan added that Shiites from the city and from nearby Sadr City had visited the mosque to show solidarity. Sheikh Dhia from the local Shurufi Mosque came along with tribal leaders. “We are a targeted mosque because Sunnis and Shiites both come here and are united,” he said. He insisted that fifty-two Sunni visitors had also been killed in the Kadhimiya attacks along with the Shiite victims.

The mosque was first attacked in August of the previous year, he said, and three people had been wounded. After last night’s attack the police shot a man in the leg in a case of mistaken identity. Sayyid Nasr of the Sayyid Haidar Husseiniya—a husseiniya is a Shiite place of worship and communal gathering—also visited the Qiba Mosque to pay respects with thirty friends and relatives. As the honorific title of “sayyid” revealed, he was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus respected. He was also the oldest and best-known sayyid in Shaab. I visited his large home, which was down the street from a wall with posters of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. The walls of his study were decorated with posters of Supreme Council leader Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, who had been slain six months earlier in Najaf, as well as other ayatollahs. Nasr wore a black turban and thick glasses. “Our good leaders will prevent fitna,” he said. He explained that when he visited the Qiba Mosque, he told the gathered people that “I am Sunni and I am Shiite. We are all Muslims.” He was certain that “there will not be any problems between us,” and blamed Zarqawi for the attacks.

He explained that the Wahhabi who had been killed the previous summer and whose house had been burned the night before was called Muhamad. On the day of Hakim’s murder in August 2003, Muhamad had gone to a nearby square that had a painting of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani. “Muhamad spit and threw stones at the paintings, and then shot at them with his Kalashnikov,” Nasr said. “He killed one Shiite and wounded another. After that the men from the neighborhood shot him and burned his house. The Americans came to take his body and found many weapons in his house as well as pictures of bin Laden.” Muhamad was from the Dulaimi tribe, and in order to make peace the Dulaimis gave monetary compensation to the family of the murdered Shiite. “After this Sunnis and Shiites prayed together in the Qiba Mosque, and tomorrow we will do so again.” Nasr also mentioned that fifty-two Sunnis had perished in the Baghdad explosions. When I went to find the leader of the Qiba mosque, he did not unlock his door; instead, he suspiciously peered out, and even after being reassured that I was only a journalist, he did not remove the Kalashnikov strapped around his torso for a moment, afraid of everybody.

The Cleansing of Amriya

In the summer of 2003 I met two young Sunni clerics in the Sunni stronghold of Amriya, who I would come across many times over the next few years. Sheikh Hussein Abu Mustafa, a round dark man with a round black beard and white turban, and Sheikh Walid were old friends. They had graduated together from the Baghdad Islamic Institute. I met them both in Sheikh Walid’s Tikriti Mosque, which had been built in 1999 by the head of intelligence. What happened to them over the next few years in many ways symbolized the topsy-turvy experience of many influential anti-occupation Sunnis. They were the first Sunni clerics I had met who seemed to be offering strong support to the Iraqi resistance. “We are very happy with the resistance of the Iraqi people to the American occupation, but we don’t support killing civilians and innocent people and taking impulsive actions,” they said.

When I revisited Amriya and saw Sheikh Hussein in March 2004, mosque security was higher than ever. Amriya had been home to former Iraq military bases as well as former officers in the army and intelligence services. The sounds of gunfire and explosions reverberated through the neighborhood’s walls, ignored by the children playing in the street until a particularly loud explosion sent them scurrying inside. Neighbors spoke of the nightly attacks and raids. Just last night, they said, U.S. soldiers had raided a house, and when the suspect was not found they took his younger brother. Nearby was the house of a former intelligence officer. When the U.S. soldiers came for him, his family said he was not home and he escaped, wisely trading his conspicuous SUV for a smaller, older wreck of a car. And also last night, they said, from this very street—”We saw them,” they laughed—a car pulled over and shot three artillery rounds at the nearby base where U.S. soldiers trained the new Iraqi Security Forces. One round landed in a small mosque by the walls of the base, damaging its tower; one went over and past the base; and one landed somewhere inside.

The walls of the Maluki Mosque were covered in pro-Saddam graffiti that had been unsuccessfully crossed out. Neighborhood boys surrounded it at prayer time, wielding Kalashnikovs unconvincingly. As the men strolled in for the Friday prayer, they were searched for concealed weapons. Slowly several hundred of the neighborhood men entered, greeting one another and gossiping in the courtyard and then removing their shoes and entering. As the muezzin finished his call to prayer, Sheikh Hussein carefully stepped between the closely seated worshipers, making his way to the podium and climbing up the steps. He began with blessings and reminded the people who their God and Prophet was, his voice low, slow, and gentle, his arms still; then he picked up the pace, arms waving faster, voice getting higher as he got more excited, until his voice cracked and he was nearly crying, chopping the air in a frenzy; and then he placed both hands out in supplication, his voice exasperated, slowing down as he answered his own questions, only to begin the cycle again, from low raspy rumble to the screaming crescendo that woke up those whose heads had sunk lower and lower into their chest in drowsiness.

Sheikh Hussein began by discussing Ali, whom Sunnis consider the fourth caliph, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad in leadership of the umma (Muslim nation). Ali is also revered by Shiites as the only caliph who should have followed Muhammad, since he was the Prophet’s relative. “Ali was the first feday [fighter willing to sacrifice his life] in Islam,” Sheikh Hussein lectured. “He taught the nation how to sacrifice oneself. Be like Ali and sacrifice yourself for Islam. Be like Hassan, who tried to unify the people and who compromised with Muawiya for the sake of unity so the Muslim world would not be weak like our situation now.” This was interesting. Hassan was the son of Ali, who expected to succeed his father as caliph but was turned down for Muawiya, a man from a family that rivaled the Prophet’s Hashem tribe. At first Hassan disputed Muawiya’s claim to leadership, but he ultimately compromised. Shiekh Hussein’s reference to this episode could only be directed at Iraq’s Shiites, the descendants of those who had wanted Muhammad’s family, starting with Ali, to lead Muslims. He was asking them to compromise and let Muawiya’s descendants, the Sunnis, maintain power.

“Muhammad prophesied when Hassan was a child,” Sheikh Hussein explained, “that ‘my grandson will one day reconcile between two sects of Islam.’ Be like Hassan so we will be strong.” It seemed Sheikh Hussein might avoid mentioning Hassan’s more recalcitrant brother, Hussein, who chose to dispute the claim of Muawiya’s family after Muawiya and Hassan both died and Yazid, Muawiya’s son, was appointed caliph. “We condemn the attacks in Karbala and Baghdad,” he declared. “The first goal of the enemies of Islam is to make this country weak. They have a plan to make this country weak by causing a sectarian war so people will be busy fighting each other and they can control it, and our enemy the occupier will remain seated on our chests. So we condemn these attacks that are designed to provoke a sectarian war in this country.” Sheikh Hussein also condemned an earlier attack in Baghdad that had killed a young Shiite cleric. Then he continued, with a surprise, “We have to unify and be like Hussein, the martyr of Karbala, because he sacrificed himself for this country where many warriors were born. Hussein came to Iraq to fight a tyrant because he said, ‘I will not allow a tyrant to rule,’ and he did not want oppression. So he came to teach the people that any Muslim should sacrifice himself to prevent the creation of tyranny, and Hussein defined the path of martyrdom for the people who followed him and told them to follow it.” This is something you rarely hear from a Sunni. The divide between Hussein and Yazid split the Muslim world into Sunnis and Shiites and led to centuries of fitna between the two communities, with Shiites revering Hussein and hating Yazid and Muawiya, and Sunnis defending them and disparaging Hussein and his followers. “We are sorry, Hussein,” the sheikh cried out. “We are ashamed to meet you in the next life, because Baghdad has fallen.” By the end of the sermon, Sheikh Hussein had lost his voice and was too exhausted to talk to me.

After prayer was over Sheikh Hussein shook hands with many of his flock, and they embraced and kissed in the way Sunnis of western Iraq do. (Sheikh Hussein is from the Dulaimi tribe, whose stronghold is the western Anbar province.) He then retreated to his house inside the mosque, where he feasted with his guests from the nearby town of Abu Ghraib as his horde of little boys sat in the corners. American helicopters flew low overhead, shaking the room while Sheikh Hussein and his guests discussed the latest killings of sheikhs and attacks on mosques, and grumbled about the Americans.

In late 2003 at least four people were killed and seven injured when a drive-by shooting targeted the Hassanein Mosque in Amriya after the evening prayers. Sheikh Adnan, the cleric, explained that Shiite militiamen had attacked former regime intelligence men who were praying there. Some locals complained that Sunnis were complacent while attacks were perpetrated against them with impunity. Sheikh Adnan warned that this would lead to worse trouble for Shiites and Sunnis. He also complained that when Sunni clerics went to pay their condolences after the killing of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim of the Supreme Council, they were called “Jewish Wahhabis.”

THE MOOD WAS COARSENING in Amriya. Wall advertisements that featured photos of women were painted black to remove the female faces. Amriya is a wealthy neighborhood too; it has many English-speaking citizens, some of whom worked as translators with the American military. Many of them were killed; many others had to flee Amriya for safer neighborhoods. In the months leading up to the first election for a provisional national assembly in January 2005, Amriya’s streets were full of leaflets and walls calling for “death for those who disappoint what they had promised God,” meaning death for those participating in the election. Some insurgent groups patrolled the streets at night and launched their mortars toward the airport. Hundreds of Shiite families were brutally cleansed from the area; they would find sanctuary in areas under the control of the Sadrists.

Jafar was a Shiite originally from the predominantly Shiite town of Nasiriya in southeast Iraq. His family moved to Baghdad in 1940 but maintained connections with their tribe in the south. Jafar lived in Amriya in a big house with his seventy-year-old mother, two of his brothers, and their wives. Each brother had three or four children. The family was known in Amriya for practicing the Shiite tradition of cooking food and giving it away to poor people on Ashura; they did this even under the former regime, when it was permitted in the last two years of Baath rule.

Mueisar, Jafar’s third brother, was a soldier in the Iraqi army and was captured at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1982. He had been a soldier with the Badr Brigade—who were stationed in Iran as an armed exile group—but he was too physically weak to be a soldier, so he left it in 2001. Mueisar returned home to Amriya after the U.S. invasion, accompanied by his Iranian wife and three children. He was the only member of his Iranian family who spoke Arabic. When he returned to Amriya Mueisar registered his children in the local school so that they could learn Arabic and mix with other Arab children.

A few days after the second battle of Falluja started in late 2004, a new family belonging to the biggest Sunni tribe, the Dulaimi, moved to Amriya to live with their relatives, the Abu Khalel family, who were Jafar’s neighbors. Just like many displaced families who fled Falluja, they were too poor to rent a house, so they were hosted by relatives. Because Amriya’s houses are often large enough to host large families, many displaced decided to go there. A few days later some Shiite families received threats demanding that they leave their houses. After one Shiite family vacated their house, which stood next to the one Abu Khalel owned, his relatives took it over.

Jafar’s family had been trying to sell their house since 2003, because each brother wanted to have his own house near his work. But it was very old, and they did not get the price they wanted. Jafar and his brothers were shocked on September 4, 2005, when they found an envelope in their garage containing a letter with printed script threatening their lives if they did not leave their home within forty-eight hours. The text said: “In the name of God, do not think God is unaware of what the oppressors are doing. To Anwar, Shubbar, Mueisar, and Jafar: We are watching your movements step after step, and we know that you have betrayed God and his messenger, for that we give you forty-eight hours to leave Amriya forever, and you should thank God that you are still alive. And there will be no excuse after this warning.”

The writer was not very well versed in the Koran. The letter had no header or signature to reveal its origins, and there was no hint suggesting which jihadi group had issued it. It seemed more like a threat from somebody angry at the family than from someone involved in jihadist activities. Despite this, the family did not want to risk ignoring the letter.

Jafar’s family was one of four Shiite families living on a street that had twelve Sunni homes, but his became the third Shiite family on that street to flee Amriya within a month. One of the families had a son working as a translator with the U.S. Army; they fled the area after he was murdered at the gate of his home. The other had a son working in the Iraqi police; they also fled after receiving a threat. Jafar’s family took their threat seriously and started calling relatives and seeking help to find another house to live in before the forty-eight-hour deadline ran out. They also rushed to tell all the neighbors that they were leaving in order to send the message to whoever had made the threat.

More refugees from the siege of Falluja settled in western Baghdad neighborhoods such as Ghazaliya, Amriya, and Khadra, as well as in the villages just west of Baghdad such as Abu Ghraib. These were majority-Sunni strongholds where both insurgents and Salafis had a formidable presence. Soon after, more Shiite families in Amriya received threats urging them to leave. Those who ignored the threats had their homes attacked or their men murdered by Sunni militias. Shiites began to take these threats more seriously, and the process of sectarian cleansing began. Homes vacated by Shiites were seized by displaced Sunnis. These operations were conducted by insurgents as well as relatives of the displaced who wanted to house them somewhere. Shiites, in turn, fled to areas controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters.

“And speed the appearance of the Mahdi, and damn his enemies and make victorious his son Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!”

In Baghdad’s Kadhim Mosque, in the northern district of Kadhimiya, in the spring of 2004, the Shiite faithful began the traditional chorus of “Our God prays for Muhammad and Muhammad’s family.” But they continued with a strange innovation: “And speed the appearance of the Mahdi, and damn his enemies and make victorious his son Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!” This had never been heard before, but Turkmen Shiites were shouting it at demonstrations in front of the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters and repeating it in their daily prayers. Thousands of Muqtada’s followers, including two thousand members of his militia, demonstrated at a February 27 show of force in Kirkuk.

I first met Muqtada al-Sadr in May 2003, when he was just beginning to outrage the Shiite establishment embodied in the hawza. Each marja (cleric) had his own office and received a tithe from his followers. Muqtada came out of nowhere, with no experience or education, but he commanded thousands of young men almost immediately. He spoke in the name of his revered father and of the mustad’afin (the poor and downtrodden masses), and he spoke in their language, Iraqi dialect and its slang, much as his father had. He alone was known by his first name, because Iraq’s Shiite masses felt a personal bond with him. While Iranian-born Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the most respected religious authority for Iraq’s Shiites, Muqtada represented them, he spoke for them, he led them politically and spiritually. Tens of thousands would die for him. He was the most important person in Iraq after the war, and his power has only grown. Chubby, with an unkempt beard, he was awkward and unsure of himself back then, coming across more like an arrogant street punk with a lisp than a religious leader among Najaf ’s refined and somewhat snobbish clerical aristocracy.

He rejected all other Shiite clerics and scoffed at America, but it would be nearly a year before his men would openly fight the occupation. Still, he warned that the time would come. His men had already taken over much of Shiite Iraq, providing social services and security and imposing their strict interpretation of Islam on women and more liberal Muslims. His network of clerics coordinated their sermons, and his bayanat (statements) were posted on mosque walls throughout Iraq.

On June 23, 2003, Muqtada, having just returned from a trip to Iran—where he had met with government officials and Ayatollah Haeri, his father’s official successor and intellectual heir, and commemorated the death of Ayatollah Khomeini—visited Baghdad for the first time since his father’s death in 1999. He visited the neighborhoods of Kadhimiya and Shula before arriving in Sadr City, where tens of thousands greeted him with Iraqi flags as well as flags from the Bahadal, Msaare, Al Jazair, and Fawawda tribes. Before Muqtada took the stage, a speaker read the victory verse from the Koran: “If you receive God’s victory and you witness people joining Islam in great numbers, thank your God and ask him to forgive you, for God is very merciful.” People chanted: “Muqtada, don’t worry! We will sacrifice our blood for the hawza!” A melody for a song that had once praised Saddam now carried a song praising Muqtada. There was a lot of clapping, and a speaker asked the people to make way for Muqtada, but they would not move, each wanting to get closer to their revered leader. “I visited this city when my father was alive, and I will visit this city on this day every year,” Muqtada cried. “People should join the hawza and the marjas and support them . . . do not believe in rumors, verify them with the hawza first . . . a humanitarian office will be established for Sadr City.” Muqtada spoke of the memory of the martyrs and promised the Iraqi people that the unemployment problem would soon be solved because companies would return to Iraq. He spoke for seven minutes, after which the crowds of adulators would not let him leave.

That month the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council proposed including Muqtada as a member, but other Shiite members on the council rejected the idea. Muqtada and his constituency were radicalized by the exclusion, and he was pushed further into the arms of Haeri, who was living in exile in Iran. Though Muqtada’s politics were inchoate, lacking ideology and seeking only inclusion and power, Haeri was a rigid Khomeinist, with a clearly defined political program aimed at establishing a theocracy in Iraq, just as Khomeini had established his in Iran twenty-five years ago when he ousted the monarch.

The next month, on July 20, Muqtada claimed that American soldiers had surrounded his home and were planning to arrest him. Thousands of protesters descended upon Najaf, heeding their leader’s call. Many were bused or trucked in from Baghdad or Basra. Some even came in ambulances. They confronted American soldiers and marines. Demonstrators chanted, “No Americans after today,” echoing the motto of Saddam’s storm troopers in the 1991 intifada, who had ransacked southern Iraq warning that there would be “no Shiites after today.” Demonstrators also chanted against America, colonialism, tyranny, and the devil. Some carried swords and flags. Clerics bellowed condemnations of the Americans, comparing them to Saddam. Their protest in Najaf opened with a message from Haeri, read aloud to the crowd. Haeri condemned the “American agents” of the Iraqi Governing Council and called on the clerics to rule Iraq. Meeting outside the shrine of Ali, they walked past Najaf ’s cemetery in rows and columns, like soldiers. Marching to the American base in Najaf, Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji spoke out against the Americans and the IGC, accusing them of spreading corruption and defiling the holy city of Najaf. The leaders of the protest handed a list of demands to an American colonel, demanding that Americans leave Najaf immediately.

Muqtada continued to test the limits of Americans’ tolerance, sometimes virtually declaring war on them, then retreating and welcoming them as friends. In March 2004 the Americans closed his newspaper, Al Hawza, accusing it of calling for violence, and arrested an influential associate of his. This further alienated his followers from the American-led project in Iraq and increased his prestige and following among Shiites, whose sect is preoccupied with martyrdom and resisting oppression.

Following the January 2005 elections, Muqtada’s representatives in the National Assembly demanded a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, a demand also made by Sunni rejectionists. The initiative had the support of 120 of the 275 Assembly members. Muqtada joined these Sunni rejectionists in condemning the draft constitution—especially its federalism—warning that it would lead to the break up of Iraq. Like Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Muqtada opposed federalism for the Kurds as well as the move by Supreme Council leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to establish autonomous Shiite regions in the south on the model of the northern Kurdish Regional Government. Muqtada’s followers demonstrated against the Constitution, marching with Sunnis in some cases. In the summer of 2005, militiamen loyal to Muqtada clashed with Supreme Council militiamen in several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, Nasiriya, Najaf, and Amara. Despite the tensions between Supreme Council and the Sadrists, Muqtada was invited by Supreme Council and Dawa to join the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite list competing in the December 15 elections for the National Assembly. They needed the numbers he could provide. Muqtada was granted equal status with the two other parties and potentially more than thirty seats in the Assembly. He was legitimate now, it seemed, no longer on the outside. Later that year he visited Saudi Arabia on the hajj pilgrimage as an official guest of the Saudi king, and then he visited Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, practicing his diplomatic skills but also establishing a close relationship with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and with Lebanese Shiites. Muqtada would be the protector of newly targeted Shiites, and their avenger.

The articles that the Sunnis were reading in their newspapers, as well as the statements of prominent Sunni leaders however, made it clear that the alliance with Muqtada’s militant Shiites was a temporary measure to battle a common foe. One article in Basair, (The Mind’s Eye), a newspaper published by the Association of Muslim Scholars, condemned the (Shiite) police for killing Sunnis “for the benefit of groups for whom the police work [the Americans],” and supported the (Sunni) resistance’s attacks on the police. “Iraqis know about the conspiracy to cause sectarian strife among them,” an article began, quoting accusations made by Naseer Chadarchi, a Sunni member of the Iraqi Governing Council, that “thousands of Iranians [Shiites] are sneaking into Iraq.” “They should not get citizenship, as already happened in Amara, where 10,000 Iranians received Iraqi citizenship.” The article, voicing typical Sunni paranoia that all Shiites were in fact illegal Iranians, suggested that “many groups are sneaking into Iraq to get passports” and hinted at the Sunni fear of a democracy that would result in the Shiite majority determining the shape of the new country. “This is why some people [meaning Shiites] want direct elections and a census that will benefit them,” the article continued.

Another article expanded on this theme, describing the “dangerous demographic changes in Iraq after the war” and referring again to an imagined influx of Iranians who created a Shiite majority. “Occupation forces will change the demography of Iraq for their benefit,” the article warned, “using the huge capabilities of the occupation forces, their intelligence and experience in this field. These new demographic changes are worse than Saddam’s because they [Americans] are using migrations, economic rules and killing to increase the population of certain sects such as Iranians, Kurds and Turks. We want to say that the reaction [meaning violent attacks] of Arabs [meaning Sunnis] in the west and south is a reaction to these changes. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are also part of Iraq, so there are more Arabs [Sunnis] but borders separate them. America is the cause of these changes.”

The article attributed the secret plot to “the Jewish and Zionist strategy in the Middle East and the security of Israel in the future.” The author warned that “these demographic changes and their direct effects on future elections and the type of government will lead to a civil war to divide Iraq, and we will have a racist government that will oppress most nationalities and minorities.” The author explained that “Iranians want to increase the ratio of Persians among the [Arab] Shiites, which will increase the ratio of Shiites in Iraq and Baghdad in hidden and declared ways.”

Dora—First Outbreaks of Civil War

Dora, in southern Baghdad, was one of the first areas where the civil war began. Although mixed, it was majority Sunni. The cleansing of Dora’s Shiites was mostly carried out by local insurgents who lived in the adjoining rural areas of Arab Jubur and Hor Rajab, but some of it was conducted by crooks who kidnapped members of rich families and demanded money for their release.

Solaf was a thirty-three-year-old carpenter working out of his large house in Dora. He was the youngest of five brothers and one sister from the poor Abu Mohammed family, which had lived in Dora since 1974. Mohammed, the eldest brother, joined the police in mid-2004, and in May 2005 he was told he would be killed if he did not quit. Mohammed moved out of his parents’ house and rented a small house in eastern Baghdad’s majority-Shiite Shaab district, but because he had no other profession to turn to, he kept his job as a policeman.

It took Solaf ’s family more than a month to find a good offer on their house. In mid-July 2005 they finally agreed to sell, though there was a delay in signing the contract. Solaf ’s street was full of children every evening, and he would spend many nights sitting at the gate of his home chatting with friends. On July 28 he was sitting there as usual with one of his Sunni friends when a white Hyundai stopped a few meters away from them. An unmasked gunman emerged wearing civilian clothes and started shooting, killing Solaf and his friend. Solaf ’s brothers and his relatives gathered the next day and buried his body. On the second day of Solaf ’s funeral, the family received another letter warning them to leave the city. The family ended the funeral and left Dora forever.

A week after Solaf’s murder, his mother phoned several of her old neighbors and bitterly complained about Sunnis and her family’s new but much smaller house in the majority-Shiite neighborhood of Shuula. She said she had received a call from the mother of Solaf ’s Sunni friend. The Sunni man’s mother told her that her family had received jizia (blood money) of two million Iraqi dinars and an apology from the mujahideen for killing her son, because Solaf had been the only target. Solaf had been targeted because his brother was in the police. The mujahideen who killed him were from the Jubur tribe, which dominated the insurgency in Dora and was the main Sunni tribe in Baghdad. Two Sunni families moved into Solaf’s old house; among them was a twenty-four-year-old man named Mustafa, who was a member of the insurgency.

Haji E’nad was a Shiite who owned a shop on the corner just down the road from Solaf ’s house. At the end of September 2005, three unmasked gunmen raided his shop and killed his son Rashid. They walked away; they did not even use a car. Haji E’nad’s family fled Dora the next day. They did not have a funeral, nor did they tell any of the neighbors where they were going. They simply locked the doors and moved out, leaving their property, and nobody in Dora heard from them again. Families were afraid to tell anybody that they had been threatened so as not to further antagonize those who had threatened them.

More followed suit. Abu Ali, a Shiite whose family had been neighbors of Solaf and who also said he had been threatened, sold his property and moved to Hilla province in mid-December 2005. One week later his neighbor Iyad, whose shop was about 100 meters away from Solaf’s house, closed it and fled Dora, too. Iyad moved some of his most important property out, left the rest in one room, and locked the house. He phoned some neighbors two days later and asked them to watch the house and report any attack. He explained that he was afraid because he was Shiite and had a brother who had been executed by the former regime for allegedly belonging to the Dawa Party. “Dora is not for Shiites any more, and only Sunnis can live there,” Iyad said. “Sunnis are attacking Shiites to force them to leave and sell their houses for cheap prices. I am not going to give my house to Sunnis for free.” Although sectarianism was the primary motive, some Sunnis did derive economic benefit from the removal of Dora’s Shiites. Soon poor Sunnis could purchase a good house in Dora and live among other Sunnis for much less than what they would normally have paid before.

The Brothers Mulla Murder Gang

Shiites had militias of their own, which were prepared to avenge the deaths in their community and sometimes to profit from the violence too. Maalif is a majority-Shiite neighborhood in Seidiya, which is in southwestern Baghdad. It was established in the late 1980s when the government decided to transfer tribes from villages in the Taji area north of Baghdad so that it could build a factory and a military camp where they had been living. The families preserved their tribal habits and traditions in the city. Maalif was divided among a few large tribes and a collection of other poor people (Sunnis and Shiites) who moved to the city in the 1990s for cheap living, but its population was overwhelmingly Shiite, unlike Seidiya, which is nearly evenly split. Being a poor neighborhood, Maalif tended to see higher rates of violence, criminality, and religiosity among its residents.

In Maalif people from the same tribe often enter the same profession and cause problems for outsiders seeking to compete. The Dilfi tribe had buses for transportation, the Chaab had pickups for transportation, and the Tual were all butchers. Hussein was a butcher from the Tual tribe who had about five butcher shops in Seidiya. His partner, a man called Ahmed al-Mulla, was also from his tribe. Hussein and Ahmed had many contracts with the former regime to provide meat for the army. This had enriched them and sealed their friendship.

After the Americans overthrew Saddam, two of the Mulla brothers returned home from exile in Iran, where they had been soldiers in the Badr Brigade. Ahmed and Hussein became religious and hung portraits of Shiite leaders like Sistani and Khomeini all over their shops’ walls. They joined the Badr Brigade and formed an assassination group, transforming one of Hussein’s shops in the Elam neighborhood into an office for interrogating former regime loyalists, whom Hussein called Saddamists. Hussein and Ahmed obtained Baath Party records with the names, addresses, and details of members in Seidiya—they even included the types and serial numbers of weapons owned by the men. The records were a gift to Ahmed from Shiite locals who had raided the Baath Party office in their neighborhood and transformed it into a Shiite mosque after the fall of Baghdad. Hussein and Ahmed scanned the records and interviewed about ten former Baath Party members a day. They would knock on their doors and inform the Baathists: “You were a Baath Party member, and you need to come visit us in our office in the Elam Market to clarify a few issues.” Then they would leave.

They opened their office in May 2003. It had a desk with two chairs for Ahmed and Hussein as well as a long bench and portraits of Sistani and Khomeini. The Baathist would enter their office, sit on the bench, and sign a statement that he was innocent and not involved in any of the Baath Party crimes. The statement said: “I condemn all the former regime’s activities against the Iraqi people and I regret everything I have done with that regime and I promise to never help the Baath Party again.” Then they would be asked to hand over their weapons, and Ahmed and Hussein would compare the serial numbers with those on record.

Local Baathists were frightened of this organization and started fleeing Seidiya. Ahmed and Hussein were careful not to let any Baathist retain his weapons. The murder of Baathists in Seidiya intensified one month after the office opened. Hussein and Ahmed sought to obtain a fatwa that would give them legitimate cover for their militia, but they failed to find a respected cleric to provide one. Even their dearest friend and neighbor Sheikh Dhafer al-Qeisi, Sistani’s representative for southern Baghdad, refused to acquiesce, although he backed their activities.

Their group was very professional, driving fast Opel cars with many young members who moved quickly. They assassinated more than fifty alleged “Saddamists.” Ahmed spoke proudly about his operations in public and often said that he would exceed 100 dead Saddamists by the end of 2005. He was also known to kill Salafis from the Sunni mosque next to the Elam Market. Sunnis in Elam began to fear Ahmed, worrying that they might be targeted next, since most of the former Baathists in his neighborhood were Sunni. In late 2004 Sunnis from the Omar Mosque in Elam formed an assassination squad; their main targets were Ahmed and Hussein.

One evening in March 2005, Kadhim, a member of Ahmed and Hussein’s group, was hanging out in a shop with Ahmed when they were attacked. Kadhim died immediately. Ahmed was seriously wounded and remained in the hospital for one month to recover from his injuries. One week after he left the hospital, while he was visiting his shop again, he was assassinated. His sixteen-year-old assistant died with him. After Ahmed’s death the group ceased conducting operations, and Hussein received letters in his shops threatening him with death if he did not leave the neighborhood. Hussein was shot in October 2005 with his brother Mohammed while they were driving their truck home one evening. Hussein died immediately but Mohammed remained conscious long enough to make a phone call. He was seriously wounded, but he survived.

The day after Hussein’s murder, his eldest brother was locking up his shop when he found another letter: “In the name of God, we did not oppress them but they were oppressing themselves, those who killed the sons of Sunnis and Baathists, they killed the men, made the children orphans, and made the wives widows, they are cursed for what their hands have done. We will beat them like they beat us, and we will kill them everywhere.”

Hussein had lived in a big house with his brothers and cousins and was surrounded by fellow tribesmen. His area had a robust Shiite majority and was full of Mahdi Army men, but his family did not feel safe enough to stay in Maalif. They left their houses and shops to return to the south, from where they had come thirty years earlier.

A few months later, on December 25, 2005, thirteen Sunni families were threatened and ordered to leave their homes in Maalif. Two families responded immediately, leaving the next day. The men in other families hid or left the area, leaving only the women. (Militias typically did not target women.) A Sunni woman in Maalif who hid her son at home explained the dilemma that many experienced: “There is a conspiracy to force Sunnis out of Baghdad. We are limited in the cities we can move to. We cannot move to Shula, Hurriya, Dolaie, Shaab, New Baghdad, or Al Amin, because we might face the same threats there. We can only move to Sunni neighborhoods dominated by the resistance, such as Dora and Amriya, but it is not even safe to live there. We cannot write on the walls that we are Sunnis to avoid attacks. And we might be attacked by the army by accident, since we live next to terrorists.”

Maalif was a neighborhood in the larger Bayaa district. The Bayaa Mosque, located off of the highway, had belonged to followers of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father. It was led by Sheikh Muayad al-Khazraji, a former student of Sadr’s who had been jailed by Saddam following Sadr’s assassination in 1999. On Friday, April 25, 2003, Sheikh Muayad warned his flock that if he learned of any Iraqi woman sleeping with American soldiers, he would inform her tribe and call for her death. As well as worrying about how Iraqi women comported themselves, Sheikh Muayad hid many weapons in his mosque. Eventually the Americans arrested him for this, provoking massive protests by Shiite supporters. But the civil war seemed to extend itself to prison, where Sheikh Muayad’s life was constantly threatened by Salafis. Upon his release, Sheikh Muayad paid a visit to another Sadrist cleric, Sheikh Haitham al-Ansari, and told him that his experiences in jail had changed his view of the Americans. “After I was in the jail, I knew who is my enemy and who is not,” Sheikh Muayad said. “The Americans are not my enemy. The Americans have interests, and anybody who wants to block Americans from obtaining those interests becomes their enemy, and they destroy him. Stay away from their road and they will not touch you. Our enemies are the Wahhabis. They used to attack us in the jail many times, they wanted to assassinate me more than once, and one of their main goals is to damage Ali’s tomb in Najaf.”

Sunnis perceived the post-Baathist state as the enemy because state organs, along with the Americans, had been treating Sunnis as the enemy since 2003. Even before the elections of 2005, the government felt pressured to show Shiite masses that something was being done about the daily car bombs slaughtering them in the streets. Iraqi television began showing a highly sectarian program titled Terror in the Hands of Justice, on which alleged Sunni insurgents were shown confessing to crimes such as rape and sodomy. On one episode an interrogator accused prominent Sunni tribes such as the Jubur, Janabi, and Dulaimi of being terrorists. The show increased Sunni fears that the Shiite-dominated security forces were targeting them en masse.

When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the brutal leader of the jihadist group that morphed into Al Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden—declared war on Shiites in a speech on September 14, 2005, Iraq’s radical Sunni leadership were quick to condemn it. The Association of Muslim Scholars announced that Iraq’s Shiites were not responsible for the crimes the government was committing with the Americans’ blessings, and that they were innocent of the attacks against Sunnis carried out by the Americans. No religious principle allowed one to seek revenge on an innocent person, they said, and accused Zarqawi of colluding in the Americans’ plan to create civil war in Iraq. Meanwhile, five resistance groups, the Army of Muhammad, the Al Qaqa Battalions, the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Army of Mujahideen, and the Salahuddin Brigades, condemned Zarqawi’s statements as well, calling them a “fire burning the Iraqi people” and explaining that they only attacked the occupiers and those who assisted them, and did not base their attacks on sectarian or ethnic criteria.

But these Sunni condemnations did not suffice for Muqtada al-Sadr. In late 2005 he sent a letter to various Sunni leaders stating that Zarqawi had labeled all Shiites infidels and that he and all Shiites were being targeted by Zarqawi’s deadly attacks. Muqtada demanded that Sunni leaders label Zarqawi an infidel and condemn him. No Sunni leader acceded to his demands. Some explained that it was too dangerous for them to do so, but Muqtada refused to accept their apologies and did not grant their fear of Zarqawi any merit. In addition, the Association for Muslim Scholars didn’t just fail to heed Muqtada’s call to condemn Al Qaeda; one of its spokesmen, Muhammad Bashar al-Faidih, dismissed the letter with sarcasm. And its leader, Harith al-Dhari, allegedly said, “We are from Al Qaeda and they are from us.” This must have been especially galling for Muqtada, because in the early period of the occupation the young Shiite cleric referred to Dhari respectfully as “al Ab al-Mujahid,” the Mujahid Father. The Mahdi Army in Karbala had always been different from the one in Baghdad. It was less sectarian, less criminal, focused more on providing services. But even their language started to change after the AMS rejected Muqtada’s condemnation of Zarqawi.

This was a key moment for the Sadr movement and for sectarian relations in Iraq. Sadr decided to join the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite coalition list in the December 2005 elections. For the first time one could see Mahdi Army soldiers sitting with Sistani followers and discussing politics amicably, whereas in the past it had been difficult even to have them in the same room without arguments occurring. Mahdi Army fighters complained bitterly about their betrayal by the Sunnis.

In March 2005 Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Ghafur al-Samarai, director general of the Sunni Endowment and a former top official in the Association for Muslim Scholars, gave a sermon in the Um Al Qura Mosque calling on Iraqi Sunnis to join the Iraqi military and police as long as they supported their nation and not the occupiers of Iraq. If the “honest and loyal elements” of Iraq, meaning its Sunnis, did not participate, then those who sought to harm the security of the nation, meaning Shiites, would dominate the security forces. Samarai later explained that the “real resistance” understood the importance of such a move because they did not want militias, meaning Shiite and Kurdish militias, ruling Iraq. Sixty-four other high-ranking Sunni clerics from throughout Iraq signed on to Samarai’s fatwa.

The Balance of Power Shifts

The balance of power shifted that year, and Shiite militias, led by the Mahdi Army, took the offensive. Bayan Jabr Solagh took over as interior minister after the 2005 elections. A Shiite of Turkoman origin, he had been the Supreme Council representative in Damascus in the 1990s. At the Interior Ministry he inherited more than one hundred thousand armed men. Along with Badr Brigade leader Hadi al-Amiri and others, he turned commando units such as the Hawk, Volcano, Wolf, and Two Rivers brigades into death squads. (In late 2005 the American military uncovered secret prisons these death squads were running, which were full of Sunnis. Bayan Jabr was not surprised by the revelations, a minister at the time told me. He didn’t question them; he just wanted to minimize the fallout, like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioning how cameras got into Abu Ghraib.)

The Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, or MNSTCI (pronounced “minstikee”), run by Gen. David Petraeus, was in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi Security Forces. The Americans were focused on building institutions, but they neglected the training of individuals, leading to huge numbers of inexperienced and poorly trained police being pushed out into the provinces without supervision. They were easily co-opted by sectarian forces. In late 2004 MNSTCI was planning on working with the Interior Ministry to create a riot police force. When MNSTCI decided to create the riot police, they ordered batons, plastic shields, and the other appropriate gear, but the security situation was so desperate that the Iraqis decided to turn it into a light infantry battalion under the Interior Ministry’s control.

Americans at MNSTCI heard that an Iraqi battalion had established itself in an old Republican Guard palace outside the Green Zone. Several hundred Iraqis served under the nominal command of a self-appointed Iraqi brigadier general, who was a Shiite former Republican Guard and had been imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. Most of his senior officers were ex-prisoners he knew from Abu Ghraib. It didn’t hurt that Bayan Jabr was his nephew. Money flowed to the unit. After the elections in January 2005, another battalion was added to it: the Iraqi police commandos.

The Americans wanted to create a “special police” and already had two battalions of those, so there were four battalions of infantry—essentially, a mini army under the Interior Ministry. At the time the Americans had just realized that the Iraqi army had to be pulled off the line and trained again, so for a while the only units fighting were the police commandos. “It was the era of the pop-up unit,” one senior American official from MNSTCI told me. “You had a unit in the Iraqi army that was a militia called the Boys of East Baghdad. There were a lot of self-organized units. Right from the outset we were concerned about Shiite sectarianism, but even the concept of setting up comprehensive basic training [fifteen weeks of training in a centralized depot] was alien.”

The Americans had firm control over the Defense Ministry because they destroyed the army and recreated it from scratch, attaching many advisers to it. But they never dismantled or took over the Interior Ministry. The few American intelligence officers at Interior were cooperating with the Iraqis to get information on Sunni armed groups. They couldn’t tell the difference between the Supreme Council, the Badr militia, and the Mahdi Army. The Americans hadn’t even translated the Iraqi laws into English.

Soon after Petraeus departed, the deputy minister of interior for finance explained to the outgoing commander of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team (CPATT), General Fils, that none of the weapons they distributed were accounted for because they were distributed directly to the police stations. One of those weapons was traced to a murder in Turkey. Many ended up in the hands of militias or the resistance. I would find them in Lebanon as well.

The way MNSTCI and CPATT were handled led to many of the troubles Iraq would later face, such as weapons in the hands of insurgents, the expansion of Shiite militias into security services, and difficulty assessing Iraqi police capabilities. Petraeus was spared approbation because he left before the impact of these problems became clear and returned when some corrections had already been made.

The road to Kut in the south was the site for many attacks on military and logistical convoys for the Americans and the Iraqi state, as well as ordinary Shiite civilians. To counter this, Interior Ministry forces arrested many men living in homes along the road. The security forces were made up of Shiites; the men they arrested were Sunnis. Operations such as this were a result of the increasingly aggressive and Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces. Some of this was inevitable because Sunnis had avoided joining these new forces but the Interior Ministry had been given to Shiites, and poor young Shiite men were the ones most likely to fill the ranks of these forces. Most poor young Shiite men supported Muqtada, so it followed that the security forces fell under the control of Sadrists and their Mahdi Army.

Iran wanted to weaken the Sunni grip on power in Iraq, and the Badr militia was its spearhead, a former minister close to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told me. “Iran had a role,” he said. “They forced people to confront what was happening and use resources under their control to organize a fighting force. Iran did that with its direct and indirect agents in Iraq.” Parliament member Jamal Jaafir Mohammed Ali, known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, was involved in discussions with the loose network of Shiites who had leadership cells on how to take on Sunnis: “How many people from Badr and the Mahdi Army to get into the police, how to do these extrajudicial killings, how to control mixed neighborhoods, how to target Baath Party operatives, they were networked, not following a central command.”

Americans working at the Interior Ministry said it was a mess: one floor was full of Mahdi Army personnel, another was full of Badr. During the civil war, Land Cruiser SUVs from the Interior Ministry struck terror in people. They were nicknamed “Monikas” by Iraqis because of their wide ends, which reminded them of Monica Lewinski. The Mahdi Army used government Monikas, and people suspected that Jaafari gave Monikas to the militias.

The battles in the historic town of Madain—once the site of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, two of the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia—in 2005 were another turning point, where the tit-for-tat killing so familiar to urban Baghdad transformed into an open war between sectarian militias. Although the town had Shiites as well as Christians and members of the rare Sabean sect, which combines elements of Judaism and Christianity, it was a majority-Sunni town. Problems arose when about 150 Shiite families belonging to the southern Abu al-Aita tribe migrated north to the town, encamping in former military bases. These impoverished families were accused of looting, stealing, and wreaking havoc on the roads with their highway robbery. Resistance and insurgent groups that were trying to establish themselves as the local authorities soon clashed with the new Shiites. The insurgent groups also needed the roads unobstructed so that they could conduct their own attacks on coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. Among these insurgents were members of Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad groups, who brought with them foreign fighters. When the area fell under their control, unemployed youths swarmed to the insurgents. Salafi fighters started driving around the area in their pickup trucks, ordering all Shiites to leave the city.

But in response the Interior Ministry’s Wolf Brigade took over a school and based themselves there, fighting with the insurgents and making mass arrests of Sunnis. The Wolf Brigade was later replaced by the Karar Brigade, a unit that was based in the Wasit province in the Shiite south. Because Madain was part of Baghdad province, locals viewed with suspicion these Interior Ministry forces from a different province. The name Karar refers to Imam Ali, whom the Shiites revere, and it was not chosen coincidentally. The Karar Brigade rounded up hundreds of Sunni men, and for the first time the new Iraqi Security Forces established a reign of terror ominously resembling Saddam’s methods. Some of the Sunnis arrested were shown on the popular Shiite show Terror in the Hands of Justice. When an elderly Sabean (and therefore non-Muslim) man was shown on that program confessing to raping and killing a young Shiite girl, Shiites attacked the home of his wife, Um Rasha, and threatened to rape her daughters.

South of Baghdad, in Latifiya, similar battles were taking place. Although Latifiya was a quiet city in the year following the American invasion, its reputation took a turn for the worse after the attempted assassination of Ahmad Chalabi and the kidnapping of French journalists there in 2004. Latifiya was seized by Salafi extremists because it connected Baghdad to Falluja through hidden roads and dirt paths and because it allowed command of a crucial highway. The Mahdi Army, in response, commandeered police vehicles to attack suspected insurgents and Baathists, but these attacks expanded to include Salafis as well and even Sunnis merely suspected of being Salafis. Consequently Shiite families became victims of reprisals. The Albu Amir, or Al Amiri tribe, was one Shiite tribe well represented in Latifiya. Its most famous son was Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigade. A group of Sunni jihadis attacked a Shiite police officer from the tribe, killing him and his family, including his children. (The jihadis justified killing the children with a quote attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, calling for pulling the evil out by the roots. Since the jihadis viewed all Shiites as anti-Islam, they viewed their children as future enemies of Islam.) Members from the Al Amiri tribe responded immediately, attacking Sunnis they suspected were responsible, killing them and defiling their corpses, and burning some of them. The Sunni dead were members of several tribes, which retaliated by launching mortars at random Shiite houses. These battles lasted for more than a week, until the Sunni and Shiite tribes met for a reconciliation at which the Shiites settled the dispute by paying blood money to the Sunnis. Latifiya subsequently fell under the control of the Association of Muslim Scholars. When a Shiite contractor from Baghdad who worked with the Americans was assigned a project in Latifiya, he and his partners met with Association of Muslim Scholars leader Harith al-Dhari. They paid him tens of thousands of dollars to guarantee their security. As a result they were able to complete their contract in the otherwise dangerous region without attack.

In August 2005 rumors of a bomb caused a panic stampede among Shiite pilgrims on the bridge linking Adhamiya and Kadhimiya. Up to one thousand people drowned or were crushed to death. Leading Supreme Council cleric Jalaluddin al-Saghir mourned the dead in his sermon the next Friday, calling them “beloved” and condemning the sort of jihad that targets innocent women and children engaged in worship. He also singled out the defense minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni, for allegedly letting criminals and Wahhabis infiltrate his ministry. Saghir said that the Interior Ministry—which was in the Shiite hands of the Supreme Council—should have been responsible for providing security for the area. Saghir did praise the people of neighboring majority-Sunni Adhamiya, however, for risking their lives to help save some of the drowning pilgrims. Leading Sunni cleric Ahmad Abdel Ghafur al-Samarai, of the Association of Muslim Scholars, speaking in Ghazaliya’s Um Al Qura Mosque, echoed Saghir’s praise for the bravery of Adhamiya’s Sunnis. But without naming sects, because that would have been bad form, he implicitly condemned the Shiite security forces for their “state terrorism” and execution of Sunnis while complaining that Sunnis were unfairly blamed for the Kadhimiya tragedy. He was followed by another cleric, who condemned the Supreme Council and Dawa for killing innocent people and pushing Iraq to civil war out of fear for their waning support on the Shiite street.

By 2005 sectarian attacks and cleansing were increasing elsewhere in Iraq, too. Eleven Shiites from Najaf who worked as fishermen in Haditha were killed in mid-2005. More and more Shiites heading south to visit shrines were attacked, and passing through Latifiya was a nightmare for Shiite pilgrims. In December 2005 government troops intervened, attacking Sunnis and securing the road, but Shiites continued their exodus out of that troubled area, feeling threatened. The same trends were evident throughout much of Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Former high-ranking military officers, especially pilots, who fought in the eight-year war against Iran, were systematically assassinated. In August 2005 the Interior Ministry’s Volcano Brigade arrested several dozen Sunni men from the majority-Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya. Days later their tortured bodies were found far away, by the Iranian border. In September 2005 five Shiite schoolteachers and their driver were executed in Malha, a village next to Iskandariya. Their killers wore police uniforms. In October Mahdi Army men fought alongside the Interior Ministry in an attack on a Sunni town where some Shiites were being held.

“Human rights departments” of various political parties produced tendentious and one-sided accounts of their victimization, and Iraqi and Arab satellite media magnified their effects. Sunnis despised the Supreme Council’s Badr Brigade because it had been based in Iran, but it was the more homegrown Mahdi Army that was primarily responsible for attacks against Sunnis. A Mahdi Army soldier confided, “We kill more Wahhabis than Badr does, and we throw their bodies in our city, but accusation’s finger points to Badr anyway.” Although the Interior Ministry was controlled by the Supreme Council, the police were outside the ministry’s control. With a small number of police cars, they could operate at night—past curfew, when only official cars were permitted—and enter Sunni neighborhoods with impunity to arrest or kill anyone they wanted. In Baghdad and much of Iraq, the police and the Mahdi Army were one and the same—as were the Iraqi army forces posted throughout the country. Iraqi police stations and army bases were decorated with Muqtada al-Sadr’s daunting visage, as were their vehicles. Even in the all-Sunni Anbar province, the Iraqi army was composed of Shiite supporters of Muqtada. In the spring of 2006, when Sunni soldiers from Anbar graduated as new members of the Iraqi army and were told they would serve among Shiites outside their home province, they rioted and tore off their uniforms. The Americans had established police forces in Anbar, composed of local Sunni men selected by their tribes. When I visited these police in the spring of 2006, they had not been paid in months because the Interior Ministry was not sending the money.

The Mahdi Army’s sudden prowess was attributed to its recent cooperation with Lebanese Hizballah. Muqtada, who was modeling his army on Hizballah, had sent his senior men to Lebanon to make this possible. Mahdi Army men told me that the Lebanese trainers had come to them as well. To the Mahdi Army, the Association of Muslim Scholars were merely Salafis and Baathists in the attire of normal Sunni clerics; they presumptuously claimed that “they are not representing our Sunni brothers.” This gave them carte blanche to kill any Sunni they wanted. The Mahdi Army knew that the Sunni insurgency had coalesced, and Iraqi nationalist groups, including the Association of Muslim Scholars, began supporting Zarqawi’s attacks and providing his men with shelter. Zarqawi himself was said to have visited Harith al-Dhari’s village of Zawba several times.

In late 2005 I returned to Amriya with my friend Hassan to break the Ramadan fast. We were joined by Sheikh Hussein of the Maluki Mosque. The conversation quickly turned to the deteriorating security situation, particularly for Sunnis. Gangs of Shiite killers, targeting radical Sunni clerics or former Baathists suspected of supporting the resistance, were penetrating Amriya. Sheikh Hussein, a Salafi with clear links to the resistance that dominated Amriya, had nearly been assassinated by Badr militiamen belonging to the Interior Ministry, who had arrived at his home in a police car. He had hidden in his home, and they missed him. He had only recently emerged from hiding. Noticing that his significant girth had increased, I asked him, “How did you hide? You’re not small.” He smiled and said, “We are all targets today.” Sheikh Hussein supported Sunni participation in the upcoming elections and agreed with the Sheikh Samarai’s fatwa urging them to join the security forces. He expressed concern that the “Arabs,” meaning foreign fighters, who wanted to fight until judgment day, would refuse to accept negotiations with the government and an eventual ceasefire.


The December 2005 elections were hailed as a milestone for the Bush administration, but they further enshrined sectarianism in Iraq. Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, was the secular nationalist candidate. He fared even worse in these elections than he had the previous January. Other nonsectarian parties failed even to obtain one seat. Sunni participation proved that the resistance was disciplined and controlled by Iraqis: not only did members of the resistance refrain from attacking Sunni voters; in some cases they protected them, since they too viewed a large Sunni turnout as a key element in their struggle to obtain a larger Sunni role in the new Iraq.

Fighting between Sunni militias and the Mahdi Army escalated, but war was never formally declared. One Mahdi Army soldier explained that “Wahhabis know we are killing them, otherwise they would not attack us back, but they have not declared war on us, because then all the Shiites of Iraq would be against them and they would lose.” In private conversations, Sunni insurgents and their leaders were seething about Muqtada and his Mahdi Army, claiming they were fighting to protect Iran and not out of Iraqi nationalism. But in public they hid their hostility to the Mahdi Army and instead accused the Badr Brigade of assassinating Sunnis.

During the battles against coalition forces that began in April 2004, the Mahdi Army began forming into divisions and became more organized and hierarchical. Shaab was the neighborhood in Baghdad with the second-largest number of Mahdi Army fighters. When the fighting subsided, the Mahdi Army maintained its divisions and kept many of its guns and vehicles. Many Shiites were assassinated by Sunnis in Shaab, and Shiites retaliated in a tit-for-tat that foreshadowed what was to come. Although Shiites were the majority in Shaab, their operations targeting Sunnis were not well organized or coordinated, and were not launched by one specific group.

Before the war, Shaab—and in particular its Ur neighborhood—had been dominated by anti-regime Sadrists. In the 1990s an Iranian agent called Abu Haidar al-Kheiqani had formed a secret armed opposition group along with a former Communist called Muayad al-Mundher. The two lived in Ur. They recruited a young friend called Haitham al-Khazraji, who would become known as Haitham al-Ansari. Haitham had a brother who was a low-level security officer in what was then known as Saddam City (later Sadr City). Haitham’s brother was known as Ali Mustache because of his big mustache and was in charge of arrests there.

Abu Haidar asked Haitham to join the Sadrists in the hawza to act as a spotter and recruiter. Haitham joined and became a cleric, and helped build the Shurufi Mosque in Shaab. (My close friend Firas in Shaab would become Haitham’s assistant, driver, and bodyguard.) He issued fatwas in support of low-level acts of resistance. He would permit a car to be stolen if it was used against the regime. He would permit a woman to take off her hijab and sit in a car with a man who wasn’t her husband if it helped an anti-regime operation. One time, a female operative sat in a car with a male operative who pretended to be drunk; they got into a fake accident, ramming into an intelligence officer. In the fight that ensued, the officer was shot to death.

Abu Haidar’s group is also said to have killed Haji Falah, the head of intelligence in Saddam City, and it was tied to the attempted assassination of Saddam’s son Uday. Haitham was said to be personally secular, but he saw religion as the only means to combat Saddam’s regime. In about 1998 the Baathists banned Friday prayers in Shurufi Mosque. A riot broke out, and two people were arrested. Others threw stones at security cars.

In about 1998 Abu Haidar, Muayad, and Haitham were all arrested. Abu Haidar and Muayad were executed. Haitham convinced his interrogator, a Sunni from the Dulaimi tribe, that he was just a friend of the other two; he was released after he agreed to work for Iraqi security. But he fled to Jordan, where he became the caretaker for the Jaafar Al Tayar shrine in Karak, the main Shiite shrine in that country. He also sold trinkets on the street and was the only Shiite cleric in Jordan.

In Jordan Haitham was recruited by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Haitham’s role for the INC was to recruit Sadrists. He told the INC that he would not engage in military operations for them, but he secretly involved himself in small-scale acts of sabotage, using the money the INC gave him, which in those three years was not more than thirty thousand dollars. He met officials from the American Defense Intelligence Agency, who sent Thoraya satellite phones to his network in Iraq in exchange for intelligence about the Iraqi Security Forces. Right before the war, Iraqi security realized that Haitham was running spies in Iraq and arrested and tortured some of his people. Nonetheless, Haitham had strong ambitions in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. He proposed moving his operations to western Iraq—principally the Anbar province—but CIA officials rejected this plan, because they had authorized that area for their own man, Ayad Allawi. On April 11, 2003, two days after Baghdad fell, Haitham returned to Ur, linking up with survivors of his network and the renascent Sadrist movement.

Haitham didn’t respect Muqtada and the old guard, and at first he joined the ranks of Muqtada’s rival, Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. But he was quickly disenchanted and soon rejoined Muqtada. All the while he was also collaborating with Chalabi’s INC. Haitham was friends with two other low-level Sadrists from Ur, Ali al-Lami and Jawad al-Bolani; he introduced them to Chalabi, giving their careers a huge boost.

After the war Haitham set up the Tawhid (Unity) association in Ur. In its building Bolani and Lami had offices, as did a former anti-Saddam activist from the southern marshes named Karim Mahud al-Muhammadawi, known as Abu Hatem, or the prince of the marshes, who would go on to lead Iraqi Hizballah. The Tawhid association became an important center. Shiite politicians would visit it; even the American military came. People returned stolen goods to Tawhid, and it had a religious school for women.

After I went over several hundred of the many thousands of documents I found in the looted security station in Baghdad (see chapter one), I gave them to my friend Firas, and he, in turn, gave them to the Tawhid. Firas drove Haitham to his weekly meetings with Chalabi in Mansour. Falah Hassan Shanshal, who would go on to head the Sadrist bloc of Parliament, would also come to the meetings. Haitham brokered a meeting in a Sadr City mosque between Muhammadawi, Lami, and Bolani. Muhammadawi was seeking local Baghdad representatives and had appointed Bolani and Lami as his local first and second deputies. When Chalabi asked his old friend Haitham to introduce him to local Shiite politicians who could reach into Shiite communities, Haitham introduced him to Lami and Bolani. Together they established an umbrella political group, the Shiite House. The Shiite House became the Shiite Political Council and eventually the Iraqi National Alliance, the main Shiite list in the elections. In late summer 2004, when the Iranians started working with the Sadrists, Haitham was invited to Iran. But the meeting was postponed, and he never made it.

After the war, Sadrists took over a Baath Party office in Ur and turned it into a husseiniya (Shiite place of worship). It was originally controlled by Ayatollah Yaqoubi’s Fadhila organization. Haitham helped oversee the Mustafa Husseiniya, and when he fell out with Yaqoubi he transferred it to Muqtada’s followers. In the summer of 2004, Haitham helped establish a local death squad in the Mustafa Husseiniya. Its men targeted Wahhabis and “terrorists.”

When the IGC set up its de-Baathification office, Muhammadawi appointed Lami the managing director of the archives department, which housed all the documents that contained background information on Baath Party suspects. (Bolani and Lami apparently despised each other and parted company.) When Chalabi suffered total defeat in the 2005 elections, he grew closer with Lami and grew to depend on him. Chalabi used Lami’s bodyguards because they had a fearsome reputation for their skill, and their special privileges allowed them to arrest anybody they accused of being a former Baathist.

Chalabi and Lami visited Iran together often. Both men were sectarian and felt that Shiites had been deprived of their rights in the past. This time they would make sure Shiites took over. Lami became known as Ali Faisal and would run de-Baathification. He hated Baathists and bore a grudge against Sunnis because of his past as a poor Shiite from the slums of Ur. He had lists of Baathists he wanted to dismiss and was determined to purge the Shiite ex-Baathists who had been rehabilitated by the Supreme Council and were protected by it. Meanwhile, Bolani was working with Muhammadawi but looking for other jobs. For a man who would go on to accrue huge political power at the Interior Ministry, he didn’t seem to be picky then. He applied for a job as a flour mill manager, but Chalabi adopted Bolani and took him to Washington in 2004, thus giving him his international profile.

On December 31, 2004, Haitham was killed near his house by a local Shaab terrorist group. Passions were further inflamed with the attempted assassination of Muhammadawi, whose car was shot at as he left the funeral.

Muqtada’s deputy Sheikh Safaa al-Tamimi decided to avenge Haitham’s assassination and established a special assassination squad under his command. All his men belonged to the Mahdi Army, and all their targets belonged to the Salafi movement. A room inside the Mustafa Husseiniya was used for torturing suspects until they confessed. Confessions were filmed, and some included executions of prisoners who admitted to attacking Shiites or civilians. Only the prisoner was shown in the film, with the interrogator in the background calmly asking questions in a southern Iraqi accent (the same one common in Sadr City). Some films showed groups of prisoners sitting together. One such film showed the group that confessed to the murder of Haitham. These snuff films were kept in Sheikh Safaa’s possession and were not reproduced, saved as evidence that only people who deserved it were executed.

Sheikh Safaa’s death squad was well armed, with grenades, grenade launchers, and Kalashnikovs. The soldiers of the group were selected by the sheikh for their physical strength or martial prowess. The group was supplied with many vehicles by supporters in Shaab. Having Mahdi Army friends in the Vehicle Registration Department made it easy for the group to replace their license plates. Their assassination campaign led to a massive clearance of Sunnis from Shaab, part of a deliberate strategy to cleanse the area of Mahdi Army enemies following two years of clashes with Salafis.

Sheikh Safaa had final approval of all targets, who would then be tracked for a couple of days before their murder. When his men conducted operations and raids, they usually wore either all black or military uniforms. Sometimes they coordinated their operations with the Iraqi army. The group typically raided a target’s house at night, dragging him from bed, taking him to the mosque for interrogation, executing him, and then dumping the body on the outskirts of Sadr City in a place locally known as Al Sadda (The Dam), where there was a sand berm. Before these Shiite revenge attacks, radical Salafis had imposed their rule on much of Shaab, even killing barbers to prevent local citizens from having their beards shaved. In January 2006, one Mahdi Army soldier said, “We cleaned our city from all Wahhabis,” adding, “now we can live peacefully in Shaab.”

At around the same time, Muqtada’s spokesman in Kadhimiya, Hazim al-Araji, condemned “terrorists” (his euphemism for Sunnis), but he also asserted that the American occupiers were allied with these “terrorists” against Shiites.

BRUTAL AS THE American occupation was, it was also incompetent. The Americans never controlled much in Iraq. They could destroy, but they had trouble building. They allowed militias to take over Iraq and allowed the police, who should have been protecting civilians from the predations of militias, to become involved in the conflict as one of the main sectarian militias. And they either ignored it for the sake of expediency, as they did when they dealt with warlords in post-Taliban Afghanistan, or they were simply unaware. But there were exceptions, intelligent and sensitive officers who sensed what was happening and could see the sectarian catastrophe that the American invasion had unleashed.

Phil Carter’s experience as a captain in the U.S. Army is a disturbing example of what was happening across Iraq. Carter served in Baquba, in the Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, between October 2005 and September 2006. As part of a team training and supervising the Iraqi police, he saw firsthand the results of that initial failure to build a professional culture within the Interior Ministry, which had become rife with cronyism and Shiite chauvinism. Thanks in part to the Sunni boycott of the elections, Shiites were overrepresented in Diyala, and the Supreme Council was very powerful. Carter’s team advised Diyala’s chief of police, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Adnan al-Bawi, who was an official with the Supreme Council’s Badr militia, and they operated closely with the governor, who was also a Badr official.

“Al-Bawi was running Badr death-squad ops, even targeting other Shiites they had political beefs with,” Carter told me. “Badr death squads were doing targeted killings in houses and businesses. Good Shiite officers were sidelined. If they tried to take an initiative they would get fired or moved or, on a couple of occasions, killed.” The chief of the major crimes unit, Colonel Ali, was nicknamed “Cable Ali” by the Americans. “He was running a torture chamber. We found them, and we pushed to get him charged by the Ministry of Interior, and he was eventually arrested. But he was sprung by the police chief. We had gotten him fired a couple of times, but he was always reinstated. The rumor was that he was a CIA guy and a CIA source on intelligence.” When Carter first arrived, his predecessors told him that they had made a bargain with their colleagues from Diyala: “‘They’re thugs, but they’re our thugs. They keep order, just don’t ask questions.’ These guys were running their own little organized crime entity, selling fuel on the black market,” Carter observed. “There was graft of police funds, extortion. Sectarianism showed in who they picked for leaders and what neighborhoods they would neglect.” Even when they had evidence of misconduct, Carter and his men often felt powerless. “Iraqi detainees were tortured by Iraqi officers with power drills,” Carter said. They had cigarette burns and bruises on their backs. Every indicator was that they were picked up on a sweep and had done nothing wrong, just been at the wrong place at the wrong time, and were Sunni. Carter wanted to make an example of one Iraqi army officer, but the Military Transition Team [MTT, pronounced “mitt”] with him was obstructive. They thought he was effective.

In November 2005, Carter’s team got 200 reports of police abuse from families visiting detained relatives. Carter took the complaints to Bawi, the police chief. He said he would launch an investigation, promising to look into people who were obviously innocent. But what about guilty people? Carter retorted. They got what they deserved. Bawi said. He cited Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib: “‘I only do what you do. You don’t understand, Captain Carter. You just got here.’”

Between January and March 2006, just as IED attacks and ambushes were increasing in the wake of the Samarra bombings, the U.S. battalion in charge of Baquba decided to close the base in Baquba and move it to Camp Warhorse, on the edge of the city. “It was the height of strategic folly,” Carter complained. “At the moment things are getting worse, we pull back.”

This pattern was repeated throughout Iraq as the Americans ceded territory to militias and the civil war intensified. Americans realized too late that their presence was provoking hostility, and removed their soldiers from the streets. But by then the occupation was second to the civil war.

ON FEBRUARY 22, 2006, the Shiite Askari Shrine in Samarra was blown up. In the days that followed, more than 1,300 bodies were found in Baghdad, most of them Sunni. Once these figures were revealed, the Interior Ministry—whose forces were probably responsible for a large number of the killings—asked the Shiite-controlled Ministry of Health to cover them up. Shiites took over dozens of Sunni mosques and renamed them after the Samarra shrine. Shiite militias targeted the Abu Hanifa Mosque in Adhamiya with numerous mortars. Muqtada was said to have announced that “we have the legitimate cover to kill al-Nawasib,” a pejorative term for Sunnis.

Sunni-controlled television stations in Iraq—such as Baghdad TV, controlled by the Iraqi Islamic Party—showed only Sunni victims of the retaliatory attacks. Shiite stations such as Al Furat and Al Iraqiya focused on the damaged shrine and Shiite victims. Al Furat was even more aggressive, encouraging Shiites to “stand up for their rights.”

Following the attack Sunni militias faced the increased wrath of the Mahdi Army. Throughout Iraq Mahdi Army cadres flooded the streets, marching and chanting in unison. Sunni militias understand that the only militia in Iraq capable of defeating the Supreme Council’s Badr was the Mahdi Army, which is why they initially courted Muqtada and his men, who opposed Iranian intervention. This is also why Sunni militias hoped to establish a united front with the Mahdi Army against the Americans.

Two days after the Samarra attack, Sheikh Yasser, a young Shiite sheikh in the Shuhada Al Taf Mosque, was passing by the Sunni Al Sajjad Mosque in the Maalif neighborhood. His car was stopped and searched by armed guards working for the mosque. The sheikh later informed the Mahdi Army, who controlled a mosque elsewhere in the neighborhood. Mahdi Army soldiers surrounded the Sajjad Mosque and searched it for explosives. Sunnis informed the media, and local stations claimed that the Mahdi Army had taken over the mosque. On the following Friday Sunnis asked for U.S. Army protection against possible Mahdi Army attacks during their Friday prayers. The Sajjad Mosque belonged to the extremist Ansar Sunnah group: it had celebrated two funerals for Iraqi Palestinian suicide bombers who were killed in late 2004 during operations against coalition forces, and it occasionally celebrated the graduation of children who memorized the Koran in ceremonies named after Al Qaeda videos such as Winds of Victory.

Shortly after the Samarra attacks I spoke to a Shiite friend from Maalif. “The Mahdi Army is cleansing my neighborhood,” he said, “and they issued threats to many Sunni families forcing them to leave. They also killed many Sunnis. It started after the death of more than fifty civilians in the neighborhood in one day [mortar attacks from Gartan] and another sequence of explosions including two car bombs and several IEDs. The Sunnis in the neighborhood were about 40 percent, and now they are about 20 percent. Only Sunnis who are not involved in the insurgency or were not from the former regime did not receive threats, and so they did not leave the city. Rent prices for houses went down. Sunnis who have Shiite friends in other neighborhoods started switching their houses. Shiite families move to majority-Shiite neighborhoods, and Sunni families move to majority-Sunni neighborhoods. They exchange houses for free but with trust that they will get their houses back. This leads to changing the demography of every neighborhood.”

Every morning in 2006 the streets of Baghdad were littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they were Sunni or Shiite. Power drills were an especially popular torture device. In the spring of 2006 I spent six weeks in Iraq and went through three different drivers. At various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. One morning fourteen bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets, all called Omar. Omar is an exclusively Sunni name. It was a message. In Baghdad those days nobody was more insecure than men called Omar. On another day a group of bodies was found with hands overlapping on their abdomens, right hand above left, the way Sunnis pray. It was a simple message: if you are Sunni, we will kill you. Sunnis and Shiites were obtaining false papers with neutral names. Sunni militias were stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya, or ID cards, of all passengers. Those belonging to Shiite tribes were executed.

Following the January 2005 elections the Health and Transportation ministries were given to Sadr loyalists, who immediately started cleansing them of Sunnis and ideologically unsound Shiites. Sadrists instituted a program they called “cleaning the ministry from Saddamists.” Although not all Sunnis were targeted, many Sunnis felt that all Sunnis were being labeled Saddamists.

In the Health Ministry pictures of Muqtada and his father were everywhere. Black banners for Shiite traditions were all over the walls, and Shiite traditional music played inside the ministry. Only people who supported the Sadr movement could join the ministry now. Doctors and ministry employees referred to the minister of health as imami, or “my imam,” as though he were a cleric. What Sunnis were left in the ministry worked only in Sunni areas where Shiites were afraid to visit. The Transportation Ministry was also controlled by clerics. Its walls were adorned with Shiite posters and banners as well as those supporting Muqtada specifically. Sunni engineers and staff were pushed out. As in the Health and Interior ministries, Shiites with no experience filled the ranks, the only qualification being an ideological one. In one case a Sunni chief engineer was fired and replaced with an unqualified Shiite who wore a cleric’s turban to work. This has led to a dramatic drop in efficiency, with ministries barely functioning. Kurdish-controlled offices also avoided hiring Sunni Arabs.

Attacks increased throughout the country. In Kirkuk the Ahl Al Bayt Huseiniya was attacked by Sunni militiamen who blocked off the street with cars and killed at least two civilians. In the nearby village of Bashir, they attacked the Shiite Imam Ridha shrine. Officially, Muqtada opposed attacks on Sunnis, but he had unleashed his fighters on Sunnis. Sectarian and ethnic cleansing continued apace, with mixed neighborhoods being purified. In Amriya, dead bodies were being found on the main street at the rate of three a day. People were afraid to approach the bodies, or call for an ambulance or the police, because they would be found dead the following day. In Abu Ghraib, Dora, Amriya, and other mixed neighborhoods, Shiites were being forced to leave. In Maalif Sunnis were being targeted. In its statements the Association of Muslim Scholars referred to the police as “government police,” not the Iraqi police, because it viewed them as illegitimate, and it called the Mahdi Army the “black sectarians” because of their uniforms, or the “new sectarians.” Iraq was a divided country, even in its media. New channels such as Al Furat, which was controlled by the Supreme Council, and Sharqiya, which was controlled by former Baathist Saad Bazzaz, continued the wars fought on the street, inflaming people’s fears and hatreds. If Sunni and Shiite militias could not assassinate political figures, they often targeted the close relatives of judges, governors, ministers, and members of the national assembly.

Shiite families fled Abu Ghraib, Al Taji, and Al Mashahada, moving into Shiite strongholds in Baghdad, such as Shuula, where Muqtada’s representatives took care of them. Shiites were still angry. “Destroying all Sunni mosques is still not equivalent to bombing the Askari shrine” was the dominant Shiite attitude in Baghdad. Hundreds of Shiite families from Sunni towns settled in Red Crescent-run refugee camps near Kut. The United States constantly shifted its support back and forth between Sunnis and Shiites, calling on Shiites to rein in their militias, a key Sunni demand, while conducting massive and lethal raids on the Sunni population—alienating everyone in Iraq but the Kurds.

In February 2006 the National Accord Front—the largest Sunni coalition, with forty-four seats in the new Parliament—threatened to begin civil disobedience if attacks and arrests targeting Sunnis were not halted. In areas where Shiites were the minority, they feared the mulathamin (masked ones), referring to the Sunni militias who covered their faces with their head scarves. Sunnis, in turn, feared “interior,” a reference to the Interior Ministry, or “the black sectarians” of the Mahdi Army.

THE CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ was a victory of the slum over the city, or the periphery over the center. The Kurds, the Shiites, and even the Sunnis of the center were marginalized or killed. For the Sunnis, for example, it was the Anbar Sunni—more rural, more tribal—who briefly rose to prominence in 2007. In Kurdistan, the pesh merga and the Kurds of the mountains have prevailed. Under Saddam there were many pro-regime, Arabic-speaking, Iraqified Kurds living in Baghdad and Mosul. They have been pushed into Kurdistan.

For those who resisted having to choose a sectarian identity, there were few choices except exile. The integrated Iraqis had been Saddam’s citizens; they were his middle class, his urban dream, and they lived in the heart of the state. Many were state employees under the direct control of the state. They were of the state’s making, and they have died with the state. Millions of Iraqis have left Iraq. More than two million Iraqis had fled before the war, in the 1990s, when the UN-imposed sanctions destroyed Saddam’s allies and his urban middle-class technocrats. Millions more have fled their homes since the war began, most of them from the mixed areas of Iraq. Many have been expelled from their urban homes by the sectarian militias who descended from the mountains, the desert, the marshes, the slums.



ON MARCH 26, 2006, AMERICAN AND IRAQI FORCES RAIDED THE Mustafa Husseiniya, the small but locally well-known Shiite gathering place and place of worship in eastern Baghdad’s Ur neighborhood, adjoining the larger Shaab district. Sixteen to eighteen people were killed in the raid. A U.S. military statement issued later that day claimed that “Iraqi Special Operations Forces conducted a twilight raid in the Adhamiyah neighborhood in northeast Baghdad to disrupt a terrorist cell responsible for conducting attacks on Iraqi security and coalition forces and kidnapping Iraqi civilians,” adding that “no mosques were entered or damaged,” that the operation was conducted at dusk to “ensure no civilians were in the area and to minimize the possibility of collateral damage,” and that U.S. forces were only advising the Iraqi soldiers who conducted the raid. Some accounts claimed that American and Iraqi soldiers had been pursuing a suspect who fled to the mosque. They were fired upon and returned fire, killing sixteen “insurgents” and arresting fifteen others. It was also claimed they rescued a hostage. Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa Party angrily complained that the sixteen dead had been inside a mosque. Nuri al-Maliki, who had succeeded Jaafari as prime minister, was interviewed on Iraqi state television. “This was a hostile attack intended to destroy the political process and provoke a civil war,” he said. He blamed the American military and American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

I visited the Mustafa Husseiniya the day after the raid. I arranged to meet an old friend Firas from Shaab who was a friend of Sheikh Safaa al-Tamimi of the Mustafa Husseiniya. We drove into Shaab and into a long convoy of Mahdi Army pickup trucks and minibuses waving flags and machine guns. Shaab had deteriorated since my previous trip a few months earlier. After the recent Samarra explosions, three Sunni mosques in Shaab had been burned. The siege there was palpable. There were several hundred Mahdi Army fighters, and among the convoy were also blue-and-white Iraqi police pickup trucks. After we passed a police checkpoint, a white civilian car began to follow us. My driver gestured with his head at the rearview mirror to let me know. Suddenly he made a U-turn and squeezed into traffic going in the opposite direction, losing them. We met Firas on the side of the road far from the husseiniya. He would act as if he did not know me when we met at the mosque because it could be dangerous for him if people in Shaab knew he had foreign friends. He was himself a journalist and a close confidant of Sheikh Safaa, and had asked the sheikh to guarantee my safety. He wore a black suit and dark shirt with no tie and leather shoes. He had an informal intelligence-gathering capacity in the neighborhood.

Three years earlier I had shared with Firas the thousands of Baathist security files I found in the abandoned and looted general security office. These files contained the day-to-day operations of Saddam’s dictatorship and revealed the names of Baathist collaborators and spies. I felt that they were Iraqi patrimony and that I should hand them over to some Iraqi movement. Firas gave them all to the Tawhid association, and I never got them back. I now know from other friends that my files were used to compile hit lists by Shiite militias in Shaab and that Firas was involved in this. I never asked him directly. He had told Sheikh Safaa about me, and the sheikh was expecting me, but Firas warned me once more to pretend I didn’t know him.

It was immediately apparent that the raid had targeted the husseiniya, which strictly speaking was not a mosque but had the same function as one and even had a minaret with loud speakers on its top to broadcast the calls to prayer. Moreover, the husseiniya was not located in the Adhamiya neighborhood, contrary to the coalition press statement. Adhamiya is a Sunni bastion not far from Shaab, but the two neighborhoods are worlds apart. Could the Americans have confused the most heavily Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad with a Shiite stronghold? Could they have confused Muqtada’s Shiite militia with a terrorist cell? Before the war the Mustafa Husseiniya had been a Baath Party office. Like other political movements, Muqtada’s had seized many Baath Party buildings following the war. Some former Baath Party buildings even had domes now.

A large sign in front of the Mustafa Husseiniya bore the faces of Muqtada’s father and local Mahdi Army martyrs. Black banners hung on the wall with Arabic letters in white, red, green, and yellow. “We express condolences to the Mahdi and the whole Islamic nation for the disaster of the martyrdom of the brother believers and the attacks on them in the Mustafa Husseiniya at the hands of the takfiris backed by the occupation forces.” Other banners echoed this: “The massacre of the Mustafa Husseiniya was done by the Wahhabis with the help of the Americans.” Another said that the massacre had been committed by “the forces of darkness with the help of the forces of occupation.”

The large lot before the husseiniya was blocked off by concrete traffic barriers. A large black chadir (a round tent used for mourning) was erected in it. Big red-and-green flags waved from above it. Rows of plastic chairs were lined up, and several turbaned clerics sat talking. It was customary to enter on the right side and shake the hands of all present, wishing peace upon them one by one until the end. Then the visitor would sit down and ask God to have mercy on the one who would read the Fatiha, the first verse of the Koran. Then everyone would recite the Fatiha seated except for the relatives of the deceased, who would say it standing. Following the recital, the men would all wipe their hands down their faces.

A banner on one of the concrete barriers announced, “The followers of the family of the Prophet Muhammad understand this: the money of the Saudis and the hatred of the Americans and the ugliness and the barbarism of the Wahhabis and the cowardice of the political Shiite leaders equals the slaughter of the Shiites of Ali, the commander of the faithful.” Beside the banner was a picture of Ayatollah Sistani and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. In front of the husseiniya was a small stand on which a pot of tea was boiling. I was offered a small glass of the very sweet and strong tea popular in Iraq, always poured into glasses that taper inward gracefully. Glasses were then rinsed in a bowl of water and reused. I was carrying a film camera with me but was warned not to film the many armed men who stood outside, slinging Kalashnikovs casually. The young men guarding the mosque welcomed me and gave me a tour of the wreckage. Firas was there too, and he introduced himself to me to maintain the charade.

They pointed to an exploded wall and a pile of rubble that had been the imam’s home (imams often live on the premises or in a house attached to the mosque). The men explained that an American Apache helicopter had fired a missile at it and destroyed it. They had collected all the shrapnel to prove it, along with numerous shell casings from American M-16s. Three blackened cars sat inside the courtyard. I was told they belonged to people praying in the mosque and had been parked outside but that the Americans had burned them and then dragged them inside the husseiniya. Against one wall was a large picture of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and Sheikh Haitham al-Ansari, Shaab’s murdered cleric. I asked one of my guides, the caretaker Abul Hassan, who wore a black dishdasha with white trousers beneath it, why the Americans had come. “By God I don’t know,” he said. “We were surprised by their raid.” He attributed it to political pressure on the Sadr movement.

Brownish red blood smeared the courtyard, where bodies had been dragged. “They killed people praying, innocent people,” the caretaker said. “One of the people praying was shot here,” he pointed, “and dragged all the way here.” He pointed to a room, “and one was shot here.” He showed me dried pools of blood and pointed to the ceiling, where blood and pieces of flesh had splattered from somebody’s head. “They brought four here—one of them was fourteen.” He gestured to another room: “There were five martyrs in that room.” The men were just as concerned with the posters, which had been cut or torn. Adjacent to the husseiniya were several rooms that had been given to the Dawa Party-Iraq organization. This was not Prime Minister Jaafari’s party but a rival branch (there are three), which had been exiled in Iran. Inside the offices, blood covered plastic chairs and the floor. Political posters covered the walls featuring the first and second Sadr martyrs. “Here they killed one,” my guides told me, pointing to more blood. They showed me the jinsiya (ID cards) of the three martyrs from the Dawa office. In one of the Dawa rooms they pointed out a vast pool of blood with white pieces of brain stuck in it. The men pointed to more blood. “Torture, you understand? Torture,” one man told me. A book written by Muhamad Sadiq al-Sadr was covered in blood. A poster of Jaafari had black ink scribbled on his face. In the room where ceremonial drums and chains were stored, drums had been torn, pictures torn off.

Sheikh Safaa stood in the courtyard by his destroyed home, pacing back and forth while talking on his mobile phone. When he got off, Firas and several other young men surrounded him to consult as I waited. I recognized another one of them, a young man also wearing a black suit and black shirt with no tie, and black leather shoes. He worked for the state de-Baathification committee but was close to the Sadrists and passed information about Baathists along to the Mahdi Army.

Sheikh Safaa spoke to me inside the prayer room. It had a green carpet and a shiny model of the shrine in Najaf. On its walls were verses from the Koran about Judgment Day and a picture of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and Muqtada. Sheikh Safaa looked extremely young; his stylistically groomed beard was still not fully mature. He was very thin, with a long narrow nose. He wore modern wire-framed glasses and had a white imama (turban) balanced on his ears. As we spoke he held his mobile phone and prayer beads in one hand, gesticulating with the other.

He confirmed that the husseiniya belonged to the Office of the Martyr Sadr, which had permitted the Dawa Party to use some rooms as an office. “They are old people, and they are even not capable of carrying a weapon,” he said. “The American forces denied that they attacked the husseiniya. They said they just attacked the Dawa office, but it was a lie. The truth is, they entered both the Dawa office and the Mustafa Husseiniya, and they killed in a very barbaric way . . . and nobody expected the Americans would do that, especially those who saw films about freedom, about America.”

The young Sheikh Safaa also thought the raid was meant to send a political message. “After the Samarra bombing,” he explained, “the Americans started escalating political pressure against Jaafari and other Shiites to prevent Jaafari from being the prime minister, because he doesn’t look after their interests. They think that Jaafari is the closest man to the Sadr Current, and they don’t like the Sadr Current to have a friend in the prime minister’s position.”

Sheikh Safaa warned that his people were irate. “I have seen the feelings of the people in the last few days,” he said. “They were very upset from the presence of the occupation. One of the demands put forth by the Sadr Current was that the occupation forces apologize and compensate the families of the victims. America should not kill and compensate. We don’t want your compensation; just stop killing. Why do you kill and then compensate? People from different ages and backgrounds were killed in this mosque. Not everyone was a soldier in the Mahdi Army. There were old people from the Dawa Party and visitors to the Dawa Party and people praying. That’s why the people in Shaab City are very angry. So the condition was not to let America go inside Shaab City again. We witnessed an American aggression, and maybe with the hands of Iraqis who work with the occupation forces.”

The sheikh had been present for the raid. “We were surprised at six o’clock, which is half an hour before the prayer, by a large number of Humvees and another kind of wheeled armored vehicle,” he said. “Their entrance was silent. They surrounded the husseiniya from everywhere. They started firing random heavy shots. It didn’t have the sound of a Kalashnikov and classic light weapons. The major sound was the dushka and a heavy belt-fed machine gun. They also used bombs and grenades to attack the husseiniya.” I was impressed by his detailed knowledge of weapons. “They came in a very ugly and barbaric way, and they were very quick,” he continued. “People tried to run away and go out of the building. Because I am the imam of the mosque I have a family in my house, so I was busy taking my family outside. I have four children, and they were very scared. Until now the condition of the children is not stable. My mother is still not stable. We took her from the hospital yesterday, because of the heavy sound of the bullets and bombs.”

On the evening of the raid, he said, “many infantry soldiers entered the building. They started shooting. A lot of the brothers were injured. They took them to a single place and grouped them together and executed them. One of them had a black band on his forehead because he was a sayyid. He was the one who got the most number of bullets in his body. He lost all of his brain outside his head, and I think you have already seen his brain. They went inside the shrine with a grenade, which injured a lot of people who were praying at that time. The mosque should be a place for people who want to feel safe and secure. When the occupier came to this country, we lost the security, and security is one of the most important favors that God gives to us. It’s true that there was a strong oppression on Iraqis from the former regime. America came to Iraq proclaiming its liberation, and freedom and democracy and pluralism, but America proclaimed one thing and we saw something else. We saw freedom, but it is the freedom of tanks and democracy of Hummers, and instead of multiparties we saw multiple killings of people in a variety of ugly ways.”

But the Americans did not just kill people at the husseiniya; they also tortured the men and looted the area. “One was injured with bullets and killed with knives,” Sheikh Safaa said. “More than one body was tortured, his eyes were taken out, and we saw them naked after death. Some of them were very old men. The Americans stole all the light weapons: one pistol and two or three guns. Also they stole money and the two computers. They destroyed everything, broke glass, and the religious school for women. Then they blew up the cars and there was more heavy shooting.”

After I left Sheikh Safaa asked Firas if I was “clean”—meaning, was I to be trusted—so that he could be sure of protecting me in the event someone tried to intercept me as I made my way home. His assistant, Abu Hassan, asked Safaa the same thing about me.

That Thursday, March 30, after I visited Humineya, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for Multinational Forces-Iraq, gave his weekly press briefing in the Coalition Press Information Center. He stood before American and Iraqi flags wearing pressed fatigues with two stars on his collars. His face remained without expression or emotion, and he spoke in a clipped, rapid-fire style, not in sentences. As he listed his ideas, which he kept simple and repeated, his hands sliced the air to emphasize points in rhythm with his words.

“Our operations continue across Iraq towards the identified end state,” Lynch said. “An Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors and is an ally in the war on terrorism, that has a representative government and respects the human rights of all Iraqis, that has security forces that can maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists. Now we’re making progress there every day.” He explained that attacks against the coalition forces were concentrated in three provinces: Baghdad, Anbar, and Salah Al-Din. He didn’t say that these areas were where U.S. troops were concentrated and where some of the biggest cities were located. “The enemy,” he said, “specifically the terrorists and foreign fighters, specifically Al Qaeda in Iraq, the face of which is Zarqawi, is now specifically targeting Iraqi security force members and Iraqi police. In fact, the number of attacks against Iraqi Security Forces has increased 35 percent in the last four weeks compared with the previous six months.” General Lynch told the story of Sunni recruits who joined the army even after some recruits had been killed in a suicide bombing. “If that’s not a testimony to the courage and conviction of the Iraqi people, I don’t know what is. They’re united against Zarqawi. As we’ve talked about before, counterinsurgency operations average nine years. The people who will win this counterinsurgency battle against Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq are the Iraqi people. And indications like that show their courage and their convictions and their commitment to a democratic future. Amazing story.”

He switched slides to a satellite image showing the Mustafa Husseiniya but calling it “Tgt Complex.” Several blocks away was a building the slide described as the Ibrahim Al Khalil Mosque, and even farther away was a building incorrectly identified as the Al Mustafa Mosque. “Last Sunday,” he began, “Iraqi special operations forces had indications that a kidnapping cell was working out of this target complex.” He pointed to the satellite image. “This was led, planned, and executed by Iraqi special operations forces, based on detailed intelligence that a kidnapping cell was occupying this complex.” He pointed at the husseiniya again. “The operation consisted of about fifty members of Iraqi special operations forces and about twenty-five U.S. advisers. The U.S. advisers there purely in an advisory role. They did none of the fighting. There wasn’t a shot fired by U.S. service members during conduct of this operation. They surveyed the battlefield in advance, looking for sensitive areas, and they said, Okay, there are mosques in the area, but the nearest mosque is about six blocks from the target complex, so the decision was made to do the operation, focused on this kidnapping cell, and try to rescue a hostage, an Iraqi hostage. Operation planned, led, and executed by Iraqi special operations forces. They got in the area with their vehicles. They immediately started taking fire, from this complex,” he said, pointing again to the map. “Now remember, many buildings in that compound and many rooms in the building. They took fire right away, they returned fire.” Once inside, “they had additional gunfire exchange.”

I remembered my visit. There were no signs of any gun battle or any fire coming from inside the husseiniya—no random bullet holes, no Kalashnikov shells (although they could have been picked up). The entire affair had seemed very one-sided.

“All told,” Lynch continued, “sixteen insurgents were killed, eighteen were detained. We found over thirty-two weapons, and we found the hostage, the innocent Iraqi, who just twelve hours before was walking the streets of Baghdad. He was walking the streets of Baghdad en route to a hospital to visit his brother, who had gunshot wounds. He was kidnapped and beaten in the car en route to this complex.” He pointed to the Mustafa Husseiniya again. “When he got there, they emptied his pockets. They took out his wallet, and in the wallet was a picture of his daughter. He asked for one thing. He said, ‘Please, before you kill me, allow me to kiss the picture of my daughter. That’s all I ask.’ The kidnappers told him, ‘Hey, we gotcha, and if we don’t get twenty thousand dollars sometime soon, you’re dead.’ And they showed him the bare electrical wires that they were gonna use to torture him, and then kill him, and they said, ‘We’re gonna go away and do some drugs, and when we come back, we’re gonna kill you.’ He was beaten. He was tortured. He was tortured with an electrical drill. Twelve hours after he was kidnapped, he was rescued by this Iraqi special operations forces rescue unit. He is indeed most grateful. He is most grateful to be alive, and he is most grateful to the Iraqi special operations forces. The closest mosque was six blocks away. When they got close to the compound, they took fire, and they returned fire. When they got inside the rooms, a room in this compound, they realized this could have been a ‘husenaya,’ a prayer room. They saw a prayer rug. They saw a minaret. They didn’t know about that in advance, but from that room, and from that compound, they were taking fire. In that room, and in that compound, the enemy was holding a hostage, and torturing a hostage. And in that room, and in that compound, they were storing weapons, munitions, and IED explosive devices. Very, very effective operation, planned and executed by Iraqi special operations forces.”

When asked who the enemy the previous Sunday might have been, Lynch responded that “we had no indication, no specific indication, what group these people came from. This was clearly a kidnapping cell that we’d watched for a period of time. There were indications that it was an active cell, and that’s why the operation was planned by the members of the Iraqi special operations forces. Now, I can’t tell you which particular unit or if they were from the Mahdi militia. I don’t know. . . . Extremists, terrorists, criminals—it’s all intertwined. We have reason to believe, and evidence to support, that the terrorists and foreign fighters are indeed using kidnapping as a way to finance their operations. And the story that I told about Sunday night’s kidnapping could be told many more times.”

The news of the American raid was—for once—greeted with delight by Sunnis, who were used to seeing Shiites celebrating when the Americans hit Sunni targets. But what really happened at the husseiniya? There was indeed a Sunni prisoner in the Mustafa Husseiniya, the last suspect in the killing of Haitham al-Ansari (see previous chapter). Half the Mustafa Husseiniya was controlled by the Sadrist hawza, with Sheikh Safaa as the spiritual leader. The other half was controlled by a man named Abu Sara, who led a Mahdi Army death squad known as a “special group.” Abu Sara was an ex-Baathist and ex-member of Saddam’s fedayeen militia. Safaa hated him, my friend Firas told me, because he was against armed men coming to the mosque. When the Americans struck just before the evening prayer, Abu Sara and his men had not yet arrived; they were still on their way to pray. The Americans killed ten people inside and seven outside, but they were innocent. They released the suspected Sunni killer, and he fled to Syria.

The Americans called the raid Operation Valhalla. It was conducted by the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), commanded by Lieut. Col. Sean Swindell and an Iraqi Special Forces unit they were training. The target was one individual who left shortly before the soldiers arrived, though I was never able to confirm what he was suspected of doing. “We came under fire and at that time had to protect ourselves,” an American participant told me. “Iraqi Special Operations forces and U.S. adviser forces, as we got to the area, came under intense fire from all directions, including within the husseiniya. We assaulted and searched the targeted area. We stumbled upon the Sunni prisoner by accident during the course of the operation. There was one hostage rescued. He stayed with us for a number of months doing small work because he was extremely scared for his life.”

One Iraqi Special Operations soldier was wounded. After the raid a senior sheikh from Ur came to complain about the raid to the Americans, along with three or four young “henchmen” of his. “He was one very bad guy,” said the American who took part in the raid. “One henchman asked why we were shooting at certain buildings. We showed him we were taking heavy fire from the husseiniya. He said they were not shooting at us but at the helicopters.” I asked the American soldier which group they were targeting. “We did not make the distinction. Bad guys were bad guys. The sheikh and his henchmen received the same briefing that was given to the prime minister and agreed with everything we presented. They were impressed with what we knew and acted on.”

The Americans insisted that immediately after the battle the dead bodies were removed from the husseiniya along with their weapons so that it would appear to be a one-sided attack on men in a mosque. The Americans say they conducted an investigation and that the unit effectively halted operations for a month. Some of the men in the unit had cameras on their helmets, which apparently corroborated their versions in the investigation and contrasted with the version presented by reporters on the scene.

The next day, March 31, I returned to the Mustafa Husseiniya for Friday prayers. The neighborhood was shut down. Roads were blocked with tree trunks, trucks, and motorcycles. Mahdi Army militiamen sat on chairs on the main road asking for IDs and observing the men slowly walking in the sun to the noon prayer. The militiamen, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties, sported carefully groomed beards. Some wore all black; others wore cotton shirts that said “Mahdi Army” and named their unit within the militia. Some wore Iraqi police-issued bulletproof vests, and many carried police-issued Glock pistols and handcuffs at their sides. They were off-duty policemen.

By the time I arrived, thousands of people were seated in the bright sun. They wore sweatpants or dishdashas, and many of the older men had head scarves on their heads. Plastic, rubber, and leather slippers and shoes lined the street. As the men assembled, they stopped by wooden boxes to pick up a torba, a medallion-shaped piece of earth from Karbala upon which their foreheads would rest when they bowed to the ground. When they found an empty spot on the street, they opened their prayer rug, placing the torba at the front edge.

A wooden pulpit was set up across from the Husseiniya. Behind it a large truck was parked. It was covered in a green cloth, and a large painting of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr stood on its bed. Mahdi Army men patrolled the street and stood atop the husseiniya and on the rooftops of neighboring buildings, pacing back and forth, silhouetted against the bright sky. In the front row sat dignitaries such as Sadrist National Assembly member Fattah al-Sheikh and key clerics from the movement like Abdul Hadi al-Daraji. Hundreds of men brought umbrellas with them to provide some shelter from the sun. Young men in baseball caps with exterminator packs on their backs walked through the crowd spraying people with rose water to cool them off. Loudspeakers on the road facing different directions blasted the call to prayer.

As the call ended, a man stood up to yell a hossa. “Damn Wahhabism and Takfirism and Saddamism and Judaism, and pray for Muhammad!” The crowd yelled back, “Our God prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!” They shook their fists, “And speed the Mahdi’s return! And damn his enemies!” Sheikh Hussein al-Assadi stood up behind the pulpit, wearing a white turban and white shroud to show he was prepared for martyrdom. “Peace be upon you,” he greeted the crowd. “And upon you peace and the mercy of God and his blessings,” the crowd murmured back. Some in the crowd filmed the sermon on their mobile phones.

“I ask everybody to sit down except those who are on duty,” he said, referring to the militiamen providing security. “Before I begin I want to express my sympathy to Muhammad and all the imams, especially the Mahdi, for the martyrs of the Mustafa Husseiniya.” They had been martyred by international Zionism, world imperialism, and the American occupation, his angry voice echoed against the city’s walls. “We demand that the Iraqi government expel the Zionist American ambassador from Iraq and do not accept any apology from him. . . . We demand the release of all the prisoners of the outspoken hawza,” he said, along with the prisoners “who survived the Zionist massacre,” as he called the raid. He demanded that an Iraqi court supervised by the clergy try the perpetrators of the Mustafa Husseiniya attack. He demanded that occupation forces be prohibited from entering eastern Baghdad at any time. He rejected any need to investigate the attack. It was as clear as the murder of Hussein, he said. He complained that Shiites were still waiting for the results of the investigations of the Kadhimiya bridge disaster, the Samarra and Karbala explosions, and other massacres Shiites had faced. “We demand the execution of the Wahhabi American takfiris who were arrested and confessed in front of all who saw them,” he said. He blamed the Americans for killing Sunnis and throwing bodies in the Sadda area near Sadr City to ruin the city’s reputation and blame its residents for committing crimes. “The American Zionist forces have declared that they have handed the security file to the Iraqi government,” he said, “so what is the reason to violate this and attack the holy mosque of God?” The American and Iraqi governments had negotiated agreements without Parliament’s review; he demanded that the Iraqi people be told what they were. He demanded that the Iraqi Security Forces declare whether they “work with the American forces against unarmed Iraqis or for Iraq?”

A man in the crowd shouted a hossa. “As we learned from the second Sadr, history will be written with the blood of the pious, not the silence of the fearful!” The crowd shouted, “Our God prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad! And speed the Mahdi’s return and damn his enemies!”

The sheikh continued. “We ask God to support the outspoken hawza of mujahideen and the heroes of the Mahdi Army against the enemies of Islam, and to keep the Friday prayer going and to be a fork in the eye of the enemy America and especially Israel.”

People ask why the outspoken hawza was silent, he said. “But this is the silence before the storm,” he answered, warning the Americans and Zionists that he knew what they wanted to do to Muslims. “We already know very well, and I thank God for that. We already know what is going on in the dirty minds of the monkey infidels. They have a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims.”

America “brought war to the Iraqi people and ended the wars with sanctions, it was trying to make Muslims hungry. . . . Today it slaughters our sons, and it has started doing the same things Saddam did, and this is exactly the same way Saddam killed us, and George Bush the Cursed said he came to get rid of Saddam’s killings but instead he brought Israel’s killings, and they started doing it themselves in the holiest places in Iraq, and it’s only because they have hated Islam since the beginning and they hate the prayer because it is the way of communication between the servant and his lord, and they are trying to kill the belief.” What was the difference, he asked, between Saddam’s massacres of Shiites in mosques and the American raid on the Mustafa Husseiniya?

The spirits of the martyrs demanded that those responsible for the massacre at the Mustafa Husseiniya be exposed. The Zionists were killing and torturing injured Iraq, he said, but members of the government were too busy stealing and enriching themselves and were too afraid to lose their positions to speak the truth, as was the clergy. He asked the crowd of thousands to shout “We will never be oppressed!” and they thundered in response. Only the outspoken hawza of the mujahideen represented the voice of the Prophet Muhammad and his family, and they were the voice of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. The jihad being waged by Muqtada’s hawza was the Mahdi’s jihad, and nobody could defeat them. “And today the outspoken hawza promises the martyrs that were killed in Iraq by the hands of the Zionist takfiris that we will return their aggression with a thousand aggressions. And we will step on the face of the Zionist ambassador if he stays in Iraq, and we will do that with our heroes of the Mahdi Army, and we will break all the legs that carried aggression on the houses of God and shed the blood of our brothers, and if the government is unable to prosecute the criminals in front of all people, then we will apply justice ourselves as much as we can, and the battalions of the Mahdi Army will never be handcuffed in case the government suspends their case, just like all the other suspended cases, like the massacres of Karbala and Kadhimiya and the destruction of the domes of the two imams in Samarra and other shedding of believers’ blood. . . . The government should not put their hands in the hands of those who killed us, and we want them to prove their Iraqi identity and Islamic identity, and we want them to release our prisoners, or an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

As the streets of Ur and Shaab filled with thousands of men indolently strolling home in the heat or heading to minibuses and trucks to depart, across town, in the western neighborhood of Ghazaliya, prayer was also ending, and several hundred Sunni men were leaving the Um Al Qura Mosque, which had once been so central to the resistance. It had once been a symbol of Sunni domination; now it was a symbol of vulnerability and fear. Gruesome posters lined the mosque’s walls, depicting slain members of the Association and other murdered Sunnis. “Our martyrs are twinkling stars in the Iraqi sky,” said one, while others showing dead bodies demanded “yes to the state of law,” “no to organized government terrorism,” “no to endless sinning,” and lamented what they described as a “massacre of freedom,” and “massacre of seven innocent men.” I was stunned by the shift in tone.

A few days later, on April 4, 2006, I was back at the Um Al Qura Mosque, waiting in the sun after a friend who moonlighted for the Association of Muslim Scholars told me the bodies of Sunnis slain in sectarian violence were coming from the morgue. In front of the Um Al Qura Mosque, Iraqi National Guardsmen manned their machine guns on a pickup truck. Ghazaliya had long been one of Baghdad’s main no-go zones for foreigners, journalists, and even many Iraqis. When American or Iraqi army or police forces were not looking, Sunni militias openly patrolled its streets and stopped cars at checkpoints to look for suspicious outsiders. Shiites living in Ghazaliya had been receiving death threats, if they were lucky, warning them to leave the neighborhood. As I stood in the parking lot with a few Iraqi cameramen working for local and international media, I could hear exchanges of fire in the distance; later I saw American Humvees and Iraqi police in pickup trucks circling the mosque.

Finally we heard the sounds of wailing coming from the mosque’s gate. Two trucks accompanied by men on foot made their way to the mosque. The men were crying and beating themselves, stopping to collapse on the ground or raise their arms in desperation, then shouting, “There is no god but Allah!” Their screams competing with one another, they cursed the killers. “Faggots!” “Brothers of whores!” they shouted. “This is a disaster! What did they do?”

“We are almost extinct! They broke our backs!” “The pimps! The bastards! The infidels!” I asked one of the men to tell me what had happened. “They took them in the south from their shops. They took them to an office, and then they took their car. We found them yesterday in the fridge in the morgue. They live in Ghazaliya. Four brothers. And two were father and son!” he began crying again.

An older man wearing tribal clothes and hiding his face with his head scarf shouted, “This is an Iranian wave, arranged by Iran. We are Muslims, and this is our country. Why are they doing this to us? And they are saying, ‘We are the Mahdi Army.’ Did the Mahdi tell them to do that? One of them is only twelve years old!” He explained that the dead were Sunni shopkeepers. “They took them to Kut, and they executed them. In the Jihad district they killed fifty-seven people. They arrested them and executed them. Everywhere they kill Sunnis.” He added that when relatives came to pick up their bodies from the morgue, they too were kidnapped.

The trucks stopped at the mosque’s steps. The rugs were removed from on top of them, and the wooden coffins were placed on the ground, their covers pulled to the side, revealing bodies hidden by plastic. “Open the bags so they can see,” one man said. “This one is only ten years old,” cried a man. “They killed him by strangling. This is a kid. Should he be strangled? Look at him. Open the bag, let them see!” The boy did indeed look about ten, his face swollen and eyes closed, thick stitches lining his chest.

They opened another coffin. “This one was tortured before killing!” one man shouted. “Look at his teeth. They pulled out his teeth! He was helping his father. Why did they do that to him? Is it only because they are Sunnis?” he raised his hands up and shouted, “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!) I looked at the corpse’s bruised face: a middle-aged man missing some of his front teeth. “God curse the oppressors!” the mourners shouted, embracing the coffins and corpses. “Even Jews wouldn’t do this!” shouted one man. “They say that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, so how do you explain this?”

Then somebody decided the show was over. The coffins were placed on the trucks and driven away, followed by the Iraqi journalists. Members of the AMS remained outside, discussing a Sunni man who had gone to visit his relatives in the hospital but was kidnapped by six men. “They control the hospitals,” said one man, referring to Muqtada’s followers. He noticed me filming him and angrily covered the lens with his hand. I was later told that he was head of security for the AMS.

On my way back I drove through the wealthy Mansour district, where I had lived briefly in my first months in Iraq. Two bodies were lying dead on the main street. It was a normal sight. I later found out they had been Iraqi staff of the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. That day a Sunni friend from Amriya called me distraught because his Shiite neighbor and friend had been killed the previous night. It was normal. At least ten bodies were found in Amriya that day. A Sunni man who picked up one of them to bring him to the hospital was also killed, for doing just that. On a different day a friend from Amriya told me that two cars pulled up in front of a Shiite home and riddled it with machine-gun fire. On another typical night, Shiites in a Sunni neighborhood saw masked men in their garden. They found a letter ordering them to leave. The following day they did. One day a friend from Amriya was delayed meeting me because seven bodies had been found on his street.

The Road to Najaf

Three days later I was on the road to Najaf from Baghdad, a key pilgrimage route for Iraq’s Shiites. It was fraught with the unique new dangers of the country’s civil war. I drove down with Shiite pilgrims, aware that the day before a minibus much like mine carrying Shiites had been sprayed with machine-gun fire from two cars in the Sunni town of Iskandariya, about twenty-five miles south of Baghdad. Five of the pilgrims had been killed. My companions were a young man called Ahmed, his mother, and their friend Iskander, who was the driver. They hailed from Sadr City, and we were going to see Muqtada speak in the Kufa Mosque, outside Najaf.

Numerous Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard checkpoints slowed our progress. At each stop the policemen would peer through the driver’s window and ask where we were going. “We’re a family from Sadr City,” Iskander would say, or sometimes just “from the city,” since the men would know what he meant. “We’re going to Najaf.” We would be waved along with a smile: “Go in peace.” We drove past brick factories and palm groves, and as we approached Najaf we were stopped more and more often, our minibus searched, our bodies patted down. Finally all roads were closed off to vehicles. Our minibus was parked on a sandy lot with hundreds of others. Some had wooden coffins lashed on top. They were to be buried in the City of Peace, the vast cemetery for Shiites who seek to lie close to Imam Ali in Najaf. ING men waved metal detectors over all visitors. The day before, there had been a massive car bomb on this very road. Men waited with pushcarts to carry the feeble, or load as many shrouded women as possible, or carry coffins. Other coffins were carried on relatives’ backs in long processions sometimes led by clerics. We walked past three minibuses that had been crushed and blackened by the previous day’s explosion and one car that had flipped over. ING men in blue fatigues surrounded the charred wreckage and beseeched the many pilgrims who stopped to stare in silent wonder, “Please, brothers, move on.”

Nearby was the cemetery set aside for the martyrs of the Mahdi Army. Hundreds of tombs of young Mahdi Army fighters had flags waving on them. Pictures of the dead wielding weapons were placed behind glass on the stones. Many streets in Sadr City had been named after Mahdi Army men who had been martyred by the Americans on those streets. My friend Ahmed, himself a Mahdi Army fighter, visited the tombs of his friends after regaling his mother with tales of their derring-do fighting the Americans in Sadr City. Ahmed was related to an important Shiite politician, and his oldest brother led Mahdi Army fighters and planted roadside bombs for American convoys. I was told Ahmed dabbled in this as well.

We continued to the Shrine of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. A steady stream of pilgrims went through the stringent security procedures to enter. Coffins were carried into the mosque to circle around Ali’s tomb before burial. Iranian pilgrims had their pictures taken in front of the shrine by enterprising Najaf boys with enough Farsi to take advantage of the dazed pilgrims. Pilgrims kissed the wooden doors and entered the vast courtyard where the golden shrine shimmered in the sun. Families sat in the shade and picnicked; others prayed together or strolled around. Outside, boys sold souvenir photos of Shiite leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr and his father.

Kufa, a town just outside Najaf, was dominated by followers of Muqtada. As we approached the Kufa Mosque, all roads were once more blocked off. We were searched by members of the Mahdi Army. Lugubrious latmiyas (mournful songs) echoed from the stalls, describing in rhythmic beats the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, and professing loyalty to him. The mosque’s thick walls looked fortified. It had been used as a base for the Mahdi Army during the 2004 intifada, when thousands of fighters battled the Americans in Najaf and Kufa. Inside the mosque fighters had lined up to receive food and advanced weapons training. Small groups were instructed in how to use grenades and grenade launchers. Crates full of weapons had been stored in the mosque in those days, as well as in Muqtada’s office in Najaf.

It was in Kufa that Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr made his forty-seven famous sermons, beginning in 1998, when Saddam relaxed restrictions on such activities. Saddam promoted Sadr at first, viewing him as an Iraqi nationalist and as a pliable tool to use against Shiite leaders of Iranian or Pakistani descent, and against Iran. But Sadr, like Thomas à Becket, did not show sufficient loyalty to the ruler. In his last sermons he even criticized Saddam. In 1999 Sadr and two of his sons were shot on the road by unknown assailants. The government accused rival Shiites of the murder and executed the suspects, but Sadr’s followers blamed Saddam and rioted. Many were killed in Sadr City, then known as Saddam City. Some Sadrists blamed the Hakim family or Iran for the assassination. After the war Muqtada took over the Kufa Mosque, and it was to this mosque that he retreated in April 2004 when his followers began their intifada, urging them to “make your enemy afraid” and assuring them that he would not abandon them. “Your enemy loves terror and hates peoples, all the Arabs, and censors opinions,” he said.

Kufa has a mystical importance to Shiites. Some Iraqi Shiites believe Kufa Mosque is the oldest mosque in the world. Imam Hussein’s cousin, Muslim bin Aqil, was buried there after being slain by the same traitors who would later kill Hussein. Many Shiites believe that the Mahdi will return to that mosque, descending down from heaven onto its dome.

In the market outside stands sold souvenir pictures or key chains of Muqtada and his father, as well as books by Shiite thinkers like Muqtada’s uncle Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the most important Shiite theologian of the twentieth century, who led the Dawa Party and was executed along with his sister Bint al-Huda by Saddam in 1980. (Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was known as the first martyr, and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was known as the second martyr.) Books by Khomeini were also available. One stand sold films of Muqtada’s sermons as well as panegyrics to Muqtada and films depicting his men battling the Americans. A large group of men stood around to watch these films. Other stands sold newspapers associated with Muqtada’s movement, such as Al Hawza and Sharikat al-Sadr (Rays of Sadr).

A crowd assembled to receive Muqtada’s latest bayan, a piece of paper with his rulings on certain questions. That week’s bayan was formulated in a typical way: a real or hypothetical question was posed, followed by Muqtada’s response.

Seyiduna al mufadda,” began the question, meaning, “Our Lord, for whom we sacrifice ourselves.” “In the Iraqi streets these days, there is a lot of talk . . . about militias. And as your eminence knows, some politicians classify the army of the Imam al-Mahdi, God speed his appearance, under this title. So do you classify the army under this title just like the case with the brothers in the Badr Organization and the Kurdish pesh merga, or do you classify it under another classification, and does your eminence encourage its members to join the government institutions, especially the security and military ones?” The question was signed by a “group of members of the Mahdi Army,” and whether they were real or not, it was clearly also an official attempt to distinguish the Mahdi Army from the Badr Organization, which belonged to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the pesh merga, which belonged to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Muqtada provided several answers. He began by defining a militia as an “armed group which is outside the control of the government and which belongs to political parties.” “According to my understanding,” he wrote, “by armed groups they mean a group that has been armed by a specific party or specific political entity. But as you know most of the Iraqis armed themselves by themselves after the collapse of the dirty Aflaqists,” he wrote, referring to Baathists by their founder, Michel Aflaq. The Mahdi Army was an outlaw only to oppressive governments, he continued; so as long as the government was legitimate, meaning not oppressive and not associated with the people’s enemies, then the Mahdi Army was with it “in a single trench.” Most importantly, he wrote, “We are not a political party, we are the hawza ilmiya which speaks the truth, and we and the Mahdi Army belong to it, and this is an honor for us in this world and the next world. The fourth answer, the sons of this honest sect [Shiites], God make them victorious, consider themselves soldiers of the imam. . . . And that means their actual leader is the imam himself, God speed his return.” His fifth answer was that “according to what I know, the registered armed militias under the so-called current government are only nine, and the Mahdi Army is not one of them. In addition, the Mahdi Army is not a party and it is not an organization. There is no salary, no headquarters, there is no special organization, there is no arming, and every weapon is a personal weapon, if they have one.” Muqtada added that it was the occupiers, the Saddamists, and the takfiris who had provoked these questions. “If they really want to benefit the people,” he wrote, “they must fight terrorism and take off its arm, and they should provide security and safety to our patient people. Otherwise they are not protecting Iraqis, and they are not letting the Iraqis protect themselves.” Finally, he wrote that the Mahdi Army belonged to the Shiite leadership in the hawza, which had refused to dissolve it in the past, “especially after they knew it belongs to the Mahdi,” because the Shiite leadership were the deputies of the Mahdi. He was both implying that Ayatollah Sistani supported the Mahdi Army and appointing himself one of the Mahdi’s deputies.

Reassured that they could all belong to Muqtada’s militia because Muqtada had said so, his followers marched into the mosque, past more security, who asked me to turn on my camera and confirm that it was harmless. Many of the men carried their prayer rugs on their shoulders and set them down on the concrete courtyard. The mosque was being restored, and scaffolding lined some of its walls. It had shiny marble columns and new wooden rafters on its ceiling. Next to each column were grim-faced men wearing dark suit jackets. Beneath the jackets were guns, and they had their arms pressed down both to hide the guns and to reach them quicker. They looked like cruder versions of the Hizballah security men who protected Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon when he spoke in public. In the past they had openly carried Kalashnikovs, but this was considered undignified. More than ten thousand people were in attendance, many of them women, who sat in a separate section. There were more children than I had ever seen at a mosque, for Muqtada was the “cool” cleric, a fighter who defied authority, and he specifically reached out to children, offering them notebooks and stickers for their schoolbooks. As the call to prayer ended, the crowd chanted and sang songs they all knew by heart. For Shiites, praying at a mosque is very much a communal activity. Unlike Sunnis, who go to whatever mosque is nearest to their home, Shiites take buses to attend the Friday prayers at several key mosques, leading to crowds in the tens of thousands and to expressions of communal pride and solidarity.

Muqtada waddled with his head down as he always did, surrounded by his assistants and bodyguards. A murmur and then a frisson went through the crowd spreading out to the back, and people stood up to glimpse him. They had not been expecting him to speak that day, but rather one of his deputies. “Ali wiyak!” they thundered, waving their fists, meaning “Ali is with you!” Muqtada was flanked by his two closest friends and advisers. On his left stood the young and very thin Ayatollah Ali al-Baghdadi, originally from Sadr City. On his right stood his more rotund brother-in-law, Riyadh Nuri. Nuri was normally the imam of the Kufa Mosque and had also led Muqtada’s Islamic courts, which arrested and tortured people for suspected infractions ranging from homosexuality, selling pornography, and theft to insulting Muqtada. Nuri lived with Muqtada in the same house and had often taken care of Muqtada’s mentally handicapped brother, who died in 2004. He also commanded Mahdi Army fighters, whom he would dispatch to arrest people. Nuri raised his hand to quiet the excited crowd as Muqtada began by reading the normal blessings before the sermon. Like his father, Muqtada spoke quietly, without the emotion many clerics invest in their speeches. Not a talented speaker, he almost seemed to mumble in a gruff monotone.

I had been told by his associates that he was not meeting with the media now for security reasons, so the closest I could get to him was sitting before him as he delivered his sermon. “We demand the reconstruction of the shrine in Samarra and protection for it,” Muqtada said. “We condemn the malicious hands that exploded the shrines.” Muqtada read a verse from the Koran and then switched into Iraqi dialect, as was his style. He kept his eyes down most of the time, reading from his notes and only glancing up occasionally. He spoke of doing the right and preventing the wrong. “This is the time when the right becomes wrong and the wrong becomes right,” he said, “when women become corrupt. Occupation became liberation and resistance became terrorism.” The occupation had joined the Nawasib, which to Muqtada’s followers meant all Sunnis. “Look at both of them,” he said, “the occupation and the Nawasib, and look at their values.” He called for Muslims to be united. “Which Muslims?” he asked. “The ones who follow the family of the Prophet,” meaning Shiites. “In the past God punished people by sending frogs, locusts, lice,” Muqtada explained. “Now he punishes them by sending earthquakes, mad cow disease, hurricanes, floods, bird flu, the diseases in Africa, and globalization, armies, politics, solar and lunar eclipses.”

Muqtada sat down for a minute, and somebody in the crowd shouted a hossa. “For the love of the oppressed, the two martyrs, the Sadrs, pray for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!” Thousands of people bellowed, “Our God prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad.” Then they waved their fists and continued, “And speed the Mahdi’s return! And damn his enemies!” In the past they had continued with “and make his son succeed. Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!” But this had recently been taken out of the chant, and Muqtada’s hundreds of thousands of followers in the country had dutifully followed.

Muqtada stood up once again. “On the anniversary of the Iraqi occupation,” he said, “I want to discuss some issues such as a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupation.” He expressed his condolences to all the followers of the family of the Prophet for the raid on the Mustafa Husseiniya two weeks earlier. “That attack was not the first done by the occupation forces,” he said. “It is part of a series of bad attacks that attack the civilian and the armed, the police and the army. The occupation started attacking everybody: civilians, army, police, even the Iraqi ministers, the minister of interior and the minister of transportation, and some of the Parliament members and others. It started killing civilians in the streets and in public areas. They are killing us randomly. They drag the cars using their tanks. And they torture the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Um Qasr and other hidden prisons in Iraq. In addition to causing civil strife and civil war, they made our neighbors our enemies, accusing some of them of sending armed people and others with hosting armed people and another with sowing terrorism.”

“We did not have a country under Saddam, and now that Saddam is gone, why can we not have a country?” He added that the occupiers could not prove anything they had accused Iraq’s neighbors of doing. “Even though we and our neighbors have one religion and we have one fate, the United States succeeded in dividing us and making us enemies. Instead of reconstructing the shrine of the two imams in Samarra, the occupation is building prisons,” Muqtada said, then switched to Iraqi dialect to quip, “preparing them for the Iraqi people.”

He returned to classical Arabic and continued. “They steal Iraqi resources to torture Iraqis. They arrest a lot of people from any force in Iraq that is against the occupation.” Iraqis had gotten used to these attacks, Muqtada said, adding that his father’s followers had gone from oppression under “Haddam” (playing on the former dictator’s name and replacing it with “the destroyer”) to oppression and torture under the occupation. “So be patient, my brothers,” he said. “They are trying to plant a civil war. Do not let them drag you into the war. We know that they are going to assassinate our clerics and our leaders to make a sectarian and civil war. We will never be oppressed. So do everything not to apply the American idea called democracy.” America said it sought democracy for Iraq, but it had changed its mind, Muqtada claimed. It now wanted to grant power to the terrorists, he said, referring to recent American attempts to include Sunnis in the government. “So the American interference in Iraqi politics is very clear,” he said, “because you see the American ambassador appear in all the Iraqi conferences, meeting with Iraqi politicians, which we consider a terrible assault on us. . . . We all know that for every minister there is a foreign adviser assigned by the occupation. This is against the religion. Even the press, when they insult the Prophet Muhammad, they say this is the freedom of the press. And when our press writes something which is a fact but is against America, they say it is calling for terrorism. So this is all proof that the small Satan has gone and the big Satan has come. Everyone knows that we have demanded a timetable for the American withdrawal. They refused our demand because they said scheduling the withdrawal of the occupation is a victory for the terrorists, and that is a bad justification.”

Muqtada asked all the nationalist forces in Iraq to help him pressure the occupying forces to schedule their withdrawal. He called for the United Nations, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to cooperate with him in what he called “the national project for scheduling the withdrawal of the occupation of Iraq.” He explained that the withdrawal should begin in Iraq’s stable areas, such as the south, some of the middle (the Shiite areas), and the north. He demanded a phased withdrawal, beginning in the cities, “but in a real way.” He insisted that security be handed to Iraqis, and that Iraqi airspace be used by military planes only with the permission of the Parliament and the governorates. He wanted the Iraqi Security Forces to be trained without the occupiers and all government members to refrain from associating with the occupiers. “The Iraqi Parliament should be able to schedule the withdrawal of the occupation from Iraq,” he said, “but the withdrawal should be scheduled in steps. Every place the Americans leave, Iraqi forces that are fully trained and fully supplied should replace them. The hot areas—and of course they are on fire—they should be controlled by the national battalions composed of the army, the police and national security forces, and other people’s forces, and should be supervised by the Iraqi Parliament. And there should be an operations center to design a good plan to make it stable, and the Iraqi leaders should take some of the responsibility in controlling that.”

Muqtada withdrew, and the prayer leader led the mosque in prayer. After prayers ended thousands of excited men rushed the windows and fences along the passageway from which Muqtada and his entourage would depart, hoping to see him one last time. “Ali is with you!” they shouted over and over again as he quickly walked by. The crowd slowly made its way out of the mosque as more hossas were shouted. “Curse America and Israel, and pray for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!” shouted one man, and thousands of departing faithful shouted with him. Then they sang a song known to them all. “Oh Mahdi, oh awaited one, return him safely, this is the son of Sadr.”

IN BAGHDAD that same day the important Shiite Buratha Mosque was attacked, leaving nearly one hundred dead and more than one hundred wounded. It was the second postwar attack on this mosque (it had a long history of being attacked), and it would not be the last, for another suicide bomber struck in June. Shiite politician Jalaluddin al-Saghir of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was the imam. He angrily placed responsibility on Sunnis, accusing two Sunni newspapers—Al Basa’ir, the voice of the Association of Muslim Scholars, and Al I’tisam, the voice of Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi—of causing the attacks by falsely accusing the Buratha Mosque of being used as a secret prison for Sunnis and of being the site of mass graves for them.

On the road back to Baghdad my companions could not hide their excitement at having seen Muqtada speak. Ahmed called all his friends on his mobile phone. He repeatedly let me know how lucky I was. It was a quiet ride until we arrived in the southern Baghdad area of Dora. The road was blocked by Iraqi police cars, and we heard gunfights in the distance as we sat in traffic. Dora was a mixed neighborhood, but it was majority-Sunni, and Sunni militias were very strong there. It was once one of Baghdad’s nicest neighborhoods, with many expensive homes, but terrorism had brought the prices down, as it had in other unsafe neighborhoods.

IN APRIL 2006 the Mahdi Army attacked a number of high-ranking insurgents, including prominent former Baathists in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood. They captured the suspects and left with them. Irate locals began shooting at members of the Iraqi National Guard (ING), and they accused both the Badr Organization and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards of being involved. In fact, it was a Mahdi Army operation. In the days that followed, Iraqi police fired randomly into Adhamiya. They also shot at generators and cut power cables to punish the residents. Residents could not leave their homes for days in a row. It was more evidence to Sunnis that the state was at war with them.

Following the battles, the Association of Muslim Scholars released a statement accusing the Interior Ministry’s Special Forces and the Shiite militias of attacking Adhamiya. “The people of Adhamiya defended their city with honor,” the statement said, “and they lost seven martyrs and nineteen injured. We have realized that satellite channels like Hurra and Al Arabiya have changed the truth, and they have shown the Interior commandos and its militias as the helpers who helped the people of Adhamiya from an attack being done by other armed people despite the fact that these forces were the ones who attacked the city. And we saw that the ING leader who is responsible for protecting the city was just watching and doing nothing.”

On April 21, 2006, I returned to Adhamiya’s Abu Hanifa Mosque—which I had first visited three years earlier, almost to the day—on the Friday following the clashes between local fighters and Iraqi Security Forces. The mosque’s security men were so stunned to see a foreigner that they could come up with no objections to my presence. Iraqi National Guardsmen stood watch outside. Following the February 22 Samarra attack, mortars had been fired on Abu Hanifa. It was the most important Sunni symbol that Shiite militias hoped to attack. The clock tower, which had been damaged by American missiles three years earlier, was been repaired. Outside hung banners different from the ones I first saw in April 2003. Now they were white banners for martyrs from the recent clashes. One gave condolences to Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq from the families of Adhamiya for the murder of his kidnapped brother Taha. Another had a photo of a young man called Muhamad Fawad Latufi Annadawi pasted on it. The banner said he had been martyred “in the battle of Adhamiya on the morning of Monday, April 17, 2006. Another banner was for Latif Yawar Alyas, who was also martyred in the battle of Adhamiya. A black banner notified residents of the death of a woman.

Loudspeakers echoed the call to prayer and the reading of the Koran as locals made their way in, their slippers susurrating on the street. They stopped to be patted down by the mosque’s militia. The walls inside were intricately detailed, inlaid with geometric carvings, honeycombed in its dome. About five hundred men prayed quietly. Ibrahim al-Naama, an aged cleric wearing a white hat with a red top, took out his glasses, donned them, and stood up. He spoke in a raspy and high-pitched voice. As was custom, he began by discussing Islam. “We want to talk about how the Prophet Muhammad was and how his friends were, so we can be like them in these difficult days.” He made reference to the writings of Ibn Taimiya, and thanked God that he was a Muslim and a Sunni. This kind of explicit sectarian pride would have been shocking a year before, but now it was commonplace.

Moving on to the specific matter of “the ugly attack on Adhamiya,” he questioned whether the attackers were Muslims and warned that “anyone who kills Muslims on purpose will be in hell forever, and God will prepare a very hard punishment for him.” He demanded that the Defense Ministry prevent “other forces,” meaning the Interior Ministry, police, and militias, from entering Adhamiya, and that it alone control security. “Do not let other forces interfere in the security issues of Adhamiya,” he said.

Iraqis were looking forward to the establishment of the new government, he said, because they hoped it could prevent Iraqi bloodshed. “Therefore any obstacle put in the way of forming the government will increase the bloodshed, and those who are causing it will be responsible before God.” He was referring to the obstinacy of Shiite parties that were refusing to accommodate Sunni demands for inclusion and sufficient influence. “Who could have imagined that the blood of Iraqis will be the cheapest blood?” he demanded. “This is how the occupiers want to divide the Iraqi people. This is how they want to plant sectarian division. This is how the occupiers succeed in their mission.” The Americans hated Iraqis’ refusal to be defeatist, as did their “tails,” he said, referring to the Shiite parties such as Dawa and the Supreme Council with a term Iraqis were sure to recognize (Saddam had often called Israel and Britain the “tails of America”).

After the sermon there was more silent prayer, ending with each man turning to his left and to his right while still kneeling, and wishing his neighbors peace as well as the mercy and blessings of God. Men stood up and shook hands, making their way out of the mosque into the blinding sun. Neighbors stopped to greet one another and chat, smiling. A bulletin board by the mosque’s door had two papers stuck on it with pictures of middle-aged martyrs, both wearing Iraqi military uniforms. Men paused to read the signs. Past the heavily armed guards, there were no more radical books being sold, only a vegetable stand and a mendicant woman in black rocking back and forth with her baby on her lap as people walked by. I went to eat lunch in Adhamiya’s famous kabob and shawarma restaurant. That afternoon I interviewed a doctor in the neighborhood; he paused every so often when the sound of firefights interrupted our conversation. He was most shocked that even the sanctity of the hospital was no more, as militias were entering to capture people.

FOLLOWING THE DECEMBER 2005 elections and the victory of the United Iraqi Alliance, as the main Shiite list was known, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad immediately began working with American favorite Ayad Allawi as well as with the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and various Sunni parliamentary leaders to sideline the Shiites and ensure that Prime Minister Jaafari did not remain in office. Jaafari was seen as weak, ineffective, and implicated in Iraq’s descent into civil war. Shiites already distrusted Khalilzad because he was a Sunni Muslim who was determined to give Sunnis a greater role in the state. The Shiites got nervous; the Sadrists, who were strong supporters of Jaafari, were galvanized.

Within the Shiite camp the contest was between the Supreme Council’s Adil Abdel Mahdi and the Dawa Party’s Jaafari. But the Supreme Council was seen as too close to Iran, and there were worries that Abdel Mahdi would not be independent, having to answer to Supreme Council leader Hak im. Khalilzad let it be known that he didn’t support Abdel Mahdi.

Khalilzad was a “rogue ambassador,” an American intelligence official told me. “He was contravening U.S. policy. He unilaterally blocked Adil. It was U.S. policy to reject Jaafari but not Adil, but [Khalilzad] just personally did not like the Supreme Council, while the White House and Meghan O’Sullivan of the NSC wanted the Supreme Council to be the strategic partner.”

The process of forming a government dragged on for four months. Jaafari wouldn’t budge. The Iranians backed him. Sistani didn’t want to get involved. The Americans felt as though they were losing the Shiites and hard-liners were taking over. “Hard-core Mahdi Army and Al Qaeda were ascendant, and moderate Shiites were getting weak,” a senior American observer told me. “A self-sustaining cycle of violence was developing.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went to Baghdad and told Jaafari that he did not have anybody’s support and could not form a government, implying that he should give up. But Jaafari was still insisting he had support. The decision to remove him came from within his own political bloc in the government, particularly the Dawa Party.

In 2003 the Dawa Party was very weak. It was a party of Islamist intellectuals with no serious popular base that couldn’t challenge Sadr or Hakim. During the Saddam era, many of its leaders were exiled, its local activists executed. The first United Iraqi Alliance, formed in the run-up to the January 2005 election, had been completely shaped by Ayatollah Sistani. But subsequently Hakim, Dawa, and the Supreme Council grew stronger, and in the next elections Sistani had a much smaller role.

Among the governing parties, the modernist, middle-class Dawa was viewed as insignificant. It had never called for clerical rule, unlike the Supreme Council. It gained only ten seats in the first Parliament. The other Shiite parties thought they could control Dawa, especially when they anointed Dawa leader Jaafari as premier in April 2005. But because Dawa now had access to money and the Iraqi security forces, it didn’t need its former sponsors. Dawa leaders became arbiters and brokers of power.

Dawa Party insiders described Jaafari to me as indecisive, weak, and guilty of neglect, but not evil. He may have wanted a confrontation with Sunnis, but he did not lead it or organize the formal military response to increased attacks by Sunnis. He lacked the resolve. “Jaafari was incompetent and had no oversight over the Ministry of Interior,” an American intelligence official told me. According to another senior Dawa official, “Jaafari was weak, ineffective. He didn’t endorse the civil war, he was genuinely nonsectarian. He didn’t hate Sunnis, he didn’t believe in the exclusive power of Shiites, but he lacked control.” There were no books or computers in his office. He read Arabic poetry and drank tea all day long. In meetings with senior American officials, he would quote poetry and talk about how the Iraqi people were like flowers. They dreaded meeting with him. “Iran had a role,” one former minister close to Jaafari told me. “They forced people to confront what was happening and use resources under their control to organize a fighting force. Iran did that with its direct and indirect agents in Iraq.”

Despite the calls for Jaafari’s removal, he would not leave until the marajiya, or hawza leadership in Najaf, withdrew its support for him. There was an air of desperation among members of the Shiite parties, who felt they were being outmaneuvered by the Americans and their Iraqi rivals. A Dawa insider who was present in senior Dawa leadership circles told me, “In the last days of Jaafari, a number of people convinced the Supreme Council that he would agree to withdraw his candidacy if the premiership stayed with Dawa. His condition was that Adil [Abdel Mahdi of the Supreme Council] would not become prime minister.”

Ali al-Adib was the Dawa Party candidate most likely to replace Jaafari. The American and British ambassadors went to see Adib to confirm that they were not opposed to him, and he was, in fact, prime minister for one day. But in a Dawa Party gathering to confirm Adib’s nomination, Nuri al-Maliki confronted him with the issue of his father, known as Zandi, who was an Iranian immigrant to Iraq. Maliki asked Adib if he would be able to withstand scrutiny and people saying that Iran was taking over. Not being confrontational, Adib lost heart, and Maliki pounced. This putsch had been organized by Adnan al-Kadhimi, Jaafari’s senior adviser, who ran his office and worked in the party’s political bureau. Jaafari felt betrayed by Kadhimi and still expected to call the shots within the party and the government. Maliki then turned on Kadhimi. “Maliki is a very vindictive man, and has a dangerous streak,” the Dawa insider explained. Kadhimi knew too much. Maliki arrested him on trumped-up charges of theft, and allowed his prearranged escape.

Maliki was a “gruff doer,” said his former friend, “a very angry person, angry about his conditions. He had deep hatred of the Americans. He thought they were responsible for keeping Saddam in power. He was full-square against the Americans, avoided opposition conferences. He was the typical Iraqi dishdasha type, least affected by foreign non-Iraqi habits. In Syria he was known to be a nonpolished street warrior in the ’90s. He had no power compared to Jaafari in those days. Jaafari was the party then, though many people resented it because he lectures people and talks nonsense a lot. Maliki felt aggrieved by the intellectuality of the Dawa Party leadership. The Dawa thought of itself as a vanguard party. Jaafari presented himself as a great theoretician. Maliki wasn’t a real leader. He was doing intelligence and jihadi operations in Iraq, out of Damascus: killings of officers at the border, throwing a grenade here, overseeing the militants. Low-level resistance work, so you have to report to Syrian intelligence, and he was resentful of that.”

Maliki became premier with the understanding that Jaafari would be the éminence grise, a first among equals. He didn’t think much of Maliki. “Jaafari belittled these people,” the insider said. “He thought of himself like Lenin, that he had all the makings of a historic leader.” This showed when Jaafari ran for Parliament in the 2010 election campaign, especially when he slightly modified a quote of Imam Hussein as he set off to fight Yazid and used it to compare himself to the great Shiite leader. “In April 2006 Maliki came in as prime minister and looked bumbling and foolish,” the insider said, “but he is a clever street fighter and surrounded himself with cronies, equally aggrieved people, many from Nasiriya.” Maliki has a complex relationship with Iran, the insider explained. “He has some Arab dislike of Iran, he dislikes Iranian arrogance and haughtiness, but he has the Arab Shiite problem: Iran can do without you, but you can’t do without them. Maliki has a deep hatred of Syria from his time there. Syrian intelligence thought of these people as disposable blaggards. They abused and humiliated them. You would have to report every day to some jerk and live in great material discomfort. If you’re going to be an agent, better to be a Saudi agent.”

The United States hardly knew anything about Maliki. The CIA did not have a biography of Maliki prepared when he was chosen to be Prime Minister, but their leadership analysts had many. The White House and National Security Council were surprised when his name came up, but Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, and other Iraqis said they could work with him, so American concerns about the unknown Maliki were allayed.

While the Americans didn’t select Maliki, they didn’t reject him either—which they could have done. “Maliki is cut from a different material than Jaafari,” a Dawa insider who worked with him told me. “He is more rural or tribal, not urban. He’s from the Hashmiya district outside Karbala. It was a Dawa hotbed. His upbringing was rural, a son of the tribes, urbi [with Arab traditions] with certain ethical codes, sacrifice your self-interest for your code. The urbanized are different; self-interest comes first. He is tribal in a general way. He doesn’t have ideological or theological issues with Sunnis, just practical ones: if they attack us, we will attack them. Maliki has more political appeal; he is what Iraqis need. Saddam was urbi too, so he could mobilize tribal Arabs against Iran. If you ignore ideology and just look at what he did, it’s like Saddam, but he is not as smart as Saddam. Saddam had the same social origins. Maliki within the Dawa Party was a very powerful person. He was a hardliner, doubtful of everything foreign, clinging by instinct to people he knows.”

At first Maliki was diffident, quiet, nervous. He was concerned about security and the loyalty of his forces. He didn’t know anything about the government he was inheriting, nor how its forces were arrayed, nor how the U.S. military worked. It was like Iraq 101. In conversations with the Americans, he made it clear his priorities were getting their help to secure Baghdad and protect the infrastructure. Maliki was suspicious; he saw a Baathist behind every bush. He didn’t trust his own army. American Gen. George Casey thought the Iraqi Security Forces were strong and would be loyal to Maliki.

Jaafari’s men switched to Maliki once he took over, but he didn’t trust them and hired his own people. He set up his office with a close-knit circle of Dawa advisers. It was not a national unity government. The Kurds got suspicious. They thought it was dangerous that nobody saw how decisions were made. The prime minister’s office was full of Dawa people nobody knew. It obviously wasn’t a national unity government that was forming but rather a patchwork of spoils. Maliki was under pressure from all sides. The U.S. military and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were pressuring him, and Baghdad was disintegrating. Maliki had to deal with internal United Iraqi Alliance politics and competing Shiite factions. He had been thrust into the worst job in the world.

Maliki was committed to preserving the new Shiite-dominated order and soon threatened to use “maximum force” against the “terrorists.” Even if he was committed to the creation of a national unity government and nonsectarian security forces, and even if the Americans tried to reverse the sectarian trend in Iraq, it seemed too late. Muqtada’s supporters would not voluntarily relinquish control of the army or police, and having fought the Americans in the past and established their nationalist bona fides, many were eager to rid themselves of the occupiers they felt they no longer needed. Who would replace them? There was no nonsectarian movement, there was no nonsectarian militia, and no social space for those rejecting sectarianism. Even secular Sunnis and Shiites were being pushed into the embrace of sectarian militias because nobody else could protect them. The tens of thousands of cleansed Iraqis, the relatives of those killed by the death squads, the sectarian supporters and militias firmly ensconced in the government and its ministries, the Shiite refusal to relinquish their long-awaited control of Iraq, the Kurdish commitment to secession, the Sunni harboring of Salafi jihadists—all militated against anything but full-scale civil war.

I WAITED AND WATCHED, wondering if Sunnis would be removed from Baghdad slowly; or as the result of a Sarajevo-like incident; or one such as the 1975 Ayn al-Rummanah bus attack in Lebanon, which sparked that country’s civil war; or another attack such as the one on the Samarra shrine; or perhaps the assassination of an important Shiite cleric or leader. The Sunnis would be totally cleansed from Baghdad, and Shiites would wage an all-out war against Sunnis. The Kurds, having waited for this opportunity, would be able to secede and tell the world they tried to have good faith and go the federalist route, but those crazy Arabs down south were killing one another, and who would want to belong to a country like that? The Iraqi nation-state would cease to be relevant. Would Sunnis throughout the region tolerate a Shiite Iraq and the killing of Sunnis by Shiites? Iraq’s Sunni tribes extended into Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Their tribal kinsmen might come to their aid, sending reinforcements of men and matériel across the porous borders. Iraq’s civil war would become a regional war.

As the summer heat peaked in Iraq, so too did the violence. North of Baghdad Shiite villagers attacked Sunnis in retaliation for a bombing that killed at least twenty-five Shiites. The Shiite attackers were joined by Iraqi police and Americans. Following a massive bomb targeting Shiites in Sadr City, several mortars were fired at the Abu Hanifa Mosque. Locals then clashed with Iraqi Security Forces. Sunni parliamentarian Taysir Najah al-Mashhadani from the Islamic Party was kidnapped by alleged Shiite militias as her convoy drove through the Shaab neighborhood, prompting the main Sunni coalition to boycott the government. A reconciliation proposal offered by Maliki was rejected by Shiites like Muqtada for being too soft on Baathists and Sunnis, and it was rejected by Sunnis such as Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars for not going far enough with its offer of amnesty and inclusion.

Iraqis were breaking the final taboo, asking one another if they were Sunni or Shiite. Sometimes this was done obliquely, the petitioner inquiring about one’s name, or one’s neighborhood, or one’s tribe, to try to figure it out, and sometimes it was explicit. Officially, Iraqis tried to stress that they were nonsectarian. On one television channel a poetry contest featured poets chanting that Iraq was unified, but those sorts of protests typically were a desperate attempt to avoid the fact that Iraq was breaking apart.

By 2005 Sunnis and Shiites were using derogatory terms to refer to one another. To Shiites, Sunnis were “Saddamists” and “Nawasib.” “Saddamists” referred to Baathists and former regime loyalists, but many Shiites, especially the poor and uneducated, used it as a blanket term for all Sunnis. Shiite leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, Ayatollah Yaqoubi, and Muqtada, used the term in their speeches to refer specifically to Salafis. Many Shiites have taken to calling all Sunnis Wahhabis, the strict brand of Islam associated with Saudi Arabia.

Extreme Sunnis believed Shiites were “rafidha” or “turs.” “Rafidha” is technically the opposite of “Nawasib”: it means “rejectionists” and referred to those who do not recognize the Islamic caliphs and want a caliphate from the descendant of Imam Ali. It was used initially by Salafis and Wahhabis to pronounce Shiites as outside Islam, and it has become a pejorative term used the way American racists spit out the word “nigger.” “Turs” is the word for “shield” and refers to human shields used by the enemy infidels. It is permitted to kill these shields according to some interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. Iraqi Salafis referred to the Iraqi Muslims they killed (such as members of the Iraqi police and army) as turs to justify killing people who were nominal Muslims but were shielding the Americans. Salafis and jihadis believed that Shiite religious leaders were supplying shields by encouraging their followers to join the Iraqi police and army.

The Arab world has always been dominated by Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of the world’s Muslims. The new Shiite Iraq was aggressive and confident, overturning the Ottoman and colonialist legacies that entrenched Sunnis. It threatened the status quo throughout the Arab world. In Syria, already viewed as dominated by the Shiite-like Alawite minority that is hated by many in the Sunni majority, the Iranians built a mosque commemorating a battle that Imam Ali lost. The unpopular Sunni regimes of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, the so-called moderate Arabs, seeing their power wane, could no longer be anti-American or anti-Israeli, having sold out on those issues and backed the Americans. Instead they were playing the sectarian card to regain the respect they lost from their population and galvanize them against a new threat. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused Shiites of being fifth columnists, loyal to Iran. In Lebanon during the 2006 demonstrations that followed the publication of the Danish cartoons, Sunni clerics condemned Shiites and supported Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (one cleric called him “my sheikh, my emir”), perhaps hoping they could appropriate the so-called “sheikh of the slaughterers” as their own to gain more leverage against the powerful Shiite Hizballah. More ominous, in April 2006 Hizballah accused nine men of attempting to assassinate its general secretary, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. Hizballah said the culprits had been motivated by a desire to avenge killings of Sunnis in Iraq. In his last statement before his death, Zarqawi specifically condemned Lebanese Hizballah, making arguments that presented a Lebanese Sunni point of view.

After Zarqawi’s Death

The death of Zarqawi in an American strike in June 2006 was hailed by the Bush administration as a turning point, but the civil war had its own cruel logic and did not need Zarqawi. Instead, a new Zarqawi emerged. Sunnis began speaking of the “Shiite Zarqawi.” In the summer of 2006, rumors began spreading throughout Baghdad of a shadowy Shiite killer known as Abu Dira, a nickname meaning the Armor Bearer. In the Shiite uprisings of 2004, he was said to have held off the Americans in southern Sadr City. He earned his name either by destroying American armored vehicles or after killing an American soldier and stealing his body armor. Some rumors claimed he wore this armor at all times. Hailed by Shiites as a hero who defended them, he was also known by Sunnis as the Rusafa Butcher, a reference to the eastern half of Baghdad, where he was said to live. Another story claimed that a Sunni prison guard under Saddam called Abu Dira was notorious among Shiites for his brutality. The vengeful Shiite known as Abu Dira might have taken his nickname out of irony. All information about him was based on rumors, but he was said to be a man in his thirties called either Salim or Ismail, who lived in Sadr City but was born in the southern Shiite town of Amara. Some said he was a member of the Mahdi Army and commanded hundreds of fighters, but other sources claimed he was a renegade militiaman, out of Muqtada’s control. Some said he was a bodyguard in the former regime who had deserted and fled to Iran; others thought he had been a guard who tortured prisoners in one of Saddam’s prisons. One website claimed that he controlled the Interior Ministry’s Falcon Brigade, which kidnapped Sunnis from Baghdad’s Zafraniya district.

It was said that every time there was a terror attack against Shiites he counted the dead and killed an equal number of Sunnis, although by other accounts he killed a higher ratio of Sunnis when he extracted vengeance. He was said to kill dozens of Sunnis every day in a remote part of Sadr City called Sadda, and he was also said to have threatened to fill the craters left from car bombs in Sadr City with the bodies of Sunnis. Some Sunni sources believed he was obeying the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri in Iran, who was Muqtada’s erstwhile backer, urging Shiites to kill Sunnis and former Baathists in particular. One Sunni website claimed he had taken an oath to slaughter a camel and feed the poor people of Sadr City after he had killed Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi. A popular radical Sunni line is, “Our dead are in paradise and your dead are in the hell.” Abu Dira changed that, telling Sunnis, “Our dead are in paradise and your dead are in Sadda,” Sadda being the dam in eastern Baghdad where Shiite gangs dumped Sunni corpses. Although some Shiites in Baghdad cheered this legend as much as Sunnis feared him, Muqtada and the Mahdi Army denied that he even existed and claimed he had been invented by Sunnis to falsely accuse Shiites of crimes. An American operation in Sadr City in July targeted a funeral for one of Abu Dira’s relatives but failed to lead to his arrest.

Muqtada’s control over his militia was tenuous. He issued statements such as “We are the enemies of the Saddamists,” which were interpreted by his followers as a license to kill all Sunnis. The Mahdi Army was not strictly hierarchical, and Muqtada was unaware of most of its local commanders and activities. The Mahdi Army’s cells were loosely organized; many of them were composed of friends who were on local soccer teams. Sayyid Hassan Naji al-Musawi, an important Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, had been a well-known local soccer star before the war. Different leaders of the Mahdi Army disliked one another. There were jealousies and rivalries. There was nothing stopping a group of Shiite youths from declaring that they were a Mahdi Army unit, collecting weapons, and interpreting Muqtada’s statements as they saw fit. Mahdi Army leaders could be imams, sheikhs, or local toughs called shaqis. Before the war shaqis might have been neighborhood gang leaders, but with the formation of Sunni and Shiite militias and resistance groups, they took the lead. In Baghdad and majority-Shiite towns, most of the police were Mahdi Army as well. The reasons were simple. Most poor Shiite men supported Muqtada and claimed to belong to his militia, and most Iraqi police were poor Shiite men, so they were one and the same. Sunnis came to view the state as their enemy. As early as 2005, I realized that the once-confident and aggressive Sunnis were intimidated and uncertain about their fate. They worried about losing.

Rather than remaking the Middle East, the Iraq War was tearing it apart. Kurdish independence could provoke Turkish intervention. At a minimum it would push the Turks closer to the Iranians and Syrians, who would have the same concerns of Kurdish irredentism. Sunnis throughout the region, who already had so many reasons to hate the United States—Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Palestine, Guantánamo—would now have one more, for the Americans had handed Iraq to the Shiites. As we shall see in the next chapter, Salafi jihadis could pour in to fight the hateful Shiites. Shiites might attempt to push Sunnis out of Iraq, for until they could control the key highways in the Anbar province leading to Syria and Jordan, their economy would be threatened. Arab Sunni countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia would support Sunni militias and perhaps intervene directly. Sunni retaliation against Shiites or Alawites in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan could provoke sectarian clashes throughout the Muslim world. At some point Iran would intervene, and if it threatened the waters of the Persian Gulf, the entire world’s economy could be threatened. It seemed as though we were seeing the death throes, and not the birth pangs, of a new Middle East.

Soon after the war, black and colorful flags appeared on rooftops throughout Iraq. Some Shiites even covered their houses with big sheets of black cloth. Each referred to parts of the story of the martyr Imam Hussein. Under Saddam such public displays of Shiite identity could have been met with punishment. Now more and more areas in Baghdad were full of Shiite symbolism. During the civil war, as more and more territory came safely into Shiite hands, the black flags and pictures of Hussein became ever more pervasive. Shiites were no longer afraid; the city was theirs.

It was soon very clear that sectarian Islamist Shiite militias and parties had won the civil war, empowered as they were by their numerical superiority, their control of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the fact that the Americans were targeting the Sunni population of Iraq. Sunni leaders realized this too.

In late 2006 Sheikh Saad Mushhan Naif al-Hardan strode into a hotel lobby in Amman, Jordan, accompanied by two stern-faced companions. He wore a tailored suit and was more svelte than I remembered him from when I first met him more than two years earlier in his village of Albu Aitha, a collection of family compounds nearly hidden by the thick verdant fauna kept fertile by the wide still waters. One hundred miles west of Baghdad, past Ramadi and Falluja, a left turn off the highway led to dirt roads passing through fecund fields fed by the nearby Euphrates. Sheep and cows drank from the river bank in the shade of towering date palm plantations.

Back then the sheikh had been draped in black and gray robes, his face partially concealed by a white head scarf, crowned with a black rope. His small keen eyes, thick arching brows, and mustache lay still, waiting for an emotion to animate them. He had been joined by his three cousins: a lawyer, a history professor, and a history teacher. Since 1995 the sheikh had led the Sunni Aithawi tribe, the largest subtribe (he claimed) of the Dulaimi tribe, one of Iraq’s largest tribes (every sheikh in Iraq, it should be noted, claims his tribe is the largest). Sheikh Saad refused to enumerate his tribe’s manpower; it was the tribal equivalent of classified information. The enemy could not know the potential force his tribe could wield. In this case the enemy was the Americans. The Dulaimi tribe, whose lands reached from the Saudi border to the Syrian border and up to the outskirts of Baghdad in Abu Ghraib, was just as recalcitrant in the face of American occupation as it was nearly a century ago, during the 1920 uprising against the British occupation. Sheikh Saad’s grandfather Hardan Hamid, head of the Aithawi branch of the Dulaimi tribe, had ridden south to Kut with his five brothers and all the fighting men his tribe could muster to face the invading British army. “The British had more advanced weapons and better tactics,” Sheikh Saad said. His relatives were still buried near Kut. Sheikh Hardan had retreated to his tribal lands, fighting all the way. “When the British reached Anbar,” he continued, “we told them that the only way Anbar would fall and they could occupy us was if they killed or arrested at least two of our sheikhs.” The British took the advice of the Anbar leaders, killing Sheikh Sabar of the Albu Nimer tribe and arresting Sheikh Hardan, who was imprisoned in India for six years. “Then the British occupied the Anbar,” Sheikh Saad concluded, adding with pride that it had been the last province to fall to the Americans (though the fact that it did not have a Jordanian or Saudi or Syrian front may have been a factor). “The British occupiers befriended the tribal leaders,” he said. “This is the key to winning the people. They understood our traditions, unlike the Americans now. The British did not surround homes and break into them. They consulted sheikhs and respected them, and after they occupied all of Iraq, there was no more resistance.” The Americans occupiers, Sheikh Saad maintained, “push people to the ground and step on their heads. They arrest the relatives and wives of wanted men and hold them hostage. They are holding one hundred thousand Iraqis in their prisons. Iraqis have lost their dignity, and for this reason the resistance grows.”

Iraqis were incandescent over rumors that their women were being held prisoner by Americans. Sheikh Saad told of three women imprisoned as hostages by the Americans in Khaldiya because their husbands were wanted by the Americans. “I went to speak with the American commander in Falluja, who called the commander in Khaldiya. I told the commander, ‘If you don’t release these women, you should arrest all the men in Anbar, because there will be an uprising.’” Sheikh Saad said that three hours later the women were released, and added, “The British never arrested women.” The sheikh himself was a resistance leader, and his men were fighting the Americans. “For us as the people of Anbar, revenge is an important tradition,” he said, “if they kill one of our men we have to kill at least one of their soldiers.”

At seven in the morning on July 20, 2003, Sheikh Saad was arrested with eighty-five of his men in an operation that took one hour and included, he claimed, more than 120 vehicles and helicopters. Sheikh Saad scoffed, “like it was a real battle, but they met no resistance from us. They accused me of belonging to an organized group called Nur Muhammad (Light of Muhammad) that is leading the resistance with the support and financing of Saddam and bringing in mujahideen from Syria, and they said 60 percent of the attacks in this area originate in Albu Aitha, so I must know about them, but none of it was true. Their method is to arrest many people and hope to at least find something. Until now they have no accurate information about the resistance” (though it seemed he did). Sheikh Saad was held for twelve days, but the rest of his men were held for a month, and five were still being held in the Abu Ghraib and Um Qasr prisons. “If Americans had not behaved the way they did there would be no resistance,” he said. “Their behavior and broken promises increase the resistance.”

The sheikh paused to contemplate, looking to the side. “Under the previous regime we all had equality,” he said. “We could all study in the university and succeed depending on the degree we achieved. The one exception was the security forces, which went to certain tribes. But I don’t want to talk about the previous regime. What’s gone is gone. Saddam disliked the Dulaimi tribe, and we had nobody in high positions in his government, because Saddam feared we would overthrow him. The Americans told me that I am the only sheikh in Anbar who did not visit their bases and work with them. They want me to help them against my people? This won’t happen. And this is why they make problems for me.”

The lawyer leaned forward, his face long and gaunt, unlike his better-fed relatives, and asserted, “Iraq is the cemetery of all its occupiers.” He rejected the possibility of a civil war but warned that “they [the Americans] want a civil war. Before the war we didn’t use words like “Sunni” or “Shiite.” We are one nation and drink from the same two rivers. There won’t be a civil war, but there might be problems.” The sheikh and his cousins were convinced that “they will never allow elections,” and so he smiled proudly, lifting his head. “We are an independent tribe. We don’t have relations with other parties or the Iraqi Governing Council.”

A lot had changed since those days. There was a civil war, and Sheikh Saad had actually joined the Iraqi government for a while, serving as a minister for provincial affairs. When I met him in late 2006, it was too dangerous for me to attempt such a trip to the Anbar province in a taxi, as I did in 2003. The sheikh and his companions still had thick mustaches, but now they wore the long black leather trench coats that had been popular with intelligence officers in the former regime. Sheikh Saad had brought his wife and children to Amman, where they lived in opulence. “All the leaders of the Anbar are outside of Iraq,” he told me. “In the Anbar America is killing and Al Qaeda is killing.”

I was stunned to learn that the recalcitrant sheikh had joined the government, and I asked him why. “Our country needs people like us who are well-known, especially in Anbar and its tribes. They wanted me.” Although he had received various threats for joining the government, he explained that he did not care. “Any Iraqi who becomes part of the political process is threatened.” I wondered if he still supported the resistance. “We all support the muqawama sharifa,” he said, referring to the “honorable resistance” (a distinction from those groups that attacked civilians), and added, “and I am part of it.” When he saw my eyebrows go up at the admission he added, “with words.” I asked him if there was still an honorable resistance given the civil war that Sunni and Shiite militias were engaged in. “It still exists,” he said. “You don’t see how many Americans are killed in the Anbar?” He explained that “the ones who use the name of the resistance but kill innocent people, loot, kidnap, and have contacts outside the border who gave them an agenda and weapons” are not the real resistance.

Sheikh Saad admitted that there was a civil war in Iraq, “but it’s not announced or declared yet.” America was responsible for this, he told me. “If they want to calm the situation, they can tomorrow” by telling Syria and Iran to stop sending weapons into Iraq. “Why are the Americans fighting in the Anbar but not the militias?” he asked, referring to the Shiite militias. “Why don’t they fight Badr and the Mahdi Army?” He answered his own question: “The Americans are part of them.” Then he asked, “Why don’t they make a balance in the political process between Shiites and Sunnis? They are making Iraq like Iran.”

The sheikh was no longer part of the government. “I’m resting now,” he said. The minister who had replaced him, Saad al-Hashimi, was loyal to Muqtada, and he had changed the ministry’s staff, imposing, Sheikh Saad explained, “the agenda of his party and militia,” which in practice meant firing all Sunnis and ideologically disloyal Shiites.

I was shocked when Sheikh Saad admitted that the problems in Iraq were not the fault of the current Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. “The Sunnis left the political process,” he said. “This is our fault. Sunni scholars led by Harith al-Dhari forbade political participation.” I had never heard an Iraqi Sunni admit such an error. Sheikh Saad added that even though he had realized his mistake, “Harith didn’t change his mind.”

The men who had accompanied Sheikh Saad were two former generals in Saddam’s military intelligence, one of whom had also served as deputy chief of police for the Anbar province during the American occupation. He explained that for this he had survived numerous assassination attempts but had also faced difficulties working with the Americans. The head of his office had been arrested by the Americans and was still in jail, he said, accused of cooperating with the resistance. “The Americans only use force in the Anbar province,” he said. “I had many problems with the Americans. We advised them that their behavior is wrong in the Anbar, raiding, putting feet on heads, this is worse than killing.” He also blamed the Americans for the sectarianism. “They brought in the militias,” he said. “The militias belong to Iran, not Iraq or America. Since the invasion until now they are fighting the Sunnis. There is a new dictatorship now, a religious one.” For his trouble, he said, Al Qaeda had blown up his house. “Al Qaeda is not cooperating with the Iraqi resistance,” he said. “The real Iraqi resistance considers Al Qaeda an enemy.”

IN THOSE DAYS it felt as if the Americans had withdrawn from Baghdad. They were devolving their authority willingly, abandoning their attempt at rebuilding the Iraqi state. It resembled Britain’s “colonialism on the cheap.” They no longer had the interest or money to micromanage Iraq. Iraq now felt as if it was occupied by Iraqi Security Forces and militias running amok, shooting into the air, shouting out of loudspeakers. Nowhere in Baghdad was safe from the militias. Even hospitals and universities were part of the battlefield. Whereas in the past Muqtada’s followers had conducted joint prayers with radical Sunnis to demonstrate their solidarity, by 2006 mosques were no longer sacred. On Friday, December 22, 2006, Mahdi Army militiamen raided the Abdullah Bin Omar Mosque in the Binook area near Shaab. The raid occurred during the important noon prayer, when a large congregation gathers to hear a sermon. Sunnis claimed that fifty Mahdi Army militiamen raided the mosque while the sheikh was giving his sermon; all but four of the prayergoers managed to escape, but the sheikh and the muezzin were taken prisoner. The Shiite version of the story is that the Mahdi Army entered the mosque ten minutes before prayer time. They claim they ordered the Sunni prayergoers not to move and told them they had come only for the sheikh. One of the men praying had brought his pistol with him. He ran behind the pulpit and opened fire. There was an exchange of fire that lasted until the Mahdi Army men ran out of bullets. The Mahdi Army men then captured him, the sheikh, and the muezzin. Their corpses were later found with signs of torture, and it was revealed that the third man who opened fire during the raid was the sheikh’s son.

In late 2006 Baghdad’s walls and streets were covered with calls for students and professors to stay home. The radical Sunni movement Ansar al-Sunna had declared a “campaign for halting the assassinations of students and academics in Baghdad universities.” According to one banner hung in a majority-Sunni part of Baghdad, “In order to protect the lives of our dearest academics and students from the assassinations of Maliki’s government and the death squads of Maliki’s government, we decided to stop the universities and all academic institutes including the private ones for this academic year 2006-2007.” The banner stressed that this applied only to Baghdad. “It is strictly forbidden to attend universities in order to cleanse them from death squads that use the universities as centers to launch their attacks from,” the banner said. Such threats, warnings, and announcements are typically distributed to the Iraqi people through leaflets or by hanging banners on walls.

Ansar al-Sunna was the successor to the jihadist group Ansar al-Islam, the Al Qaeda-inspired group that had been based in northern Iraq’s autonomous region before the war. The group was remaking itself as the defender of Iraq’s Sunnis. While there were signs of clashes between the Sunni resistance and Al Qaeda, the move by Ansar al-Sunna was a sign of how the civil war was uniting the disparate Sunni militias and how Iraq’s Sunnis would have to depend on them for protection, sometimes whether they wanted to or not, in the absence of reliable security forces loyal to the state. Some Sunni politicians defended the ban on university attendance. Asma al-Dulaimi, a female Iraqi Parliament member belonging to the Iraqi Accord Front, headed by the Islamic Party’s Tariq al-Hashimi, explained that she was sure the army of Ansar al-Sunna knew of threats to students and academics and that its call to halt university attendance was made out of a desire to protect the students. Meisoon al-Damalouji, a Sunni member of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, condemned Dulaimi’s statements as unacceptable. A banner was hung up in Baghdad Mustansiriya University on Palestine Street announcing, “We will not surrender to terrorism, and that is our response.” Prime Minister Maliki himself responded to the warnings by threatening to fire all professors who did not show up to work and to expel students who did not attend classes. This move was seen by Sunnis as an attack by the Shiite-dominated government against them, since it was Sunni students and professors who had been warned not to attend.

On December 7 Muhamad Haidar Suleiman, a professor at a sports education college in Mosul, was assassinated, and Harith Abdul Hamid, director of Baghdad University’s Psychology Center, was also murdered on his way to work. In early December a girl’s high school in Jadida, or New Baghdad, the majority-Christian area of the city, was closed down by order of the school’s headmaster after militants left posters on the walls threatening to kill the female students. In Zayuna, a majority-Sunni area, leaflets were scattered in two schools, one of which was called the Tariq bin Ziyad school, cursing Shiites as bastards and threatening them.

In fact, professors and administrators who had belonged to the Baath Party had been targeted ever since the fall of the regime. Student unions were dominated by sectarian and fundamentalist militias, and in Baghdad these militias often belonged to Shiite movements such as the Sadrists, Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqoubi’s Fadhila, and the Supreme Council. Religious strictures began to be imposed as well. Hundreds of professors were assassinated and hundreds fled. Incredibly, in November the Ministry of Higher Education was attacked by Interior Ministry forces.

University attendance declined drastically because of the violence. Leaflets threatening students and professors at the University of Technology forced the school to shut down. In the Adhamiya and Yarmuk districts, both majority-Sunni areas of Baghdad, leaflets were distributed banning university students from attending their schools. In Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, leaflets threatened students who attended the agriculture college. In the Zafraniya district students of the Technical Institute were threatened by gunmen.

In majority-Sunni western Baghdad, banners signed by Ansar al-Sunna’s Department for the Protection of Professors asked students and lecturers to abstain from attending government universities, academic institutes, and private colleges because they were dominated by the government’s Shiite militias. Ansar al-Sunna was planning on clearing the universities of the Shiite militias and killing them. As a result they announced that the school year was over.

“To our respected professors and our dear students in the universities and colleges of Baghdad,” began one leaflet titled “Final Warning”: “In an attempt to protect your lives from the wrongdoings of the Maliki government and its death squads, including the killings, kidnappings, and violations against the scientific talents, and especially the Sunni students, which led to Sunni talents in Baghdad universities becoming a market for the death squads, and to these colleges becoming safe houses for these squads to launch their killings and kidnappings against Sunni students and professors. . . . From these universities the learned and the mujahideen graduated . . . and in these same universities they are being killed today.” The group warned it was abolishing the 2006-07 school year for Baghdad university students. The letter was signed by Ansar al-Sunna’s “campaign for the aid of the learned and the students in the universities of Baghdad.”

As the civil war in Iraq intensified, Sunni militias appeared to be uniting to combat the more powerful Shiite militias as well as the police and army. In mid-October 2006 an alliance was announced between Sunni militias who called themselves Al Mutaibeen. The alliance included the Mujahideen Shura Council, Jeish al-Fatihin, Jund al-Sahaba, Ansar al-Tawhid wa al-Sunna, and some tribal leaders. Its name came from the word “tib” (perfume) and referred to the pre-Islamic custom of putting on perfume. (Before Islam was founded, some notable Meccan leaders agreed to help the needy and defend the weak; they sealed their agreement by putting their hands in perfume.) The members of the Mutaibeen Alliance announced that their goals were to fight the Americans and protect the poor Sunnis from the Shiites.

The Sunni front was not restricted to Iraq. On December 7, thirty-eight Saudi clerics and university professors signed a global fatwa calling on all Sunnis in the world to unify their efforts and fight the Shiites to protect the Sunnis of Iraq. This fatwa was likely to increase the support Iraq’s Sunni militias received from abroad and the number of foreign volunteers attempting to enter Iraq. Sifr al-Hawali, an important Saudi cleric who often took a harder line than the Saudi regime, was one of the signatories. Other prominent Saudi Wahhabi thinkers who signed the letter were Abdul Rahman bin Nasser al-Barrak, Sheikh Nasser bin Suleiman al-Omar, and Sheikh Abdullah al-Tuweijiri. “What has been taken by force can only be got back by force,” the letter said. Just two days before, Saudi papers announced that their government had intercepted a cell of fourteen people in the city of Hael who were promoting takfiri and jihadist ideology on the Internet and were involved in sending volunteers to fight in Iraq.

The Saudis also hosted Harith al-Dhari, head of the powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, in an official visit. The Association was closely linked to some Sunni Islamo-nationalist militias, and Dhari had recently defended Al Qaeda in Iraq against criticism. Some veterans of the Afghan jihad viewed the Association as the ideal place to funnel money from wealthy Persian Gulf sponsors. Saudis and other Gulf Arabs were a significant source of funding for Sunni militias in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Jordan were apprehensive of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, which they viewed as an Iranian proxy. Nawaf Obaid, a close adviser to the Saudi government on security issues, wrote in the Washington Post that if the Americans withdrew from Iraq, the Saudis would increase their support for Iraq’s Sunnis to undermine Iran’s influence. This was viewed less as an analysis and more as a warning by some elements in the Saudi regime.

In November 2006 Jordan’s King Abdullah warmly received Harith al-Dhari despite Dhari’s public support for Al Qaeda and the fact that the Iraqi government wanted him for inciting sectarianism and supporting terrorists. In January 2007 Dhari was in Saudi Arabia speaking at private gatherings, praising Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq, and raising money for the resistance. He was accompanied by his movement’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubeisi, who warned that the fall of Baghdad to the Safavids would lead to the fall of Mecca and Medina. A cleric from Baquba also spoke in support of the resistance.

Meanwhile, by the end of 2006, there were signs that Muqtada al-Sadr, who had been reviled in a sensationalist Newsweek cover as the most dangerous man in Iraq, was barely in control of his organization. Muqtada seemed more and more like a mere figurehead for an army with no real leadership or hierarchy. He had gone through many deputies, firing close allies. In a video of an internal debate among his men that was released without his approval, a different Muqtada was seen, one who jealously guarded his power but seemed to have little control over his men. Speaking in poor Arabic, all slang, Muqtada revealed his jealousy and insecurity as well, criticizing a deputy for praising Supreme Council leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

Earlier, in the spring of 2006, Iraqis were as excited about the World Cup as other soccer-crazy countries. They hung flags for their favorite teams. Some who did received visits from Sadrists urging them to remove the flags and hang up Iraqi flags or pictures of clerics. Those who did not were threatened. Even though many of Iraq’s top soccer players hailed from Sadr City, that spring Muqtada issued a fatwa about soccer, warning that he and his father viewed it as a distraction from worship. It had been created by the West to prevent Muslims from perfecting themselves, he argued. The Israelis and the West kept Muslims distracted with soccer—as with singing and smoking—while they focused on science. The Mahdi Army tried to prevent women from going to the market in Karbala, causing businesses to suffer. Muqtada was desperately attempting to impose moral order on his followers at the same time as they were getting caught up in a maelstrom of violence.

Although politically motivated violence, the occupation, and the resistance all affected and destroyed the lives of civilians, simple, criminally motivated kidnapping also devastated countless Iraqi families. I heard many horror stories—many of them regaled to me by my friend Ali. He told me about his father-in-law, a Sunni, who was once a prominent Palestinian resistance fighter in the 1960s and ’70s. “He has a small shop in an area that is controlled by the Shiite militias,” Ali said. “About a month ago, there was a roadside bomb just in front of his shop. He survived the explosion, but many people were killed and injured. The police came and took him without asking how a sixty-year-old man could risk his life and put a bomb just in front of his source of living. His family, including myself, now live outside of Iraq, so he had no one in Baghdad with him. His sister-in-law used to call him every day, and at night someone else answered his phone. The man told my aunt that her brother-in-law was in the ‘Ministry of Interior’ and hung up. She called us, and I contacted everyone I know. I sent my friends to the police station nearest to his shop. They told me they found my father-in-law’s car, but the police denied they had him. I am a Shiite, but I had never tried to establish any connections with the militias simply because I despise them. But seeing my family in that condition pushed me to contact some people who know some leaders in the militias. Someone called someone who called someone, and finally they found his trace. He had been taken to a house outside the police station for ‘investigation. ’ Anyway, my contacts were able to set him free the next day, but his head was covered with blood. They beat him on his head with the gun.

“About two months ago, three men remotely related to my wife were kidnapped from their shop in Al Shourja [the economic center of Baghdad]. They had been merchants in the area for more than thirty years. They were taken by the police special force [Maghawir al-Dakhiliya]. Two days after that, someone called their families and asked for ninety thousand dollars ransom. The families were forced to listen to the sounds of torture on the mobile. The families were ‘convinced,’ and they provided the money for the kidnappers. One of the kidnappers, a policeman, was related to the families by marriage, but it seems he had a grudge against them. The day after they paid the ransom, the kidnapped men’s bodies were found in the morgue. They had been tortured to death, and there were marks of electric drills all over their bodies (one of them was eighty years old). When their families went to the morgue, the person in charge there told them he couldn’t give them the bodies ‘because the bodies belong to the Mahdi Army.’ Anyway, they managed to contact some people who had contacts with the militias, and they got the bodies. Their relative, who was one of the kidnappers, confessed he participated in the crime and threatened the families not to say anything. He also looted the shops of the victims two days after they had been killed.

“A Sunni friend of mine was kidnapped near his house in western Baghdad. The kidnappers took him to a place where he saw many people being tortured. They asked him where he was from, and he mentioned the name of his tribe. They said, ‘So, you are one of our people, Saddam Hussein’s people,’ and my friend replied, ‘I hope God saves our leader,’ and they all replied, ‘Amen!’ Anyway, the kidnappers apologized to my friend and told him they needed to kidnap people to finance jihad. They called his family on a Friday and told them they would decide his fate after the Friday prayers. A couple of hours later they called the family (who don’t even own a house) and asked for fifty thousand dollars.

“His poor family sold everything they had and gathered ten thousand dollars for his ransom. The kidnappers called them and told them the money was not enough and they might sell him to mujahideen in Latifiya for a bigger amount. The family was forced to ask their friends for loans, including me. They were able to provide another ten thousand dollars, and the kidnappers agreed to release him.”

Like all Iraqis Ali’s friend Rasha also had numerous stories of kidnappings and crime. Perhaps none were as chilling as her young Shiite cousin’s tale.

“She was in love with her classmate Ahmed from their time together at the university. They could not get married, however, because Ahmed was young and from a poor family. He was his mother’s only son, and his father had died before the war. He is Sunni and lived in Tarmiya, an area north of Baghdad dominated by Sunni militias. Ahmed himself belonged to the resistance. My cousin’s family were not rich either, and they could no longer work in Iraq, so they left for Syria. Ahmed borrowed money to buy a car and worked as a taxi driver. In one year he had saved enough to afford to get married. He contacted my cousin in Syria, and she agreed to return to Baghdad to marry him. One night, a few days before their wedding, they were on the phone when he told her, ‘I hear someone knocking on the door. I’ll be back in a second.’ She heard shooting and was so frightened that she hung up the phone and ran to her mother. Her mother redialed Ahmed’s number and a man answered the phone. ‘He is a traitor,’ said the voice. ‘He was going to marry a Shiite woman, so we killed him.’”

As more and more Iraqis were disappearing, their desperate relatives were not merely hanging up signs on walls but turning to the Internet. The home page of Iraqi Rabita, a pro-Baathist Sunni website, often posted photos of missing people with the request “Please help us find these people—lost.” At first only Sunnis were posting on the site, hoping to locate family members kidnapped by Shiite militias. The site succeeded in finding some of the missing people, but it did not explain how it did so. So Christians and Shiites whose sons had been kidnapped by Sunni militias began posting photos of their relatives on the site, calling for help in locating them. One day in late 2006, the home page had nineteen photos of missing people. Four were Christians, five were Sunnis, and ten were Shiites.

IN LATE 2006 Adnan al-Dulaimi showed his true colors as Iraq’s most sectarian politician. Dulaimi had taught at the University of Zarqa in Jordan while he was in exile before the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Zarqa’s most famous son is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Dulaimi returned to Iraq a week after the fall of Baghdad. He was appointed head of the Sunni Religious Endowment but was removed for what he claimed were political reasons because he was “defending the Sunnis,” which could also refer to his staunch sectarianism. He formed the Conference of Iraqi Sunnis to unite Sunnis under what he described as “one umbrella” and to encourage their political participation, and he was appointed religious adviser to President Jalal Talabani.

In late 2006 Dulaimi spoke at a major regional conference in Istanbul, hoping to raise funds for the resistance. He told the audience they should have named the gathering “The Conference for Supporting Sunnis in Iraq” and mocked the organizers’ fear of being called sectarian. Iraq is worth nothing without Sunnis, he said, because Sunnis owned it and built it. “Yes, we are sectarian,” he said. If they did not awaken, then Iraq would be lost and the Sunnis would be exterminated by the Shiites. He demanded support from Muslims around the world for Iraq’s Sunnis. He spoke of the Sunni mosques and neighborhoods that were being destroyed. “Iraq is going to be Shiite, and this will expand to the lands surrounding Iraq. Then you will all regret it, but your regret will be worth nothing because it will be too late. Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is Kuwait? Where is Jordan? Where is Pakistan? And where are the Muslims? Sleep and keep sleeping while Iraq is destroying. You sleep while Sunni mosques in Iraq are being destroyed. Sleep while Sunni mosques in Iraq are burning. Sleep and keep sleeping, but the fire of Iraq will expand to you. What is happening in Iraq has been planned for over fifty years in order to convert the region into Shiism and create the Persian Empire under a Shiite cover.”

In a December 22, 2006, interview with the American-sponsored Radio Sawa, the interviewer pressed Dulaimi on why he avoided criticizing Al Qaeda in Iraq but regularly criticized the Mahdi Army. “Is Al Qaeda a terrorist organization or not?” demanded the interviewer. “I will not and will never answer this question,” said Dulaimi, “and if you ask me again I will hang up the phone.” The interviewer persisted, and Dulaimi hung up.

The Death of Saddam

The year 2006 culminated with one last insult to the Sunnis of Iraq and the region when Saddam Hussein became the first modern Arab dictator to die violently since Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1981. Saddam’s hanging at the hands of chubby Iraqi men wearing ski masks was likely to be perceived by many as an American execution and as part of a trend of American missteps contributing to sectarian tensions in Iraq and the region. Others viewed it as a lynching by reveling Shiite militiamen. The trial of Saddam was viewed by detractors as an event stage-managed by the Americans. According to Human Rights Watch, the Iraqi judges and lawyers involved in prosecuting Saddam were ill prepared and relied on their American advisers. American minders shut off the microphones and ordered the translators to halt whenever they disapproved of what was being said by the defendants. Saddam was being executed for the massacre in Dujail. It was the least of his crimes, but it had targeted Shiites and the Dawa Party, and they wanted revenge for his crimes against the Kurds—others could even be judged.

For Sunnis the important Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha began on Saturday, December 30; for Shiites it began on Sunday. According to tradition in Mecca, battles were suspended during the hajj period so that pilgrims could safely march to Mecca. This practice even predated Islam; Muslims had preserved it, calling this period Al Ashur al-Hurm, the months of truce. By hanging Saddam on the Sunni Eid, the Americans and the Iraqi government were in effect saying that only the Shiite Eid had legitimacy. Sunnis were irate that Shiite traditions were given primacy (as was increasingly the case in Iraq) and that Shiites had disrespected the tradition and killed Saddam on this day. Because the Iraqi Constitution prohibits executions from being carried out on Eid, the Iraqi government had to declare that Eid did not begin until Sunday. It was a striking decision, virtually declaring that Iraq was a Shiite state. Eid was the festival of the sacrifice of the sheep. But Saddam quickly became known as “the Martyr of the Sacrifice.”

Saddam had been in American custody and was handed over to Iraqis just before his execution. It was therefore hard to dismiss the perception that the Americans could have waited, because in the end it was they who had the final say over such events. Iraqi officials consistently complained that they had no authority and that the Americans controlled the Iraqi police and the army. So it was unusual that Iraqis would suddenly regain sovereignty for this important event. For many Sunnis and Arabs in the region, this appeared to be one president ordering the death of another. It was possibly a message to Sunnis, a warning. The Americans often equated Saddam with the Sunni resistance. By killing Saddam they were killing what they believed was the symbol of the Sunni resistance, expecting its members to realize that their cause was hopeless. But Saddam’s death also liberated the Sunni resistance from association with Saddam and the Baathists. They could more plausibly claim that they were fighting for national liberation and not out of support for the former regime, as their American and Iraqi government opponents often claimed. At the same time, the execution created a new symbol for those opposed to the occupation. Saddam was not given a hood, though prisoners normally do not have a choice about wearing one. The execution and the photo of the executed Saddam had the hallmark of the U.S. psy-ops tactics, similar to the deaths of Saddam’s sons in 2003. Even the U.S. plane that flew him to his final resting spot indicated U.S. management.

The unofficial video of the execution, filmed on the mobile phone of one of the officials present, further inflamed sectarianism. It was clear from the film that sectarian Shiites were executing Saddam. Men could be heard talking; one of them was called Ali. As the executioners argue over how to best position the rope on his neck, Saddam called out to God, saying, “Ya Allah.” Referring to Shiites, one official said, “Those who pray for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad have won!” Others triumphantly responded in the Shiite chant: “Our God prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad.” Others then added the part chanted by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr: “And speed his [the Mahdi’s] return! And damn his enemies! And make his son victorious! Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!”

Saddam smiled and said something mocking about Muqtada. “Muqtada! It is this . . . ” but the rest was blocked by the voices of officials saying, “Ila jahanam ” (go to hell). Saddam looked down disdainfully and said, “Is this your manhood?” As the rope was put around Saddam’s neck, somebody shouted, “Long live Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr!” (Executed by Saddam in 1980, Sadr was still venerated by all three major Shiite movements in Iraq: the Dawa, the Sadrists, and the Supreme Council.) Others insulted Saddam. “Please all stop,” one man pleaded. Saddam then said the Shahada, or testimony, that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. When he tried to say it again the trapdoor opened, and he fell through. One man then shouted, “The tyranny has ended!” Others called out triumphal Shiite chants. Somebody wanted to remove the rope from his neck but was told to wait eight minutes.

The Sunni Islamo-nationalist website Islam Memo claimed that the Safavids burned Saddam’s Koran after they killed him, though there was no evidence of this. Similarly, the site made other unsubstantiated claims: that Saddam exchanged insults with the witnesses to his execution and cursed one of them, saying, “God damn you, Persian midget”; that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani blessed Saddam’s execution; that the Iraqi government refused to provide Saddam with a Sunni cleric to pray for him before the execution; that Saddam said, “Palestine is Arab” and then recited the Shahada before he was executed; that following his death his body was abused. Although the Shiite-dominated official Iraqi media claimed Saddam was terrified before his execution and that he fought with his hangmen, Saddam’s onscreen visage was one of aplomb, for he was conscious of the image he was displaying and wanted to go down as the grand historic leader he believed himself to be.

Predictably, there were celebrations in Shiite areas, and the civil war continued. Following the execution three car bombs exploded in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Hurriya, killing and injuring dozens. Another one went off in Baghdad’s Seidiya district, near its amusement park, killing at least two civilians and two policemen. A roadside bomb exploded near a children’s hospital in the majority-Shiite area of Iskan, killing two and injuring several others. In the southern town of Kufa, dominated by supporters of Muqtada, a car bomb exploded near a market, killing and injuring dozens. In the northern town of Tal Afar, a man wearing a suicide belt exploded himself in a market, killing at least five and injuring several others. It was also claimed that Sistani’s representative was killed and his office was burned. In the town of Saqlawiya, in Anbar province, there was a big demonstration against Saddam’s execution at which marchers carried large portraits of the former leader. Immediately after the execution five mortars were fired in Falluja, targeting the southern checkpoint to that city, known as the Numaniya checkpoint. In Tikrit, site of another large demonstration, Saddam’s tribe officially requested that the Iraqi government allow his body to be buried near his parents in Owja, the town where he was born.

I asked a Kurdish Iraqi friend how he felt after seeing the video of Saddam’s execution. “It is sad to see someone who knows he is going to die in a minute,” he told me, “but I am happy that he died that way and not, as the so-called human rights groups want, to be in a jail where they want to make sure he has access to TV, newspaper, and good health.” He agreed with me that the images of Saddam could potentially cause some people to sympathize with him but added, “If anyone who could live the life of an Iraqi for only one day—they would want worse than that to happen to Saddam. Last night, all of a sudden I remembered all the agonies my family went through in their life. We had to leave our home twenty times and walk to the borders and leave everything we had and buy new stuff every few years. He never had the feeling you and I have now for him when he was ordering Ali Hassan Majid and the henchmen to bury people with their kids in the deserts, so why should I now feel sorry for him? But I hope I see one day when the current Saddamlets are hanged too, like Talabani, Ayad Allawi.”

One thing was clear: the death of Saddam did not bring closure or peace to Iraq. Sunnis gathered at Saddam’s grave, demonstrators showed his iconic image, and revenge was threatened. President George Bush declared his nemesis’s death “a milestone.” To many in Iraq and the Muslim world, it was a clear message that there would be no mercy for Sunnis in a Shiite-dominated Iraq.

Part Two



Among the Jihadis

REMARKABLY, THERE WERE NO ATTEMPTS TO ATTACK THE UNITED States in retaliation for its occupation of Iraq, not by American Muslims or by foreigners. But the jihad in Iraq did lead to a regional blowback, and its neighbor Jordan was the first to suffer.

On February 16, 2006, Mohammad Zaki Amawi, Marwan Othman El-Hindi, and Wassim I. Mazloum were indicted by a U.S. district court in Ohio. The three were accused of conspiring to wage jihad against U.S. forces in Iraq, training in firearms and martial arts, collecting funds to support their mission, studying jihad training manuals on the Internet, meeting to plan how best to assist the Iraqi insurgency, studying how to build IEDs, and threatening the life of President Bush. Amawi flew to Jordan in August 2005 carrying laptops he wanted to donate to the mujahideen in Iraq. The indictment added that Amawi “unsuccessfully attempted to enter Iraq to wage violent Jihad, or ‘holy war,’ against the United States and coalition forces.”

Amawi and El-Hindi were Jordanian-born naturalized citizens of the United States. Mazloum was from Lebanon. It was the first time such charges had been made against U.S. residents, but the charges were very similar to ones in numerous court cases in Jordan since the beginning of the Iraq War. These trials were held in the Marka military court, a squat white building across the road from a military airbase that is planted atop a hill in eastern Amman, the somnolent capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Apart from dealing with wayward soldiers, the court also handles security and terrorism cases. Relatives of prisoners stand on line on the curb outside, most dressed in traditional gowns, deep lines on their unshaven faces, waiting to be searched and allowed in. The winter winds blow hard on Amman’s hilltops and muffle the approaching sirens of a police sedan, which is followed by a dark blue van, windowless except for some bars on the back that show only blackness inside. The van is always followed by a pickup truck, with two masked counterterror agents manning a heavy mounted gun on the bed.

On Wednesday, December 28, 2005, the van entered Marka through the main gate and circled around the back of the courthouse. Ten shackled prisoners were taken out and led into a cage in the courtroom. Their lawyers chatted jovially in a smoke-filled waiting room; then made their way past the numerous police officers, security officers, and soldiers bustling back and forth in search of something to do; and headed into the small courtroom, lit with bright fluorescent lights, lined with old wooden benches, and full of blue uniformed Amn al-Am, or General Security, officers.

Muhamad Ibrahim al-Ghawi, twenty-five years old; Faris Sayid Hassan Shoter, thirty-two; Muhamad Jamil al-Titi, twenty-two; Rauf Aballah Abu Mayha, twenty-two; Muhamad Mahmud al-Sharman, twenty-nine; Basil Muhamad al-Ramah, twenty-nine; Monaem Ibrahim Hasan, thirty-one; Raed Ahmed Kaywan, thirty-three; Muhamad Qasim Sulaiman Ramah, thirty-five; and Majdi Khalid Hassan al-Fawar, twenty-one: all stood in the cage, chatting in good spirits, smiling and waving at the few relatives who sat in the back. The cage had a chain-link fence around it, an innovation imposed after one prisoner called Azmi al-Jayusi, a friend of Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, threw his shoe at the judge while on trial for attempting to bomb the Jordanian security headquarters. Other prisoners had been known to sing songs in honor of Zarqawi during trial.

All ten prisoners in the cage wore dark blue denim prison suits, wool caps, and slippers. Their beards were shaggy, as was their hair, which curled out of their caps over their ears and the backs of their necks. They were hard to distinguish from one another. Some had a dark stain sunk in above their brows in the center of the forehead. It was a sima, a sign of intense piety, acquired by kneeling and bowing forward, placing the forehead on the floor in prayer. Their long beards and hair were a sign of their beliefs. These men were Salafis.

Salafi ideologues dominated Jordan’s mosques, and young men filled their ranks. Salafism found a home in Jordan beginning in the 1970s, when a Syrian cleric called Muhamad Nasir al-Din Albani began teaching in Jordan at the invitation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Eventually he settled in the Jordanian city of Zarqa to avoid persecution by the secular Syrian Baathists and began preaching about the need to purify Islam. Hundreds came to hear him speak, and he influenced the ranks and hierarchy of Jordan’s clergy. The regime was threatened by the crowds he drew, and he was prohibited from speaking in public. Unable to operate openly, Salafism became an informal underground movement. The late 1970s were a crucial period, as the leftist, secular, and nationalist projects in the Arab world appeared to be failing. Saudi radicals rose up against their regime, temporarily taking the mosque in Mecca; the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan; and the Iranian Revolution was both a model for political Islamists and a threat to Sunni regimes. By the early 1980s Arab regimes had decided to dispose of their excess radicals by dispatching them to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

Jordan was a ripe environment for political Islam. Since the British invented it in 1924, the kingdom had been ruled by the Hashemites, or Albu Hashem, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who gained their legitimacy by belonging to Ahl al-Beit, the family of the Prophet. In 1970, when King Hussein fought an uprising of nationalist Palestinians—some of whom promulgated the slogan “The liberation of Jerusalem begins in Amman”—the Muslim Brotherhood, previously disenfranchised, supported King Hussein. The King rewarded them by granting them control over the Ministry of Education, allowing them to inculcate generations of Jordanians. Founded by Egyptian Hassan al-Banna in 1928, it sought to establish a Muslim state through nonviolent cultural revolution.

Radical Islam had received a needed fillip from the Afghan jihad, which began in 1979. But it was following the Gulf War of 1991 that jihadism became an international ideology. The Saudi government’s dependence on the American infidels to protect it from Saddam, and the U.S. presence in the holiest Muslim land, coincided with Muslims’ increasing resentment of their own governments. Arabs who had fought in the Afghan jihad began returning home and were disillusioned with what they encountered, so they sought to bring the jihad home too. The Israeli peace process was but one more betrayal for them. Also following the Gulf War, the Kuwaitis expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, most of whom settled in Jordan. Returning Jordanian jihadis were repelled by the ostentation that accompanied the arrival of wealthy Palestinians to their poor country. One such jihadi was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would lead the Tawhid and Jihad organization of Iraq, later known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Other Palestinians brought with them a radical jihadist Salafi ideology. Two of them were Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the most important ideologue for modern jihad and Zarqawi’s former mentor, and Abu Anas al-Shami, who went on to become Zarqawi’s key cleric and religious adviser in Iraq. Maqdisi’s writings influenced the jihadis who carried out the 1995 bombings in Saudi Arabia that targeted Americans as well as the September 11 attackers. Zarqawi, Maqdisi, and Shami were heroes for young Jordanians such as those on trial in Marka.

Bordered by Palestine and Iraq, Jordan was caught between the two most important struggles in the Muslim world, at once both anticolonial wars and jihads. On November 9, 2005, Zarqawi brought the terror back home to Jordan when he dispatched four Iraqi suicide bombers to Amman, three of whom succeeded in detonating their deadly vests in three different hotels, killing sixty and injuring one hundred. It was Zarqawi’s third successful attack in Jordan. Each time he had used non-Jordanians to avoid infiltration by Jordan’s mukhabarat (intelligence service). In 2005 the mukhabarat had arrested thirteen terrorist cells, and in 2004 it had arrested eleven, one of which was in direct contact with Zarqawi. It was not a good time to go on trial for terrorism if you were a Salafi.

All of the prisoners held in Marka in 2005 were from Irbid, a northern city by the Syrian border. Six of the ten were originally Palestinians, their parents or grandparents having been expelled from their homes west of the border in 1948 or 1967. One of them paced back and forth in the cage, chanting lines from the Koran. Others joked with their relatives. One leaned forward in conversation with his lawyer, complaining that “the verdict was already decided before the trial. This is just a formality.”

The charges against the ten stated that there were five other suspects who had escaped. According to the prosecution, they had met in the Qaqa’a Mosque in the Irbid’s Hnina neighborhood, which they visited frequently. The charges mentioned that the men engaged in theological discussions about calling common people, rulers, and scholars infidels. They had agreed it was necessary to fight the Americans in Iraq and planned how they could recruit others, collect money to go to Iraq via Syria, and attack the Americans and the Iraqi Security Forces. In late July 2005 they pooled money to purchase a Kalashnikov and bullets. At different times they snuck into Syria, some of them ferried by a friend who owned a school bus. In Syria one of them met with a Tunisian who took him to an apartment where a Libyan and Saudi were staying. They discussed what operations he could execute and urged him to drive a car bomb, but the charges stated that he refused to become “suicidal.” He tired of waiting in Syria and returned to Jordan, where his friends gave him a hard time for turning back. (Another one was invited to become a suicide bomber, but he too refused and returned to Jordan, where he was arrested.) Others later snuck into Syria and discussed joining the ranks of the mujahideen fighters in Iraq. Still others snuck into Syria with a Kalashnikov and four magazines full of bullets. In Syria they argued, and two of them decided to return to Jordan, where they too were arrested.

All the officials in the court had mustaches. Three military judges in olive uniforms sat behind a long wooden bench. Behind them were framed pictures of former King Hussein and current King Abdullah. Two young soldiers with red sashes from their waists to their shoulders stood against the wall. The chief judge sat in the center. As he prepared to read the charges, one of the prisoners shouted, “Say God is great!” The prisoners erupted in unison, yelling fiercely, “God is great! The way of God is jihad!” Perhaps they were imitating one of their role models, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, who made a similar show during his trial in Egypt for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. The judge waited for them to finish shouting as if he was used to it and read the four charges, which were possession of an automatic weapon with intention to use it in illegal activity, initiation of illegal activities that could harm Jordan’s relations with a foreign country, sneaking and helping to sneak from and to Jordan with an automatic weapon, and helping to sneak into Jordan illegally. When the judge got to the part about “a foreign country,” he was interrupted by an angry prisoner, who shouted, “Infidel countries, not foreign countries!” The judge looked bored and tapped his pen on the table for silence, asking the prisoner to stop interrupting.

One by one the judge read the prisoners’ names, asking if they pleaded guilty or not. He was interrupted by the same prisoner once more, who shouted, “This is a play. When is it going to end? We know that the verdicts have been decided and written in the files!” The judge tapped his pencil impatiently. “I am not guilty, you are guilty!” snapped some of the prisoners. “Jihad is not guilt!” shouted one prisoner. “Is jihad in the way of God guilt? Fighting the Americans and Jews and infidels is now guilt? We are protecting the honor of our sisters in Iraq. Is that guilt? God is our master and you have no master. Your regime is rotten and it stinks. You and your regime and your ranks, you are all guilty!” The judge tapped his pen and told the prisoners to answer without comments. “He who opens alcoholic bars is guilty!” said one prisoner.

The judge lost his temper and angrily told the guards to take the loudest prisoner out of the cage and back to the van, and the prisoner quieted down. Then, as punishment for the prisoners’ recalcitrance, the judge ordered their families to leave the court. The military prosecutor, also in uniform and sporting a thick mustache, informed the judge that he had no witnesses, and the trial was postponed for one week. “God is our master and you have no master!” the prisoners shouted in unison. “He is the best master and the best supporter. America is your master and you have the worst master. God is great!”

Following the trial I met with Hussein al-Masri, lawyer for the accused ten. Masri, dressed in an ill-fitting brown jacket with green pants, a red shirt, and a brown tie, told me, “Now the law permits accusing people who only think or talk about terrorism. It is not required to commit the act of terrorism; only thinking or speaking is enough. The prosecution accused the defendants of already going to Syria and meeting and arranging terrorist activities, but they didn’t do it.”

The following Friday I drove up to Irbid’s Hnina neighborhood to the Qaqa’a Mosque, hoping to learn more about what might have motivated the young prisoners in their failed and almost comical attempt to join the jihad in Iraq. As I drove up, my taxi driver recounted how his cousin had suddenly picked up and left for Iraq in March 2003. Many young men from his town, Zarqa, who were not even overtly religious, had poured over the border to fight the Americans. An hour and a half later we drove through Irbid’s rolling hills, the elevation making the air cleaner than in Amman. We were a mere thirty kilometers from the Syrian border. Friday is a slow day in the Muslim world, and Irbid’s streets were nearly empty. In the Hnina neighborhood, two boys sat on a curb sharing a bag of potato chips. A small group of men and women lined up in front of the Jowharat al-Zein bakery to purchase piles of large flat bread for lunch, which was always a more important occasion on Fridays. Children played in the street, and the few women walking by were not conservatively dressed.

I sat on a step in front of a closed store eating a sandwich with my friends and watching the trickle of men making their way to the Qaqa’a Mosque for the Friday noon prayer and the khutba (sermon). Men casually strolled by. “Assalamu aleikum” (Peace be upon you), they said as they noticed us, and we responded, “Wa aleikum salam wa rahmat ullah wa barakat” (And peace upon you and the mercy of God and his blessings).

The mosque was an inconspicuous white three-story building with a small dome and a loudspeaker. Down the hill from its narrow gated entrance, and around the back, was a small tiled bathroom for ablutions, the ritual washing of the legs, arms, and face required before prayer. Inside was a long sink lined with many faucets and short benches. Upstairs the trickle of men had reached about six hundred; it seemed as if more men were present than the neighborhood could have produced on its own. Their shoes lined the entrance or were stuffed into pigeonholes. They kneeled, or bowed, or stood in silent prayer in rows along white lines painted on the green carpet, in a “fortified wall” the way tradition stipulated. Many small children played by the door; others prayed by their fathers or leaned against the columns. The mosque was unfinished, and unpainted cinder blocks and plaster were visible on the walls. The sun came in from a skylight around the dome. Men wore tracksuits, jeans, and dishdashas. I noticed one man wearing a salwar kameez, the traditional long shirt and baggy pants worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan but not in the Arab world. It was a statement of support for jihad.

By chance, the mosque’s imam was called Sheikh Jihad Mahdi, though the name itself was of no significance (even Christian Arabs are known to call their sons Jihad). Sheikh Jihad wore a simple white dishdasha and white cap and sat in the front with a microphone. As he waited for the proper time to begin, he lectured the men in the mosque—and, through the loudspeakers, the entire neighborhood—on how to pray properly, using a strong colloquial accent and slang. As the majority of men completed their prayers in a low murmur, Sheikh Jihad stood up and began with a short prayer, as is the custom. “Thanks be to God, supporter of Islam,” he said, “for his victory and his humiliation of infidelity with his power and managing all the matters with his orders and deceiving the infidels with his cleverness, the one who estimates the days going over and over by his justice. Prayer and peace on the one who raises the flag of Islam with his sword.” This was no ordinary prayer and was not normally used, but it was the same prayer used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the movement led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in every message they put out. It was a code, and supporters of the jihad and Al Qaeda would recognize it.

It would soon be time for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and throughout the world millions were making their way to Saudi Arabia to fulfill this important pillar of Islam. Sheikh Jihad exhorted his flock to go on the hajj, calling it “the most important act of worship.” He warned that if a man did not go on the hajj he was as bad as a Jew. “Remember that we are now building this mosque,” he told his listeners. “It is not finished, so give any amount of money to help build this house of God.”

Like all sermons, Sheikh Jihad’s ended with a prayer. “God support the Muslims and give them victory everywhere,” he said, as the crowd responded with an “Amin.”

“God support the mujahideen and give them victory everywhere, in Iraq in Palestine.”


“God give us the power to break the thorns of the Jews and the Americans and the Crusaders.”


“God give us the opportunity to face them.”


“Bless us and show us the way to jihad in the path of God.”


Sheikh Jihad repeated this last prayer for jihad three times. Interestingly, he omitted the prayer for the leader of the nation (in this case, King Abdullah) that is traditionally invoked by clerics after their sermons.

The sheikh lived beneath his mosque with his family, and I waited on the steps in front of his door as he kissed and greeted well-wishers following his sermon. He invited me to his guest room, which was lined with books on Islam. Green pillows covered the floor, and we sat down to drink tea that he brought in from the house, which was closed off to me lest I glimpse his wife. I could hear his children watching cartoons on television. Colorful plastic flowers, which seemed to be required in Jordanian homes, decorated the room. On one wall in his guest room Sheikh Jihad had hung an immense sword, right out of Conan the Barbarian, with a wide sharp blade. On its hilt were two skulls and spikes coming out ominously. It was not a Middle Eastern blade, and I had never heard or seen a cleric with such a décor hanging on his walls. The thirty-five-year-old Sheikh Jihad took his name seriously.

Like many in Irbid, Sheikh Jihad was originally Palestinian; his family’s town had been destroyed by the Israelis in 1967. He had been a cleric for ten years, after receiving a degree in Sharia law from a Sudanese correspondence school. “The khutba is a standard that measures the direction of people,” he said, adding that his sermons had once been much more political, especially at the beginning of the Iraq War. But he had been arrested several times by Jordanian authorities as a result, and was forced to moderate his tone, at least a little. He claimed to have been tortured by them as well. I asked him about the ten young men I had seen in court two days before and who were said to have met to discuss their ideas and plans regularly in his mosque, but he claimed never to have heard of them. He no longer explicitly advocated jihad, in public at least, worrying that the November bombings in three Amman hotels had changed things in Jordan. “People were disgusted by it,” he said, explaining that things in Iraq were confusing.

The war in Iraq had changed everything in the Muslim world, creating new confusion and new certainties. In the late 1990s experts on the Muslim world had spoken about the failure of political Islam, even explaining that the September 11 attacks were its last nihilistic act. The planners of the American war in Iraq claimed that the democracy they would install in place of Saddam’s dictatorship would create a domino effect, spreading to other authoritarian states in the region, from Saudi Arabia to Syria. Nearly three years later, with religious parties dominating the Iraqi elections, Hamas winning in the Palestinian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood increasing its power in the Egyptian elections, and authoritarian regimes in the region appearing unthreatened by democracy, it was radical Islam that had spread. In fact, it was experiencing a renaissance.

The Story of Hudheifa Azzam

The father of modern jihad was Abdallah Azzam. Azzam was born in 1941 in Jenin, Palestine. Following the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation, Azzam, then a high school teacher, based himself in Jordan and led religious fighters from different Arab countries in cross-border raids against the Israelis from the “sheikhs’ camps” supported by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Azzam led the Qutbi wing of the Jordanian Brotherhood, which was named after Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and made up of those closest to Salafis in their way of thinking. Qutb, who led the Muslim Brotherhood after Hassan al-Banna, was executed by the Egyptian regime in 1966. His most important book was Milestones on the Road. The two most important concepts in Qutb’s writings were jahiliya and takfir. Takfir, as mentioned above, means excommunicating, or declaring a Muslim to be a kafir. Jahiliya is the pre-Islamic ignorance that Islamists accuse present Muslim governments of having reverted to. Governments that have reverted to such a state can be declared infidel, and jihad against them is legitimate.

During the 1970 civil war in Jordan, when the regime battled Palestinians in what came to be known as Black September, Azzam ordered his men to leave Jordan to avoid killing other Muslims. Azzam was alienated by the dominance of secular nationalism over the Palestinian liberation movement and hoped to internationalize jihad. He studied in Egypt’s prestigious Al Azhar University, receiving a PhD in Islamic law and graduating with honors. He went on to teach in Saudi Arabia as well as in Jordan. Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Azzam moved to Pakistan, where he founded Maktab al-Khidmat al-Mujahideen (the Office of Mujahideen Services). The office served as the main clearinghouse for Arab fighters seeking to join the jihad in Afghanistan; it housed, trained, and educated them. Although the top Saudi cleric pronounced jihad in Afghanistan a fard ayn (direct obligation), the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood refused to issue a similar fatwa, so Azzam left the movement. Azzam believed that defensive jihad—i.e., defeating infidel invaders in Muslim lands—was a fard ayn. He singled out Afghanistan and Palestine as the most obvious cases. (During the war in Iraq, similar declarations that defensive jihad was a fard ayn were made throughout the Muslim world.) Azzam’s books and sermons formulated his thoughts on jihad, and he mentored Osama bin Laden until 1987, when the Saudi decided to form his own camp for Arabs. Azzam was not radical enough for this new camp; Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would become bin Laden’s key deputy and ideologue, virtually excommunicated him.

In November 1989 a car bomb killed Azzam and two of his sons. In the car that followed Azzam’s doomed vehicle sat his eighteen-year-old son, Hudheifa, who had been fighting since 1985. In December 2005 I met Hudheifa in a cafe in Amman. Dressed in light blue jeans, wearing a leather jacket and red polo shirt, speaking excellent English, still fit and smiling often, he did not look like an expert in international jihad. Hudheifa, who was light-skinned like his father, with a neatly clipped and groomed beard, ordered a hot chocolate and recounted his tale. When Azzam brought his family to Pakistan, he settled them first in Islamabad, where he taught part-time. He set up the Office of Mujahideen Services in Peshawar in 1983, opening guest houses for mujahideen and training camps in 1984. Hudheifa began his training at the age of thirteen in the Sada (echo) Camp in Peshawar, and in 1985 he trained in Afghanistan’s Khaldan and Yaqubi camps. He fought his first battle alongside his father and brothers in Jaji that year. The all-Arab unit included Saudis, Moroccans, and Algerians. When he was not fighting, Hudheifa studied at the Mahad al-Ansar (Supporters’ Institute), a school his father had established for the children of Arab mujahideen. Rivals of Azzam condemned him for his friendship with Afghan jihad leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and for his relative moderation. “Al Qaeda separated from Abdallah Azzam,” said Hudheifa. “They wanted to fight against the whole world. Our school specialized in defensive jihad: Palestine, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya.”

Hudheifa fought from 1985 until 1992. He befriended Massoud in 1985 and fought alongside the famed hero, taking Kabul with him in 1992. He then went to continue his studies at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, but for the next six years he and some Arab colleagues tried to bring the warring parties in Afghanistan together, shuttling back and forth between Massoud’s Northern Alliance and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar (he blamed the failure to reach peace on the intervention of Pakistani intelligence). “We were the Arab mujahideen respected by everyone,” he told me.

From 1994 to 1995 Hudheifa was in Bosnia, working to funnel money and supplies to the nascent country’s beleaguered Muslims, and fighting on their behalf as well. He tried to enter Chechnya, but the Russians had blocked the road and he was forced to turn back. Hudheifa was arrested in the airport when he returned to Jordan in 1996, and again in 1997. He was also arrested in Pakistan, as governments that had supported the jihad began fearing the blowback. In 2000 the Jordanians returned his passport to him, and he was allowed to live freely, selling cars and nuts, importing and exporting, and receiving a license to work as a mobile phone distributor (on his personal multimedia mobile phone Hudheifa showed me films he had saved of Iraqi resistance attacks against the American military). He completed his master’s degree in Islamic studies and the Arabic language. When I met him he was working on a PhD in Arabic literature from the classical Andalusian period.

Three days after America’s war in Iraq started, Hudheifa and other followers of Azzam crossed into that country, basing themselves in Falluja. “We were trying to convince Muslim scholars to begin the resistance,” he explained. “They had no plan. They were sleeping. For one month they did not agree. They said, ‘Go back to your country.’ We were more than thirty or forty Arabs, without weapons. We went from mosque to mosque, from school to school. People said. ‘The U.S. brought us democracy.’ They believed the lies of Bush, that he will bring democracy and freedom.” Everything changed on April 28, he said, when American soldiers killed seventeen people at a demonstration and twelve more at a subsequent one. Soon after that, rumors spread of four American soldiers raping a seventeen-year-old girl, with pictures distributed on the Internet. “This story was the main cause of starting the resistance in Falluja,” Hudheifa explained. “The rape made them reconsider, but there was still no action. I was watching from far only with a smile. In the beginning they said, ‘Go make jihad in your country.’ After the rape they said, ‘Okay, we want to start now or tomorrow we will find our mothers or daughters or sisters raped.’ This story exploded the resistance in Falluja. Then they called us for a meeting and said, ‘You were right.’ We had told them from the first day the Iraqi army abandoned weapons to take them, but they said, ‘This is stealing, haram [forbidden], looting. You could buy an RPG for three U.S. dollars in those days. The Americans changed the ideology of the people with their oppression. They could have been the best power in the world.”

Hudheifa spent four months in Iraq imparting his knowledge to the indigenous resistance. His background gave him immediate currency. “I am the son of Abdallah Azzam,” he said, “so everybody wanted to listen, and I have experience in three or four jihads in different countries, and a lot of the Iraqi resistance had no plan. We gave them our experience so they could start from where we stopped, so they don’t start from zero. Jihad is an obligation as a Muslim. If you can’t support jihad with fighting, you can support with ideas or teaching. So we tried and we still do. Followers of Abdallah Azzam helped plan the resistance in all of Iraq, and we had hoped for a united resistance with Shiites. We were aiming to bring unity between Sunnis and Shiites with resistance on both sides, but the Shiite leadership was against us and Zarqawi spoiled it, making it fail.” The Iraqi resistance requested his father’s books, he told me, and beginning in June 2003 they became widely available in Falluja and Ramadi.

He explained that his father “talks about the crimes of Saddam and what real jihad is.” His father had also opposed Saddam, he told me, trying to make it clear that Azzam’s followers opposed the Baathists as well and were not fighting in support of the former regime. “My father was kicked out of the University of Jordan for opposing Saddam’s war against Iran, and he was sentenced to death in Iraq for his work against Saddam. We are not with Saddam or the Baathists. We want to support the Muslim population.”

Things were more difficult now, he explained. “After September 11 all money-transfer systems changed, but they can’t stop financial support for the resistance.” Wealthy businessmen from outside Iraq still sent money. “We have Iraqis who were in the Office of Services and are now in Iraq,” he told me. But still, the good old days of jihad were in Afghanistan. Back then, “We used to go safely and securely, get a plane from anywhere to Pakistan and find vehicles from different organizations who sent us to rest houses, who took us to safe training camps and then safely to Afghanistan. Now if you want to go to Iraq, there are thousands of dangers facing you. Going into Iraq is very dangerous.”

Hudheifa was fiercely opposed to terrorists like Zarqawi, who, he said, gave jihad a bad name. “We say to people who give funds, ‘Don’t give to Zarqawi. Give to Iraqis, give to the Association of Muslim Scholars. They are the right way. Our school supports them.’”

Hudheifa viewed his support for the Iraqi resistance as consistent with his support for other indigenous Muslim movements fighting in self-defense. “Iraq is a defensive jihad,” he said. “Troops from abroad came to a Muslim country.” Hudheifa told me he was proud of his work in Iraq. “Praise God, we were successful. Everything is going much better. Much better than we were planning. It won’t take like Afghanistan, nine years, to kick the U.S. out. It will be much faster. If I find a way to go into Iraq, I would go. I told the government. But we must know our aims and goals. Just exploding cars is not enough. We need a plan for the future. When the Americans leave, we will look for the next place.”

Although Azzam had opposed attacking Muslim governments, other veterans of the Afghan jihad took a different view, preferring to target what they called “the close enemy” first rather than “the far enemy,” such as the Americans. Sheikh Jawad al-Faqih was one such veteran who seemed to want to target all enemies. I met him at the home of a Salafi contact called Abu Saad. Sheikh Jawad was a fearsome Brobdingnagian man with a thick beard and a clipped mustache (en vogue for Salafis); a large head; thick, fiery, protruding eyebrows; immense hands; and a raspy voice. He was a Salafi Hagrid. He wore a black salwar kameez and a white ishmag (head scarf) without an eqal (rope), which was the Salafi way. Like a good Salafi, he strictly adhered to the requirement that one’s beard be longer than what a hand’s grip can hold. A Palestinian whose uncles had fought the British occupation of Palestine, he had initially been influenced by secular nationalism. In 1982 he found “the correct way,” and abandoned his nationalist sentiments. “I looked at all Islamic groups, only praying and fasting,” he said. “I didn’t like it. To be a real Muslim you have to fight and make the wrong right and hit powers who work against the right and attack Christians, Jews, and the mukhabarat.”

When he encountered followers of Juheiman al-Utaibi, a Saudi radical who in 1979 had led the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and was later executed by Saudi authorities, Sheikh Jawad explained, “I found their ideas were what I was looking for.” Sheikh Jawad had served in the Jordanian special forces, and he applied the skills he learned when he joined a militant group called Muwahidun, which meant Unitarians, or Monotheists. But in 1985 eight of the members were arrested. Sheikh Jawad was spared arrest because he feigned mental retardation. He was disappointed with his comrades in arms upon their release. “They were afraid,” he said. “Their ideas about jihad changed in jail, so they refused to work with me.” Disgusted with his fellow Jordanians, Sheikh Jawad was determined to leave. In 1989 he went to Yemen with another Jordanian, and together with seventeen Yemenis they made the journey to Pakistan. He had previously tried to go to Afghanistan but failed. In Pakistan he stayed for two nights in Peshawar’s Beit al-Shuhada (home of the martyrs) guest house before entering Afghanistan’s Sada Camp, where he received training in Soviet bloc weapons and was sent to the Jalalabad front. “I refused to be with Afghans,” he explained. “They had beards, but they were communists or used drugs.” He added, “I don’t like Afghans except for the Taliban.” Sheikh Jawad fought in four battles before being injured and transferred to a hospital. Osama bin Laden, known to friends like Sheikh Jawad as Abu Abdallah, spotted him carrying a heavy mortar across a river. “He liked me and said, ‘Sign this guy up,’” said Sheikh Jawad. “He was impressed with my strength. Abu Abdallah was a brother, a jihadi. He was very humble. He helped the jihad with money.”

Sheikh Jawad returned to Jordan, and then “a friend of mine asked me to come back to make operations on the other side of the border,” meaning Israel, so “we smuggled weapons into Palestine.” During the Gulf War he trucked food aid from Jordan into Baghdad. At the time many Afghan veterans gathered in Jordan, preparing to enter Iraq to defend it from American occupation, which would not come for another fourteen years. Instead, together with a doctor called Samih Zeidan, Sheikh Jawad established Jeish Muhammad (Army of Muhammad), and he imposed a strict training regimen on his recruits. Sheikh Jawad admitted to carrying out operations against infidels: attacking a British target, attempting to attack U.S. marines, “killing a priest,” and “exploding a Jew.” He established cells of fighters he called “families,” each of which consisted of five fighters who did not know the identities of any other families. Sheikh Jawad claimed that Jeish Muhammad had cells around the Arab world. Most were veterans of the Afghan jihad. In 1991 a disgruntled member of Jeish Muhammad confessed the names of the organization’s members to the Jordanian intelligence. In 1992 members established a new organization called the Jordanian Afghanis, which bombed a movie theater in the city of Zarqa.

Sheikh Jawad disliked living in Jordan and viewed Jordanians as unreliable. “I was jailed thirteen times,” he said, “nine times because Jordanians named me, even when they gave their word that they wouldn’t.” Likewise, he was suspicious of fellow Palestinians in Jordan. “This generation of Palestinians,” he explained, “their fathers fled Palestine, so they can’t be trusted.” Sheikh Jawad was now a car dealer, but he missed the jihad. “I wish I was in Afghanistan now like I wish I was in paradise,” he told me. Likewise, he hoped to go to Iraq but worried that the Jordanians would turn him in. “If I reach the borders they will tell the Americans or the rafidha, [but] I wish I could go.”

“Iraq has a different taste. The water, the dates, the yogurt. It is the country of the caliphate. I am addicted to Iraq, addicted to jihad.”

Outside, the opulent western Amman homes are unpainted, the cinder blocks still showing, rebar protruding from unfinished rooftops. Hastily constructed square houses are piled one atop the other haphazardly along the hills, an architectural patchwork like in a South American barrio, with narrow alleys covered by laundry hanging between rooftops. Empty lots become trash lots. Thin metal minarets jut up from the cacophony, their mosques mere unadorned squares like all the homes but with a speaker attached to the metal tower. In a maze of narrow treeless streets in Rusaifa, south of Amman, shops cover the heads of female dummies in the windows; on the streets some women wear the burqa. Muddy cars drive through roads built in wadis (dry riverbeds) and trash collects on cliff sides. In the distance the yellow and red hills and dunes of the desert look cold against the gray winter sky. Like a Jewish settler in the West Bank, Muhamad Wasfi built his home on a deserted moonscape. It too appeared unfinished yet old, the yard covered with garbage, shrubs, a tricycle, and a toy gun.

Abu Muntasar, as he is called, wore fake Nike training pants and a matching blue sweatshirt. He had a strong thick body, with a belly that showed he was not as active as he used to be. His thick beard was unkempt, but his mustache was groomed short like a Salafi’s, and his hair was close-cropped. He had a false front tooth. Jordan’s winters are bitter, and we sat close to a gas heater in his guest room. Though Abu Muntasar was born in the West Bank in 1963, his father worked for the Jordanian Army. “I still remember the day I left Palestine,” he said, “with all the pieces of the Palestinian people. The Jews were raping and killing, so people were scared for their honor and left for Jordan.” His family moved first to Amman and then to Zarqa, northwest of the capital, where many military families were based. Abu Muntasar served for two years in the Jordanian military before earning a degree in business management and working as a civil servant. “At that time I generally began learning Islamic thought,” he explained. He admired the radical Islamic Group of Egypt and hoped to establish a similar Jordanian movement. “As Palestinian people we want to find a solution for our question,” he told me. “Although I was young, I saw no other solution for our problems other than Islam, so I wasn’t affected by secular Palestinian movements. I wanted to do something for Islam and Muslims and help establish the Muslim state and make Palestine the capital of our new caliphate.” I asked him if he thought this was possible. “I believe it without any doubt,” he said. “This has been proven by the Prophet Muhammad in his words.”

He viewed Jordan’s Islamic movements as contained or co-opted by the government. Like many Salafis, he was autodidactic, reading the works of Abdallah Azzam and the radical Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman currently imprisoned in America for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He read their books and listened to tapes of their sermons, admiring them for going to Afghanistan. In 1989 he went to Pakistan and then Afghanistan “to see the reality of Muslims and their movements, of the Islamic nation and jihad.” He dreamed of starting a jihad in Sham (the lands of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine) and liberating his homeland. “I was lucky,” he said, because he got to meet his hero Rahman in the Saudi-run Ansur guest house. The sheikh lectured Abu Muntasar and others about jihad: its justification, its history, and its future. “It was the first and last time that I saw the sheikh, but for me it is a rich history,” he recalled with nostalgia. Before going to the Jalalabad front, he was trained in the Sada and Salahedin camps, and fought under the leadership of an Egyptian called Abu Uthman. He also fought with Afghan leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf but complained that “Sayyaf disappointed many people in the final years of the jihad by taking the side of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. He should have taken the other side.”

In 1990 Abu Muntasar reached an agreement with jihad officials in Afghanistan that would allow him to bring his wife and children and work as a teacher with the sons of mujahideen, while continuing to fight during his vacations. Iraq invaded Kuwait upon his return to Jordan, “and my ideas changed,” he said. “The war was here.” Although a huge international coalition punished Saddam for violating international law, Israel’s defiance of United Nations rulings were ignored, he said. “It was a critical point for any Muslim who loves his religion and nation,” he said. Together with a Jordanian doctor called Muhammad al-Rifai, who was a leader of Jordan’s Afghan Arabs, he “established a jihad fighting movement based on spreading tawhid and jihad, and we directed our energies against Israel.” Led by Rifai, his movement was called the Organized Movement of Islamic Call and Jihad. The main goal of the organization, which he claimed had thousands of members and supporters, was to establish a caliphate and then to destroy Israel. Abu Muntasar, the organization’s speaker, spread its ideas in mosques and schools, although he had no formal religious education. “Islamic thought is something personal,” he said. “I taught myself. I was a leader and had to learn more and teach in people’s homes and mosques, even funeral houses.” Following the Gulf War, the Jordanian government cracked down on Islamic movements, and Abu Muntasar was jailed with many of his associates, since their group was affiliated with the Jeish Muhammad. Abu Muntasar had opposed operations in Jordan. “We knew it would be useless, and we had a much more important goal,” he said. In prison he was beaten and tortured. “Torture is how they got information,” he said. “Torture is the best way to get information.” (I joked that perhaps I should torture him, then, to get more answers.) Following their release from prison, Rifai returned to Afghanistan and then sought asylum in England, while Abu Muntasar worked as a part-time imam in mosques and roved the country to teach and lecture.

Abu Muntasar described the 1990s as his trial-and-error period. He opposed attacking the Jordanian government, explaining that “the near enemy exists to protect the far enemy, but if you attack the near enemy, then you alienate the population. They will say the dead man is a member of this or that tribe, he prays with you, it will get people to hate you. But if you attack the far enemy, you are also attacking the near enemy, but the regime cannot say anything to you because people will hate them. If you kill a Jew or Americans, people will like you.” Abu Muntasar was arrested once more for his speeches, and later for his activities with Zarqawi. “What I am concerned with now is continuing the Islamic call and establishing an Islamic way of life and waiting for the correct jihad. The next battlefield is Sham, and we must prepare the people of Sham for this. What happened in Iraq and before in Afghanistan has extension. The U.S. wants to get inside the capital of Islam, which is Sham. This entrance will be through Syria. Syria will be the slaughterhouse of Americans and their supporters, so they are welcome to get inside Syria and be butchered.”

Abu Saad called me one night and picked me up from my hotel in Amman. In the front passenger seat sat thirty-seven-year-old Abu Muhamad. Though he was seated in the front and I in the back, lighting my notebook with my mobile phone in order to take notes, I could see from how his head touched the car’s roof and his long legs pressed against the dashboard that Abu Muhamad was a giant man. He had a dark sima above his prominent brow, and though I could see his thick lips, his face was shrouded by a dark ishmag with an eqal. He refused to tell me whether he was originally Palestinian, explaining that nationalism was against Islam.

Soon after the fall of Baghdad, Abu Muhamad had made his way to Baquba, a town east of Baghdad near the Iranian border. “I was thirsty for jihad,” he explained. “I felt I had a duty to go to Iraq. It’s a duty of any Muslim if he can.” He had previously lived in Iraq for five years before, and so had established relationships with “good people on the right side,” and he knew the country’s geography and dialect, so he passed for a local. Abu Muhamad had been married in Iraq in 1989, but when he returned to fight the Americans he had not expected to see his family again. Though at first he and his friends were unorganized, they soon met fighters from western Iraq and became more involved in the jihad. Abu Muhamad had been a sniper during his Jordanian military service. The Iraqis had not needed much training. “Do you know an Iraqi who doesn’t know how to fight?” he asked me. Abu Muhamad, who had known Zarqawi before the war, ended up in a group of five or six fighters belonging to Zarqawi’s movement but composed mainly of Iraqis. The group was commanded by a former Iraqi pilot. “God’s support came and sent us brothers from Ansar al-Sunna who trained us in street fighting,” he explained. “Jihad will spread around the world. The Americans are trying to attack Syria, and we are expecting them to attack.”

He refused to discuss most of the operations he had taken part in but admitted they had involved shootings and bombs and explained that most suicide bombers were not Iraqi. Jihad was an obligation for Muslims, he told me. “It is not about Iraq. The higher goal is to establish an Islamic state.” Referring to Osama bin Laden, he told me, “Sheikh Abu Abdallah said, ‘The foreigners and infidels and their interests are everywhere, so anywhere you can hit them you will hurt them.’”

He complained that Jordan was protecting Israel. “If this regime gave the youth freedom they would eat Israel,” he said. “They wouldn’t even leave their bones. But regimes are trying to protect Israel.” Abu Muhamad supported attacks against Iraq’s Shiite civilians because he considered them rafidha. “The infidel sects are one, if they are Jews or Shiites.” He explained that Ibn Taimiya, the thirteenth-century scholar loved by Salafis, had said that Shiites “were worse than Jews or Christians. Shiites hate Islam and hate Sunnis.”

Abu Muhamad’s days began early, although he and his fellow fighters rarely left the house during daylight, executing most operations at night. During the day, “one of the brothers would lecture, or we prepared for operations.” Before his departure for Iraq he had been arrested, accused of being a mujahid. “They called us takfiris,” he complained. “The man who says, ‘Don’t drink alcohol, don’t dance, but pray instead’—they call him a terrorist.” Although Sheikh Jawad had spoken a rich Arabic, referring to the Koran, Abu Muhamad’s speech was heavily colloquial. He called Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak a “pimp” for going to pay condolences to Tony Blair following the July 7 London bombings.

Abu Muhamad had not been in Iraq for a year, but he longed to return. “Iraq has a different taste,” he said. “The water, the dates, the yogurt. It is the country of the caliphate. I am addicted to Iraq, addicted to jihad.”

Yet no one was more addicted to jihad than the “Sheikh of the Slaughterers,” Ahmad Fadhil Nazal al-Khalaylah, more commonly known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He hailed from Zarqa, which had been the capital of radical Islam in Jordan since the 1960s and had also produced most of the Jordanian jihadis fighting in Iraq. Zarqa’s population of nearly one million is made up mostly of Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 and a second wave of refugees who came in 1967. Abdallah Azzam had also settled there.

Zarqawi, who took his city as his namesake, had been a wild young man, with no interest in religion. A high school dropout, he had a reputation for getting tattoos, drinking alcohol, getting into fights, and ending up in jail. Like many disaffected Muslim youth, he was moved to fight in Afghanistan by stories of mujahideen heroism there. But by the time he arrived as a twenty-three-year-old, the Russians had withdrawn, so he took part in the civil war. His journey to Afghanistan was arranged by Azzam’s Office of Mujahideen Services, then run by Azzam’s follower Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Majali, or Abu Qutaiba. Azzam’s son Hudheifa told me that in 1989 he picked up Zarqawi from the airport in Peshawar and took him to the Beit al-Shuhada guest house. “Zarqawi was a very simple person, silent, he didn’t talk. As a witness I can say that he was very well trained in military skills, especially in making bombs. In English you say ‘braveheart,’ but he had a dead heart—he was never scared. Bin Laden wanted Zarqawi to join Al Qaeda, but he didn’t like Al Qaeda’s ideology, so he left for Khost. I saw him in Gardez and Khost; if he was alone against a thousand soldiers he would not retreat. He was not a leader at the time, just an ordinary person and a good fighter.”

Sheikh Jawad, the imposing former jihadi, had a similar view of his friend Zarqawi, whom he called Abu Musab. “He used to come to my house,” he said. “We went to Afghanistan together. Abu Musab was a normal man, afraid of God, a very natural man, didn’t have a lot of knowledge.” Sheikh Jawad told me that Zarqawi gave two of his sisters as wives to Afghans in order to strengthen his relationship with his hosts. “Afghans took care of him, and he gained experience,” he said. Zarqawi was placed in charge of Jordanians arriving in Afghanistan and later led a group called Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Sham).

In Pakistan Zarqawi met Isam Taher al-Oteibi al-Burqawi, known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Maqdisi was a self-taught Palestinian cleric living in Kuwait. Like many Palestinians who relocated to Jordan from Kuwait, he had belonged to an important Kuwaiti Salafi organization called Jamiyat al-Turath al-Islami (The Society of Islamic Heritage), led by the Egyptian cleric Sheikh Abdel Rahman al-Khaleq. Khaleq had come to Kuwait from Egypt in the 1960s, a period when many Egyptian Islamists moved to the Gulf to teach in order to escape government persecution. This persecution persisted until Egyptian clerics like Omar Abdel Rahman, who led the Islamic Group, declared the state itself to be the enemy. This sort of radical Islam was a product of Egyptian prisons, and when these Egyptians were encouraged to take their struggle to Afghanistan they clashed with Abdallah Azzam, who emphasized the importance of fighting defensive jihads. Egyptians such as Abdel Rahman and his followers sought to fight Arab regimes first. Their followers were the takfiri par excellence, sometimes viewing all of society as the enemy and demonstrating a willingness to ruthlessly kill civilians. Maqdisi was influenced by this school of thought and brought it back home with him.

Hudheifa Azzam met Maqdisi in Pakistan and was similarly unimpressed. Like Zarqawi, he said, “Maqdisi is also an ordinary person,” adding that at first Maqdisi had condemned his father as an infidel, but after Azzam was assassinated he apologized and said he had been mistaken. Upon arriving in Jordan in 1991, Maqdisi led Jordan’s Salafi movement, composed of Jordanian and Palestinian Salafis who had fought or trained in Afghanistan. Maqdisi called his organization Tawhid (Monotheism), but he later changed the name to Bayat al-Imam (Oath of Loyalty to the Leader). He traveled around Jordan with his book Milat Ibrahim (The Creed of Abraham), which was the most important source for Jordanian Jihadis. The book, also available on Maqdisi’s website, discusses some of the main duties the followers of Ibrahim have, such as demonstrating that they are innocent of any infidelity and improper worship of God and declaring infidels to be infidels. Just as infidels are infidels with God, the followers of Ibrahim have to be infidels with the gods and laws of the infidels. Likewise, they have to demonstrate hatred and enmity for the infidels until they return to Allah and renounce their previous infidelity. The followers of Ibrahim also have to renounce tyrants and impious or un-Islamic governments, call them infidels, and call all the people who “worship” them infidels as well. These tyrants include stone idols, the sun, the moon, trees, graves (a reference to the Sufi and Shiite practice of visiting the graves of saints and imams), and laws made by men. It is the duty of the sect of Ibrahim to expose the infidelity of all these forms of worship and idolatry and manifest their hatred and enmity to them as well as showing how silly these things were. Infidels, tyrants, and oppressors all deserve hate and public condemnation.

According to Maqdisi, democracy was a heretical religion constituting the rejection of Allah, monotheism, and Islam. It was a bida (innovation), placing something above the word of God and ignoring the laws of Islam. Only God could legislate laws, and God’s laws had to be applied to the apostates, the fornicators, thieves, alcohol consumers, unveiled women, and the obscene. Maqdisi held that the regimes that ruled Muslims were un-Islamic and illegitimate. Therefore, Muslims did not owe them obedience and should fight them to establish a true Islamic state.

When Zarqawi returned to Jordan, he sought out former mujahideen he had met in Afghanistan, including Maqdisi. In the summer of 1993 Zarqawi visited Muhamad Abu Muntasar Wasfi. “He sat there, where you are,” Wasfi said, pointing to the pillow I was resting on. We sat in his cold guest room as his sons brought in sweet tea and came in to replenish our glasses. Wasfi stroked a cat that wandered in. His children screamed and fought in the next room. His youngest boy, Mudhafer, came in to ask him for some money. “I like to call him Abu Musab al-Khalaylah,” Wasfi told me about Zarqawi. “Abu Musab had heard of me. He was a simple Muslim who wanted to serve Islam. He didn’t stay long here, and the next day he came with another guy. We sat and we spoke about our hopes and dreams and ambitions to establish the caliphate and raise the flag of jihad against the enemies of Islam everywhere. I disagreed with him on some strategic issues, like his view of Israel and Palestine. He didn’t have an idea of making jihad against Jews and Israel. Abu Musab wanted to change Arab regimes.”

Zarqawi invited Wasfi to join Bayat al-Imam and offered him the position of emir, or commander, from the Arabic word amr, meaning “to order.” Wasfi joined but refused the position, claiming that because he was Palestinian he would be subjected to greater retribution by the Jordanian authorities, who were more lenient on Jordanians. Maqdisi, Zarqawi, and Wasfi led the group, limiting their initial activities to proselytizing. “We had no ability to make jihad,” Wasfi admitted, “but despite the lack of ability it didn’t mean we should stop.” Maqdisi had seven grenades from Kuwait, which he gave “to some brothers to make operations in Palestine to kill Israelis,” Wasfi said. “The brothers were arrested, and the government uncovered the organization and arrested the leaders, but before that we were fugitives for four months. We were arrested and tortured.” Wasfi claims to have suffered “sleep deprivation, beatings, tearing off beards.” As a result he has rheumatism and his knees often hurt; he couldn’t kneel properly when he prayed for the first year after his release. “When we were put in group prison, we worked on expanding the organization inside and outside the jail. It was my job to organize prisoners. Jail was very good for the movement. Jail enhanced the personalities of prisoners and let them know how large was the cause they believed in. Inside jail is a good environment to get supporters and proselytize. Inside jail is oppression.” Wasfi admitted they recruited from criminal ranks. “Even the worst criminal is still repressed because they did not impose Islamic law on him, and when you talk to them with Islam they see the difference between a system of punishment made by humans and a system made by God. This made them supporters of the Islamic call and enemies of oppression.”

The Jordanian authorities placed all the Islamist prisoners together and in isolation from other prisoners. They formed relationships, exchanged ideas and knowledge, and established trust in one another. They continued organizing jihadists, especially former criminals like Zarqawi, until their release from the Sawaqa prison in a 1999 amnesty. Wasfi was the movement’s spokesman. He explained that even while in prison Zarqawi and Maqdisi reached an outside audience, influencing people in the various cities where they were imprisoned. By then, the awkward and solemn Zarqawi had begun to bloom in his own jihadi way, while Maqdisi, despite the anger and violence of his ideas, avoided conflict. “Zarqawi was very charismatic,” said Wasfi. “Maqdisi was calm and passive. We were dealing with prison authorities in a very aggressive way, and Zarqawi was tribal, so his tribal position gave him more power than a Palestinian. If your root is pure Jordanian and you have a big tribe, then you have more power. Prisoners liked a strong representative like Zarqawi, and he fought with the guards. He was very harsh and strong when dealing with members of the organization. He prevented them from mixing with other organizations so they would not be influenced by other ideas, and he prevented them from moving around freely in the prison, even me, but I rebelled against him.” Few other jihadis dared to defy Zarqawi save Abdallah Hashaika, who was the emir of the Jordanian Afghans. Zarqawi organized a coup, forcing Maqdisi to hand over control of the movement. When Wasfi told me this, Abu Saad, who was present for the meeting, grew anxious—he didn’t want me to learn of tensions within the movement.

Zarqawi’s aggressive personality attracted the tough young men imprisoned with him, and Maqdisi was relegated to a theological position, issuing fatwas. Like jihadi Salafis outside prison, the jihadis in Sawaqa were embroiled in internal conflicts, declaring one another infidels. “In prison a disagreement of ideas led to problems,” said Wasfi. He refused to get into the details but added that “Abu Musab had many wrong decisions that I did not accept, like enmity with other groups.” Five months before his release, Wasfi abandoned the movement. After his release he focused on “personal dawa,” or working to spread Salafism on his own. Though officially forbidden to teach, he still does in secret. “After Zarqawi was released, he asked me to work together, but I refused,” Wasfi said.

The men’s time in prison was as important for the movement as their experiences in Afghanistan were, bonding together those who suffered and giving them time to formulate their ideas. For some it was educational as well. Hudheifa Azzam was impressed with the changes prison wrought in the men. “Maqdisi returned to Jordan from Afghanistan and educated himself,” he told me. “He had a lot of time to read in jail. When I heard Zarqawi speak, I didn’t believe this is the same Zarqawi. Six years in jail gave him a good chance to educate himself.”

Shortly after his release in 1999, Zarqawi left for Pakistan, where he was temporarily arrested before making it to Afghanistan along with his key followers. Zarqawi was influenced by Egyptian jihadist groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, which held that the leader should be based outside the country in order to avoid harassment by the mukhabarat. Maqdisi opposed conducting operations within Jordan.

In Afghanistan Zarqawi found both Al Qaeda and the Taliban insufficiently extreme for him. Zarqawi also criticized Osama bin Laden for not calling Arab governments infidels and attacking them. For Zarqawi, the near enemy was the priority, while for bin Laden it was the far enemy. Hudheifa Azzam explained that bin Laden’s Front for Fighting the Jews and Crusaders, established in 1998, required its members to take an oath of allegiance and to fight rival movements, both of which Zarqawi refused to do. Al Qaeda was far more pragmatic; its members negotiated with Pakistan and Iran. Zarqawi was such a strict Salafi that he condemned the Taliban for lack of piety. He criticized them for not being Salafis, insufficiently imposing Sharia, and recognizing the United Nations, an infidel organization. And he condemned Al Qaeda for associating with the Taliban. Zarqawi established his own camp in the western Afghan city of Herat, near the border with Iran. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Zarqawi made his way through Iran to autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq—a point worth noting, since the Bush administration claimed Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq was proof of an Al Qaeda connection. But Zarqawi linked up with the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in a region outside Saddam’s reach. With Saddam removed from power on April 9, 2003, Zarqawi had a new failed state to operate in. By the summer of 2003 he had claimed responsibility for the devastating attack against the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad’s Canal Hotel. Zarqawi allied himself with Ansar al-Sunna, the reconstituted Ansar al-Islam, which was composed mostly of Iraqis, whereas the members of Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group were mostly foreign Arabs.

In October 2004, Iraqi intelligence claimed that Zarqawi’s group consisted of 1,000 to 1,500 fighters, foreign and Iraqi. Zarqawi’s inner circle was made up of nine emirs, all of whom were non-Iraqi and close friends. The movement had stored weapons in secret depots in Iraq.

Their plan was to turn Iraq into hell for all its residents, to prevent an elected government from taking power, and to create a civil war between Sunnis and the hated Shiites. Zarqawi’s group was responsible for the gruesome videotaped beheadings of foreigners and Iraqis accused of collaborating with the occupation. Their bombs slaughtered masses of Shiites as well.

Though Zarqawi had run his own camp independently of bin Laden in Afghanistan, in October 2004 he swore an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda, renaming his organization Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers and also joining the Salafiya al-Mujahedia, or Salafi Mujahideen, movement in Iraq. Bin Laden soon announced that Zarqawi was the head of Al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. Either Bin Laden wanted to co-opt a rival jihadi group that was getting most of the attention and actually confronting the Americans, or Zarqawi needed the Saudi financier’s help, or at least the connection with the hero of international jihad, in order to attract more foreign fighters and support. On December 9, 2004, Zarqawi’s military committee issued a statement about the upcoming January elections. It addressed “all the parties participating in the elections.” It threatened Shiites around the world for supporting the crusader occupation of Iraq. It called Ayatollah Ali Sistani the greatest collaborator with the crusaders. It condemned the apostate police, national guardsmen, and army for attacking Falluja. It warned the rejectionist Shiites and their political parties, the Kurdish pesh merga, the Christians, and the hypocrites such as the Islamic Party that the Tawhid movement would increase attacks on them.

Though Al Qaeda under bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had not made Shiites their targets and did not publicly condemn them, Zarqawi held that Shiites were the most evil of mankind. He compared them to a snake, a scorpion, and an enemy spy, like the thirteenth-century cleric Ibn Taimiya, the father of Wahhabism and Salafism. Shiites were polytheists who worshiped at graves and shrines, he argued. They were to be avoided at all costs. They could not be married, they could not bear witness, and animals they slaughtered could not be eaten. Zarqawi defended operations that caused Muslims to die. Martyrdom operations, as he called suicide bombings, were sanctified by Muslim scholars, and defending Islam was even more important than defending the lives of Muslims.

Zarqawi reserved special hatred for the Jordanian monarchy and security forces. He sought to delegitimize the Hashemite kingdom and its claim to power based on its descent from the Prophet Muhammad. It was true that King Abdullah was a descendant of Muhammad, but through Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle, who had fought against him. This claim was first made in 1995 by two Jordanian brothers from the al-Awamli family, who sent out a mass fax condemning the regime. They were shot in their homes following a confrontation with Jordanian police. Zarqawi’s confrontation with Jordan culminated in the November 9, 2005, attacks, dubbed by Jordanians “our 9/11,” in which almost all the victims were Jordanians or Palestinians. By this point his actions were proving too much even for the most radical to stomach.

Hudheifa Azzam viewed Zarqawi and his followers as “against everybody, even themselves. The followers of Abdallah Azzam opposed killing civilians and conducting operations in Muslim countries, he told me. “Our militant activities are only against the military,” he said. “No one can give the green light to kill an innocent human being. In 9/11 and 7/7, innocent people were killed.” Hudheifa also opposed targeting Shiites. “Abdallah Azzam said Shiites are Muslims,” he told me, “and even if they are not Muslims, their blood is still protected.”


The war in Iraq galvanized young admirers of Zarqawi and other mujahideen, who frequented jihadi websites and Internet chat rooms, where they could watch filmed encomiums to their heroes and violent depictions of their latest exploits. There were several groups of young men on trial in Jordan when I visited, all failed jihadis, but perhaps more important than succeeding in their quixotic and ill-planned schemes was the time spent in Jordanian prisons, where they could meet their heroes. Like inner-city fans of hip-hop in the United States, where time in jail could be a rite of passage that established street credibility, for these young men in Jordan, jail time proved they were tough enough and dedicated to the cause.

On January 10 I attended another hearing for the ten young men from Irbid. The only two witnesses for the prosecution were set to testify. The courtroom was heavy with blue uniformed security officers. As the judge spoke, the prisoners swaggered and laughed. The first witness was Lieutenant Saud, clad in a motorcycle jacket. He put his hand above a Koran and swore to tell the truth, then stated that he had received information about a group of dangerous terrorists near the Syrian border and was ordered to arrest them. Upon questioning by the defense he admitted that he had found no weapons in their possession. The second witness, with long hair and a long beard, was accused of selling the defendants a Kalashnikov. The prosecutor read the witness’s confession, but the witness renounced it, claiming he had never sold any weapons and explaining that the mukhabarat had threatened him and ordered him to lie. The judge ordered him rearrested for perjury. Ashen-faced, he was led away as the prisoners in the cage shouted “Allahu Akbar! The way of God is jihad! God is your master and America is their master! Bush is your master! You have the worst master!” All the accused claimed to have been tortured, and all renounced their confessions. As the session ended the prisoners shouted, “This session we just wanted to hear the testimony, but in the next session we will teach them!”

“Most people here hate and hate and hate the U.S. administration,” attorney Samih Khreis told me. “And most people, if anybody has the opportunity to explode the White House, they would.” Khreis often represented Jordanians accused of terrorism; his clients had included Azmi al-Jayusi, a close Zarqawi associate, as well as members of Bayat al-Imam and Jeish Muhammad. A high-ranking member of the Jordanian bar association, Khreis remembered seeing mujahideen recruiters on the streets of Amman in the 1980s, working with the support of the Jordanian government and inviting young Jordanians to join the jihad in Afghanistan. “Governments taught them these ideas, Salafi, takfiri, to push them to Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and after the jihad they returned and they compared the government’s conduct with what they had taught them, so according to this thinking the governments were infidels. What happens daily motivates anybody to go to jihad. The magic turned against the magician. When they were against Soviets they were good, but against USA they are terrorists?”

Although in the past most recruits to the jihad were uneducated and poor, he said, “after the war in Iraq there was a large increase, and many educated men joined, like engineers. This was new. Most men going to Iraq now are educated and from Irbid, and most are Jordanians, they come from good families.” He added that most families of accused terrorists were proud of their sons. Most of them were beaten and tortured during their interrogations, he told me. “Electric torture, sleep deprivation, being tied by hands so you are on your toes. They do it to get confessions.” Khreis’s youngest client was an eighteen-year-old jihad hopeful. “I take these cases because the American government is against them, and I am not with the USA, and the Jordanian government wants to satisfy USA.” Like many Jordanians, Khreis believed Zarqawi was not responsible for the November 9, 2005, hotel bombings in Amman. “The hotel bombings were done by the Mossad, maybe the CIA is involved. There is a secret agreement between the Jordanian government and the USA to bring American forces here to attack Syria, so they want to prepare people for the attack on Syria.”

An insider in the Royal Court who studied Jordanian attitudes explained such beliefs as shanateh, or schadenfreude. “Whatever is shanateh to America, we like it.” A June 2005 Pew poll found that 60 percent of Jordanians trusted bin Laden and 50 percent supported violence to get rid of non-Muslim influence. The report stunned the Jordanian government. “We said, No way, our people are not like that,” the insider said. But when the Jordanian government conducted its own research it found similar responses. “Even if we assume the Pew poll is exaggerated, maybe 25 percent trust him very much and 35 percent trust him somewhat. The Pew poll is exaggerated, but if Zarqawi wants to recruit here, how many does he need? Even if one-half of 1 percent join, he’s okay.” Despite the support Zarqawi and bin Laden received in the polls, the insider believed it did not reflect a true radicalization; it was merely shanateh. “When it comes to Israel, we are helpless,” he said. “Hundreds of millions of Arabs, and we can’t hurt Israel or America. So we can be happy with what is happening to America in Iraq.”

This inside source also blamed the Jordanian government’s tolerance of Salafism. “This is an appeasement from the security services. The church got them to ban The Da Vinci Code, but in Abdali you can buy Salafi books. Since the ’70s they are turning a blind eye.” He added that the requirements for studying Islamic law at the University of Jordan were lower than for any other subject. “Sharia students are the ones who get the worst scores and can’t get into other schools, the ones with no critical thinking skills. The Sharia school in the university accepts the dumbest students. They tell them, ‘All other majors are closed to you. Become a preacher.’” There are more than three thousand mosques in Jordan, he told me, but one-tenth of them lack a regular imam, which means that “anyone can stand up and do the Friday sermon.” In addition, he said, “1,450 imams earn less than one hundred dinars a month, so you can buy them easily. So the quality of the preachers is low.”

A Jordanian woman who ran youth empower ment and education programs throughout the Middle East worried that recruits were drawn to Salafism because “they are discouraged and depressed. Across the whole region youth lack dreams because they have been repressed by the system. It’s not just poverty. Wealthy individuals are joining the jihad. There is a lack of hope and dreams. The youth feel they are of no value to society and become a burden, so of course they are attracted to these extreme ideologies.”

Muhammad Abu Rumman, a Jordanian journalist specializing in Islamic movements and a former Muslim Brother himself, attributed the attraction of Salafism to hopelessness. “The political environment and conditions make them feel bad,” he told me. “They have no hope for the future with the political system here, so they try by themselves to do what the government cannot do. They are victims of conditions in Jordan and the Arab world. Political consciousness is born in bad political, economic, social conditions. There is no religious reform. Religious understanding is not supporting democracy and human rights. It always says all the bad things are because we are far from Islam and we don’t obey Allah so the U.S. invaded Iraq.” He explained that the Muslim Brotherhood, which was Jordan’s only opposition movement but refrained from questioning the government’s legitimacy, “represents the middle class and shares in the system and government, but in their religious speech they use the same language as Salafis. These youth do what people say and don’t do. We all speak of Iraq. The preachers speak of Iraq, and of jihad in Iraq and Palestine. The king would be in danger if he tried to stop this. All of the society speaks the same language.”

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian researcher specializing in Salafism and a former reformist Salafi, agreed: “The main motivation for terrorists is unemployment and poverty. The people are between the hammer of the Americans and the anvil of exclusion from participating. If you open an office for volunteers for the jihad in Iraq here you would take a million, and from the rest of the Arab world you would take millions.” Abu Haniyeh complained that the American project of reform in the Arab world had given democracy a bad name. “The U.S. terminated us, the reformers,” he said, “because now the word ‘reform’ is a bad word, an American word. If people hear the word ‘reform, ’ they think of Iraq, which became a model of violence. And now the reform and the reformers are isolated from people, people don’t like them. Now the reform project became empty from the inside because the replacement of our regimes is very terrifying, so there is nothing left, only extremist talk.”

Yasar Qartarneh was a sharp, raucous, slightly overweight man who jokingly called himself an Islamist and liked to provoke. Qatarneh worked for Jordan’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, a think tank within the Jordanian government funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Terrorism is linked to events on both sides of the border,” he said. “For fifty years Islamist activists and politicians were the regime’s main source of legitimacy.” Now the chickens had come home to roost. He was concerned that just as America had given reform a bad name, so had Zarqawi tarnished resistance. “We have to draw a line which Zarqawi, Goddamn him, blurred. It was very legitimate to fight occupation. Zarqawi blurred the line, and now you can’t distinguish if what he does is terrorism or freedom fighting.”

The solution, according to Abu Rumman, was in Iraq. “If Sunnis played a political role in Iraq, Zarqawi would disappear, because who will support him?” Jordan was in a difficult position, watching its neighbor to the east nervously. In December 2004, King Abdullah warned of a “Shiite crescent” from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran that would destabilize the entire region. Iraq’s Shiites had demonstrated against Jordan in the past, condemning the country for its steady trickle of suicide bombers who crossed into Iraq and committed atrocities against Shiite civilians. In September 2005 Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that a civil war in Iraq would destabilize the entire region and complained that the Americans had handed Iraq over to Iran for no reason. From the Jordanian and Saudi perspective, indirectly supporting Sunni violence in Iraq was advantageous, because it would give Iraq’s Sunnis greater political leverage. Jordan was dependent on the Saudis. In 2007, when the Jordanian state was bankrupt, the Saudis paid Jordanian civil servants’ salaries. Compounding these difficulties, Jordan’s fragile authoritarian regime and precarious balance of Jordanian and Palestinian was being tested by the massive influx of refugees from Iraq.



“YOU HAVE NOW ENTERED IRAQ,” MY TAXI DRIVER JOKED. WE HAD, in fact, just entered Seyida Zeinab, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus built around the eponymous shrine to Zeinab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. This shrine city, long a destination for Shiite pilgrims, had become home to many Shiites among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had sought refuge in Syria from the hell their home had become in Iraq. “Everybody is Iraqi,” one taxi driver joked after he stopped to ask several people on the street for directions to a mosque and they replied in Iraqi Arabic that they did not know. “There are more Iraqis than Syrians.” Another, after complaining that the Iraqi refugees had driven up prices and insisting that there were four million of them in his city, explained, “Anybody who has a war comes to us: Sudan, Somalia.”

It was early 2006, the seventh day of the Muslim month of Muharram, and Shiites around the world were preparing for its tenth day, known as Ashura, in which they commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, brother of Zeinab, slain in 680 in a battle that crystallized the division between Sunni and Shiite Islam. A vast commercial district had grown around the shrine. Built at first to house and care for the pilgrims and seminary students, the district had become home to so many Iraqis that walking through its streets I was transported back to Baghdad—to Kadhimiya, the Shiite commercial district built around the shrine to Imam Kadhim. “It’s like they froze Iraq in 2003 and put it in a museum,” exclaimed photojournalist Ghaith Abdul Ahad, who accompanied me. And indeed, we were both struck by the feeling of being in a safe Baghdad. After nearly three years in the war-torn country, I had started to fear Iraqi men; all strangers were potential kidnappers.

All around us the streets bustled with men speaking Arabic in the Iraqi dialect, overflowing indifferently onto the road nicknamed “Iraqi Street.” The walls were festooned with posters from Iraqi elections past. Inside a bakery I saw a poster of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of populist cleric Muqtada. There was a mobile phone shop named after the Euphrates River and barbershops called Karbala and Son of Iraq. Ali Hamid, a Sunni barber from Baghdad’s Shiite district of Shaab, had been working in the same shop since 2003; he explained to me that many barbers had fled Iraq to Syria because Islamic radicals had forced them to close their shops. “In Iraq there is a sectarian war,” he told me. “Here we all get along.” He attributed this to the vigilant Syrian authorities. “Praise God, thanks to the Syrian government we have no problems. If anything happens, they deal with it. As shop owners we are not allowed to talk about sectarianism. Word spread to all business owners. You live in a different country, not your country, you have to respect their rules.” He added that Iraqi refugees feared the Syrian regime anyway. They had fled to Syria looking for a place to live and were tired of problems. In 2006 Ali began seeing large numbers of Iraqis coming. He noticed many more tea stands springing up and more pedestrians crowding the district.

In one alley, not far away, I found the famous Baghdad restaurant Patchi al-Hati. Patchi is sheep’s head, the meal I have dreaded most in my years in Iraq. The restaurant’s owner had left Iraq four months earlier, “because of the terrorism and looting,” the chef explained over an immense steaming pot boiling with the pungent smell. Anybody with money in Iraq was a target for kidnappers and extortionists. “They heard we were a famous restaurant and thought we were millionaires,” he told me.

In another alley I walked past the field office for Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, guarded by plainclothes Syrian security officials. Haeri had been a student of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr during his exile in Iran. Following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, Haeri had urged his followers to kill Baathists. He had once been close to Muqtada, but the two had fallen out. Further down the street I found the office of Muqtada’s representative, also guarded by Syrian security officials, who were friendly with the Sadr officials and zealous in demanding I provide official permission before entering. That evening I attended the recitation of Hussein’s story. Dozens of shoes were piled on the stairway and in a wooden shelf outside a room where men clad in customary Mahdi Army garb—black shirts with black head scarves or headbands—sat listening to Sheikh Ali wail the story of Hussein’s bravery and betrayal, ending with the slaughter of his family and finally his martyrdom. The men began to sob, burying their heads in their hands or between their knees. For Sheikh Ali, the story of perfidy and resistance to tyranny was a parable for his community’s current oppression, as he saw it at the hands of Americans and Sunnis. “They are doing the same thing with the poor children and people on the streets,” he cried out. He concluded by asking God to end the Americans’ occupation, free their hostages in Baghdad, and bless the Mahdi Army.

Sheikh Raed al-Kadhimi was Muqtada’s representative in Syria. He blamed the American occupiers, along with “people who operate in Iraq under the umbrella of the Americans and former Baathists who aim to destabilize Iraq” and takfiris, for the refugee flow into Syria. “They do killings and kidnappings,” he said, “and now attacks happen with mortar shells from both sides, so people resort to a safe place and they come to Syria.” Sheikh Raed was proud of his leader Muqtada, who he claimed “began the revolt against the Americans and fought them. He made it difficult for the American army.” On the eve of the tenth of Muharram a procession organized by Sheikh Raed’s office gathered. Dressed in black, they were led by youths wielding immense wooden flagpoles with different colored flags that they struggled to wave from side to side. Others carried framed pictures of Muqtada and his father. It was a latmiya procession, in which the men chanted songs lamenting Hussein’s martyrdom and vowing fealty to him. “We have chosen our destiny,” they sang, “we are the sons of Sadr, soldiers for the Mahdi.” The thousands of onlookers waited until dawn for the culmination of the events. By four in the morning hundreds of men dressed in white robes had assembled in tents. They carried short swords, which they cleaned in buckets of soap. They patted their heads for several minutes, perhaps to numb the surface or steel their nerves. After performing the dawn prayer, they lined up and, led by trumpeters and drummers, began a march through alleys lined with shrouded women looking on. The drums and trumpets rang out a martial beat and were followed by chants of “Haidar!” another name for Ali, father of Hussein and Zeinab. The men, and many boys, swung their swords rhythmically, hitting their foreheads and drawing blood, which soon drenched their faces and robes. As onlookers filmed the scene on their phones and the sun rose above them, the men danced in bloody ecstasy. When they reached the shrine the event ended suddenly, and people returned to their homes or hotel rooms. In the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala and Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district, I had seen these events end in explosions and terror attacks. In Damascus it felt almost anticlimactic.

The Displaced

As the violence in Iraq caused its population to hemorrhage, Iraqis fled to wherever they could. Millions were displaced, some seeking shelter in Kurdistan, others in safer neighborhoods, cleansed of minorities, or safer provinces. Others fled to Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Denmark, and anywhere else they could. During the civil war between one thousand and three thousand Iraqis entered Syria through the border at Al Tanf, passing through the volatile Anbar province, risking death at the hands of militias and the American military.

“It’s the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948,” said Kristele Younes of the Washington-based Refugees International. “Not only is it a regional crisis but it can become international, since Iraqis want to be resettled,” she said. “What’s especially shocking to me is the level of extreme and indiscriminate violence. Every civilian is at risk. This crisis is growing at almost unprecedented numbers. Fifty thousand are displaced a month, and tens of thousands are leaving. The international response to the refugee crisis was extremely weak until recently. They had not acknowledged the crisis. The only agency that had responded was [the United Nations High Commission for Refugees], and they were doing so with extremely meager resources. One reason why the response has been so weak is because the international community was waiting for U.S. leadership. The U.S. sparked the conflict and should be answering for the humanitarian consequences of the war as well as the political ones.”

Those who survived the perilous journey were met by surprisingly friendly Syrian officials led by a captain overwhelmed by the desperate refugees. A thin, energetic man with an air of desperation, the captain politely listened to the stories of hundreds of Iraqis every day, asking for exceptions to be made, for their expired or potentially forged passports to be accepted, and protested. “Wallahi ma fini,” he would say, “By God, I can’t.” “Ma fini, ma fini, ma fini,” until finally he would break and let in the despairing Iraqis. He explained that often his border post was overwhelmed because American convoys or military operations would close down the road in the Anbar province, and when it was reopened huge numbers of Iraqis would descend upon them at once. Dusty and dazed Iraqi families gathered inside and outside his small, drab concrete building, filling out the applications, waiting for their names to be called.

One man waiting for his name to be called, Abu Ibrahim, told me he had left because of the violence. “There isn’t an Iraqi here who wants to enter and hasn’t lost a brother or father or received a threat,” he told me. A Sunni from Seidiya, he complained that the Americans did nothing. “In my neighborhood, the head of the city council was killed just three meters away from one of their checkpoints. His family went to the checkpoint and said, ‘How come he was killed just three meters from you?’ And they said, ‘It is not our duty to go and check why he was killed.’ We don’t want Iraq anymore—neither itself, not its oil or gas. Let the whole world know that we Iraqis want nothing from Iraq. All we want is to be left alone. The Iraqi leaders go to neighboring countries and ask them to repatriate us to Iraq. Why? So that they will rule and slaughter us.” He was called Omar, a common Sunni name that was dangerous to possess. “Omar is not allowed to enter Baghdad,” he said. “There is no government in Iraq,” just “theft and killing.”

Sitting in a column of minivans and trucks piled with suitcases, I found one old woman waiting for her family to return with their passports. She was from Ghazaliya, in western Baghdad. She did not require much prompting to vent her fury. “Is this democracy, to tell people kill and displace people? Walking in the street with fear? Our situation in Iraq is miserable, worse than miserable. Why is the world silent about Iraq? I don’t know. What have we gained from the oil? Nothing. Even in winter we have no kerosene to put in the stove. There is no gas, no security. There is only killing and explosions. We ran from explosions in the streets. The children do not go to school. Even the university students don’t go to school. All stay at home.” It was her second trip to Syria. She had returned to Baghdad to bring more of her family, which would now reach around thirty people. She began to cry as I parted with her. “Please get our voices to the world,” she begged as her voice broke. “What did the United Nations do for us? What did America do for us? Why all of this?”

Past the fortunate Iraqis who had made it out was the no man’s land between the Iraqi and Syrian borders, a desolate moonscape stretching several kilometers. Off an escarpment the cold wind battered a collection of neatly ordered tents. Three hundred and fifty Palestinian refugees were marooned here, facing extermination in Iraq but unable to enter Syria. They were refugees for the second time. Most of Iraq’s Palestinians had come from three villages—Ijzim, Jaba, and Ein Ghazal, together known as the Little Triangle—which were near Haifa in northern Palestine. As part of the plan to cleanse Israel of its Palestinians, Israeli soldiers bombarded the villages from the air, killing hundreds of civilians. Ground forces then attacked the villages and killed hundreds more civilians. The Little Triangle was defended by a motley group of farmers armed with Ottoman rifles. In July 1948 they were defeated. Many men were summarily executed, while the other inhabitants were expelled to Jenin after the Israeli soldiers relieved them of their money and jewelry and looted their villages. Other Iraqi Palestinians had come from the nearby village of Tira. In one incident, twenty-eight of Tira’s civilians were burned alive when they asked their captors for water and were doused in gasoline instead. Others had come from Ayn Hawd, which was also attacked and cleansed under orders of the Israeli leadership in 1948. Iraqi troops fighting as part of a small contingent of Arab volunteers who had come to defend the Palestinians bused them from Jenin to Iraq. By 1949 up to five thousand Palestinian refugees had been granted asylum in Iraq. A minority of Iraq’s Palestinians had lived in Kuwait from the time of their expulsion and moved to Iraq following the Gulf War, when Kuwait evicted them. By 2003 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there were up to thirty-four thousand Palestinians in Iraq. Today there are only an estimated twelve thousand left. Thousands fled using forged Iraqi passports. In at least one case, a Palestinian from Iraq landed in Cairo’s airport using an Iraqi passport. Because his body bore the scars of his torture at the hands of Iraqi militias, he was resettled with the help of UN officials in a third country.

Under Saddam the Palestinians had received subsidized housing and, in the eyes of Shiites, preferential treatment. Many of these homes were owned by Shiites. Immediately following the American invasion the Palestinians were among the first victims of reprisals by the inchoate Shiite militias. They were expelled from their homes and often ended up in tent communities or in the Baladiyat apartment complexes. The new Interior Ministry revoked the Palestinians’ identity papers. They were now obliged to register in Baghdad once a month. But to approach the Interior Ministry was to risk kidnapping, torture, and murder. The Palestinians became illegal, but they could not leave. Their neighborhoods were shelled by Shiite militias, and their men were kidnapped by Shiite death squads. They were being systematically attacked, and they were warned by Shiite leaders that they faced death in Iraq. An Iraqi diplomat in Cairo gave me the typical prejudiced view. He denied that Palestinians were being targeted, insisting that they lived better than most Iraqis. He accused them of supporting Al Qaeda and building car bombs in their neighborhoods. The U.S. State Department was pushing the Iraqi Kurds to accept the Palestinians, but Kurdish officials steadfastly refused, as did the Syrians and Jordanians. “They want to make a point that the solution for Palestinians is not settlement in the region,” a United Nations official explained to me.

In May 2006 the Palestinians began arriving at Al Tanf, on the Syrian border. Most came as families. When I visited in February 2007 there were 93 women and 135 children. In the back of the camp there was an area for single men. One tent said “Al Tanf Mosque.” That month eight Palestinians with university degrees were taken to Damascus, where they received ten days of training by the UN before returning to open a school for seventy-five children. This was controversial among some of the camp residents, who feared it would make the camp look more permanent. One tent functioned as a bakery, another as a grocery store. The residents were helped by UNHCR and Palestinian organizations in Syria. The Syrian government, already burdened with four hundred thousand Palestinian refugees and a similar number of Iraqis, was hesitant to open the door to thousands more Palestinians. Syrian officials believed that they should not be the only ones sharing the responsibility, but UN officials believed the Palestinians could be absorbed without great difficulty and that the Syrians were also making a political statement about the need to solve the Palestinian refugee crisis. But this debate came at the immediate expense of the desperate refugees, and there were five hundred more stranded on the Iraqi side of the border (known as Al Walid), protected by a local tribal sheikh but still vulnerable to the depredations of the Iraqi Security Forces, who had attacked them in the past. Iraqi Security Forces even entered Al Tanf twice attempting to kidnap people, but they failed. The camp was freezing in the winter, and rains flooded the tents and washed them away, leaving the refugees without shelter for days at a time. During the summer temperatures exceeded fifty degrees Celsius. Children suffered from diarrhea and other diseases from the dirty water. “Al Tanf is a refugee camp on a highway in between borders,” said Younes of Refugees International. “There is a lack of funds and very little assistance. People are trading their personal items with trucks for food.”

Night fell quickly on the frigid camp. In one dark tent, lit only by a small lantern, I met several men who told me their stories, their voices barely audible over the wind. Hussein, a round young man with a melancholy baby face who wore a tan Adidas tracksuit, was originally from Ein Hawd in Palestine. He had lived with his Iraqi wife and daughter in Baghdad’s Hurriya district, a Shiite militia stronghold, where he worked as a taxi driver. “In Iraq before the war we lived without problems,” he told me. “The problems started in Iraq as the American occupation began.” Hussein was first threatened in 2005, when a letter was sent to his house containing a bullet and two drops of blood. “If you do not leave Iraq, this will be your fate,” the letter said. A second death threat was signed by the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia. “They threatened me to leave because I am a Palestinian,” he said. “They think that because we are Palestinians the whole world helps us. But that’s not true. If we had an easy life, I wouldn’t be working as taxi driver and working in restaurants sometimes. They blew up my car. Then they blew up my house.”

Two of Hussein’s uncles had been kidnapped and tortured to death with power drills, a specialty of Iraq’s Shiite militias. The kidnappers had demanded one hundred thousand dollars in ransom, but Hussein’s family did not have the money, and the next day they received a phone call informing them that his uncles’ bodies were in the morgue. Their bodies had been mutilated: drills had been driven through their bodies from the neck to the belly, and their genitals had been cut off. Hussein’s family was given a CD with a film of the gruesome murders. “We couldn’t even have a funeral because they said, ‘If you do it we will blow you up.’ We had to bury them at night.” Hussein was also attacked in his car by a Shiite militia he believed to be the Badr Brigade; he still bore the scars. In March 2006 he heard the sounds of attackers in his house. With his wife and daughter he escaped by way of their roof to a neighbor’s roof. The attackers then blew up his house. Two months later, Hussein and his family attempted to flee to Syria after hearing rumors that it was accepting Palestinians. Stranded between the two borders, his wife’s family got her to divorce him and she returned to Baghdad.

Ayman was a vegetable seller from Baladiyat. He still spoke in the Palestinian dialect he had inherited from his family, which had been expelled from Palestine when his father was five years old. “My grandfather was my age when he was expelled,” Ayman said. “Now it wasn’t Jews who expelled us, it was Arabs.” Shiite militiamen had attacked his house and killed his mother and brother. Ayman had fled with his wife and two children and hoped to live anywhere as long as it was safe.

Yasser and his father had been arrested by the Iraqi National Guard. “They accused me of being Palestinian,” he said. “They said, ‘You are a Palestinian terrorist’ and ‘You Arabs, you destroyed us.’” The two were imprisoned for sixteen days and tortured with electricity. Yasser’s nails were torn out. Then his seventy-three-year-old father was electrocuted to death in front of him. The National Guardsmen then gave him twenty-four hours to leave Iraq, and in June 2006 he and his family arrived in Al Tanf. “We paid to get my father’s body,” he cried, “but they gave me the wrong body.” The other men stared down silently as he sobbed. “All I want to know is where my father’s body is.”

Another man was taken out of his car along with six other Palestinians. All were shot and killed, but he survived. He was denied treatment in the first hospital because he was Palestinian. After he was released from the second hospital, he fled to the border. “Even in another camp right on the border, the Iraqi army came to the camp and arrested five of us for eight days,” he said. “They tortured us during that time and robbed us of everything we had. They even took my wedding ring. In Baghdad also they took our houses and cars. Here we have a tragic life, we have gone through cold, heat, dust, and this wind. It is a very bad life. But what is the reason? It is only because we are Palestinians and carry with us Palestinian travel documents. Now we want to live anywhere that is safe and secure. Anywhere. In Iraq they kill us because of our identity.”

One family in Al Tanf received a CD with a film of their daughter’s gang rape and murder by Shiite militiamen as their final warning to leave Iraq. Three men in the camp with the Sunni name Omar had been followed merely for being called Omar and had survived assassination attempts. The camp provided scant protection, and some men who went close to the Iraqi border to purchase vegetables from locals were captured by the Iraqi National Guard. “They think we are Saddamists,” one man told me. “The American occupation didn’t protect us.” Palestinians who went to get relatives from the morgue were also kidnapped. One baby was born in Al Tanf, and she was named Khiyam, meaning “tent” in Arabic. “We went backward sixty years,” one man lamented. “We were born in tents, and our children will be the same. Is this our legacy?”

According to a UN official, Arab governments were reluctant to call the Iraqis refugees because the term is associated with the Palestinians. “The Palestinians are a people without a land,” he said. “Iraqis still have a country, although I think it will break up like the former Yugoslavia. It is not positive to be associated with the Palestinians.” Jordan, with half its population made up of Palestinian refugees, was afraid of a second refugee wave.

No discussion of refugees in the Middle East can begin without addressing the Palestinian experience. Between 1947 and 1949 up to 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from Palestine by Jewish militias; hundreds of Palestinian villages were wiped off the map. They were dispersed throughout the region, unable to return home and unable to assimilate fully into the countries to which they fled. They soon organized, forming armed groups and trying to return home. These groups were often manipulated by various governments in the region for their own ends, and some even fought one another. Their presence contributed to the destabilization of several countries, while in places like Lebanon, they were preyed upon by more powerful militias, as we shall see in the next chapter. Their cause became a rallying cry. After 2003, radical groups based in the camps exported fighters to Iraq.

In Damascus

The flow of fighters into Iraq, of millions of refugees out of Iraq, the smuggling of weapons and even sheep, and the export of dangerous ideas such as sectarianism and jihadism demonstrated that the Iraqi civil war was close to becoming a regional conflict. One factor militating against such a development was the fact that the Iraqi refugees had not settled in camps but instead had been absorbed into cities like Beirut, Damascus, Amman, and Cairo, which made it more difficult to organize or mobilize them, though also more difficult to help or monitor them. Like the Palestinians, most Iraqi refugees may never return home. The decimated Christian and Sabean minorities had left for good. Sunnis from Baghdad and the south, now cleansed and controlled by Shiites, were also likely never to return. Although the Palestinian cause and its initial popularity in the Arab world eased their integration into Syria and elsewhere, and they were tolerated and even welcomed with generosity by the local population in some instances, this goodwill did not last forever. In Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and elsewhere, it ran out. Jordan and particularly Syria have shown extreme generosity, but they are both straining under the burden.

Damascus became so full of Iraqis that rent prices soared, driving many refugees as far as Aleppo. One hour away from Damascus, in Qudsiya, I found an Iraqi neighborhood with a “Baghdad Barbershop” and “Iraq Travel Agency.” Off an alley I entered a hastily constructed apartment building, rough and unfinished, cement and cinder blocks thrown together without paint. The carved wooden doors to each apartment were a stark contrast to the grim hallways. Inside I found Dr. Lujai and her five children. At fifteen, Omar was the oldest; the youngest was two years old. Dr. Lujai, a family medicine specialist with her own clinic, had lived in Baghdad with her husband, Dr. Adil, a thoracic surgeon and professor at the medical college. Both were forty-three-year-old Sunnis who originally came from Ana, a town in the Anbar province. They had been married for fifteen years.

Right after the war Dr. Lujai began to notice changes. Shiite clerics took over many of Baghdad’s hospitals following the postwar looting, and they did not know how to manage a hospital. “They were sectarian from the beginning,” she said, “firing Sunnis, saying they were Baathists. In 2004 the Ministry of Health was given to the Sadr movement, and the minister was only a general practitioner.” Following the 2005 elections the Sadrist ministers initiated what they called a “campaign to remove the Saddamists.” The advisers to the minister of health wore the turbans of clerics and mismanaged the ministry. In hospitals and health centers, walls were covered with posters of Shiite clerics. Traditional Shiite music could often be heard in the halls.

Sunni doctors began disappearing. Ali al-Mahdawi, who managed the Diyala province’s health department, was said to have gone into the ministry for a meeting and never came out. Several months later, American military raids uncovered secret prisons run by Ministry officials with hundreds of prisoners. Several days after Mahdawi was released, he was murdered on the street. A pharmacist they knew called Ahmed al-Azzawi went in for a meeting with the minister and was killed by his militia.

Dr. Lujai reported that Sunni patients were accused by Sadrist officials of being terrorists. After the doctors completed their operations, she said, the Interior Ministry’s special police would arrest the patients. Their corpses would then be found in the Baghdad morgue. “This happened tens of times,” she said, to “anybody who came with bullet wounds and wasn’t Shiite.” Dr. Lujai knew of five Sunni doctors and two Christians who were threatened to leave or fired.

On September 2, 2006, Abu Omar, as Dr. Adil was known, went to work as he usually did in the morning. He had three patients to operate on that day. A fourth came in unexpectedly after he was done, and since no other doctor was available to treat him, Dr. Adil stayed later than usual. He finished work that day at around two in the afternoon. Their home was about fifteen minutes away, on days when the road was open. At 2:15 Abu Omar was driving home when his way was blocked by four cars. Armed men surrounded him and dragged him from his car, taking him to Sadr City. Five hours later his dead body was found on the street, and the next day his body was found in the morgue. I tried to find out the way he was killed, but Dr. Lujai was overcome, crying, and her confused young children looked at her silently. She had asked the Iraqi police to investigate her husband’s murder, but an officer told her, “He is a doctor, he has a degree, and he is a Sunni, so he couldn’t stay in Iraq. That’s why he was killed.” Two weeks later she received a letter printed from a computer ordering her to leave the area.

On September 24, Dr. Lujai fled with her brother Abu Shama, his wife, and his four children. Her sister had already been threatened, and had fled to Qudsiya. They gave away or sold all their belongings and paid six hundred dollars for the GMCs that carried them to Syria. Because of what happened to her husband, she said, up to twenty other doctors fled. Abu Shama was an engineer and professor at the College of Technology. He had lived in Baghdad’s Khadhra district. In June 2006 a letter was placed under the door in his office ordering him to leave Iraq or be killed. He stopped going to work after that. One of his best friends, a Sunni married to a Shiite, had been killed in front of the college.

In Qudsiya they paid five hundred dollars a month in rent for the three-bedroom apartment both families shared. Their children were able to attend local schools for free, but Iraqis were not able to work in Syria, so they depended on relatives and savings for their survival. Twenty-five members of their family fled to Syria. Four days before I visited them they heard that a Sunni doctor they knew had been killed in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district, where he worked. He had been married to a Shiite woman. “He was a pediatric specialist,” she told me. “We needed him.” The people and government of Syria had been good to them, they agreed, and they did not expect to go back to Iraq. Dr. Lujai did not think Iraq could go back to the way it had been. “It’s a dream to return to our country,” she said.

“First minorities left Iraq, now we get Sunnis targeted by Shiite militias.”

Jordan had already closed its borders to Iraqis, and Iran required a sponsor for Iraqi refugees, though for obvious reasons most would never think of going to Iran. “Syria is the only open gate for refugees,” said Lorens Jolles of the UNHCR in Damascus. “At one point Syrian society won’t be able to accommodate them,” worried a worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Syria, with a population of only nineteen million, has a record of extreme generosity to refugees. It houses four hundred thousand Palestinians expelled from their homeland. During Israel’s July 2006 war against Lebanon, Syria took in up to half a million Lebanese refugees.

“For us every Iraqi who is here is a refugee,” said Jolles. “This takes into account the generalized violence and targeting of most groups in Iraq. And everybody is in need of protection.” Because Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are not signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, the Iraqis did not have the right to work—although those with sufficient money could open businesses, and others worked illegally. UNHCR had signed memorandums of understanding with those countries requiring refugees to be resettled in a third country within a year after UNHCR had declared them refugees. UNHCR had to establish a category of “persons of concern” without calling them refugees in order to avoid getting dragged into battle with the national authorities. It therefore gave the Iraqis the opportunity to register for temporary protection, a legal trick to recognize them as having fled a situation of generalized violence for a temporary period of time. In theory this protected them without presenting the host countries with any formal obligations (though Syria had not deported Iraqis, Jordan and Lebanon had). Most Iraqis had not yet registered with the UN for temporary protection, but hundreds could be found lining up in front of the UNHCR office in Damascus in the early hours of the morning. Between February and April 2007 ten thousand Iraqi families, or at least fifty thousand individuals, had made appointments with the UNHCR.

“First the minorities left Iraq,” a UNHCR official told me, “now we get Sunnis targeted by Shiite militias.” Until February 2006 the majority had been Christians, although Muslims were represented as well, with Sunnis and Shiites equally represented. Starting in March 2006, though, the number of Sunni refugees shot up, far exceeding all other groups; July through September 2006 saw a sharp rise in Sunnis registering. Between January 2005 and the end of February 2007, 58,924 Iraqis registered with UNHCR in Damascus. Forty-two percent of those registered since December 2003 were Sunni, 21 percent were Shiite, and 29 percent were Christian. In January 2007, 3,144 Sunnis and 901 Shiites were registered. In February it was 5,988 Sunnis to 1,570 Shiites. Only the most desperate refugees bothered to register, so the true figures were unknown. Ninety-five percent of those registered with UNHCR were from Baghdad.

The Shiites were generally single young men, while the rest came as families. For the first two years the Syrians provided free medical care to Iraqis, but they were overwhelmed; in 2005 they ended the practice except for emergencies. Iraqis could attend Syrian public schools provided they were not too crowded, which they often were. Child labor became a problem, since parents were unable to work and children were easier to hide. Children dropped out of school as a result, and Iraqi prostitutes became extremely common. UN screeners reported seeing numerous victims of torture, detention, rape, and kidnapping among newly arrived Iraqis. Most had family members who had been killed, and many were intellectuals.

“The problems of Iraqis have not come to Syria,” said Jolles, referring to sectarianism. “The [Iraqi] refugee communities don’t integrate, and the government has good control.” But he still had his worries. “They are less manageable and understandable because they are not in camps. One million people are uprooted, and they don’t know what the future has in store for them. It’s normal to have some degree of criminality, violence, and disruption.”

According to a Western diplomat, the presence of so many Iraqis gave the Syrian government political leverage in Iraq. Nearly every Iraqi political movement was represented in Syria. Historically Syria had accepted Iraqi dissidents such as those from the left wing of the Baath Party, Dawa leaders like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and even Kurdish independence parties. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was established in a Damascus restaurant. The Syrians were still playing a complex game. They diplomatically recognized the Iraqi government but also housed members of the former regime, security forces, and Baath Party. They invited Shiite leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr and radical Sunnis close to the resistance, such as Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars. Syria saw the Iraqi civil war through the prism of Lebanon, thinking it could manage the conflict through its contacts; thus the Syrians were monitoring and cultivating everybody. But there were also dangerous contradictions in Syrian policy. Syria is a majority-Sunni country, but its close ally is Shiite Iran—which, in the eyes of Sunnis in Iraq and the region, sponsored the very militias that were persecuting Iraq’s Sunnis, who were often related to Syria’s Sunnis, especially in the border region. “The Syrian government is very capable of managing those issues,” the Western diplomat assured me, but sectarianism was at its peak in the region, and Syria, which was once a major exporter of fighters to Iraq, may face its own blowback.

“Their need is enormous,” a top official at UNHCR told me. “The temptation is there. The money from bin Laden is there. If the international community doesn’t help, then the other groups will, and all hell will break loose. Iraqis are sitting in Syria or Jordan, where the Baathists and Wahhabis are strongest. If 1 percent of the two million can be bought, then that is very dangerous. If they stay on the street you will have youth violence or terrorism. If people are in need they turn to crime or terrorism.” He mentioned the North African community of France as a model, some of whom were drawn to Islamic radicalism or terrorism out of frustration and neglect. “They come to the UN and queue at our door for five hours to get a registration card, or they can turn to radical groups for funding,” he said, explaining that the money came from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and was disbursed there. “This problem will be with us for a long time,” he added, shaking his head in frustration.

Many poor Iraqi refugees settled in the Jaramana district of Damascus. They came to the Ibrahim al-Khalil convent for assistance. The convent was the only white structure amid the graying and incomplete buildings surrounding it, many of which were so hastily thrown together that they were unpainted and lacked glass in the windows. In front of the convent I found a small bakery preparing the typical Iraqi bread known as samun, a thick pita with two pointy ends. The owner, Haidar, had left Iraq three months earlier “because of the occupation,” he told me. In Baquba he had been a sports teacher.

Sister Malaki, an elderly nun who ran the convent, expressed wonder at how quickly the neighborhood had been built since the Iraqis began showing up. Until 2006 there were no buildings around the convent, she said. It used to take her thirty minutes just to see a taxi on the street, and now she had to wait an hour to find an empty taxi. The first wave arrived in the spring of 2006, she said, but the biggest wave began in the fall of 2006. At first she saw many cases of rape, including boys and girls only ten or twelve years old. “Now it’s mostly cases of extreme poverty and people who will never go back to Iraq,” she said. “They fully reject returning to Iraq. They will die.”

She had worked in a hospital in Beirut throughout the Lebanese civil war and was seeing similar traumas. “The children have a strong fear,” she said. When asking her for something many children would threaten her, she said. “If you don’t give it to us we will tell the Americans,” she repeated with laughter. “Any nation that goes into a civil war,” she said, “the pressure makes them bitter. They ask, ‘Why us and not you?’ Today I was insulted by three different Iraqis. They feel entitled: ‘We suffered, you didn’t.’ The people who really suffer are those who had a lot—educated, university people. Now they are begging. They show me pictures of what they had.”

Um Iman worked as a cleaner in the convent. She had come with her husband and three daughters two months earlier. They were Christians and had lived in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood. They had received four letters threatening them with death if they did not leave. One night they took a taxi to a relative’s house in Baghdad, and the next morning they joined a convoy of buses heading to the Syrian border. “There were explosions behind us and in front of us,” she said. Her husband looked for work every day but could find none. She looked defeated to me. “What can we do?” she asked with resignation. “Even if I die of hunger here I don’t want to go back to Iraq. Now there are no Christians in Baghdad.”

Lost Amid the Millions in Cairo

As Iraq fell apart its human detritus was scattered throughout the region. Lost amid the millions of Cairo, Iraqis could be found struggling with the bureaucracy in the Mugamaa, the massive labyrinthine edifice where all people’s interactions with the Egyptian state began and ended. On the first floor, in the Arab Nations section of the Visa Renewal section, past Somalis and Sudanese sitting and awaiting their turn, was a sign that said, “Booth 23 for Iraqis only.” When I visited in late February 2006 the crowds of Iraqis there exceeded the numbers at the nearby section for Palestinian refugees. Iraqis continued to enter Egypt by the planeload. They came on tourist visas at first, but extended them indefinitely or applied for temporary protection at the UNHCR, and settled into the urban sprawl of Cairo.

In the Medinat Nasr district, past the Layali Baghdad (Baghdad Nights) restaurant, I found a small Internet cafe owned by Muhamad Abu Rawan, a twenty-seven-year-old Sunni man who fled Iraq on May 15, 2006, with his wife, Lubna, also twenty-seven. Muhamad walked me to their nearby apartment, where we found Lubna watching a soap opera and holding their three-month-old daughter, Rawa. Their home was sparsely decorated: flower patterns on the sofas and carpets, pictures of a forest, a beach and a lake on the walls. Both Muhamad and Lubna were from Basra. Back in Baghdad Muhamad had worked repairing air conditioners for the same electronic appliance company where Lubna, a civil engineer, worked.

At first they both spoke Egyptian Arabic with me, because, like most Iraqis, they had quickly assimilated into Egyptian culture and had learned the dialect from the country’s famous soap operas and films. At the beginning of the American occupation, Lubna told me, “Our lives were normal, like all Iraqis. Every once in a while the Americans would besiege the area, but my father was never politically active, so the Americans never bothered us.” One morning in December 2004, Lubna’s father, also a civil engineer and structural designer, drove toward the Mansour district to pay his contractors. He took the airport road and got off at the exit that would take him to Mansour, but the roads had been blocked by American soldiers, who were conducting an operation in the area.

In Yarmuk’s Qahtan Square American soldiers fired into the air as Lubna’s father drove. He sped away to avoid the shots. Perhaps thinking he was attacking them, one American soldier fired at him, and then several others opened fire as well. “He did not have time to close his eyes before he died,” Lubna told me, because there were so many shots in his body. She showed me pictures of his bullet-riddled car, with holes in every side. “That year the Americans were killing many Iraqis on the street,” Muhamad explained. Lubna, her mother, and her two sisters did not learn about his death until later that afternoon, when Iraqi police contacted them. Their neighbors persuaded them to demand compensation, and they approached one of the lawyers the Americans had authorized to deal with such cases. “After one year the lawyer said the Americans had rejected it twice,” Lubna told me as she rocked Rawa steadily and patted her back. The Americans did offer her family seven hundred dollars, but they rejected it as a paltry sum. “My mother had to go back to work as a teacher because my father was the only provider,” Lubna told me.

At the time, Muhamad still lived in Baghdad’s volatile Dora district, where Shiites and Christians were targeted by Sunni militias. When he picked up a wounded Shiite from the street and took him to the hospital, he found himself targeted by the Sunni militia that had shot the man. They told him they would have killed him were he not a Sunni and forced him to move out of Dora. One year after her father was killed, Lubna and Muhamad got married. They lived with her mother in Hai Jihad, a majority-Sunni district Muhamad described as “very hot.” Two days after they were married, there was a joint American and Iraqi operation in their neighborhood. One hundred and fifty Sunnis were arrested, he told me. “The Americans would surround the neighborhood, and the Iraqi police commandos raided the houses. It was our neighbors and friends. They still haven’t been released.”

“We were afraid to admit we were Sunnis,” Lubna told me. “All men stopped going to the mosque to pray because they would have been harassed or killed.” Muhamad’s sister was married to a Shiite man, he told me, and they had many friends and relatives who were Shiites. “It’s the militias of Badr and Sadr,” Lubna told me, “they are ruthless.” The company they worked for was owned by a Sunni man, and it had branches in Baghdad and Basra. In Basra twenty members of the company were kidnapped. The Shiites were released, and thirteen Sunni employees were murdered. In Baghdad the company’s Shiite lawyer was killed by Sunni militiamen, a security guard was kidnapped, and the manager was threatened. The owner belonged to the Omar family, a name that gave them away as Sunni, and his company was known as a “Sunni company.” He fled Basra to Baghdad because of threats, and after more threats he fled to the United Arab Emirates. Muhamad was beaten, and his car was stolen. “Every day we heard of people we knew getting killed,” he told me.

Lubna and Muhamad chose Egypt because the cost of living was cheap and Syria was threatened by the Americans. They came on a three-month tourist visa and rented their apartment, for which they paid three hundred dollars a month. Lubna felt welcomed by the Egyptians, she said, and Muhamad felt at home because the social environment reminded him of Iraq. After they arrived they were joined by Lubna’s mother and her seventeen-year-old sister, Najwa, who attended a private high school. Lubna’s grandfather was dying, so her mother returned to Baghdad to see him, but then she could no longer get permission to return to Cairo. Muhamad heard rumors that Iraqis who had tried to renew their visas at the Mugamaa were deported by Egyptian authorities, so he obtained an asylum-seeker registration card from the UNHCR.

The couple ran out of their savings, and in December 2006 Muhamad opened his Internet cafe. Lubna hoped to work when Rawa was older. “Our standard of living in Iraq was much better,” she told me. In Medinat Nasr they had Shiite neighbors who had been expelled from a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. I asked if the sectarian problems had followed them here. “On the contrary,” Muhamad said, “we are happy to see any Iraqi so we can speak our dialect.” Lubna added that “the Iraqis who come here are all tired and don’t want to organize or attract attention.”

Muhamad had to get an Egyptian partner just to open a business. The Egyptian owned 51 percent of the cafe, even though he had not invested anything in it. Muhamad’s friend Haidar helped him out at the cafe. A twenty-three-year-old Shiite pharmacist from Baghdad’s Khadhra district, where Shiites were under attack, Haidar was married to a Sunni woman. After a local supermarket owner and his two brothers were murdered for being Shiite, Haidar began to receive threatening calls. His uncle’s car was stolen and his house burned down, and the walls of the neighborhood were scrawled with notices saying that Shiites’ property was forfeit and could be taken by any Sunni. Haidar’s family sold their house, and the new owner was killed. “All the Shiites in the neighborhood fled,” he told me. Haidar moved to Cairo in September 2006 to arrange a place to live before his wife arrived. But when she applied for the Egyptian visa it was denied, leaving her stranded in Baghdad. Haidar met Muhamad in Cairo. “We get along better here than in Iraq,” he told me. “We feel closer.” Hatred of Shiites was increasing throughout the region, and even in Cairo Haidar did not feel fully comfortable. “On the street and in cabs people ask if I am Sunni or Shiite,” he told me. “They say we are infidels.” One day at the supermarket the grocer heard Haidar’s Iraqi dialect and told him, “Your Shiites are infidels.”

Egypt had stopped issuing visas to Iraqis, although it was widely rumored that Iraqis who paid bribes at the Egyptian embassies in Syria and Jordan could obtain them. Iraqis in Egypt told me that they had paid hundreds of dollars to visa agencies that managed to obtain visas for their relatives. Egypt had absorbed between two and four million Sudanese, and had refugees from thirty other nationalities. It also had a high rate of unemployment. Egyptians and Sudanese could not find work, so additional Iraqis would further burden the state’s weak social services. Between 100,000 and 140,000 Iraqis lived in Egypt before the influx of refugees, but by March 2007 only 5,500 had registered with UNHCR for an asylum seeker’s card because, in the eyes of a UN official, “not every Iraqi in Egypt is a refugee.” Many of the middle-class Iraqis in Egypt were beginning to run out of resources, and it was only then that they turned to the UN.

Egypt’s reasons for no longer letting Iraqis in were twofold. In the post-9 /11 world, concern over terrorism justified almost anything. “Tourism is a major industry, so one incident would cost millions in lost revenue,” said the UN official. In addition, Egyptians were afraid of Shiites, an Iraqi diplomat told me, “because they think they have links to Iran.” Many Egyptians had raised fears of a Shiite wave and of Sunnis converting to Shiism. They also feared making permanent demographic changes to Iraq. “You are taking them from Iraq and implanting them somewhere else, and most of them are Sunnis,” a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat told me. “It disturbs me. It means the whole area will be Shiite.”

Many Iraqi refugees have carried the sectarian bitterness with them. In an apartment complex that resembled American housing projects, only partially occupied and complete, I found a collection of Sunni Iraqis in a courtyard inside, where a few had opened shops. Ghaith, an eighteen-year-old from Amriya, long since cleansed of its Shiites, had owned a supermarket back home and had opened up a small grocery store on the ground floor of the complex in Egypt. He pointed to his twelve-year-old brother playing soccer with other boys and told me that he had been kidnapped in Baghdad and held for one week. Sitting in the grocery store was Dhafer, a round thirty-five-year-old man with a sharp nose and stubble from a few days of neglect. He had the tired look of a defeated man. Originally from Baghdad’s Ghazaliya district, he had been threatened by Shiite neighbors whose sons worked with the Iraqi National Guard and Interior Ministry, he said, and given forty-eight hours to leave. “I brought my relatives for protection and weapons and they escorted us out,” he told me. I asked him why he had then left Amriya. “Civil war,” he said. “All of Baghdad, all of Iraq, is a civil war. The guy who goes on television and says it’s not a civil war is mocking the people.” On August 16, 2005, Dhafer came to Cairo with his wife and son. Since then another son had been born. Dhafer and his family regularly watched Al Zawra TV, the Iraqi satellite channel that broadcast resistance operations and was openly pro-Sunni and anti-Shiite. They had recently seen a video of a Sadrist cleric calling on Shiites to kill Sunnis. “I was not surprised,” he told me. “I know the Shiite sect. But my wife was crying.” Dhafer told me that up to twenty of his friends had already been killed in Baghdad. He had not renewed his residency and instead had applied for refugee status at the UNHCR. Although he missed his family, he never wanted to return to Baghdad. His relatives had also warned him not to return, telling him that it was better to starve outside.

Next door was a hair salon owned by a Sunni couple from Baghdad’s Ghazaliya district. It was decorated in pink and red in honor of Valentine’s Day, and there was only a chair for one customer at a time. Its owner, Ghada, had taught herself hairdressing after she arrived in Cairo with her husband, Abu Omar, and their three children. Abu Omar, a former colonel in the Iraqi Army, had retired in 1999. After retiring he had opened a stationery shop in the Nafaq al-Shurta district with a friend. The American military raided their home twice. “They said to me, ‘You look like an American woman,’” Ghada said, laughing with pride. The military asked permission to use their roof for surveillance, and Abu Omar agreed. “Could we have said no?” Ghada asked.

“After the war I started to feel the Iranian influence,” Abu Omar told me. “Before there were no problems between Sunnis and Shiites, but then on television we started hearing people talking about Sunnis or Shiites.” Like many former military officers, Abu Omar was actively involved in the Iraqi resistance. “As long as they are attacking the occupiers or those cooperating with the occupiers,” he said, the Iraqi resistance was honorable. When talking of the resistance, he slipped and said, “we” instead of “they.”

Shiite militias associated with the Iraqi government obtained lists of former military officers and their personal information, he told me. “Every day we heard names of officers killed,” he said, estimating that he knew at least one hundred people who had been killed since the Americans overthrew Saddam. He was threatened twice in front of his house, and then his partner was assassinated. “After they killed his partner he told me that we must leave in five days,” Ghada told me. She started crying. “They have stolen my house, my furniture. I left everything. Even now I hope to go back. Here we have many troubles. We have no money. It’s very difficult. There you feel that you can die every day. Here I am dying every day. Every day you hear bad news. There is no hope. I lost everything. I was a queen in my house before. I had a home, furniture, a BMW. Now I live in a dirty area. What did I do? What did my children do?” Ghada sold most of her jewelry to help support the family. They had been in Cairo since 2005 and had managed to pay for their children’s school the first year but could no longer afford to.

Ghada told me that Iraq’s sectarianism had followed them to Cairo, causing problems in their children’s school. Iraqi Shiite boys beat their son Omar, she said. “He hates Shiites so much,” she said, adding that many fights had occurred between Sunni and Shiite Iraqi children. Her son’s fight had been provoked by Saddam Hussein’s execution, which they watched on television. “We had hoped that Saddam would return to lead Iraq. It was like they ripped my heart out,” he told me. “After I saw the images I stayed up all night.” Ghada told me that Egyptian customers had cried with her and consoled her after Saddam’s execution, and they had recited a prayer together. “The ones that Saddam killed,” she said, meaning Shiites, “I would go back and kill more of them. I hate Shiites.”

Abu Omar still held out some hope that peace could be restored. “If America comes down from her pride and negotiates with resistance, then maybe there can be a solution. The resistance is very strong and has the best officers.” He was not as sectarian as his wife, explaining to me that “there are real Iraqi Shiites, and they have the same feelings we have. It is the Shiites of Iran who are the cause of the problems.” Abu Omar often referred to the resistance as “the patriots,” explaining that “there are Sunni and Shiite patriots. The patriots can defeat the Iranian Shiites.”

Many former Baathists and Iraqi Army officers had settled in Egypt following the war. Harith al-Dhari, leader of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, frequently visited Cairo, where he met with Egyptian leaders, including his friend Mahdi Akef, leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Association of Muslim Scholars controlled some militias that fought in the resistance. More resistance leaders based themselves across the border from Iraq’s Anbar province, in Amman and Damascus, however. Nearly three years into their war against the occupation, many were growing introspective—much like the tribal leader Sheikh Saad, whom I met in Amman in late 2006.

In Damascus in February 2007 I met one of the leaders of the Anbar resistance that Sheikh Saad referred to when he told me they had all fled. Sheikh Yassin was a weathered and frail man with a thick white scarf over his head. He fingered black beads as we spoke. He led a mosque in Hit but had fled a month before we met and left it with his sons. Hit had become deserted, he told me. “The situation there has become disastrous,” he said. “They hit my son’s house in an airstrike and destroyed his house and killed my grandson. The people of Hit are caught between Americans on one side and Al Qaeda on the other side. And the police and army do not treat people properly.”

He too recognized the strategic Sunni error made at the beginning of the American occupation. “That is the origin of the problem: they boycotted. If they had participated with all their weight, they would not have let the Shiite militias take over the government of Iraq.” He blamed the Iraqi Sunni leadership for denouncing elections and threatening those who participated. “They made the wrong interpretation,” he said. “Shiites wanted to prevent Sunnis from voting, and jihadists did as well. The jihadists fight the Americans on one side and on the other side they destroy the community.” Sheikh Yassin had not fled Shiite militias, but rather Al Qaeda. “Sunnis must choose between death or seeking refuge in the Anbar, Syria, or Jordan,” he said.

Another opponent of Al Qaeda was Sheikh Mudhir al-Khirbit of Ramadi, a former leader of the Confederation of Iraqi Tribes. The Khirbits had been favored by the former regime, and in March 2003 an American airstrike on their home had killed eighteen family members, reason enough for them to seek vengeance. Sheikh Mudhir had sought shelter in Damascus but made frequent trips to Lebanon for medical treatment. The Iraqi government placed him on its new list of forty-one most wanted, and in January 2007, on a medical trip to Lebanon, he was arrested by that country’s Internal Security Forces. His affairs were now being handled by his oldest son, Sattam, who was only eighteen years old but who, according to one Western diplomat, had his father’s trust and went on missions for him. I found Sattam in an apartment in Damascus, dressed in a gray suit, wearing pointy leather shoes, and taking business calls from sheikhs well into the night.

In 2004, when he was only fifteen, Sattam and an uncle were arrested in an American military raid on their home. “Every tribal sheikh has weapons, machine guns, missiles, Kalashnikovs,” he told me. Sattam was jailed for one month and interrogated about his father’s activities. “They treated me badly,” he said. “We were tied up for two days, and it was really cold.” His uncle was held for three months and was later imprisoned again for one year. Iraq had grown too dangerous for the family’s leadership. “In Ramadi you can’t drive in a car,” he told me. “You don’t know if the Americans or Al Qaeda will kill you. Not only Shiites are slaughtering Sunnis; Sunnis are slaughtering Sunnis.”

Iraq’s Sunnis were beleaguered, he said. He called the initial Sunni boycott of Iraqi politics “a big mistake,” one that opened the door to Shiite domination. “Now it’s too late,” he said. “People here and in Amman feel like they lost.” The only way to protect Sunnis, in his view, was to establish a Sunni state that would include the Anbar province, Mosul, and Tikrit. Radical Sunnis in groups like Al Qaeda were now in control of Anbar, and the resistance was taking on Al Qaeda as well as the Americans. “Al Qaeda kills Sunnis the most, and you don’t know what they want,” he said. His priority was to deal with Al Qaeda in Anbar first, then reconcile with the Shiites, and then work to end the occupation. “When Sunnis in Baghdad get arrested by the Americans, they feel good because it’s better than being arrested by Shiite militias.” Despite this, he did not bear hostility toward the Shiites. “My father doesn’t differentiate between Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians,” he said. “We don’t have anything against Shiites. Shiites didn’t kill eighteen people from our family—the Americans did.”

Another longtime resistance fighter was Abu Ali, commander of Jeish Nasr Salahedin (The Army of Salahedin’s Victory) in the Tikrit area. A short, stern man wearing a brown jacket, a sweater showing his shirt collar, and green pants, he had a small mustache atop his tight lips and spoke without expression in a low voice. He had arrived in Damascus with two comrades who were wounded and could not get treatment in Iraq. “Our people here said they could help them,” he told me. The Americans had raided his home, and he had not slept there for two years, stealing only occasional visits to see his family. I was told that Abu Ali had led a much-publicized attack on the American base in Tikrit on the day American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad attended a ceremony handing it over to the Iraqi army, and he confirmed this.

“They expressed democracy with bullets against demonstrators,” he said of the Americans. “I will keep fighting until the last American and Iranian leaves.” Abu Ali added that he anticipated a clash with Al Qaeda as well. Although there was no political leadership in the resistance, he said, “there are politicians, and we express our ideas to them.” He worried that the resistance was becoming too public, with many people appearing on television and claiming they led it. “The secret of the success of the resistance is that nobody knows who we are,” he said. “If we make it public, then we will be like Palestine, sixty years and no state.”

“Nothing positive has come from the Iraqis,” he said. “You can’t trust an Iraqi.”

The prospect of the Palestinian refugee crisis happening all over again is especially worrisome for Jordan. At least half its population of nearly six million people are Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 or 1967. Following the Gulf War in 1991, Kuwait expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, most of whom ended up in Jordan. Jordan has close and longstanding ties to Iraq, dating back to that country’s monarchy.

In a fast food restaurant in Amman I sat with a major from Jordan’s powerful General Intelligence Directorate. He insisted that there were more than one million Iraqis in Jordan, though in truth the number never exceeded more than a few hundred thousand. He denied that they were refugees because they had not been forced out of Iraq. When I asked him what he expected a Sunni living in Shiite militia-dominated Basra to do, he told me that the Sunni should merely move to a Sunni area of Iraq. “Nothing positive has come from the Iraqis,” he said. “You can’t trust an Iraqi.” Like most Jordanians he complained that the influx of Iraqis had tripled housing prices.

After Iraqis associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda movement struck two Jordanian hotels in November 2005, detonating suicide bombs in a wedding, Iraqis began facing interrogations at the border. Beginning in 2006 Jordan imposed strict restrictions on the entry of Iraqis. By the end of that year a sign on the Jordanian border proclaimed that men between eighteen and thirty-five years of age could not enter. Families entering with many suitcases or belongings were turned away as well. Many Iraqis entering Jordan at the border and airport reported being questioned about whether they were Sunni or Shiite. Shiites were more likely to be turned away. Once in Jordan, Iraqis could register with UNHCR for their temporary protection cards.

At first, Iraqis were given three-month tourist visas; but when they left Jordan to renew the visas, they could not return. As a result, many Iraqis chose not to leave and fell into illegal status. Underground, they were unable to work formally and often didn’t get paid for the work they did illegally. Many young Iraqi men left their families behind and came to Jordan seeking work. They lived in virtually empty apartments, the only furniture being mattresses on the floor. Their children did not have access to schools or medical care. In February 2006, there were officially fourteen thousand Iraqi children in Jordanian private schools.

Jordanian society was very sympathetic with the plight of Iraq’s Sunnis, but Shiites had a hard time there. A young Iraqi Shiite man working with an NGO in Jordan reported being regularly questioned about his identity. Major Jordanian newspapers like Al Rai often published anti-Shiite articles, he said. “In Jordan, if you want to work they might ask you if you are Shiite or Sunni, and if you are Shiite you can’t work,” he told me. “Taxi drivers ask me, ‘Are you Iraqi? Are you Sunni or Shiite?’” If he answered truthfully, they would ask him why he was helping the Americans. “After Saddam was executed, they asked me, ‘Why didn’t Iraqis make a revolution after his execution?’ They don’t believe Saddam committed crimes. I told one I am Iraqi and Shiite. He asked, ‘Are you supporting those Iranians killing Iraqis?’ I don’t argue, I don’t want trouble or to be taken to police station. I bought a bicycle to avoid the taxi drivers.”

Dr. Mouayad al-Windawi was a Shiite professor of political science who left the University of Baghdad in May 2005. “In my first lesson after the war, I said this will be a disaster and bring us nothing. We will live in chaos for a long time.” A member of the Baath Party until 2001, he explained to me that under Saddam there was some sectarianism, but it was not overt. A glass ceiling kept many Shiites from advancing too high. “I worked with the Iraqi government for the last forty years,” he said. “Not much attention was paid to who you are.” I asked him how sectarianism had increased after the war. “Ask Mr. Bremer,” he told me, referring to Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. “Bremer’s system for political parties was good for blocs, not parties. It was good for Kurds and [Supreme Council leader] Hakim. Nationalists boycotted the political process after 2003, but the hawza and Sistani told Shiites to wait and see, and Sunnis had no such guy to issue a fatwa. The Jaafari government forced Sunnis to see themselves as defending themselves and not the nation. Former Baathists and nationalists like me have no place. I realized there is no future. I told my family we have to stay ten years away from the country.”

Mouayad lived in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad. Members of Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad militia attacked his house. His brother, married to a Sunni woman, was kidnapped and released after a ransom of twenty-five thousand dollars was paid. He then fled to Damascus. “I realized that the country would have a civil war one way or another,” he told me. “I still believe the worst is coming, not only to Iraq but in the region. It’s the first stage of a conflict that might lead to a Sunni bloc against Shiites. There is no hope for the future.” A month before I met Mouayad, his house was occupied by a Sunni militia. Two days before we met, a relative of his was killed when mortars landed on his home.

In Jordan Mouayad was working as a consultant for the political advisory group to the United Nations ambassador to Iraq. “Jordanians were very cooperative until last summer,” he said, “but they realized the civil war might lead to new wave. Sixty-five percent of Iraqis in Jordan are Sunnis because Sunni areas in Iraq are under attack.” He did not expect the sectarianism to spread to Jordan. “In Jordan security is too strong, and Iraqis here don’t want to engage in sectarianism. But over time things might change.”

Many officers from the former regime in Iraq had chosen to settle in Jordan. I met two one rainy evening at the home of Maj. Gen. Walid Abdel Maliki, a former assistant to the minister of defense before the war. With him was Gen. Raed al-Hamdani, a former commander in the Republican Guard Corps. Both men, I was told, “had contacts” with the Iraqi resistance. As we sat down, Abdel Maliki’s young son burst into the living room. “This is the Mahdi Army,” Abdel Maliki told me as he kissed his son, “his behavior in the house.” The two former generals were nostalgic for the time before Iraq was overrun with sectarianism. “We never had this sort of fighting before between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Abdel Maliki. “Saddam didn’t believe in Sunnis or Shiites; he was tribal. Saddam didn’t put down the Shiite rebellion because they were Shiite but because it was an uprising. The soldiers who put down the Shiite uprising were Shiites. We never heard from our fathers and grandfathers such a thing as is happening now. The problem now is from Sunni and Shiite political leaders: Hakim, Dhari, and Adnan Dulaimi are playing the same game.” Abdel Maliki blamed Iran for the problems in Iraq. “It’s a military idea, to move the battle from your land to the enemy’s land,” he said, and Iran sought to confront the U.S. in Iraq. “Iranian occupation is worse than American occupation. The only way is a military solution. Al Qaeda, the Shiite militias, the Iranian groups—they have their own agendas but don’t want to solve their problems. We have to attack Al Qaeda and the militias. Thousands of Iraqi officers can help Americans.”

General Hamdani, Abdel Maliki’s former superior officer, had fought and lost in six wars against Americans, Iranians, Kurds, and Israelis. He had been severely wounded in 1991. “The hardest loss was this last one. We were given the responsibility to defend our country. We lost the war and we lost our country.” Hamdani also resisted a sectarian approach to Iraq. “It is a mistake to think Sunnis ruled Shiites,” he said. “Most of the coup attempts against Saddam were Sunni. If we have a point of view on Iraq, it is as Iraqis, not as Sunnis. There are nationalists and those who are not nationalists.”

He did not think the Sunni boycott of the Iraqi government had been problematic. “Many Iraqi Sunnis participated in the government. What was the result? Nothing.” Although Hamdani thought the Iraqi resistance should continue its struggle, he too saw a larger threat. “These groups were established to fight the occupation, but now I think the danger from Iran is greater than from America. American national interests and the resistance’s interests are the same. The U.S. did itself harm by demonizing the Iraqi resistance and anyone who deals with it. They have prevented the emergence of moderates who can sit and negotiate, and you see now, four years after the invasion, the strongest factions are Al Qaeda and not the nationalists.”

Hamdani was involved in a new political party called Huquq, which was formed by Dr. Hassan Bazzaz in August 2006. Bazzaz was a professor of international relations who taught at the University of Baghdad. He left Iraq two months before I met him in February 2007. “I just ran away. I was afraid they will kill me,” he said, referring to the Shiite militias. Being a well-known professor was a sufficient reason to be targeted, he explained. When I entered his office he was on the phone with someone in Iraq. “Where did they find him?” he asked. “Who shot him? The Americans?”

Bazzaz was also from Adhamiya. “Good fighters, good people,” he said of his former neighborhood. “It never fell.”

The Americans had just initiated their new security plan for Iraq, and Bazzaz was trying to be optimistic. “Everything must come to an end, and I don’t think this will go on forever,” he said. “We are not the first nation to get occupied by a foreign power or the first nation to fight among itself. The Americans are doing it for their own benefit, and we, the Sunni people, can benefit from that.” Although he struggled to be optimistic, he still placed hopes in the resistance. “If things get worse, then we, the people who are talking politically, will take the military option,” he said. “The Sunni Arab neighbors will have to support us. The worst is coming.”

In February 2007 I met Mishan al-Juburi of Al Zawra TV in the offices of a charter airline company in downtown Damascus he claimed belonged to his wife. Two heavy-set thuggish young men stood guard. As I sat down, he began complaining about a recent New York Times story about him. “It’s completely from a dream,” he said angrily. “All the story except my name is not correct.”

Juburi told me his version of his life’s story. He claimed to have been a businessman in Baghdad’s Shorja market. “I knew Saddam personally,” he said, “and gave him my full support. Saddam tried to show he was a winner and he didn’t care about those who supported him. I lost my son in a car accident and criticized the health minister.” Juburi claims that this criticism provoked the ire of the regime. He told me his father had led the Juburi tribe but that since Mishan had an older brother, he was never expected to lead the tribe. “I like city,” he said. “I don’t want to be tribal.” He also claimed to have been involved in a coup attempt by the Juburi tribe. “I tried to kill Saddam, and he killed thirty-five people from my family: my brother, my cousins. I lost ninety-five people from my family to Saddam, but it’s indisputable that Saddam was better. I’m sorry I opposed him.”

He had lived in Jordan, Turkey, Britain, and Syria, he told me, and had founded the Iraqi Homeland Party. Before the war he had taken part in an opposition conference in Salahaddin, in Kurdistan. Now he regretted his participation in this conference: “I trusted the American lie of building democracy in Iraq, and I found myself a part of the American destruction of Iraq.” He claimed he had come to this realization one month after the war ended, when Bremer declared the American presence in Iraq to be an occupation.

Immediately following the war, Juburi and his militia went down to Mosul from Erbil, where he had been staying as a guest of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. “Barzani is my friend. I fully support an independent Kurdistan.” He claimed Barzani’s militia had helped him take Mosul. I asked him what had become of his militia, and Juburi told me, “I think they are resisting.”

I expressed surprise at his support for an independent Kurdistan. “I believe it’s good for the Iraqi future,” he said, though he admitted that the Kurds were planning on cleansing the Arabs of Kirkuk. He told me he had remained in Mosul for one month and then arranged for an election. “I didn’t put my name or any name of my family” on the list of candidates, he said, somewhat implausibly. After the elections in Mosul, he left for Baghdad and eventually joined the Iraqi government and Parliament. His small party, he said, received 142,000 votes in the first Iraqi elections.

Juburi was known for his sectarian attacks on Iraq’s Shiite leaders and militias, whom he called “Safawis,” the Arabic way of saying “Safavid,” the name of a Persian dynasty that ruled from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. It is a common epithet used to imply that Iraq’s Shiites are not Arabs but are part of an Iranian or Persian conspiracy to gain hegemony over them. “On April 18, 2005, I said the government is Safawi,” he said proudly. “I’m the first man to use the word ‘Safawi.’ Since then I haven’t gone to Parliament. The first Jaafari government was Safawi-Persian. We are not against Shiites; we are against Safawis. We fear Iran. The Americans will leave; first we are afraid of Iran.”

In November 2005 he established Al Zawra TV. “From the first day we said we are going to say what no one else dares to say,” he told me. At first Al Zawra was known for its entertainment programs, but after Juburi’s immunity as a Parliament member was lifted following charges of corruption and aiding the resistance, the channel began broadcasting proresistance propaganda. Since most of Al Zawra’s target audience in the Middle East did not have access to the Internet, Juburi rebroadcast the propaganda videos that many had seen worldwide online. The videos consisted of members of the resistance preparing for or conducting operations against the Americans. Two commentators, a man in military attire and a veiled woman, occasionally provided news bulletins. Although his channel was praised by the resistance, many also expressed their skepticism about Juburi for being “opportunistic.”

Al Zawra received widespread attention throughout the Arab world, and many Iraqi Sunnis in exile watched it as well. One newspaper in Jordan, Al Arab al-Yawm, wrote that only Al Zawra transmitted the reports of the resistance without focusing on suicide attacks that promoted sectarianism. The newspaper praised Al Zawra’s stance against the occupation and its call for the overthrow of the “puppet sectarian regime.” The channel was unique and important, the paper said, because there was otherwise a media blackout imposed on the resistance. The channel showed Arab children the real picture of Iraq, praising the “martyr leader Saddam Husayn.”

In April 2006 Juburi absconded to northern Iraq and Erbil, where his friend Barzani provided him with safe haven. “If I stayed in Baghdad the government militias would kill me,” he said. “Maliki told me he would execute me if I opposed the government. I am against the Iranians in Iraq, so the authorities accuse me of certain things. Now the office in Baghdad is destroyed.” The Americans eventually closed down his station in Erbil too. He explained that he broadcasted from Anbar using mobile transmitters on taxis and other vehicles.

When we met he was running his station from Damascus with the help of his son and publishing a pro-Sunni newspaper. He claimed that he alone funded the station. “I was one of the top-ten richest men in Iraq,” he said. Al Zawra was broadcast by the Egyptian satellite network Nilesat. Juburi expressed glee in the distress he was causing as a gadfly. “The Americans pushed me to be against them,” he said. “I know how much I give them a headache.” He would soon also be broadcast by Arabsat and Hot Bird, a European company.

Juburi maintained that Zarqawi and other Salafis had hurt the Sunni cause. They had sought to provoke a civil war, he said, and they had succeeded. “That’s why Sunni society doesn’t support them,” he said. “There are clashes between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi resistance, which we consider ourselves to be a part of.” Al Zawra had become a symbol of the resistance everywhere, he told me. “The resistance are serving us; we have relations with all the resistance in Iraq except Al Qaeda,” he said. “We never show anything from them. Al Qaeda is a danger like America in the Middle East. We don’t want to make the mistake they made in Afghanistan.”

Like many Sunnis, Juburi feared a potential genocide of the Sunnis of Iraq. He believed that Sunni children and women would leave the country. He did not think the Shiites had won yet. “If we are outside the city but Shiites cannot leave their homes, then you cannot say that there is a winner to the civil war,” he said. Unlike some Sunni leaders, he did not think the Sunni boycott of the Iraqi government had been a strategic error. “If you push people to join the Iraqi police and army, it means you accept the American occupation.”

Although Juburi was ready to criticize Iraq’s Shiites and what he saw as their Iranian sponsors, he refrained from criticizing Lebanese Hizballah, a successful Shiite resistance movement. Many Sunni Iraqis saw Hizballah as an Iranian proxy and were thus hostile to the movement. Juburi told me he did not want to talk about Hizballah, possibly because he was a guest of the Syrians, themselves supporters of the movement. He conceded that Hizballah’s general secretary was very charismatic and expressed his admiration for Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Lebanese cleric formerly associated with Hizballah. “I love Fadlallah especially,” Juburi told me. He agreed with me that it was ironic that in Lebanon the Sunnis supported American policy while the Shiites were opposed to the Americans.

He predicted that Al Zawra would soon go live on the Internet. “We use the Internet the way photography was used in Vietnam,” he said. “We will cause Bush a real headache. We will show the reality of American soldiers. America must apologize for what it did to Iraq.”

In January 2007 Juburi famously debated Sadeq al-Musawi, a Shiite Iraqi journalist, on Al Jazeera. Juburi came out swinging, asking Musawi to recite a prayer for the soul of “the martyred president Saddam Hussein.” Musawi refused, condemning Saddam instead. Juburi called Musawi a Persian, and Musawi responded that Juburi was a thief. Juburi claimed to have evidence that Musawi was an Iranian, and Musawi claimed that Juburi’s father had killed Kurds. Juburi called Musawi a “Persian shoe.” Musawi stormed off the set, and Juburi continued alone, praising the executed Saddam. Invoking sectarianism and the ancient split between Sunnis and Shiites, Juburi said that the people who killed Saddam were the same people who had killed the caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab and who hated the caliph Abu Bakr and the other companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Although Musawi eventually returned to the set, his exchange with Juburi was no less acrimonious.

In February 2007 Juburi made a speech condemning Al Qaeda for provoking Iraq’s Shiites while failing to protect Sunnis from Shiite retaliation, for imposing itself on other resistance groups, for killing Iraq’s Sunni leaders, for seeking to create a Taliban state in Iraq, and for killing a messenger sent by Juburi to negotiate with them. Juburi warned that Iraq’s Sunnis would fight Al Qaeda. Following his speech, many jihadist websites and forums condemned Juburi. Although the Egyptians had ignored threats from the ruling Shiites in Iraq, in February Nilesat finally pulled the plug on Juburi’s channel (other satellite networks continued to broadcast it). The Americans, who had long been pressuring the Egyptians to shut Al Zawra down, finally succeeded.

Others I spoke to disputed Juburi’s account of himself. Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa, an expert on Iraq’s tribes and its former regime, was one of them. According to Baram, who also advised the American government: “He is a middle-level sheikh of the Jubbur [tribe], originating from the vicinity of Tikrit. In the mid-1980s he was approached by Saddam to recruit young and uncouth Juburis that would go through a crash (and often crush) course of army officers and then sent to the front with Iran to lead troops in battle. Saddam believed that country tribal boys were tough, very Arab (no mix with Turkish or Persian genes or culture), and imbued with traditional tribal ideals—murua (manliness or nobleness), sharraf (honor)—and so they will fight the Iranians tooth and nail. Actually, they did prove themselves. Saddam promoted them at a neck-breaking speed in the war. Your man claims that he recruited fifty thousand such, but he is exaggerating. Still, he did a good job. Now, many Juburis were angry at Saddam for other reasons and planned a coup d’état in January 1990. Saddam exposed it and executed many Juburi army officers, imprisoned or just sacked others. It became dangerous to be a senior Juburi for a while. I don’t know whether your guy was or wasn’t part of the plot, but he felt that the soil was burning under his feet, and fled. He always tried to present himself as far more important than he really was. He returned to Baghdad in 2003 but was not successful in attracting meaningful Juburi support. He always had money, who knows where from. Assad? CIA? Saudis and Gulfies?”

An Iraqi politician close to many Sunni leaders and the resistance who also lived in Syria provided me with another account. My source, who preferred anonymity, explained, “The resistance has doubts about him. They are using him, but they won’t give him their trust to speak in their name. When the occupation ends they will judge him for all that he did.” He was referring to charges the Iraqi government had made that Juburi had run off with millions of dollars he had been paid for contracts he never completed. He had allegedly used that money to launch his television station.

My source explained that under Saddam’s regime Juburi had worked for the Jumhuriya newspaper. Juburi then met Saddam’s son Uday and fell into his good graces. Juburi came from a poor family, my source told me, but he had made deals with Uday during the sanctions era and had stolen money from Uday before fleeing to Jordan and Syria, taking advantage of the fact that Syria would not hand him over to Saddam. Juburi then pretended he was using money to overthrow the government. My source mocked Juburi for attending the Iraqi opposition conferences in London and Salahaddin before the war, legitimizing the American occupation. When the former regime learned of a coup being plotted by members of the Jubbur tribe, many members were executed, including Juburi’s brother, his wife’s brother, and many military officers from the tribe.

“When the Americans invaded,” my source explained, “he came down with the Kurds to Mosul, and he participated in robbing banks and burning them. He tried to lead Mosul and gave a speech, and people threw shoes and vegetables at him. He bought a lot of votes and got three seats in Parliament. His tribe has rejected him because he came on the back of American tanks.” My source explained that Juburi received various building contracts but never built anything. He also received a contract to provide security for oil pipelines. “When he started clashing with the government, they opened his file, and the first file they opened was the pipelines,” my source said, adding that some Sunni Iraqi politicians had appealed to Juburi to stop promoting sectarianism. “We told him he serves the American agenda of dividing Iraqis,” he said.


The Battle of Nahr al-Barid: Iraq Comes to Lebanon

IT WASN’T ONLY IRAQI REFUGEES WHO WERE LEAVING THE COUNTRY. Al Qaeda in Iraq was searching for new sanctuaries as well. Most countries in the region were harsh dictatorships with strong security services that would never countenance an influx of the new “Arab Afghans,” veterans of the jihad in Iraq, the way they had after the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. But with its weak state, sectarian structure and divisions, foreign interventions, and extreme social inequalities, Lebanon was especially vulnerable to the destabilizing influences of the civil war in Iraq. Best of all, large swaths of it were ungoverned, and there was a Sunni community that felt increasingly insecure. Though there were many differences between the two countries, Lebanon showed a possible glimpse of what parts of Iraq might look like—especially if, as in Lebanon, there was never any process of justice, truth, or accountability to grapple with the civil war and the massacres.

The wave of Sunni extremism and the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia were especially felt in Lebanon. Fighting in the northern Nahr al-Barid refugee camp near Tripoli and street clashes in January and May 2008 were a sign that the war in Iraq was spilling over into neighboring countries, with fighters, weapons, tactics, and sectarian tensions all making their way to Lebanon and elsewhere. The clashes were also a sign that America’s “New Middle East,” based on supporting U.S. client states at the expense of rival movements that had more popularity or legitimacy, was failing. America’s support for Sunni regimes that manipulated sectarianism was increasing radicalism in the region and threatening to provoke a larger regional conflict.

While many analysts were promoting a theory of “Shiite revival” in the Middle East, recent events in Lebanon and the region pointed to a Sunni revival. According to a Lebanese political scientist I spoke to, Amer Mohsen, the Shiite revival, spoken of with fear by Sunni dictators in the Middle East and with pride by supporters, was passé. It had happened in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini. “If by revival we designate a movement revolutionizing Shiite thought or the way Shiites think of themselves, this already happened in 1979 in much of the Middle East, and that movement reached its apex and is no longer in fashion,” he said. “Hizballah in Lebanon is gaining popularity not based on the notions of the Iranian Revolution but as a communitarian movement working in the context of identity politics, much like the other movements in Lebanon. And it is the same thing in Iraq, where Shiite movements have no clear ideological commitment. If by revival we mean increased power for Shiite groups within their countries, that would apply solely to Iraq, where the fall of Saddam supposedly catapulted Shiites to a position of power they had not had since the creation of the country. But this is also a local phenomenon, whose conclusion is still undecided. There is clearly (in the case of Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon) a phenomenon of Shiites identifying more openly with their sectarian affiliation and building political projects on that basis. But that is a case of the resurgence of identity politics throughout the Middle East in the last years, in which sense, there is a Shiite revival, a Sunni revival, a Druze revival, an Alawite revival, and a Kurdish revival all happening simultaneously.”

Amal Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on Shiite movements I spoke to during my time in Lebanon, saw a Sunni revival in the region running on two parallel tracks: “one being the Al Qaeda paradigm, whose sectarianism is religiously, doctrinally, and ideologically based, and which aspires to represent a new resistance, a revolutionary and populist model for the region’s Sunnis. While it is not necessarily a reaction to the Shiite Hizballah-Iranian model, it does seek to compete with it. It is insurgent (on a national level) and a resistance or jihadi trend (on the global level). It is a transnational antisystem phenomenon or antiestablishment, anti-world order movement.

“In parallel with this trend is the narrower state-sponsored Sunni sectarian model, which is social and political in nature, is closely interwoven with ruling establishments and personalities, may or may not overlap with the Salafi trend in some cases, but is ultimately a reaction to what is perceived as a growing Shiite threat, as distilled from Arab rulers’ discourse and the media. Unlike the Al Qaeda paradigm, though, it cannot compete ideologically with Shiite resistance, nor does it seek to. The Sunni revival is a product of insurgent/ jihadist/antiestablishment forces as well as proestablishment forces. In both cases, a revival is taking place insofar as Sunni Islam is seen as being the most effective tool for mobilizing support and achieving objectives.”

Mohsen believed that what mainstream Sunni leaders were doing was taking the racist discourse of anti-Shiite extremists (like Zarqawi) and inflating it into a mainstream discourse among Sunni masses. Saad Ghorayeb, on the other hand, insisted that Sunni Arab regimes had appropriated this discourse not so much from Salafis but from the United States, whose leaders and pundits spoke of those who are loyal to Iran and of a Shiite crescent.

Lebanon, in particular, had seen a spectacular revival of Sunni identity and a reshaping of traditional Sunni attitudes since 2005. Order in Lebanon had been maintained by Syrian political and military domination, now referred to as an occupation by opponents of Syria. The Syrians had first intervened in Lebanon in 1976 at the request of the Lebanese president to support right-wing militias against a coalition of leftists and Palestinians who threatened to overturn the Maronite Christian-dominated order. In 1987 they returned, this time in support of Sunnis who had grown tired of the militia wars being fought between the Shiite and the Druze minorities. Both times the Syrian intervention met with American, Israeli, and Saudi approval: first the Syrians marketed themselves as opponents of the coalition between the Palestinian resistance groups and leftists, and the second time they took advantage of American fear of Hizballah, going so far as to attack the Shiite militia.

The Syrian era ended in February 2005, when Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated, and since then a major divide has emerged between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, with the Christians who had once dominated the country increasingly losing their political significance and becoming marginalized. Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. Christians and Muslims divided powers and apportioned positions based on sectarian identity, with Maronite Christians benefiting from a six-to-five ratio and Sunni Muslims dominating their Shiite coreligionists. In a sense Lebanon has never had a government but rather a power-sharing arrangement. At first the system of distributing political posts according to sect was merely based on custom. The 1991 Taif Accords, which ended the civil war, enshrined this system while granting a larger proportion to Muslims, allocating seats in Parliament on a one-to-one ratio. The president remained a Maronite Christian, with powers reduced in relation to the Sunni prime minister and the Shiite speaker of the Parliament. The Taif Accords were meant to establish a transitional period that would end with the abolition of political sectarianism, but this never happened. Instead the system became more entrenched, and the Lebanese became more connected to their sectarian institutions. Saudi money and the Syrian military presence in Lebanon helped guarantee that the accords held. While other militias were disbanded, Hizballah was allowed to maintain its armed struggle against the Israeli occupation.

Taif also helped bring to premiership Hariri, a Lebanese Sunni who made his billions working with the Saudi royal family and who used force and bribery to bring the rival factions together in the Saudi resort city after which the accords were named. He had a history of spreading his wealth, granting scholarships to thousands of students, and corrupting the Syrian overlords in Lebanon, who often seemed like they worked for him. Before the rise of Hariri many of Lebanon’s Sunni political and religious leaders had been murdered. Hariri was an ally of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and was installed as prime minister in 1992 by Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.

Though he is widely credited with reconstructing much of Lebanon, it was the Lebanese who shouldered much of the burden, and under his reign the national debt increased from one and a half billion dollars to eighteen billion dollars. Beginning in 2000, Hariri also contributed to the increase in sectarianism, campaigning more openly on a platform of Sunni power.

Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb. His supporters as well as opponents of Syria established a loose coalition in the wake of his assassination that blamed the Syrians for the murder, demanded the formation of an international tribunal to investigate it, and called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces and influence in Lebanon. The coalition was named for the March 14 demonstration in which Hariri’s supporters called for the Syrian withdrawal. The March 14 coalition also became the main vehicle for the Bush administration’s agenda in Lebanon and was closely associated with Saudi Arabia through the Future Movement, led by Hariri’s son and heir, Saad, who even has a Saudi passport. Most of the March 14 coalition was composed of politicians who had been former supporters and allies of the Syrian regime. One of the most famous chants of March 14 demonstrators was “We want revenge!” That revenge was often taken on poor Syrians who worked as laborers or sold bread on the street. Many of them were beaten or stabbed, and the tents they lived in were burned down in the name of March 14.

Saad al-Hariri was not prepared and had not wanted to inherit his father’s mantle. Without his father’s achievements to build a popular base he relied on Sunni communal solidarity. Lebanon’s Sunnis allied with their historic enemies, the Christians, against the country they had historically identified with more than their own, Syria.

FADIL SHALLAQ was a close associate of Rafiq al-Hariri from 1978 until 2002, heading construction and charitable projects for him, advising him, and finally serving as editor in chief of Hariri’s Future newspaper. Following the 2006 war with Israel, Shallaq, a Sunni, publicly broke with his former allies, objecting to the sectarian and pro-American turn the movement was taking. He did not view the former Syrian presence in Lebanon as an occupation. “When the Syrians were here, I don’t know who controlled who, the Lebanese or the Syrians,” he said. “Hariri thought the Syrian presence helped Lebanon,” he told me. “I worked with him for twenty-five years.” Shallaq rejected the Future Movement’s claims that Hariri had been anti-Syrian and argued that the Israelis were more likely to have killed Hariri than the Syrians. Shallaq also rejected the reincarnation of Hariri as a Sunni symbol. “Hariri was a Sunni believer,” he admits. “He hated my atheism, but he was originally an Arab nationalist, he believed in building the state. He was a Lebanese nationalist, but he was never sectarian. Sunni sectarianism started after Hariri’s death. Sectarianism is not given, it’s manufactured. Sunnis were reshaped, reconstituted, reprogrammed after 2005, and became a despicable entity. You needed a corpse. Without the corpse you could not have reprogrammed their identity. Then you had a campaign of propaganda. It was well financed.” Shallaq blamed a coalition of neocons and Lebanese allies such as Walid Fares, a former Lebanese Christian militiaman associated with the American right. He says they funded the creation of the Future Movement and the sectarian and anti-Syrian direction it took.

“How could a whole community change like this?” he asked. “Before the Sunni community was traditional, Islamic, Arab nationalist, a little bit to the left, with very definite anti-Israeli attitudes about the Palestinian cause. They had strong feelings about the Syrians, but this wave of hate of Hizballah was created. It’s new.”

Shallaq was worried about new Sunni militias being created by the Future Movement. “There is a not-so-secret militia and security organization. People are being trained in Jordan; others are trained here by former military men.” Still others were trained by Christian militiamen belonging to the Lebanese forces, he said. “They are being prepared for civil war. We are in the middle of a civil war now, or civil conflict. You have to distinguish what happened in 1975 and what is happening now. We won’t have the paradigm of 1975 repeated. We have a civil war without generalized violence. Sectarian feelings are at a maximum point. Militias, arms, preparations, violence—all the elements of civil war. But will it erupt? And have a green line? I think we will have fighting house to house, building to building.”

One of the people Shallaq blamed for the sectarian tension was his former colleague Ridwan al-Sayyid, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Lebanese University and speechwriter and adviser to Hariri and his successor for prime minister, Fouad Siniora. On May 3 I visited Sayyid in his apartment. Interestingly, he agreed with Shallaq on the basic narrative. “There was a repositioning in the Sunni community since 2005,” he said. “They were shocked by the killing of Hariri.” The Syrians had persecuted Sunnis because Sunnis were traditionally pro-Palestinian, pro-Egyptian, and anti-Baathist. “Hariri helped Sunnis come out of their material, educational, and political crisis, and he made peace with the Syrians so they would not persecute us. He was a symbol of flourishing Sunnism.” After Hariri’s killing, the new Sunni feelings were at first only anti-Syrian, but after the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon it became anti-Shiite as well. He blamed Hizballah and specifically Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah for calling Siniora an agent of the Americans and the Zionists. “Because of Hizballah, Sunnis feel in danger,” he said. Sunni tension increased after the mostly Shiite demonstrators descended upon the government and tried to force Siniora to step down. “Sunnis felt it was against Sunnis and not a political act that Shiites are trying to take the position of Sunnis, the position of the prime minister, which belongs to the Sunni confession, and that Hizballah was trying to destroy the Lebanese state and the Sunni role in the state,” Sayyid told me. “Sunnis felt they need to protect the state because the Christians vanished. There is no Christian entity anymore that can mediate between both or make a third party.”

Sayyid believed that Hizballah did not act independently but as a tool for Iran to pressure the West. He blamed the July 2006 war on Syria and Iran. “They want to defeat America in Lebanon,” he said. “It is a struggle with the U.S., and they waged war against Israel and found that the Lebanese state and Sunnis were on the other side. Sunnis felt that on their side there is Egypt and Saudi [Arabia], and on the other side the Shiites, Syria and Iran.” Unlike other Sunni partisans in his alliance, Sayyid did not believe that Hizballah actually wanted a civil war or even that its leaders wanted to impose a Shiite religious state on Lebanon. “But they want to continue the confrontation with Israel without considering the views of the other three million Lebanese,” he said. “Hizballah is here with weapons, and accumulating weapons, and they made war with Israel. The country feels threatened, and they don’t recognize state institutions—they have their own telephone lines, their own army, their own social networks.” Sayyid said he would support Hizballah in the event of another war with Israel. “If Israel wins a war with Hizballah, then Lebanon is destroyed and the Arabs are weakened. How can I, as an Arab, Lebanese, and Muslim, be against Hizballah? I can only say that your program is not good for the country and cannot bring success.” Sayyid was not optimistic for the immediate future. “From both sides, Israel and Iran, Hizballah, there is a situation where one will decide to attack. Israel can’t wait until Hizballah gets stronger. We cannot win a war against Israel. The Arab countries won’t make war with us, so Hizballah will make war alone, and the country will be destroyed.”

There were two groups of Salafis in Lebanon, he told me: peaceful ones and jihadists. But he feared that after the appearance of extreme Salafi jihadists the peaceful ones might side with the jihadists. Seyid admitted to me that Sunnis were being trained in Jordan but explained that it was only to work as security guards. Because of Sunni solidarity and the fear that all Shiites have weapons, there were new armed Sunni groups, he said. “Sunnis feel insecure, but it’s not a good idea,” he told me. “It’s not a good situation, but what can you do? The security forces can’t protect all those institutions, as the bombings show, so they have to have their own guards.”

Facing the Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition was the March 8 coalition, led by Hizballah and aligned with Syria and Iran. Named for the date of the demonstration at which Hizballah thanked the Syrians for supporting the resistance to Israel, the coalition grew to include Michel Aoun, the Christian former Lebanese army general who had spearheaded the fight against Syrian domination. Though Aoun’s anti-Syrian credentials were clear, even calling Hizballah pro-Syrian was misleading. The Syrians had fought Hizballah in the past and supported its rivals. It was only in the mid-1990s that they began to support Hizballah, while not allowing it to participate in Lebanese politics, and it was only after the Syrians left that Hizballah entered Lebanese electoral politics. Privately, Hizballah officials disparaged the Syrian system and expressed resentment of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. But their priority was the resistance, and they were grateful to the Syrians for supporting it. Other members of March 8 included lesser Sunni figures such as the late former Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood leader Fathi Yakan, who was sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

The July War and After

In July 2006 Hizballah soldiers captured two Israeli soldiers in a daring raid typical of the tit-for-tat exchanges that were limited to the border region. Hizballah was surprised when the Israelis responded with a massive onslaught, pounding Lebanon and destroying much of its infrastructure, killing about one thousand civilians while laying waste to southern Lebanon and the Shiite suburbs of Beirut. Standing up to the Israeli military might, less than 1,500 Hizballah soldiers lost about 150 of their men. It was the first time an Arab army had achieved a kill ratio on par with the Israelis. The war ended with the Israelis failing to achieve their stated goal of destroying Hizballah or pushing it north of the Litani River. For Hizballah and its supporters, thwarting Israeli goals was a victory—a divine victory, they said. Hizballah shot to popularity with the people, if not the regimes, around the Arab world.

Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the war and its devastation as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East,” it deepened the chasm between the March 14 and March 8 camps, as well as that between Sunnis and Shiites. Hizballah and its allies accused their opponents of collaborating with the Israelis and Americans. March 14 politicians blamed Hizballah for the destruction that had not only ruined the summer tourist season but the economy and infrastructure. If Hizballah accused them of serving Israel and America, they accused Hizballah of serving an Iranian agenda.

Concerned that the Lebanese government, dominated by the March 14 coalition, was attempting to achieve diplomatically and politically what Israel had failed to do militarily (emasculate Hizballah and remove its weapons), the Shiite members of the government resigned. In November the March 8 coalition asserted that the government was no longer legitimate, since without the Shiites it was in violation of the sectarian division of power. Hizballah sought a national unity government in which it would have a greater share of power. But it was not asking for a larger share of the political pie for the Shiite community beyond the 21 percent of parliamentary and cabinet seats the Shiites were allocated by the Constitution. Instead it wanted a greater share for its non-Shiite allies in the opposition, which collectively represented at least half the Lebanese population. Hizballah wanted a veto-wielding one-third of the cabinet seats so that it and its allies could maintain their influence over “strategic” issues, protecting the resistance, maintaining Lebanon’s “Arabism” and centrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and preventing Lebanon from falling under American and Israeli hegemony.

In December 2006 Hizballah and its allies in the March 8 coalition initiated demonstrations, and a “sit-in” turned into a tent city in downtown Beirut, an area that symbolized Hariri’s costly reconstruction of Beirut and also the seat of the Lebanese government. For Sunnis, this infringement on their territory was perceived as a Shiite “occupation” that had broken the Sunni sense of ownership over this Sunni oasis. In January the opposition called for strikes and civil disobedience. In clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in Beirut, seven were killed and at least 150 were injured. All sides were surprised by the explosion of violent hatred and pulled their forces back. Saudi Arabia and Iran quickly came to the negotiating table. Neither side wanted things to get out of control. Their power was based on the potential for war, not war itself, on playing brinksmanship without being drawn in. During the clashes the army refused to interfere and attack civilians. At the time the army was condemned by March 14 politicians for being insufficiently repressive.

All this was taking place in a region anxious over the civil war in Iraq, in which Sunnis felt threatened by Shiite militias that had profited from the American occupation. King Abdullah of Jordan had warned of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Lebanon to the Gulf. President Mubarak of Egypt had accused Shiite Arabs of being fifth columnists for Iran. In an unprecedented move, America’s Sunni Arab clients in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, had gone so far as to issue formal statements condemning Hizballah, which suggested they were siding with Israel. While the Sunni regimes used the Shiite threat to galvanize their population, nobody wanted an actual conflict between Arab states and Iran. The tense quiet in Lebanon over the next few months was punctuated by bombs and assassinations. But everybody was waiting for what was to come. Saudi Arabia decided that Lebanon was its project, the place in the region where it would confront Iran. But Lebanon was also an Iranian project, and both countries invested large amounts of money and political capital in support of their allies. Unlike Iraq, where their proxies also competed for power, Lebanon was less costly and the consequences less severe. Much as it had in Iraq, Gaza, and Somalia, the United States appeared determined to provoke a civil war in Lebanon. In the conflict over the cabinet seats and over selecting a new president, the Americans were pressuring their proxies not to compromise with Hizballah and its allies, increasing the tension and seemingly denying Shiites the right to participate in the government.

Marooned in Lebanon

Lebanon’s twelve Palestinian camps form an archipelago that exists inside and outside the state. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live suffocated and marginalized in them. Inside the camps the Palestinian identity is maintained, and the main employers are the Palestinian resistance factions. When the Syrian military was in Lebanon it backed former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud—a Maronite Christian, as was custom, who served from 1998 to 2007. Throughout his presidency Lahoud invoked the threat of tawtin, warning that Muslims would grant citizenship to the Palestinians, in order to frighten Christians into backing him and the Syrian presence. Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. The Christian minority among them had been granted citizenship long before, since their numbers would bolster the ranks of Lebanon’s Christian minority. Tawtin was an existential threat, Lahoud warned. It would boost the number of Muslims, and only the Syrians could prevent it.

With massacres of Palestinians committed by Lebanese Christians and Shiites in the past, and most recently with Lebanon’s Sunnis having turned against them, sometimes it seems that the one thing that united Lebanese had been their hostility to Palestinians. But in truth the one thing that united them was furthering their sectarian interests. The Palestinians have always been instrumentalized by Lebanese factions. They were used by Sunnis as their militia during the civil war. Shiites in the south joined Palestinian groups in the 1960s to force out their feudal landlords.

Syria sought to maintain the refugee camps as a political card, so Lahoud impeded any way of alleviating Palestinian suffering. In a very cynical policy, Lahoud continued to deny all social rights and representation were denied to them. In the camps, Palestinian clerics deduced that Christians hated Palestinians because they were Sunnis. In 2005, when Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora spoke of improving the conditions for the Palestinians, he was condemned for invoking tawtin. Had they been Christian, no such opposition would have occurred. As a result they had to react as Sunnis and defend themselves as Sunnis. For the clerics it was not the Syrians who were behind the move; it was the Christians. Some Palestinian clerics took advantage of this to mobilize support. If they were rejected in Lebanon as Sunnis, then they would fight as Sunnis.

Radical Sunni groups benefited from this weakened Palestinian identity. Chief among them were Salafis. Salafism is a muscular discourse, and in its most extreme form it sounds like racism when applied to Shiite Muslims. Most Salafis engaged in theology and preaching, and refrained from political or military action. A small minority believed that violence was necessary to achieve an Islamic state. In Lebanon, there were two kinds of Salafis: the traditionalists, who were fully integrated into the political system, and the jihadists, who relied on networks that were not nation-based but had become deterritorialized.

Ayn al-Hilweh, situated in the town of Sidon, a forty-five-minute drive south of Beirut, is the largest of the camps in Lebanon; it houses up to seventy-five thousand people in one square kilometer of squalor. A balance of power in the camp between the two main factions—the broadly secular Fatah, founded by the late Yasser Arafat and the historic core of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Usbat al-Ansar (The League of Supporters), a jihadist group particular to the Palestinian refugee camps that was formed in the mid-1980s—prevents fighting from breaking out. Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) is another jihadist organization that split off from Usbat al-Ansar. It was named after a group established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan in 1999 for militants hailing from the Levant.

In July 2006 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second-ranking leader, warned that Al Qaeda would not stand by while Israel shelled Lebanon. Unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq and its founder, Zarqawi, who had declared war against Shiites, Zawahiri sought to establish a common front with the Shiites of Hizballah, who were successfully standing up to the Israelis, but the Shiite resistance organization wanted nothing to do with the Sunni terrorist organization. He linked the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan with those in Lebanon and Palestine, and blamed “the crusader alliance.” Al Qaeda was concerned that the battle against Israel, and the glory, was being monopolized by Hizballah, and it hoped to establish itself in this crucial front. Zawahiri’s words were taken seriously by some. Islamist websites and Internet forums carried demands to establish a Sunni jihadist front in Lebanon. Other jihadists fled Iraq, disgusted with the sectarian fighting or pressure from the growing power of the American-backed Sunni militias in the Anbar province. Hunted in Jordan and Syria, they found Lebanon—with its failed state, lawless refugee camps, and sectarian strife—was their only safe haven. Zawahiri’s statement in July 2007 praised an attack against United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon.

ONE DAY THAT MONTH, I visited Ayn al-Hilweh for a funeral in the late afternoon. Soon after I arrived calls to prayer echoed from all the mosques in the camp. First built in 1949 to house Palestinians expelled from northern Palestine, the camp had grown into a ramshackle ghetto made of concrete and cinder blocks. Low-hanging electric cables were strung from one building to another, crisscrossing like old cobwebs. Faded political posters were plastered over with newer ones, some for Hamas, others for its rival Fatah, and still others for Saddam, declaring him a martyr for the Islamic nation and a warrior leader. The camp had two main streets and a labyrinth of tight alleys connecting to smaller streets, one of them named after Falluja. At the Shuhada Mosque stood a dozen men in paramilitary uniforms, with walkie-talkies, M4 carbines, AK-47s, scopes, pistols, combat boots, tennis shoes, long beards, and sunglasses. The men had a professional and serious air to them, and they differed from the hundreds of other armed militiamen in the camp who lazily slung their older weapons and were unkempt.

The mosque’s second floor connected to the building across the street, forming a bridge. The armed men standing under the mosque were members of Usbat al-Ansar—the leading jihadist group in the camp—and they joined about two hundred other men on the second floor for a special prayer. They were burying one of their comrades, Daghagh Rifai, who had been shot at 9:30 that morning by men belonging to the rival faction Fatah. The armed men lined up with the others in orderly rows, placing their weapons on the floor between their legs. Some of them wore the salwar kameez typical in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a jihadist fashion.

Following the prayer, men gathered to gaze briefly at Daghagh’s corpse, which was wrapped in the green flag of Islam. A thick man with a large dark beard, he bore fresh wounds on his face. His former comrades carried him down the stairs on an olive-colored military gurney. A procession of hundreds followed them silently around the corner, off the main street, and up an incline. Residents of the camp watched from their doors or from windows and balconies above. As the silent marchers approached the camp’s gate, the armed men stayed behind and let relatives take Daghagh’s body past the Lebanese soldiers guarding the entrance and on to the cemetery.

One of those paying their respects that afternoon was a cheerful man called Abu Anas, who led me through a maze of dark alleys up to his unlit apartment. We were joined by his friends Abu Salih and Abu Ghassan, wiry, fit men with taut faces and long beards. The power came back on and with it the television, tuned to Al Manar, Hizballah’s television station. Abu Anas’s wife and children had left the camp to go to the nearby beach, and he was enjoying the quiet, he said, as he served us melons.

Daghagh had been shot outside his home in what they described as an “old story, a chain.” A few months earlier Fatah men had attacked members of Jund al-Sham, a rival jihadist group to Usbat al-Ansar. Daghagh was part of a group of Jund al-Sham men who retaliated, killing two Fatah men. “Friends of Daghagh will take revenge on Fatah,” they assured me. Two months earlier Fatah had also tried to kill the local Hamas leader but had only succeeded in wounding his youngest son. “Fatah has a bad reputation here,” one of the men said. “Fatah was good in the 1970s. They had principles. Now they are dealing drugs, they are opening Internet places with pornography, they just want money and power.” The men told me that Fatah men had recently stabbed a member of Usbat al-Ansar as he guarded a school, but he had fought back and they fled. Fatah had also thrown grenades at a mosque, they told me. Fatah and Usbat al-Ansar were the two dominant factions in the camp, they said, but Usbat was stronger. Like many Palestinians, they worried that Fatah intended to abandon the Palestinian refugees who lived outside Israel and the occupied territories, and they insisted that Fatah supported tawtin in Lebanon, which they feared would abnegate their right to return to their homes.

Abu Anas and his comrades did not belong to any of the factions. “We have some differences with Jund al-Sham,” one told me. “They are a little ignorant. They think with their hearts and not their minds. You need principles, not emotion. Usbat al-Ansar is more open, more educated. They have military expertise.”

Abu Salih had tattoos, meaning he had not always been devout. He said he had fought in Falluja in the fall of 2004, staying for about fifty days and taking part in four successful operations against the Americans. “The Americans were cowards,” he told me. There had been between 250 and 300 men in his group, he said. I asked why he had chosen Iraq and not tried to liberate Palestine. “It’s impossible to go fight in Palestine,” said Abu Anas. “The Arabs closed the borders—Jordan, Syria. Here if they open the way to fight Israel, many people would go fight.” Hizballah, he said, prevented them from fighting Israel.

I asked the men what they thought of Hizballah, since they supported groups in Iraq that targeted Shiites. “We differ in our beliefs, but we agree on fighting Israel,” one said. “Israel is the enemy. We can settle our differences later.” Many Lebanese Sunnis resented Hizballah for provoking the last war. “Sunnis who disapprove of Hizballah’s war do so because they are allied with America,” one of the men told me. They reminded me that a group of Palestinians from the camp who had fought with Zarqawi in Iraq had launched missiles at Israel and that in his final statement, Zarqawi had declared that “we fight in Iraq, but our eyes are on our home in Jerusalem.”

Abu Salih met Zarqawi once. I asked him what he was like. “He was a lion,” Abu Ghassan interjected. Zarqawi had been very nice to “the brothers” and had cooked for them, Abu Salih explained. It was night when they met in Falluja’s Askari neighborhood, and it was very dark. “The earth was burned,” he said. “Planes were bombing, but we had cold water, appetizers, grilled chicken.” Up to fifty men from the camp had gone to fight in Iraq.

“Usbat al-Ansar is a travel agency and YMCA for jihad,” explained Bernard Rougier, an expert on Lebanon’s Salafis and author of the book Everyday Jihad, “but they are a jihadi group, they must act, so the way of solving the contradiction of being in Lebanon but not fighting Israel or anybody else is by sending jihadists to Iraq and secretly helping other jihadist groups.”

I returned a few times to visit Abu Ghassan. Foreigners entering the camp must get permission from Sidon’s local military intelligence commander. As I sat in his office I overheard his phone calls. One sheikh called him about releasing a Jund al-Sham suspect from prison. The commander opened the man’s file and read the accusations. The man was an extremist: he had helped dispatch fighters to Iraq, was suspected of involvement in explosions, and was inciting against Shiites. With the commander’s permission slip I was able to get past the soldiers guarding the gate and drive past the Fatah checkpoint to meet Abu Ghassan. He wore camouflage pants and a knit cap. He led me through more alleys, down rough-hewn stairs, and past a metal door into his apartment. His infant daughter was sleeping in a baby seat.

Abu Ghassan was thirty-one years old and quick to smile, but, like Abu Salih, he always reverted to a hard suspicious gaze when I wasn’t looking him in the eye. He had six children, the oldest of which was thirteen. He had a nine-millimeter Glock pistol on his belt. Its price in the camp was two thousand dollars, and it had made its way to Lebanon when some “brothers” returned from Iraq with large quantities of weapons. It was the same pistol the Americans had given to the Iraqi police; I had seen it used by Shiite militias and sold on the black market in Baghdad. An August 2007 report from the American Government Accountability Office stated that 190,000 weapons the Americans had given to Iraqis were unaccounted for. Here was one of them. On a desk was a new Toshiba laptop connected to the Internet. Abu Ghassan told me he worked in a cafe in the camp. “You must have sold a lot of coffee to pay for a two-thousand-dollar pistol and the laptop,” I said. He grinned and agreed with me.

He was first trained as a teenager outside the camp by Fatah, before the civil war ended in 1991. In 1995 he came under the sway of Islamic movements, influenced by religious leaders and the recently formed Usbat al-Ansar, listening to mosque sermons and attending lessons held after prayer. Some of the mosques, such as the Shuhada Mosque, also had their own clubs for physical training. The Oslo accords had been signed, and Palestinian refugees felt abandoned—they worried that the PLO was surrendering. Wars were being fought in Bosnia and Chechnya. The first generation of mujahideen—those who had fought in Afghanistan—sought new battlegrounds, and a new generation was galvanized. “I saw Muslims around the world oppressed by secularists,” he told me. Now the Lebanese army wanted him on charges of terrorism, “in broad terms for killing and explosions,” he said, claiming the charges were false.

He had attempted to sneak into Iraq through Syria to fight six times, but each time the Syrians were patrolling the border. In May the Syrians had killed several jihadists attempting to cross. Crossing the border from Syria had become much more difficult since the second battle of Falluja, he said. “I wanted to go to Iraq to liberate Muslim lands, to fight with the Sunnis. The road was open to Iraq. Palestine was closed.” He resented Hizballah for controlling the border with Israel and preventing other groups from conducting attacks. “After Hizballah liberated the south, they became a buffer,” he said. “They say they want to liberate Palestine, but on the ground they do nothing, they just wait for orders from Syria or Iran.” Unlike many Lebanese Sunnis, he did not feel threatened by Hizballah. “As Palestinians we feel threatened by America and Israel,” he said.

“Brothers” in the camp had established a network leading to Iraq. “Young Muslims, enthusiastic, with their own organization, they communicated through the Internet. One guy went and opened the way for others.” A guide would lead the volunteers across the border. Some guides did it for money and others because they believed in the cause.

Abu Ghassan first decided to go to Iraq when Zarqawi renamed his organization Al Qaeda, in December 2004. “Before Abu Musab [Zarqawi] appeared, nobody knew how to get people to Iraq,” he said. “I want to go fight with Al Qaeda, with the Islamic State of Iraq. The priority for me is to fight America and its allies, and if the Iraqi government opposes me I will fight them too. The Iraqi government is an apostate government.” Abu Ghassan had requested to go as a suicide bomber. “Practically speaking,” he said, “suicide operations are the best method to kill the enemy. In principle you try as hard as you can to avoid civilians, but sometimes you cannot.” He did not believe that Sunnis were targeting civilians, and instead blamed Iran, the Mahdi Army, and Israel. “Zarqawi asked Muqtada to fight the occupier, and Muqtada refused,” he said. “We target the Shiites in the government and the militias. The Mahdi Army kills mujahideen and lets the Americans arrest them. Christians have been neutral, not with the occupier, so they have been spared. Shiites are not apostates; their leaders are. Clerics have agreed that the Shiite clerics are infidels, the people are deviants. Hizballah is a Shiite apostate party. The Shiites hate Sunnis.”

Another time when I visited Abu Ghassan in his home, Abu Anas was there. They were looking at Google Earth on the laptop while listening to a CD of Salafi chanting called Commanders of the Jihad. They showed me another CD, a tribute to Salih Ablawi, known as Abu Jaafar, who had died with Zarqawi in Iraq. He was from Ayn al-Hilweh too, and Abu Ghassan had a collection of his speeches and pictures from Iraq on his laptop. A large picture of Abu Jaafar was on a banner above one of the main streets in the camp.

Abu Anas was originally from the Bedawi camp in northern Lebanon and had grown up in a conservative family. He had fled from the north to Ayn al-Hilweh in 2000 because of his involvement in clashes with the Lebanese army. On December 31, 1999, Islamist radicals battled the Lebanese army in northeastern Lebanon’s Sir al-Dinniyeh, led by a Lebanese veteran of the Afghan and Bosnian wars called Basim al-Kanj. Kanj had returned to Lebanon and established his own network, recruiting in the slums of Tripoli and Ayn al-Hilweh and establishing ties with Usbat al-Ansar. With Usbat’s help he established training camps in Dinniyeh. Kanj ordered his men to take over a radio station near the camps that had belonged to Lebanon’s leading Salafi cleric, Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahal. (His father had first brought Salafism to Lebanon in 1940, but it was Dai al-Islam and his brother who really brought Salafism to northern Lebanon.)

Only months before, churches in Tripoli had been attacked, and some of the suspects had fled to Dinniyeh. Shahal and other Sunni clerics as well as local officials tried to mediate between the army and the militants. When an army patrol passed by, negotiations were suspended. Fighting broke out, and fifteen of the Islamists died along with eleven soldiers and five civilians, although Kanj had not sought such a confrontation. The Dinniyeh group was small, but dozens of Salafis were arrested in Tripoli and radicalized in prison.

The Dinniyeh incident, along with an attack on the Russian embassy and similar incidents, were the first signs that Salafi jihadism was establishing a presence in Lebanon. One lesson of the incident was that the poverty and neglect in northern Lebanon could affect the rest of the country, but this was forgotten until February 5, 2006, when rioters came down from the north in buses provided by the Sunni Endowment and rampaged through Christian neighborhoods in Beirut, seeking vengeance for the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Christians were shocked, as security forces were nowhere to be found despite having advance notice of the demonstration. Those rioters who were arrested were quickly released. Ahmad Fatfat, who was interior minister in 2005, had struggled to release the Dinniyeh prisoners in order to gain the support of northern Sunnis and Salafis. As a concession to Christians the government then released Samir Geagea, the notorious war criminal who had killed Palestinians as well as Christian rivals during the 1980s. Much fanfare met the release of the Dinniyeh prisoners; the episode was televised and used to demonstrate that the government was pro-Sunni. Some of them had belonged to Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami (The Islamic Unity Movement), the main Islamist militia that fought the Syrian presence in northern Lebanon in the 1980s. In the shifting alliances of Lebanese militias, Tawhid is now considered pro-Syrian.

Abu Anas blamed the Lebanese army for the clashes. “They wanted Hizballah to control the conflict with Israel,” he said. “The Lebanese army ambushed them, and during the negotiations they surrounded them and attacked them.” Abu Anas had previously belonged to Tawhid. More than fifty Palestinians had belonged to Tawhid, he told me. Many had gone on to other Islamist movements.

In May 2007 members of a new and somewhat mysterious jihadist group, Fatah al-Islam, robbed a bank in Tripoli, provoking clashes with the army. Salafi militants also robbed banks in Sidon and other parts of the country. “Al Qaeda uses credit cards to fund themselves, and they rob banks and companies that are infidel to fund themselves,” Abu Ghassan explained. “They don’t rob in a criminal way. They don’t want to hurt anybody. There is a difference between killing people and taking money that belongs to Muslim people.” Although most of the soldiers battling Fatah al-Islam in the north were Sunnis, Abu Ghassan did not blame Sunnis. “The Lebanese army answers to the government, and even though the head of government is a Sunni, the orders come from America. They are not fighting as Sunnis but as soldiers, getting orders, and they think Fatah al-Islam are terrorists.” I asked him what he thought. “I think Fatah al-Islam are good people,” he said.

The Mystery of Fatah al-Islam

The origins of Fatah al-Islam are nebulous, but based on meetings with Palestinian faction leaders and security officials, as well as documents obtained from their interrogation of the group’s members, I pieced together its history. In the summer of 2006 new faces appeared in Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh, the Palestinian camps of Beirut, and in Bedawi and Nahr al-Barid, the camps near the northern city of Tripoli. The men were clearly religious, and they were assumed to be Salafis. They had long beards, and some even wore the Afghan salwar kameez. Some were clearly foreign. When camp security inquired about the newcomers, they were told, curiously, that the men belonged to Fatah al-Intifada’s “Western Section,” a traditionally leftist, broadly secular Syrian-allied Palestinian group that split from the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1983, which was preparing fighters to go to Palestine. Others claimed they were “from the inside,” meaning from Palestine itself. During Israel’s July 2006 war on Lebanon, more Salafi fighters arrived in these camps, in part because a Fatah al-Intifada camp near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon was evacuated during the war. Suspicions were aroused because the left-leaning Fatah al-Intifada was known to pay low salaries but some of the newcomers had laptops and went around on motorcycles. The newcomers were led by Shaker al-Absi, a veteran Fatah al-Intifada officer who had been trained as a pilot in Libya and served as one in North Yemen, in addition to fighting in Nicaragua. Absi was in his fifties. A Palestinian born in Jordan, he had spent most of his life in Syrian and Lebanese camps. He was likely disillusioned with the aging and moribund Arab left—which groups like Fatah al-Intifada epitomized—and he was said to have been very religious. In 2002 he was arrested with fifteen others for trying to infiltrate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. He spent two and a half years in jail, and was said to have gone to Iraq after his release, eventually making his way to the Helweh camp in the Beqaa Valley, by the Syrian border. There he and his followers trained volunteers, including young men from the slums of Tripoli, to fight in Iraq. Gulf Arabs who flew to Beirut to go to Iraq also gathered there. They were segregated from the rest of the camp and better financed, eating better food like lamb.

When Zarqawi died, some of his men came to Lebanon. Some Salafis were diverted to the Burj al-Barajneh camp to serve as a bulwark against the Shiite suburbs of Beirut, known as Dahiyeh. Many Syrians and Palestinian Syrians who had fought in Iraq and become radicalized there made their way to Lebanon. More than two hundred such men had left Damascus’s Yarmuk refugee camp to fight in Iraq with Zarqawi, even though that camp was dominated by the far more moderate Hamas movement. Abu Midyan was one of the foreign fighters who left Iraq because of concerns about the state of the jihad there. He led other comrades in arms from Iraq to Yarmuk, but the Syrians pressured them to leave, so they moved to Lebanon’s camps, where they began to recruit from the poor.

Abu Yasser, the Fatah al-Intifada leader for northern Lebanon, was surprised because the newcomers were bearded, prayed five times a day, and abstained from smoking. He asked his superior, the Syrian-based Abu Khalid al-Amli, deputy commander of Fatah al-Intifada, who the newcomers were. “We have new fighters,” he said. “We must learn from Hizballah’s military and discipline. They are destined for Gaza.” Abu Khalid was also sending jihadists to Ayn al-Hilweh. Abu Yasser was surprised and unsettled by the presence of foreigners among them. “Their commanders were Palestinians, and they were independent of us,” he said. When other factions asked Fatah al-Intifada who the new men were, they were told cryptically that it was an “internal matter.” Shaker al-Absi was the third-ranking official in Fatah al-Intifada, and his authority exceeded that of Abu Yasser’s. “I accepted Shaker but didn’t control him,” said Abu Yasser. Abu Musa, the commander of Fatah al-Intifada in Syria, began to complain that he did not know what was happening in his own organization.

The popular committee for security in Bedawi was tasked with investigating all outsiders who rented apartments in that camp, especially single men. Committee members monitored how much food was being brought into the apartments daily to estimate how many people might be inside. In November a new group of outsiders came to Bedawi and Nahr al-Barid, whom camp residents felt were not part of any Palestinian faction. The committee grew suspicious of newcomers who brought in many bags but had no families. Residents spoke of strange men carrying bags who entered twelve apartments in the camp. One night five strangers came into the camp, and armed members of the resistance asked them what was in their bags, which caused the men to run away. Some of the men were foreigners, including Saudis, Yemenis, Algerians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and an Omani. Fourteen of them lived together in one apartment. When the security committee members first tried to gain access, the Omani, named Ahmad, shut the door in their faces and refused to open it.

On November 23, 2006, an armed patrol of different faction members from the camp security committee was sent to the apartment. They found two Kalashnikovs along with ammunition and grenades and asked the fourteen men to come with them. When the men walked by a Fatah al-Intifada office where Salafi comrades were staying, they erupted in shouts of “God is great! Come to jihad!” and ran inside, throwing a grenade at the security men. An exchange of fire followed, and one of the security men was killed. The security committee raided the other apartments, but the suspects were communicating by radio and some escaped. One Saudi was shot in the leg while trying to escape. When an armed Syrian comrade on a motorcycle attempted to rescue him, he too was shot, and both were taken to a camp hospital. The Syrian had documents signed by Shaker al-Absi. During his interrogation by the Palestinian security officials, the two admitted that they were members of Al Qaeda in Iraq and had come to Lebanon during the July war for training, recruitment, and jihad. Up to eighty men like them entered Lebanon via Fatah al-Intifada, using the organization as a conduit. They claimed to have come to assassinate seventeen Lebanese officials, including members of Parliament, sheikhs, and members of the security forces.

The two men were handed to the Lebanese army. Camp officials found cameras, four computers, and scanners used to make fake identification documents. They also found CDs with footage of training and members swearing oaths of loyalty to Osama bin Laden. “Wherever Muslims are oppressed, we will help them,” said one of the men in a film. Other material included maps of the region. Books with instructions on bomb-making were covered by copies of the Koran. They also found a collection of Al Qaeda statements. Abu Yasser told me that he had received a call warning him to leave the computers alone because they were very important.

One young Syrian had left behind a final statement, handwritten with messages to his family; another young jihadist stressed that “this time, I will not go back. I repeat, I will not go back.” The young man, who had previously engaged in armed struggle, said, “With all that I have seen the last time, I’m in a serious danger of apostasy—God forbid—if I don’t go back there. If the scents of musk and the light in the martyrs’ faces and all the other graces we saw and were told of mean anything, they must mean only one thing, that this route is the path of heaven. Moreover, there is no heaven except by this path.”

Some of the apartments had been rented by Kanan Naji, a former member of Tawhid who was a liaison between the Future Movement and Fatah al-Islam. Naji was also part of the Independent Islamic Gathering, a group that included prominent clerics in Tripoli such as Dai al-Islam al-Shahal and Bilal Barudi. The Gathering tried to influence Fatah al-Islam, and several of its members were in touch with the group.

In the 1980s Naji’s Jund Allah militia of about one hundred had been based in Tripoli’s Abu Samra neighborhood. They were known for wearing all-black military fatigues and received some of their arms from Fatah. Once the Syrians took over Tripoli in 1986, Naji fled to areas controlled by a Christian militia. He was underground in the 1990s, but following the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 he became very active, establishing a close relationship with Hariri’s Future Movement and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, and providing arms to Fatah al-Islam. Four Palestinians affiliated with Naji’s militia rented some of the apartments in Tripoli. They brought in sniper rifles, M-16s, and other weapons more advanced than what was usually found in the camp. Naji was one of the officials who hoped to use jihadist Salafis to serve the purposes of the anti-Shiite Future Movement.

The camp’s leading factions prepared to rid themselves of the Salafis, but the Salafis—who until then were identified as the Salafist wing of Fatah al-Intifada—absconded to the nearby Nahr al-Barid camp. On November 26, 2006, they declared themselves under the new moniker Fatah al-Islam, calling for their supporters from other camps to join them and calling for the death of Abu Yasser, the leader of Fatah al-Intifada in northern Lebanon, for his role in turning over two of their men to the Lebanese army. Abu Yasser sent a message to his boss, Abu Khalid al-Amli, in Damascus, accusing him of putting camp security in danger by sponsoring the Salafis initially. Abu Yasser was incensed to learn that about thirty Salafis posing as Fatah al-Intifada also came up to Nahr al-Barid from Beirut’s refugee camps. Abu Fadi, the commander of Fatah al-Intifada for all of Lebanon, had even used Salafis as bodyguards. He was expelled from the group and fled to the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Yasser claims that he had been deceived by Abu Khalid. “He tricked the organization,” he says. “Abu Khalid was a dictator, and he is a secular man in every meaning of the word. He was preparing groups to fight the Americans in Lebanon, and maybe he was making a connection with Al Qaeda. The Syrians didn’t know the details of Abu Khalid’s plan, but they knew in general about the ideology of the fighters and that they were coming to Lebanon to fight America, and the Syrians did not know of the connection between Abu Khalid and Al Qaeda. Abu Khalid was expelled from the organization.” Abu Khalid was jailed by the Syrians, but because he was seventy-five years old and had a heart condition, he was placed under house arrest.

The camp’s security committee began to investigate Fatah al-Islam and its associates. One Syrian suspect, born in 1980, had entered Lebanon in March 2007. He had come up to Bedawi from Ayn al-Hilweh, where he joined Fatah al-Islam. Despite his ties to the jihadists, he was released because some of the camp officials worried about upsetting the Islamists in the camp. Another suspect confessed that he too belonged to Fatah al-Islam. When the raid took place, he had been in touch with a man from Jund Allah via his walkie-talkie. He was spirited away to Tripoli, where he stayed in an apartment belonging to Kanan Naji. When he returned to Bedawi he was arrested by the security committee and was found to be carrying an American-made pistol. Another prisoner, born in 1986 in Syria, had been in touch with Fatah al-Islam via the Internet. He was given an address near a mosque in Bedawi and told to go there. He took money from his father, telling him it was to cover the cost of his university tuition, but instead he went to Lebanon, hoping Fatah al-Islam would help him get to Iraq “to resist the Americans, because the Americans are the enemies of Islam.” The young man’s cover in the camp was that he was studying Islam.

In November 2006 things got worse in Taamir, an area between Sidon and Ayn al-Hilweh. Jihadist Salafis took control of the neighborhood and imposed Islamic law. At the entrance to Taamir a banner signed by Zarqawi called for the defeat of America in Iraq. Many Lebanese families left, fearing for their lives. That month a statement signed by the “Al Qaeda Organization in Lebanon,” allegedly based in Nahr al-Barid, threatened the Lebanese government, announcing that Al Qaeda had arrived in Lebanon and would work to destroy the government, which was commanded by the Americans. They would fight the enemies of God until victory or martyrdom, the statement said.

In Nahr al-Barid, however, Fatah al-Islam found a welcoming environment. Pictures of Saddam Hussein were on the camp’s walls and in its homes and shops. Graffiti in support of the jihad in Iraq was also evident. When the Syrians pulled their troops out of Lebanon and lost direct control of the camps, the vacuum they left was filled by mosques, which gained in influence as the leftist resistance groups weakened and money from the Gulf came in. Islamists were seen driving expensive cars. Nahr al-Barid was more conservative and religious than other camps, with the most clerics (about fifteen) and the most mosques (about ten). Even before the July war inhabitants began to notice religious men moving into the camp who spoke in foreign dialects and whose wives were veiled. Up to seventy of them arrived during the war, a phenomenon similar to what occurred in other camps. Following the flight of Fatah al-Islam to Nahr al-Barid, these various groups joined their leader, Shaker al-Absi, openly taking their weapons with them. Up to fifty-six people came to Nahr al-Barid from the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut.

Fatah al-Islam had been planning to establish itself anyway, but in more than one camp at once, at a time of its choosing. In Nahr al-Barid group members took over the offices and weapons depots that had belonged to Fatah al-Intifada. They replaced Palestinian flags with Islamic flags. “When they took down Palestinian flags we knew they had no Palestinian agenda,” said Abu Yasser. New weapons arrived—American M-16s, M4s, and even missiles, unlike the Kalashnikovs that the Palestinian factions were accustomed to. In a meeting with all the camp factions Fatah al-Intifada insisted that whereas before they had been suspicious of the newcomers, now they knew the men were dangerous. Fatah agreed that they should be expelled. Other groups, nervous about potential strife, refused to have any bloodshed in the camp. Fatah al-Intifada warned that Nahr al-Barid had been hijacked by Fatah al-Islam and all would bear responsibility for what would happen. Estimates for the initial size of Fatah al-Islam varied from forty-five to seventy. Some of the men had brought their families; others married local women. Only a minority of them were Palestinians. Most were Lebanese, Saudis, Yemenis, Syrians, and even Iraqis. Many came openly, in vans. Wanted Palestinian and Lebanese men from Ayn al-Hilweh and Taamir made their way to Nahr al-Barid as well, despite the many checkpoints along the way, leading camp officials to suspect senior Lebanese official involvement in the move, since the Interior Ministry was in the hands of pro-Hariri Sunnis. Although Usbat al-Ansar never publicly endorsed Fatah al-Islam, it did dispatch fighters to join the group in the north.

Jihadists with a more violent and nihilistic agenda took over Fatah al-Islam’s leadership council and influenced its leaders, shifting their focus away from Palestine and toward global jihad. Abu Laith, the son-in-law of Shaker al-Absi and one of the founders of Fatah al-Islam, grew frustrated with the group’s change; he left for Iraq but was killed by Syrian security forces at the border. Other members also disagreed with the more extreme elements. Abu Midyan, who was said to have orchestrated the February 2007 bus bombings north of Beirut, refused to fight the Lebanese army because his enemy was Israel. In Nahr al-Barid, Shaker al-Absi linked up with a powerful arms dealer called Nasser Ismail in order to improve his power base in the camp. Ismail helped recruit members, including the more radical Abu Hureira, a Lebanese member of Jund al-Sham. Abu Hureira helped push Fatah al-Islam toward a more extremist position, and he brought many other Lebanese Salafi jihadists with him. These radicals began to alienate the residents of Nahr al-Barid. Abu Midyan and Abu Hureira disagreed about the new direction the group was taking. While Absi did not share the views of these radicals, he needed the military support they brought, and so he could not afford a rift with them. A Saudi cleric linked to Al Qaeda called Abu al-Hareth took over the leadership council. He helped bring more foreign fighters and create cells outside the camp. Some of the newcomers spoke of creating an Islamic state in northern Lebanon. Others didn’t even know they were in Lebanon; they thought they were in Iraq.

In December in Nahr al-Barid a committee from Palestinian factions told Absi that his new faction was not acceptable and that he had to return the Fatah al-Intifada offices, disband his organization, and stop making announcements to the media. Absi did not respond to their demands. At the same time, Abu Khalid, the deputy commander of Fatah al-Intifada based in Syria, was arrested by the Syrians. His boss Abu Musa gave a press conference stating that he was very upset at Abu Khalid, but the notion that the Syrians were completely ignorant of the actions of a faction they controlled strains credulity. For Abu Khalid to take such steps independently of the Syrians would have been foolhardy.

Bernard Rougier speculated that the Hariri strategy was to “control and enlarge the Islamist coalition, which could be used to fight Hizballah on the communal level. The Syrians wanted to impede the Hariri strategy by creating division in the Hariri ranks, so they inserted a Salafi jihadist group that wants to fight Israel because it would take Sunni support from Hariri. Then it took on its own life and the Syrians don’t have to do a thing. And it had a magnetic effect on Islamists in the country. It began to have influence in Tripoli.” Rougier distinguishes the communal agenda, which “views the real enemy as Shiites,” from the jihadist agenda, which “views the real enemy as the West, and Shiites are third or lower on the list of priorities.” But the Syrian regime, dominated by the Alawite sect—which is related to Shiism and which rules a Sunni majority and has crushed Islamist movements in the past—would not encourage an ideology that despises its own Baathist government. While the Syrians had allowed Arab volunteers to pour into Iraq to fight the Americans for the first two or three years of the occupation, the main opposition to the Syrian Baathist regime is a Sunni Islamist one. So it would not likely support the growth of Salafi jihadists so close to its own border. Moreover, Syria would not introduce anti-Shiite and anti-Hizballah elements into Lebanon. A Salafi attack on Israel would be Hizballah’s worst nightmare because it would drag the powerful guerilla army into a war with Israel at a time and place not of its own choosing.

“When Fatah al-Islam took down the Palestinian flag and vandalized posters of Hassan Nasrallah, they started getting a lot of money,” said Abu Yasser. “Their main goal was to be the Sunni military force in Lebanon. The north has a rich history of Salafis, and they wanted to declare their emirate. Those who empowered them were not Palestinians. We let them enter as a baby chicken and they became an elephant. How did they get these advanced weapons? When they were part of Fatah al-Intifada, they were only seventy. They became five hundred. With us they were very poor. We gave them spare clothes. How did they get so much money? And how did they buy all the grilled chicken in Nahr al-Barid?” According to Abu Jaber of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), once a leading resistance movement within the PLO but now completely marginalized, the financial situation of the Fatah al-Islam members suddenly improved as more foreign faces appeared. “They were probably there, but people didn’t see them,” he said. “How did they live for six or seven months?” he asked. “They used to buy three hundred loaves of bread a day. They bought apartments, rented land, buying very advanced weapons, spending a lot of money.” People in the camp grew worried, and some refused to rent them homes. Some said that they were Muslims who were not bothering anybody, while others said that they did not belong in Palestinian society. As Fatah al-Islam began to spread throughout the camp, it seemed to many that the group was preparing for something. It was also clear that its members could get in and out of the camp without harassment by Lebanese security officials.

“The Fatah al-Islam picture got more and more clear,” said Abu Jaber. “In their first announcement their goal was to liberate Palestine and correct the errors of Fatah al-Intifada. And they called men in the camp to join them in liberating Palestine in an Islamist way. After a while their speech changed. They said they came to fight Israel in the name of Sunnis. They said, ‘We won’t fight those who fought Israel [meaning Hizballah], but we have differences with them.’ They did not have their own mosque. They were moving around in all the mosques.” The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq sent Saudis and other fighters from Iraq to Nahr al-Barid but warned them not to provoke Lebanese Shiites.

Ensconced in Nahr al-Barid, the Fatah al-Islam militants grew in number. Their headquarters had a yard for military training. Above it flew a black flag with an Islamic slogan. Some walked around camp with scarves concealing their faces. Shaker al-Absi insisted that they were independent of Al Qaeda even though they had a similar ideology, and that they had no ties to Lebanese or Syrian officials. He explained that “Muslims” were funding his organization. The secular approach to the struggle had failed to achieve its goals, he argued, and they now rallied under the flag of Islam. He explained that his organization’s main goals were to liberate Jerusalem and oppose the U.S. project in the Middle East. He refused to be involved in internal Lebanese affairs. Fatah al-Islam’s main criticism of Hizballah was not that it was a Shiite party but that it denied other groups the same right to resist Israel. Importantly, Absi denied being a takfiri. (Takfiris typically single out Shiites, as did Zarqawi in Iraq, and sometimes call for their deaths.)

Members of Fatah al-Islam claimed to have “brothers” in all the camps in Lebanon, as well as in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. But according to an informant with Lebanese army intelligence, the group clashed with mainstream factions in the camp three times and achieved dominance. Fatah al-Islam’s ranks were bolstered by Lebanese Sunnis reacting to the increasingly aggressive steps being taken by Hizballah supporters, whose actions were viewed by many Sunnis as an attack on Sunni power, an occupation of Beirut, and an attempt to seize control of Lebanon. Clerics in Tripoli reported being asked by followers if they were permitted to join Fatah al-Islam. Dai al-Islam al-Shahal, the founder of Lebanese Salafism, explained that Lebanese Sunnis felt targeted, alienated, and punished, and as a result some were joining Fatah al-Islam and others were sympathizing with it. Shahal had maintained direct dialogue with Fatah al-Islam from its establishment in an attempt to influence its ideology and actions.

“Fatah al-Islam was very different after they declared themselves,” said Abu Yasser. “At first their goal was to fight the Americans in Lebanon. But their first enemy was [Fatah al-] Intifada, and they fought us and we had two wounded and they had one killed and three wounded, and then Shaker al-Absi made some new channels with groups in Lebanon.” In March 2007, following accusations by the Lebanese interior minister that the Syrians were backing Fatah al-Islam, the Syrian interior minister responded that Fatah al-Islam was an Al Qaeda organization that was also targeting Syria and had been discovered in August 2002 when several of its members were arrested, including Shaker al-Absi. He added that Absi had coordinated with Zarqawi in Iraq to conduct terrorist attacks. But the Future Movement insisted that Fatah al-Islam was a Syrian tool, and the Movement’s leader, Saad al-Hariri, described the organization as “the gang of Asef Shawkat,” referring to the head of Syrian military intelligence and the brother-in-law of the Syrian president. The television station and newspaper controlled by the Movement also initiated a campaign to convince Lebanese of the links between Fatah al-Islam and the Syrians. Others in the opposition claimed it was a creation and tool of the Future Movement. Both were wrong.

Some members of Fatah al-Islam had fled from the Rashidiyeh camp in southern Lebanon after the UNIFIL forces boosted their activities following the July war. Others came from Taamir and Ayn al-Hilweh. A Syrian volunteer seeking to engage in jihad made his way to Bedawi by accident and asked for Fatah al-Islam at a Fatah al-Intifada checkpoint. He was in his twenties and was carrying a laptop and three thousand dollars. The security committee interrogated him for twenty-four hours. The man had been invited via the Internet by Fatah al-Islam to come fight jihad and “liberate Lebanon.” It was not clear who he was supposed to liberate it from. After Lebanon there would be many steps, the invitation said.

In February up to twenty armed men from Jund al-Sham took over a kindergarten that belonged to the Hariri Foundation and was overseen by Bahiya al-Hariri, sister of the slain prime minister. The area was controlled by Usbat al-Ansar, and the move was seen as an attempt to pressure local officials, improve the group’s financial situation, and obtain housing. Jund al-Sham was already known as Jund al-Sitt (The Army of the Lady), because Bahiya al-Hariri was a financial backer of the armed group. She paid up to one hundred of the men to leave, and they went north to Nahr al-Barid. Some of them were veterans of Iraq. It was a move typical of the “Saudi” mentality of the Hariri family, an attempt to pay off potential troublemakers and buy loyalty. Mustafa Allush, a Parliament member from the Future Movement, confirmed that the transport of the men had been facilitated by Hariri’s people for “humanitarian reasons.” Once Fatah al-Islam was set up in Nahr al-Barid, officials close to the Future Movement and the Independent Islamic Gathering courted the group, hoping it would side with them. To their chagrin, Shaker al-Absi and others insisted on maintaining their independence.

In March Lebanese Interior Security Forces arrested suspects behind the February 13 bus bombings, which killed three and injured twenty-one in the village of Ain Alaq, north of Beirut. The twelve men, including four Syrians and four Saudis who were accused by the Lebanese interior minister of belonging to Fatah al-Islam, confessed to setting the bombs. The four Saudis claimed to have been deceived by Fatah al-Islam. They said they had been planning to go to Iraq and instead found that they were expected to remain in Lebanon. The Saudi ambassador requested that the Saudis be extradited back to their country. Fatah al-Islam representatives denied involvement in the attacks and denied that the detained men belonged to their group. As the heat on the group increased, spokesman Abu Salim Taha warned that if Fatah al-Islam had to respond militarily, it would. Abu Jaber of the PFLP worried that if military steps were taken, the results would be catastrophic. The bus bombers had not actually belonged to Fatah al-Islam, but they had spent one night in Nahr al-Barid before the attack and were said to have called the Fatah al-Islam leadership afterward.

Nabil Seyid, a PFLP official who coordinated the security committee in Bedawi and was secretary general of the factions in the northern camps, explained that the factions did not have control of the camps and had no way of dealing with Fatah al-Islam. “We are under Lebanese authorities, and the Palestinian factions aren’t united, and when they want to make a decision they have to consult.” Abu Jaber, also of the PFLP, admitted that there had initially been poor communication and many disagreements among the Palestinian factions. When suspicions first arose, the factions decided that they could not interfere in the internal affairs of Fatah al-Intifada. Nahr al-Barid had a conservative culture, so Islamists were welcome while Fatah’s men were known for being thuggish and even drunk. “People in the camp had no problem seeing Muslims—they were praying, they didn’t bother anybody,” Abu Jaber said. “The PFLP was suspicious, though. By the time they had declared themselves Fatah al-Islam, they were stronger, situated, stable, they had brought families. A committee of the factions spoke to them and told them to leave the camp, but these people were very strong.” Abu Jaber explained that following the Oslo accords the factions had progressively grown weaker. Less money was coming into the camps. There was no powerful Palestinian regime to dislodge the four hundred well-armed Salafis. “Whoever let them in should kick them out,” he said. “All the camp is surrounded with Lebanese army checkpoints, and these people were coming in and out.” Fatah al-Islam had brought two vans full of weapons in broad daylight, without obstruction, he said. There were popular demonstrations against their presence. Many of the Palestinian faction leaders insist that prominent Lebanese Sunnis and members of the Future Movement tried to co-opt Fatah al-Islam. “What is for sure is that all sides tried to benefit from them, but no one can control them,” a Hamas official from Nahr al-Barid told me. “The Syrians tried to use them, and Future tried to use them in their war against Hizballah. They made many promises, but in the end they did their own program.”

The Lebanese army increased its presence around the camp, surrounding it and establishing checkpoints at the entrances. Nahr al-Barid had been one of the main markets in northern Lebanon, but the security measures put the camp’s economy in a stranglehold. The army searched cars and checked identification papers, causing traffic jams leading to the camp and reducing the number of visitors to the market.

Fatah al-Islam’s men refused to heed calls for their removal or disbandment. They were Muslims, they said, on Muslim land, and they recognized no borders. Their persecution was a necessary result of their ideology and was akin to the persecution the Prophet Muhammad faced when he first began preaching. Absi warned that he had more than two hundred men and that they were observing the army’s movements around the camp. If Fatah al-Islam felt under attack, then it would respond violently, he said. Absi was becoming increasingly influential in Tripoli, especially among youth. Following a bank robbery in Sidon, the Lebanese interior minister gave a press conference on March 13, 2007, stating that Fatah al-Islam was self-funded and relied partially on bank robberies.

In March two Fatah al-Islam members were killed in a clash with Fatah that also brought injuries on both sides. Fatah al-Islam made a show of force in the camp and removed pictures of the late Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. In another clash more grenades were thrown and more men were injured. At the funeral for one of the slain men, a Gazan who had come to Lebanon via Germany, a large number of people turned out, including Salafis and clerics from Tripoli. “We were surprised by how popular they were,” said Abu Yasser. Many Salafis from Tripoli swore oaths of allegiance to the group. By then Fatah al-Islam numbered 150, its ranks bolstered by members of other groups such as Usbat al-Ansar and Jund al-Sham. Some called them “strangers in the camp.” They kept to themselves and spoke in classical Arabic, perhaps to conceal their foreign accents.

In April at least seventy residents of Tripoli, including Saudis and other foreign Arabs, were arrested in Tripoli. Most of them were from the Abu Samra district, which housed important Salafis and their institutions. The suspects were accused of belonging to Al Qaeda. They were said to be linked to a man who had been arrested in Saudi Arabia for allegedly trying to collect money to fund militias in Lebanon. Anger increased among the Salafis of Tripoli at what they felt was their persecution by government forces. Others resented what they perceived as a double standard allowing Hizballah members to have arms but denying Sunnis the same privilege. That month Hamas held commemorations in honor of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, two leaders who had been assassinated by the Israelis. They played religious and nationalist songs. Fatah al-Islam members complained about the music, which they considered un-Islamic, but Hamas prevailed. Fatah al-Islam also accused Hamas of following Anwar Sadat’s path of negotiation with Israel.

Abu Yasser claims that forty Saudis flew to Beirut and were taken to Nahr al-Barid, where they were kept for months until the tensions with the army began. One of the Saudis called his family back home, and they arranged for his surrender to Lebanese authorities. Many Salafi clerics and state religious officials came to visit Fatah al-Islam, their vehicle license plates indicating that they were from Dar al-Ifta, or the Sunni Endowment, a state body, which was headed by the Grand Mufti, or the Mufti of Lebanon. In May eyewitnesses claimed that large deliveries of new weapons were brought into the camp for Fatah al Islam. In July Abu Salim Taha explained that pressure had been placed on his group to take a side in internal Lebanese conflicts but they had refused to do so they were being targeted.

Accusations were exchanged throughout 2007 between the two opposing coalitions about who was responsible for Fatah al-Islam, with some even speculating that Saudi Arabia and the United States were collaborating with the Future Movement to sponsor jihadists who would confront Shiites.

The March 14 coalition accused the Syrians of backing Fatah al-Islam and similar groups. On August 20, 2007, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman made similar accusations, claiming that “the road to victory now requires cutting off Al Qaeda’s road to Iraq through Damascus.” Most of the support for Al Qaeda in Iraq came from Syria, he asserted, as did the actual fighters. The majority of Al Qaeda’s foreign fighters made their way into Iraq by first flying into Damascus International Airport, he claimed, “making the airport the central hub of Al Qaeda travel in the Middle East.” It was time to demand that “the Syrian regime stop playing travel agent for Al Qaeda in Iraq,” he said, calling for an international boycott of that airport.

According to Syria’s ambassador in Washington, the urbane Imad Moustapha, these accusations were laughable. “We have in Syria organizations that might be very similar to Al Qaeda in ideology and approach,” he said. “Al Qaeda is not one single organization that has headquarters in Afghanistan. It has inspired groups all over the Islamic world. We have had serious incidents in Syria, some not publicized.” He blamed U.S. policy in Iraq for the spread of these groups. “When the U.S. changed Iraq into this lawless state, Iraq became fertile ground for every extreme organization. The flow of terrorists is not unidirectional. It’s bidirectional. At an early stage we told the U.S., ‘Stop the accusations that we are helping Al Qaeda.’ If they go and fight in Iraq, they will continue their holy war against other regimes. Only yesterday we extradited some Saudis to Saudi Arabia. This is a very burdensome task, and it needs lots of cooperation. In Damascus airport any young man who arrives alone, especially from Saudi Arabia, we don’t let them in. They are very upset about this, and we receive many complaints.” Every few weeks Moustapha received a copy of a list from Syrian intelligence of individuals rejected at Syrian entry points for security reasons. He showed me several months’ worth of the lists, which were marked “top secret” and contained the names of thousands of individuals denied entry, some of whom were Egyptian and Algerian. “Borders can’t be controlled by one country,” he said. “It needs exchange of intelligence, cooperation, the diligent effort of the other side.”

On May 19 a bank belonging to the Hariri dynasty was robbed southeast of Tripoli, apparently by men from Fatah al-Islam. Credible sources from the Palestinian factions and Hizballah and its supporters maintain that Fatah al-Islam received monthly payments in this bank, which were suddenly halted. When the payments stopped they demanded their money and returned armed to rob the equivalent of one hundred thousand dollars, their monthly stipend. Absi told Muhammad al-Haj, the Hamas negotiator, that they had come to receive their transfer, but problems had arisen and they did what they had to do to get the money.

Early the next morning Lebanese security forces raided apartments in an affluent district of Tripoli belonging to Fatah al-Islam members, some of whom were foreigners. The conduit for renting the luxury apartments was said to have been the Mufti of Tripoli. One of the militants called Sheikh Dai al-Islam and asked him to tell the authorities not to arrest them. The response from the security forces was that they would not negotiate and were going to finish them off. The militant threatened to attack the army. Haj, who is also head of the council of Palestinian clerics, claimed to have been surprised by the clashes. Before the bank robbery, he said, “there had been an agreement between Fatah al-Islam and the authorities that Fatah al-Islam would not be involved in Lebanese politics or harm peace and stability, and would not expand its activities outside the camp, and that the thirty foreign Arabs with Fatah al-Islam would be deported.” Despite the close proximity between the Internal Security Force base and the Lebanese army base, and the fact that the army was surrounding the camp, the ISF did not notify the army that it was conducting the raids in Tripoli. The ISF did, however, notify two Lebanese television stations.

The following day a group of fighters led by Abu Hureira, one of the most militant figures in Fatah al-Islam, attacked a Lebanese army location and slaughtered the soldiers. Shaker al-Absi was said to have been uninformed about this in advance and to have emerged from his home in his pajamas at the sound of fighting. Humiliated and angry, the army struck back. Abu Hureira and his followers refused to negotiate. It seems Absi was frustrated that things were getting out of control and felt that he had been forced into a battle. Rumors spread throughout the country that the soldiers had been brutally slaughtered and mutilated, provoking a wave of hatred that targeted Palestinians in general, despite the fact that Fatah al-Islam was composed mostly of non-Palestinians and all the Palestinian factions condemned it. On May 20-21 bombs exploded in a Christian and Sunni neighborhood in Beirut, igniting fears that the fighting might spread.

Shaker al-Absi claimed that he never wanted to target the Lebanese army but was forced to do so by the raid in Tripoli. In the chaos of the first day, said Muhammad al-Haj, it was not possible to establish a dialogue. Once negotiations led to a cease-fire, armed Sunni civilians from the area descended upon the camp to support the army and attack the Palestinians. Haj blames these civilians for reigniting the battle. He was shot by Fatah in a failed assassination attempt after the group grew concerned over his success in mediating between the army and Fatah al-Islam and what it meant for their role in the camp. “They thought that what was being achieved through negotiations would prevent Fatah from forming its security committee to control the camps,” he told me.

When Future Movement leader Saad al-Hariri called upon his forces to support the army and security forces, this was interpreted by his forces to mean that they should join the fight. Hundreds of armed Sunnis from the region descended upon the camp. When fighting began, it became very difficult for civilians to leave because they had to endure artillery fire as well as snipers from the army and Sunni militiamen from the north. Fatah al-Islam took advantage of the armaments of the PFLP-General Command—Ahmed Jabril’s Syrian-sponsored split from the PFLP—and the Fatah Revolutionary Council, commonly known as the Abu Nidal Organization. Members of these ostensibly secular groups—with a reputation for once performing spectacular acts of violence—were helping Fatah al-Islam out of solidarity on the local level, but not on orders from their officers. Interestingly, the Salafi leaders in the camp who had initially welcomed Fatah al-Islam disavowed them now. Dai al-Islam al-Shahal maintained contact between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese authorities. When the fighting started Syria closed two border points in the north.

On May 25, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave an even-handed speech commemorating the liberation of southern Lebanon from the Israeli occupation in 2000. In that speech he discussed the clashes in the north and spoke of two “red lines.” The army and the security agencies in Lebanon were a red line that should not be crossed by attacking them. Likewise, the Palestinian civilians and their camps were a red line, and the security forces should not kill civilians in the name of a war on terror. The Future Movement seized on these statements to accuse the Shiite leader of supporting Palestinian terrorists against the army. Anger swept throughout the north and other Sunni areas in the country. At the same time Lebanese security forces cracked down on local Salafis in Tripoli, and rumors circulated that some were being tortured.

Clerics in Tripoli had to calm many of their followers who sympathized with Fatah al-Islam. Some began to feel betrayed and persecuted by the government. The Future Movement began to lose ground among Salafis. Its leaders had campaigned as protectors of Lebanon’s Sunnis but instead were perceived by some as having launched fitna (strife) in the north. In the slums of Tripoli, resentment was growing against Lebanese security forces, who were picking people off the streets even if they were innocent, beating them, and releasing them as an example to others. Some people in Tripoli felt that Fatah al-Islam members were well-intentioned mujahideen who had been forced to fight in Lebanon when they should have been fighting in Iraq. The majority of the soldiers fighting with the army against Fatah al-Islam were Sunni Muslims from northern Lebanon. Many in the north were not sure how to react. When the first few dead soldiers arrived in their hometowns for burial, some of them were not buried as martyrs because they had died fighting fellow believers. The majority of Sunnis embraced the army, however, and a propaganda campaign in support of the army began in earnest, with one bank issuing credit cards with a military camouflage motif, advertisements on television showing the nation saluting a soldier, and bumper stickers stating allegiance to the army. It was a cathartic experience after the previous year’s war and the divisions it had reinforced in the nation.

Members of the Abu Nidal Organization also provided assistance, including weapons, to Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Barid, and some of the Abu Nidal men who were wanted by Lebanese security forces even stayed behind and fought alongside Fatah al-Islam. Over the next three months the Lebanese army regularly announced that it had vanquished Fatah al-Islam, but despite destroying the camp and making forty thousand Palestinians homeless, the fighting continued, and Lebanese soldiers continued to die. Absi had not been seeking a confrontation with the Lebanese army, but once the fighting started he might have hoped that other supporters and Salafis would rise up throughout Lebanon and its camps. Negotiations faltered over the demand to hand over wanted Lebanese men among his ranks. Abu Salim Taha, the Fatah al-Islam spokesperson, blamed the Future Movement for inciting hatred against them. He admitted that there were many foreign Muslims among them. Even though they had no organizational ties to Al Qaeda, they considered them their brethren.

In early June it was Jund al-Sham’s turn to clash with the army, in Ayn al-Hilweh. There had been fears that the fighting in Nahr al-Barid would spread south, and now it was happening. Usbat al-Ansar, which was already part of the camp’s executive committee, played a key role in securing the camp. The Lebanese government gave Usbat al-Ansar a new status by recognizing it as a power broker and partner it could deal with. This negotiated solution allowed the Palestinians to continue policing themselves. It was a stark contrast to the military solution offered in Nahr al-Barid.

In June Lebanese security forces arrested four people in the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. They also found a large amount of explosives and money. One of the suspects was a Saudi carrying fake Iraqi identity papers. Two Syrians and a Palestinian were found with him. By then another thirty-two Fatah al-Islam prisoners had been captured, most of whom were Lebanese. The Saudi authorities asked for their citizens to be repatriated so that they could learn more about similar groups in the Kingdom, and Lebanon consented. South of Tripoli Lebanese security forces killed five Islamist fighters, at least two of whom were Saudis. In July, after Fatah al-Islam began firing missiles outside the camp, Abu Salim Taha, the Fatah al-Islam spokesman, explained that the group was targeting the army and some missiles had reached Lebanese towns because of miscalculations. He asked the Sunnis to accept his apology. Lebanon’s many Salafist jihadist groups refused to back Fatah al-Islam, as did Al Qaeda. Their focus was fighting Israel, and none of them wanted to jeopardize their position in Lebanon by provoking the authorities.

By late June most of the Palestinian refugees from Nahr al-Barid had fled to the nearby Bedawi refugee camp. In a schoolyard there I was stopped by Abu Hadi, born in Haifa in 1946. “I am a person without an address,” he told me. “I wish I was a donkey or a horse so I would have doctors and lawyers for my rights.” He pulled out a notebook. “My office is my pocket,” he said. He showed me a plastic bag with a sponge and a towel. “My bathroom is in my hand.” A peaceful demonstration of hundreds of civilians, including women and children, marched from Bedawi toward their former homes, asking for the right to return there. Lebanese soldiers opened fire at close range, killing two demonstrators and wounding at least twenty. As the demonstrators fled they were attacked by Sunni civilians from the region, beaten and stabbed. Palestinian families seeking to recover the corpses of their relatives killed by the army’s indiscriminate shelling were told to sign statements affirming that the men had been with Fatah al-Islam or were killed by the group. At the Interior Ministry’s Qibba base near Nahr al-Barid, where many Palestinians were interrogated, at least one of the officers had graduated from an American military program in interrogation described as “debriefing, interviewing, and elicitation.” Numerous Palestinian men reported being detained and tortured for many days. Palestinians throughout Lebanon were beaten at checkpoints.

A SENSE OF FOREBODING united people in Lebanon and throughout the region in response to the destabilizing occupation of Iraq. It also made Sunnis feel vulnerable. North of Tripoli, by the village of Qubat Shamra, where a boy was selling watermelons off the side of the road the day I visited, there was a stretch of broken wall with two lines of graffiti. “We tell you, oh rulers, of treachery and tyranny, the blood of the martyr Hariri is not to be forgotten,” said one. The other listed the successors of the Prophet Muhammad whom Sunnis revere and warned that “the blood of Sunnis is boiling.” It was signed by an unknown group called the Mujahideen Battalions of Tel Hayat, in reference to a nearby village. Further up the road toward the Syrian border, past tall pine and eucalyptus trees, one side of an apartment building was covered with a large painting of Rafiq al-Hariri. “They feared you so they killed you,” it said. “Truly they are pigs.” It quoted from the Koran as well, an example of the strange juxtaposition of Islamism and the Hariri cult. I stopped at Kusha and met a twenty-three-year-old third-year law student called Muhamad, who had learned English from listening to rap music. Muhamad had joined the Interior Ministry’s new Information Branch earlier that year as a volunteer “because of the Shiite campaign against this government,” he said. “You have to do something.” His responsibility was to “keep an eye open for anything strange in town.”

According to Muhamad, Lebanon’s Sunnis had finally come to believe that Lebanon was their country. “After they killed Hariri we woke up,” he said. “Shiites hate us. After Hariri’s death I started feeling hatred of Shiites. I hate Shiites after they thanked Syria in the demonstration.” He also hated Shiites for reacting positively to Saddam Hussein’s execution. “At the end Saddam was a Sunni,” he said. “I love Saddam. He subjugated Shiites. He was a leader in every sense of the word.” Muhamad believed he was helping to defend Lebanon from the “Shiite crescent.” “They’re trying to extend their principles through all of Lebanon. The biggest danger is coming from Shiites, not Israel. The priority is Shiites, to confront their project. I would take a gun and face Shiites, not only me but many people here.”

In the village of Masha I drove by the main mosque, which had a large picture of Hariri on one wall. Above the mosque a large blue sign said, “Palestine and Iraq are calling you, boycott American products.” Elsewhere in town a small shop had the obligatory picture of Saddam with his two sons at his side. A local sheikh had praised Fatah al-Islam as mujahideen.

Throughout Sunni towns in the north and Sunni neighborhoods in Tripoli and Beirut one finds images of Saddam and graffiti praising the executed former Iraqi leader. “The nation that gave birth to Saddam Hussein will not bow,” said one in the Beqaa. In Beirut’s Sunni stronghold of Tariq al-Jadida I found posters of “the martyred leader” Saddam with the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem behind him. On the road to Mishmish, a small mountain town in Akkar, I passed a wall where someone had written “Long live the hero Saddam Hussein.” Entering the town I drove under many banners honoring the army. “Only your pure blood draws the red line,” said one, in reference to Nasrallah’s recent speech. When I visited in late July 2007, the all-Sunni town had already lost three of its men to Fatah al-Islam; eight other soldiers from Mishmish were wounded. “People are very angry at the Palestinians,” mayor Hanzar Amr Din told me. He did not believe the anger would subside after the fighting. “If they think of coming back to the camp, people will destroy it,” he said. “People here were very upset at Nasrallah’s words about red lines,” he said. “Last summer people were happy with Nasrallah for fighting Israel, but saying that the camp is a red line means he is backing Palestinians against the army.”

That summer I found similar sentiments in the Sunni town of Bibnine. A laborer in a sandwich shop compared the situation to the 1970 Black September fighting, when the Jordanians had gotten rid of Palestinians. “I swear on the Koran,” he told me, “if I see a Palestinian I would slaughter him and drink his blood.” I asked him what he thought of Hizballah. “I hope they get rid of them too,” he said. The walls of Bibnine were plastered with pictures of the ten soldiers killed in the fighting, and I was reminded of the similar pictures festooning Shiite towns a year before in honor of the Hizballah soldiers who had died. On a wall near children playing on a road, someone had written with chalk, “Saddam Hussein is the martyr of the nation.” Khuzaimi, a twelve-year-old boy, told me that “we all want to grow up to join the army to destroy this infidel al-Absi.” But since Fatah al-Islam would be destroyed by then, he said, “then we will all go fight Israel.”

Most of the townsmen had taken their weapons to Nahr al-Barid in the first days of the fighting to “help the army,” I was told by Qais, a member of the Internal Security Forces from the town. “Anybody above sixteen went down,” he said—122 soldiers in all. “There is no family in Bibnine without somebody down there,” he said, adding that his family had fifteen men there. “There is a big anger at the Palestinians,” he said. “We consider them responsible for this.” When I visited Bibnine on July 31 the shelling of Nahr al-Barid echoed up to the town. Many of the townsmen worked as fishermen off the coast of Tripoli, but since the fighting had begun they had been forced to stay at home.

“They should be put on the border in the south so they can smell Palestine soil and remember it,” said Abu Muhamad, whose son Osama, a twenty-six-year-old soldier, had died in Nahr al-Barid. He blamed Syria for sending Fatah al-Islam to Lebanon. “My son the martyr, from childhood he wanted to be in the army. He grew up in a military house. I am a retired soldier. I am proud of him. He was brave, not a coward.” Abu Muhamad had two other sons in the army, one of whom was wounded in the battle. “Our first martyr was Rafiq al-Hariri,” he told me. “He was a martyr to the nation, and we all want to be martyrs to the nation.”

From his balcony Abu Muhamad could view the camp smoldering down on the coast. His face was lined and weathered. He looked tired but tried to smile. “The people won’t allow the camp to be rebuilt,” he said. “As soon as the fighting stops, people will go down to prevent it from being rebuilt.” Another guest, the father of a soldier still fighting in the camp, repeated an oft-heard slander that the Palestinians had sold Palestine to the Jews in 1948 and now had sold Nahr al-Barid to the jihadists. “That gang bought their camp,” the man said. He had been among the first armed men to descend on the camp, he told me. “All towns around the camp went down and took the arms of soldiers who were killed,” he said. “Now there is a blood feud between Lebanese and Palestinians,” said Abu Muhamad. “The big problem is not with the Palestinians.” The real problem was not the Nahr al-Barid camp but the one in downtown Beirut, he said, meaning the Shiite protesters. Like most Sunnis in the north, he had been angered by Nasrallah’s “red lines” speech in May. “Call it red lines or green lines or whatever you want,” he said. “Your lines won’t stop us.”

The forty thousand homeless Palestinians of Nahr al-Barid were housed in local schools in the nearby Bedawi camp and in Tripoli, watching from afar as their homes were obliterated. Nahr al-Barid was a thoroughly urban camp, with many low apartment buildings. It was located right off the Mediterranean beach, and the view would have afforded its residents some respite from their fate. At least forty-two Palestinian civilians had been killed by September 2, when the army and media declared a great victory—some even called it a victory over Nahr al-Barid rather than Fatah al-Islam. It was only on October 10 that the army finally began to allow a trickle of Palestinians back to their homes, and only in the so-called “new camp,” a small area that had housed two thousand families on the outskirts of the original camp. The army had been in control of the new camp, and fighting had not taken place there.

About one thousand families obtained the permits from the army and passed through the checkpoints, where soldiers and Lebanese demonstrators heckled them. They found only destruction. It was as if a giant plague of locusts had ravaged the camp. Every single home, building, apartment, and shop was destroyed. Most were also burned from the inside, and signs of the flammable liquids the soldiers had used abounded on the walls. The empty fuel canisters were left behind on the floors. Ceilings and walls were riddled with bullets shot from inside for sport. Lebanese soldiers had defecated in kitchens, on plates, bowls, and pots, as well as on mattresses. They had urinated into jars of olive oil. Most homes had been emptied of all their belongings. Furniture, appliances, sinks, toilets, televisions, refrigerators, gold jewelry, cash—all were stolen. Even the charred walls the Palestinians had been left with were not spared: insulting graffiti had been written on them, along with threats, signed by various army units. The media were not permitted in, and with few exceptions they were ignoring the plight of the Palestinians, if not reveling in it. The army’s behavior confused observers. While it seemed to ignore Fatah al-Islam targets, it systematically destroyed other parts of the camp. Following the battle the army continued to treat the camp as a military zone and imposed an army engineer onto the committee planning the reconstruction, informing other members of what the army wanted done.

The army, which had never been used to defend Lebanon from external threats such as Israel, only to suppress internal dissent, and which had struggled to defeat a small band of extremists, had systematically gone through every bit of the camp and ravaged the infrastructure, destroying six decades of life to render it impossible for the Palestinians to return. All the windows were broken, electrical wiring was pulled out, copper wires stolen for resale or reuse, water pumps removed or destroyed, generators stolen or shot up. The columns typical in the camp, which supported homes, had been shot up so that the concrete was turned to rubble and the rebar exposed. Those few computers that were not stolen had been picked apart, and the RAM and hard drives were all missing. Photo albums had been torn to shreds. Every car in the camp was burned, shot up, or crushed by tanks or bulldozers. Much of the looting and destruction had taken place after the fighting ceased, or in areas where fighting never occurred. The many businesses and shops that had served much of northern Lebanon had been looted of their wares, as had pharmacies and health clinics. Palestinians reported seeing their belongings on sale in the main outdoor market in Tripoli. The camp had once been imbricated into the local economy and culture. Now the Palestinians were unwanted and rejected. For some it was not just the second time they were refugees. Apart from 1948, in 1976 many arrived from Tel al-Zaatar, a camp near Beirut that had housed twenty thousand refugees until Lebanese Christian militias besieged it, massacred many of its inhabitants, and then leveled the camp to prevent the Palestinians’ return. “It is our destiny,” one man said without emotion in his blackened home in Nahr al-Barid, standing by excrement the Lebanese soldiers had left behind on the kitchen floor. The total loss of life from Nahr al-Barid was fifty civilians, 179 soldiers, and 226 suspected Fatah al-Islam militants. About six thousand families lost their homes.

Palestinian children’s art from this period depicts the Lebanese soldiers and Lebanese tanks destroying the camp as Israelis. Videos filmed by Lebanese soldiers circulated on the Internet, showing medical staff from the Civil Defense brigade abusing corpses and beating prisoners. Hundreds of Palestinians had been abused or tortured in Lebanese detention, and some had died from medical neglect of treatable wounds. Although still facing harassment and the occasional beating by Lebanese soldiers, hundreds of Palestinians were at work emptying their homes of rubble. One woman stood on her balcony throwing rubble from inside her home onto the broken street, where it was piled up on the sides. The majority of the Palestinians were still unable to access their homes, and could only wonder what was stolen, broken, and excreted upon. On the roof of a taller building in the new camp, I found Farhan Said Mansur, a sanitation officer standing with his wife and gazing silently across to their distant home, whose broken roof they could just make out—as if looking at Palestine, where he was born. “It is a calamity to all Palestinians,” he said.

Many Salafi jihadists had escaped to the Bedawi camp. Other cells had remained in Bedawi during the fighting. The camp’s security committee still had them under surveillance. Outside Bedawi I stopped with my photographer as he shot a bony horse grazing on a hill. Palestinian mechanics in the area surrounded him, holding his hand and warning him not to take pictures, because it was a Palestinian military position. We noticed concrete bunkers on the top of hills belonging to the pro-Syrian PFLP-GC. Just beyond was the army. In November the influential American-allied Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt threatened that the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut would be the next Nahr al-Barid, and the Palestinian community felt even more vulnerable. That month the Lebanese cabinet warned that Islamist militants were infiltrating other Palestinian camps. The phenomenon would be dealt with as it had in Nahr al-Barid, said the minister of information, Ghazi al-Aridi. Nobody thought to address the actual condition of Palestinians in the camps.

As the Lebanese Army celebrated its “victory” over Fatah al-Islam, its commander, Michel Suleiman, was to become the next president. He would not be the first president to have punished the Palestinians. Between 1958 and 1964, President Fouad Shehab created an elaborate, ruthless secret-service network to monitor the Palestinian camps. During his 1970-76 reign, President Suleiman Franjieh clashed with Palestinian factions, even using the air force to bomb a neighborhood thought to be pro-Palestinian. I’ve heard followers of assassinated president-elect Bashir Gemayel, whose Maronite Christian militia massacred Palestinians in 1976, brag that he was stopped at a checkpoint in the early years of the country’s 1975-90 civil war with a trunk full of the skulls of dead Palestinians. And the leading opposition Christian leader is Michel Aoun, a retired general who participated in the 1976 killings.

“Social confinement is leading the youth to religious radicalism,” says Bernard Rougier. “Youngsters are socialized by religious clerics who tell them how to understand the world and the ‘true reasons’ of their social exclusion. To end that situation, refugees should be allowed to work in the Lebanese society, in order for them to live under new and different influences (with a restriction: nothing should be done to naturalize them, because it could upset the Lebanese balance of power, and Palestinian refugees would be, once again, caught in the Lebanese inner contradictions; in addition to that, such naturalization would dissolve the negotiations about the right of return). So what needs to be done is to distinguish between the issues, between what is social (the right to work), what is political (and should be discussed at the regional level), and what is linked to the legal situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In order to do that, Lebanese parties would have to stop frightening the Lebanese society about the risk of tawtin (a condition almost impossible to meet in Lebanon).”

As Iraq became a less hospitable place for jihadists and foreign fighters, or as there were less American targets to go after, these veterans, experienced at fighting the most advanced army in the world, were looking for new battles. Andrew Exum is a former U.S. Army officer who led a platoon of light infantry in Afghanistan in 2002 and then led a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. He lived in Beirut from 2004 until 2006, and now researches insurgencies and militant Islamist groups at the Center for New American Security in Washington, D.C. “The fighting in Nahr al-Bared is, unfortunately, just the first round in what I fear will be a series of battles fought in the aftermath of the Iraq War,” he says. “On Internet chat rooms, we’re seeing militants turn away volunteers to go fight in Iraq and promising the next fight will be in Lebanon and the Gulf. Lebanon, especially, is a magnet for Sunni extremists. You not only have a haven for these groups in the Palestinian camps—with security services from rival Arab states competing for their loyalty and attention—you also have two tempting targets: both the pro-Western ruling coalition in Beirut as well as the opposition, led by a powerful bloc of Shiite parties. How can we not expect these Sunni militants, who have spent the past four years waging war on the Shiites of Iraq, to try and carry that fight onto the large, politically active Shiite population in Lebanon? Or onto the pro-Western regime that precariously hangs onto power?”

FOLLOWING THE CIVIL WAR Iraq became a less prominent topic on the jihadi web forums. In part the novelty factor wore off. But Iraq was a loss for the jihadists, and as it grew bloodier, with more civilians being targeted, it was less inspiring for aspiring jihadists than merely fighting against the crusader and occupier. But there was very little soul-searching on the forums; jihadis seemed to have moved on without a lot of serious public discussion of what went wrong. This was partly because fighting picked up in other places after 2005, especially in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Somalia.

And while America’s militaristic ambitions will likely engender violent resistance movements regardless of the ideological environment, a major reason for the growth of Al Qaeda is now something beyond anti-Americanism. It is the internal war between Sunnis and Shiites in places like Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and even Yemen. Al Qaeda can no longer be seen as just a force against U.S. encroachments; it is now part of these local phenomena. In this internal war in the Muslim world, Al Qaeda has become a major driving force of Sunni-Shiite hatred. Al Qaeda in this case means something more general than the actual organization. Even in moderate Lebanon, sectarian Sunnis have been Salafized. They may not have been religious beforehand, but they view Al Qaeda as an effective way to combat perceived Shiite expansion and a potent symbol for them to reclaim their masculinity. One of the many ramifications of this is that the United States is yet again involving itself in forms of spiraling violence whose outcomes are unpredictable and whose unintended consequences will be keeping it busy for decades to come.

Part Three



“Iraqi Solutions for Iraqi Problems”

BY LATE 2006 IRAQ SEEMED LOST, A FAILED STATE, HEADING TOWARD Rwanda and threatening to provoke a regional conflict. There was finally a sense among Americans in Baghdad that things were going wrong. The First Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army—known as the “First Team”—took over the headquarters of Multi-National Division Baghdad (MND-B), the major U.S. military unit responsible for the city of Baghdad, in November 2006. Before its arrival, military policy was directed to handing over more authority to the Iraqi Security Forces. As one embedded planner with the Fourth Infantry, who were previously in charge of Multi-National Division Baghdad, told me, “[We were] struggling to control violence when the prime directive was to downsize and turn over responsibility to the Iraqi Security Forces as fast as humanly possible. Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army filled the void and were trying to ‘cleanse’ the opposing sect from their perceived areas of influence.” But the Iraqi Security Forces were hugely compromised. I was told that every new Iraqi army unit being deployed to Baghdad would first spend two weeks in the Bismaya range in Diyala to train. While training there, the Mahdi Army would contact these units and tell them to leave them alone. “The Iraqi army couldn’t do the right thing if they wanted to, because politicians would pressure them,” one deputy brigade commander told me.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of the First Cavalry Division, who in November 2006 became the commanding general of MND-B, told a subordinate in September 2006, “I don’t know what we are going to do in Baghdad. I do know we are not going to keep doing what they’re doing.” “We were all very vested in Baghdad,” a key author of the change in American strategy from the First Cavalry told me. “First Cav felt very possessive of the place and realized it was burning and that the old ways weren’t working.”

The new priority was to focus on protecting the Iraqi population from violence and slow down the transition to the Iraqi Security Forces. The increase in troops that would become known as the “surge” would be much more than an additional thirty thousand American troops. It heralded a change in doctrine and tactics. The Americans would live in the neighborhoods, not merely in massive Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) cordoned off from the general population, from where they would “commute to work.” They would implement population-centric counterinsurgency, designed to secure, or control, the population and win their allegiance at the expense of rival guerrilla forces.

Before the surge the Americans would take Iraqi National Police (INP) units offline for extra training, including on the rule of law and human rights. It was called a “reblueing exercise,” but it never worked. The Americans would go in and clear an area, leaving the INP there. In operations such as Together Forward I and II, from 2006, the American unit would report that it cleared one thousand houses and twenty mosques, and confiscated twenty AK-47s. Then they would leave the INP, and violence would get worse, as happened in Ghazaliya. It took Zarqawi to push the Iraqi Security Forces to take their work seriously, and they did this with the help of power drills and death squads, punishing Sunnis en masse until the will of the resistance was broken. It wasn’t in the counterinsurgency manual, but it worked.

Baghdad was the sine qua non for everything the Americans were trying to do, but at the National Security Council they realized it was falling apart. Brett McGurk, the NSC’s director for Iraq, was writing daily reports for President Bush about security in Baghdad, arguing that the military strategy was not working. In August 2006 National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley asked McGurk and Meghan O’Sullivan to work on a review of Iraq policy. All the Iraqis McGurk knew from his time in the country in 2004 were fleeing, hiding in the Green Zone, or dead. The son of one Iraqi judge he was friends with was killed right outside the Green Zone.

McGurk looked at past similar civil wars and concluded that it took a neutral force to provide a presence and stabilize the country, but the ISF wasn’t neutral (and neither, of course, were the Americans). McGurk believed that the Americans did not have enough troops to achieve their ends, that their mission was not properly resourced. In the summer of 2006, he made his position clear to the president. Hadley knew that McGurk and O’Sullivan were advocates of a troop surge, but he didn’t want the media to say the NSC supported such a surge, because it would immediately form antibodies before they could even do a review. He told them never to use the word “surge.” Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, was opposed to an increase in troops, as were Secretary of State Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

McGurk and O’Sullivan challenged Abizaid’s assumptions. They saw that in battles during 2005, in the mid-Euphrates, in Al Qaim, Tal Afar, Heet, Haditha, and elsewhere, whenever the U.S. military stayed, the population turned against the insurgency and became cooperative. The Marines told them that mayors of towns had asked them not to leave. The pair were also skeptical that the Iraqi Security Forces could handle the levels of violence in Iraq, and proved that they couldn’t. The Interior Ministry was mistrusted, and the Iraqi army was at risk of fracturing or disbanding, as it had in 2004, when the Americans had to restart it.

In the spring of 2006 President Bush gave a speech highlighting Nineveh province’s Tal Afar to show that American strategy was working, but Tal Afar—where the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment had cleared, held, and built—was not part of the American strategy; it was an exception. McGurk and O’Sullivan were cynical that political reconciliation could end violence. People on the street were not fighting each other because the Iraqi Parliament could not agree on an oil law, they argued. They felt they could show empirically that more U.S. forces, with a different strategy, could stabilize the country and lead to security. They spoke to old Iraq hands at the CIA and saw that the agency’s findings supported their position. To them a troop surge was not intended to open a space for political reconciliation; it was about building up the Iraqi Security Forces so they could hold the line and allow politics to take its course. Although many CIA analysts thought a surge would be throwing good money after bad, and was coming too late to be effective, McGurk and O’Sullivan were zealous about the need for more troops.

By the end of the summer of 2006, Bush was finally focused on changing course in Iraq. He no longer trusted Casey and Abizaid, and he wouldn’t defer to the generals anymore. Although Bush was briefed every morning by a CIA official about events around the world, he asked for a special briefing by the CIA every Monday only on Iraq. But he didn’t want his regular briefer from the agency; he wanted a young analyst. It was unusual for a young analyst to have that kind of access to the president. A typical analyst was a geek in an argyle sweater who was terrified by the idea of briefing the president, especially since an analyst might approach Iraq as an intellectual challenge, while Bush often flaunted his anti-intellectual credentials. When he was briefed about how the Mahdi Army was providing services to its supporters and beginning to resemble Lebanese Hizballah in its early stages, Bush was not curious and did not inquire how and why. Instead he asked, Should we kill Sadr? And what do we do to stop it? But Bush was also beginning to understand Iraqi political dynamics. He talked to Maliki regularly, one on one, through a translator. He gave Maliki advice. Bush wanted to build a special relationship with Maliki, as one leader to another leader. Others in the administration said he should not engage so frequently because he would lose leverage.

In November 2006 Bush met with Maliki in Amman. He told Maliki he would send more troops to stabilize Baghdad, but he needed his Iraqi counterpart’s support. U.S. military leaders were skeptical of Maliki. They said he was sectarian and knew what was going on in the streets. But McGurk sympathized with his position; he knew Maliki would lose if he took on the Mahdi Army. Maliki wanted to work Shiite politics and weaken the Shiite militia before taking them on. The Iraqi prime minister gave Bush his commitment.

EVEN THOUGH THE SURGE was controversial at its inception, its success would become something of a proverbial truth, and the proponents of the new counterinsurgency strategy—known by its acronym, COIN—would soon become very influential over the American defense establishment. Gen. David Petraeus, with whom the surge would become identified, had spent the course of 2006 reshaping how the U.S. military thought about counterinsurgency. He effectively had a yearlong graduate course in COIN while based at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (USACAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he served as commanding general. There, along with Conrad Crane, John Nagl, Marine Gen. James Mattis, and others, he wrote the U.S. military’s manual on COIN. According to the manual, called FM 3-24, the purpose was to “relearn the principles of counterinsurgency,” create better learning organizations in the military, and change the Army and Marine Corps. It was not just about winning Iraq and Afghanistan; it was written “to help Army and Marine Corps leaders to conduct COIN operations anywhere in the world” [emphasis added].

Some in the CIA and the National Security Agency were wary when Petraeus was appointed to run the war in Iraq. In 2004 he had been in charge of training the Iraqi Security Forces. The Iraqi army had performed poorly in the battles of Najaf and Falluja, even though Petraeus was still briefing the U.S. government about how great the Iraqi Security Forces were. Battalion-level commanders were complaining that 80 percent of the Iraqi army were absent without leave and that the ones who did show were incompetent. Petraeus was considered a liar by these figures within the CIA and NSA—typical military, refusing to admit there was a problem. But Petraeus could be candid among his fellow military officers, so it was likely that in his briefing to civilians he was constrained by Rumsfeld’s worldview, which obstinately refused to see the reality of disaster in Iraq.

Petraeus was not one to publicly undermine policy. He would be hailed as a “warrior scholar,” but in 2004 he was still part of the “stay the course” school. In fact, in 2004 he wrote an optimistic op-ed in the Washington Post about the war in Iraq, which was perceived to be entering the political debate during an election year, something usually taboo for someone so high in the chain of command. In the op-ed, titled “Battling for Iraq,” he listed the numbers of recruits and graduates from the Iraqi Security Forces. “I see tangible progress,” he wrote. “Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. . . . Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously.” Though he admitted there were setbacks, he insisted there were “reasons for optimism.” “Iraq’s security forces are, however, developing steadily and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition—and now NATO—support, this trend will continue. It will not be easy, but few worthwhile things are.”

Perhaps a clue to Petraeus’s real thinking is the fact that by the end of 2005 he was back in the United States working on the new counterinsurgency manual, which turned out to be a scathing critique of how the military had been fighting the war in Iraq. Similarly, between 2003 and 2004, he had opposed Bremer’s de-Baathification, dismissal of the Iraqi army, and free-market reforms in Iraq. He e-mailed his men, telling them to ignore Bremer, basically urging insubordination. Petraeus wanted to provide stability in Iraq and knew Bremer was destabilizing the country.

Petraeus was a masterful bureaucrat. He took an Army that was focused on fighting a conventional war—whose standard practice, in the words of a State Department official I spoke to, was to place their boots on the heads of Iraqi men they were detaining—and got it to “turn on a dime to fight an insurgency.” Petraeus would become the most influential U.S. general since George C. Marshall. The surge would also be seen as a panacea to U.S. problems in Afghanistan. The story I tell in the next chapters is more complicated than both Petraeus’s hagiographers and critics claim.

ALMOST ON ARRIVAL in February 2007 Petraeus headed straight to Ramadi, capital of the Anbar province, to see Col. Sean McFarland of the First Brigade, First Armored Division. McFarland’s brigade had been in Ramadi since June 2006. Before that they had been in Tal Afar, where soldiers were practicing an approach called “clear, hold, and build” and living in combat outposts (COPs) with the townspeople. While these outposts initially suffered heavy attacks, in battle the Americans usually dominated, and attacks fell after the first summer.

(Capt. Robert Chamberlin believed the real reason Tal Afar was pacified was the cleansing of its Sunnis and the tacit American support this received. After serving in Tal Afar he wrote an article in Military Review in 2008. “Shiites now dominate a community that was formerly 70 percent Sunni,” he explained. “Shiites made up 98 percent of the applicant pool in a July 2007 recruiting drive for the local police. The Sunnis moved to nearby villages and sought shelter with families and tribes, but they still think of Tal Afar as ‘their’ city.”)

Living in COPs allowed the Americans to have greater access to Ramadi’s infrastructure and to reach out to local leaders. In the early days of the U.S. invasion, these leaders had generally supported the resistance. They eventually turned against Al Qaeda, but their attempts to expel the group in 2005 failed. The tribes were crushed, killed, and forced to flee. This time they had American support; that made a difference.

McFarland initially found a city dominated by Al Qaeda-linked groups with almost no Iraqi Security Forces. He set up tribal militias called provisional auxiliary police and stationed them so they could protect their own area. The Americans protected the homes of collaborating tribal leaders. Instead of warning that they would soon be leaving, the Americans promised to remain as long as it took. McFarland believed it was his attempt to recruit thousands of locals to the Iraqi police that led to what would be called the Sons of Iraq program—known in Arabic as Al Sahwa (the Awakening)—in which previously antagonistic Sunni militias began to cooperate with the Americans. Brutal Al Qaeda retaliatory attacks on police and the tribal leaders who backed them increased local hatred of the group.

The Americans found a young “sheikh” called Sattar Abu Risha. He was not exactly a tribal leader, and he was not exactly fighting for freedom, but he was willing to fight Al Qaeda in return for American support. Unlike past rebellions against Al Qaeda, this time the Americans propped up their new ally. They had two Marine battalions in downtown Ramadi, and they parked a tank in Abu Risha’s front yard and visited him twice a day. In September 2007 Abu Risha held a conference establishing the Anbar Awakening. More and more tribes in the area joined. When Awakening tribes were attacked, the Americans provided air and armor support and rescued them.

“The enemy overplayed its hand and the people were tired of Al-Qaeda,” McFarland wrote in a 2008 article in Military Review. “A series of assassinations had elevated younger, more aggressive tribal leaders to positions of influence. A growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against Al-Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias made these younger leaders open to our overtures. Our willingness to adapt our plans based on the advice of the sheiks, our staunch and timely support for them in times of danger and need, and our ability to deliver on our promises convinced them that they could do business with us. Our forward presence kept them reassured.” Petraeus supported the introduction of the Awakening phenomenon elsewhere. Paying people who used to shoot at Americans was a radical step, but he did not consult his chain of command. “Petraeus did what he wanted to do and sought approval after, and he had enough clout to do it,” an American intelligence official told me.

IN DECEMBER 2006, when Washington began to push new troops to Baghdad, General Casey, the head of Multi-National Forces Iraq (MNF-I)—the U.S. military formation that provided overall command and control for operations in Iraq—summoned the Iraqis and laid out the new “surge” plan with Prime Minister Maliki, Defense Minister Abdul Qader Muhammad Jassim, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, and the First Cavalry team. The Americans called it the Baghdad Security Plan, while the Iraqis called it Fard al-Qanun (Imposing the Law). Maliki approved the concept and committed to bringing in more Iraqi troops and letting the Americans “target all criminals,” which included Shiite militias and Sadrists. It was a momentous step for Maliki, whose collaboration with Shiite militias was viewed by the Americans as an obstacle to their goals.

Proponents of counterinsurgency obsessively study the history of so-called “small wars,” such as the British war in Malaya, the American war in the Philippines, the French war in Algeria, and the wars in Vietnam. Their doctrine emphasizes using the least amount of violence against the enemy, becoming familiar with the occupied country’s culture, and working to remove support for the insurgents. While this requires killing those who cannot be “reconciled,” it also requires creating local proxy forces and finding political solutions that the civilian population can see as a better alternative to backing insurgents. Proponents of COIN strategy realized that American tactics in Iraq had until then relied on brute force and killing.

COIN theorists never answered (or even asked) questions such as, Should the Americans have invaded Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place, or should they be occupying other countries? Instead they focused on practical matters such as implementation. To them the American reliance on brute force was counterproductive, and the numerous “decapitation operations” in which insurgent leaders were assassinated were not useful. They exhorted less violence, fewer “kinetic operations,” which only alienated people. They urged military and civilian agencies to collaborate and to understand the concerns of the people and address them, providing security and responding to their grievances.

American casualties peaked when their forces were involved in clearing insurgents from the belts. Once they transitioned to the hold-and-build phase, U.S. casualties declined drastically. But the extent to which the Americans protected the Iraqi population during the surge has been romanticized. American airstrikes killed more than 250 civilians in Iraq in 2006 but more than 940 in 2007 and another 400 in 2008. Thus, Americans killed more civilians in 2008 than in 2006, at the peak of the civil war—this despite the fact that the much-lauded scripture of the military’s COIN manual states, “The employment of airpower in the strike role should be done with exceptional care. . . . Even when justified under the law of war, bombing a target that results in civilian casualties will bring media coverage that works to the benefit of the insurgents.” In addition, artillery was used often during the surge for the purpose of “terrain denial,” even when that terrain was a populated area. This must not have felt very population-centric to the population.

On January 11, 2007, the “Crisis Committee” had its first meeting in Baghdad, at which the Baghdad Operation Center was set up and Lieut. Gen. Abud Qanbar was designated as its commander. The BOC was formed to give the Americans a counterpart in the battle of Baghdad, to be Maliki’s face in Fard al-Qanun.

Initially, the Americans didn’t want the BOC to be under Maliki’s direct control; they wanted it to be under the Defense Ministry’s command. Nor did they want Qanbar to lead it at first. The Iraqi general seemed too Soviet in his style and was too close to Maliki, but Qanbar proved flexible and able to learn. Brig. Gen. John Campbell, deputy commander of the First Cavalry Regiment, mentored Qanbar and also played a vital role in the success of the Awakening. He took Qanbar to meet some of the Awakening men, and Qanbar realized he knew them from the Saddam-era military. “Brigadier General Campbell had exceptional rapport with our Iraqi partners,” observed Maj. Andy Morgado, who served as a division maneuver planner and later as a combined arms battalion operations officer.

Multi-National Forces-Iraq—headed by General Casey at the beginning of the surge, then by General Petraeus, and then by Gen. Raymond Odierno—was the overall strategic headquarters for U.S. coalition forces. Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), the tactical unit responsible for command and control of operations in Iraq, was supposed to coordinate the actions of its subordinate divisions: Multi-National Division-Baghdad and Multi-National Division-Center, which was responsible for area south of Baghdad.

Lieut. Col. Steve Miska, who served as a deputy brigade commander throughout Baghdad during the surge, told me that the additional soldiers provided a greater density of troops for more effective partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces. But another factor was important. In Baghdad, before the surge, none of the boundaries separating American forces matched those used by Iraqi forces, and none of those boundaries matched the political lines of baladiyas (local municipalities). As a result it was difficult to synchronize with local politicians or security forces, and there was little American integration or coordination with the ISF. The surge realigned the military boundaries with the political boundaries. “That allowed for sustained relationships between the Iraqi army, coalition forces, and political leaders,” Miska explained. “It restored confidence among the populace in many cases. The overall surge strategy realigned the Iraqi army boundaries to match the district boundaries in Baghdad. We did the same for the U.S. boundaries. The effect was that now the same U.S. and Iraqi commanders would work with the same local politicians to resolve issues.”

The lines for the ten Baghdad “security districts” were drawn on a map by Lieut. Col. Douglas Ollivant, chief of plans for MND-B, and Major General Ali of the Iraqi Ministry defense staff, who had studied at Sandhurst (in 1971), the Indian Staff College, and the NATO staff college in Italy, and who spoke English well. Each of the districts would be under the authority of an Iraqi army or Iraqi National Police headquarters. This was a key meeting, where strategic boundaries were being drawn, and yet nobody from Corps, as Odierno’s staff was called, was present except for a very junior major who was there only as a note-taker. The surge plan was drawn up by Brigadier General Campbell, Colonel Toby Green, and Lieutenant Colonel Ollivant with little guidance from Multi-National Corps-Iraq. General Casey was present, however, giving very specific guidance. It was Casey who suggested creating joint security stations in Baghdad.

In addition to the role played by McGurk and O’Sullivan, two outsiders played a crucial role in the push for more troops. Fred Kagan and Gen. Jack Keane are controversial figures: the former is a neoconservative military historian with no experience or specialization in the Middle East; the latter an imposing and intimidating retired general with a forceful personality. But they were effective because they provided a public voice arguing that a troop surge could work. While working on this book I met American officials who loved them or hated them, who attributed the whole surge to them or denied they had any significant role. “Success has many fathers,” one lieutenant colonel explained, and the surge was the only positive development anyone could point to in America’s catastrophic occupation of Iraq.

In 2006 there were many voices calling for either an American withdrawal or an increase in American troops. Colin Kahl of Georgetown University and then the Center for New American Security visited Iraq in the summer of that year. Based on his experience he called for more troops or for a withdrawal, but he was ignored as an outsider and a Democratic partisan. (President Obama would later install him as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East.) There was a joint push for more troops coming from the NSC and the Keane/Kagan duo. Keane, who looked at Iraq from a purely military view, was the most consistent and longstanding advocate of a troop increase. “He was always poking,” one NSC member told me. J.D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, hosted an Iraq review in December 2006. He convened small groups in which he appeared neutral, but he steered skeptics to the surge—and then convinced his boss, Stephen Hadley. One lieutenant colonel involved in the surge described Kagan as “just a blowhard who could be counted on to give the party line in print when he returned from each of his Petraeus-sponsored trips.” But another lieutenant colonel described him as a brilliant and rigorous thinker. “Kagan is the main guy behind the push for more troops, and Keane is an idiot,” he told me, adding, for good measure, that Casey and Fil were also idiots. Although neoconservatives have traditionally been advocates of increased reliance on airpower, Kagan broke with this neoconservative predilection for “shock and awe” tactics. Instead he believed that war was about influencing people on the ground, and thus required more troops. Kagan provided Bush with an alternative to the Senate’s Iraq Study Group report, which advocated a reduction in troops.

An internal NSC review and Keane’s force of will persuaded the president to change course in Iraq. The push out of Washington for more troops was then utilized by Multi-National Division-Baghdad, with some oversight from General Casey, to secure Baghdad. General Odierno had a very different concept, his critics told me. “He wanted to use the troops out in the ‘Baghdad belts’ to go kill Sunnis,” one senior American officer said. Odierno’s role was “totally blown out of proportion,” according to one of the architects of the surge in Baghdad, “and I don’t think he really figures in the picture.” Major Morgado strongly disagrees: “Though Baghdad was a large problem set, it was not the only problem set,” he said.

There was a serious and heated internal debate among the Americans in Baghdad, both between different headquarters and within them, over whether they should focus on population security or continue to capture and kill. Advocates of the latter approach, of which Odierno apparently was the champion, saw which way the wind was blowing, aped the new COIN language, and called their method “clearing,” as in “clear, hold, and build” or “clear, control, and retain.”

But Morgado disagreed with this description of Odierno’s philosophy. “Maliki wanted to go and kill Sunnis,” he told me. “By putting a larger American presence in the belts, it stopped Maliki from pursuing this aim, and it allowed Americans to effectively interdict lines of communication and thereby stop accelerants of the violence. The Awakening would have been hard-pressed to happen if Maliki was allowed to unleash a one-sided assault on the Sunnis in the belts.”

General Petraeus and the bulk of MND-B were focused on providing security to the Iraqi population. Odierno and some other elements—most notably the Third Stryker Brigade combat team, Second Infantry Division, under the command of Steve Townsend—wanted to keep “clearing,” the most violent part of the “clear, hold, and build” process. Odierno tasked the Third Infantry Division to lead the organization of Multi-National Division-Central and facilitate the fight in the belts outside Baghdad. As airpower advocates have noted, more bombs were dropped in 2007 in MND-C’s area of operations than at any time earlier in the war. While Baghdad was focused on population security (despite some internal dissidents and occasional lapses), MND-C was still killing and capturing until much later, when the Awakening groups were established there too.

Odierno wanted to reduce the influence of MND-B (the major institutional proponent of executing the surge) and transfer terrain to the other units that shared his focus on killing and capturing. Odierno could never directly say, “Don’t secure the population,” since Petraeus would overturn that, but he could nibble away at MND-B’s influence. (Morgado denied that his old boss had any obsession with killing. “I believe General Odierno sensed weakness in General Fil,” he said. “Odierno used to talk about reconciling with various parties back in 2003 to 2004. This was not a new concept for him.”)

Most interlocutors I dealt with from the military and National Security Council agreed that Odierno was neither a visionary nor a strategist. “Petraeus is an A who hires A-pluses,” one American intelligence analyst dealing with Iraq told me. “Odierno is a B who hires Cs.” Petraeus also had the star power to handpick whomever he wanted, which led to the creation of a coterie of West Point graduates and within that a smaller group of graduates from West Point’s social sciences department. Petraeus made COIN the universal policy, and thanks to his status he was able to sell an increase in troops to the American people and Congress despite their growing antiwar mood.

Though the surge was Baghdad-oriented, the increased troop numbers also allowed the Americans to operate in the “belts” that surrounded the city. Odierno’s role in the belts was a key element. He took the concept of the surge and decided where to put troops. “He is not a bright guy, and he didn’t have bright guys around him, but he figured out how to fight the battle of Baghdad,” one insider told me. If Doug Ollivant and others at First Cav were the architects of the surge, Odierno was the builder, the operational realizer. Morgado served in Balad, north of Baghdad, between July and November 2007. “Al Qaeda in Iraq had freedom of maneuver in the belts,” he explained. “This gave them unlimited opportunities to marshal resources in the hinterlands, use multiple avenues to infiltrate supplies and weapons into Baghdad, and conduct attacks. Al Qaeda, with this latitude, was free to conduct attacks on Shiites and act as an accelerant for retribution by the Mahdi Army or other Shiites.

“While U.S. and Iraqi forces kept the Shiites under control in Baghdad, U.S.-led efforts in the belts kept the Sunnis/Al Qaeda off-balance. Both efforts depended on the other, but the belts clearly supported the efforts within Baghdad. I thought it was critical for U.S. forces to lead in the belts. We stood up the Sons of Iraq and brought the Sunnis into the ‘good guy’ side of the ledger. I don’t think this was feasible or desirable by a Maliki-led effort. His solution to the Sunni problem would have been ‘Kill them all’ and only would have exacerbated the problem. Though the Sons of Iraq pose a political problem now and in the future, these are much better conditions.”

Balad is a Shiite-dominated town surrounded by rural Sunni communities. By the time Morgado arrived in Balad, the Mahdi Army had been largely put down, while most Sunnis within the town had been chased out or killed. Morgado’s principal threat remained Al Qaeda in Iraq and associated groups. “We were tight along the Salahaddin/Diyala fault line,” he said. “Their lines of communication ran from Samarra and Anbar in the west, from Baquba in the east, and Mosul to the north. In turn, they would use the Balad area to stage attacks in Baghdad/Taji area in the south.”

The first Sons of Iraq group was “stood up” in Balad in August 2007. Morgado’s battalion cultivated six of these groups, putting about 200 individuals on the payroll. “They were extremely effective. Once these groups stood up, Al Qaeda went after them hard, but they remained resilient. With largely Sons of Iraq influence, we began capturing or killing every major high-value target we had, and attacks in our zone decreased dramatically. It was clear with the Sons of Iraq that part of their motivation was monetary, but largely they were tired of the violence. Their allegiance with Al Qaeda only brought them death and instability. By working with us, they realized they could stabilize the community. Knowing that we were providing support to these groups, monetarily and operationally, gave them a lot of confidence.”

When Bush announced his surge in January 2007, I thought it was too late for the Americans to make a difference. I had spent four years writing about the oppressive nature of the American occupation, and I didn’t see how enlarging it could make things better. General Petraeus himself asserted that military gains would be ephemeral if Iraq’s factions did not reach political deals. It seemed as if more troops might only provoke further resistance, or if not, that a few thousand more troops couldn’t possibly halt the civil war and affect the situation in Iraq strategically. But the addition of more American troops also forced other armed factions in Iraq to change their plans and actions.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Miska, the introduction of combat outposts, smaller bases inside neighborhoods, and joint security stations where Americans lived and worked with Iraqi security forces allowed the Americans to integrate the Iraqi army, Iraqi police, and U.S. forces into an overall security plan. “We were commuting to work, but an insurgent lives among the people, so you must do it too,” he told me. “We started doing this in Ghazaliya before the surge. Ghazaliya was a killing field. The Mahdi Army was attacking from Shula and the north, Al Qaeda was attacking from the south. The first combat outpost we put in was on the sectarian fault line between the two sides. We set it up with the Iraqi army, and within a week some stores opened up, people came in. We were there in a sustained presence and wouldn’t leave them. It helped set up Sons of Iraq; people realized Americans could be an ally.”

Miska said that the Sons of Iraq were originally organized to fill a gap in local security, predominantly because the local police would not provide security to the Sunni population areas. During the surge, the Americans started placing combat outposts (COPs) and joint security stations ( JSSs) along the sectarian fault lines and right in the Sunni areas because the need was greatest there. “Al Qaeda held the Sunni population hostage in neighborhoods like Amriya, where the flagpole of Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia was planted,” he said. “I think part of the reason the Sons of Iraq came to us in Amriya and Ghazaliya was that they saw the Americans were committed to protecting the Sunni people. Nobody else had a stake in the game—not the police, not the Iraqi army or the Iraqi government.”

More than the surge itself, the declaration of the surge forced armed factions in Iraq to change their calculations. Sunni militias who resented Al Qaeda or were already in conflict realized that the Americans were no longer aiding the “Iranians” whom Sunnis saw as their fundamental enemy. Instead they saw the Americans acting to limit Iranian influence. They saw that the Americans would back them against Al Qaeda and would not abandon them, as they had previously done with Sunni collaborators. Controlling the Anbar province and cutting it off from Sunni strongholds in western Baghdad denied Al Qaeda some of its strategic depth and access to its hinterland. This weakened it and allowed Sunni groups opposed to Al Qaeda to take advantage of the opening. These Sunni groups might have been more skeptical of the Americans had they not seen the success of their Anbari brethren, who began collaborating with Americans against Al Qaeda groups in the summer of 2006 and helped turn one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq into one of the least violent.

There had always been infighting between Sunni resistance groups, but they tried to minimize these publicly to maintain the appearance of a united front. Al Qaeda tried to Iraqify itself after the death of Zarqawi, with Iraqis as its official leaders, controlling the Mujahideen Advisory Council. The increased sectarian violence and aggressive Shiite push forced Sunni groups to rally together and work with Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda members acted like gang leaders, terrorizing local populations more than fighting the occupier. Local religious, tribal, and traditional leaders, as well as educated elites, were either killed, co-opted, or expelled. Often the population followed them out, turning areas into ghost towns.

In October 2006 Al Qaeda announced the creation of its Islamic state in Iraq. It was not about liberating Iraq from the occupation; it was about a larger global war. But most of the Iraqi resistance had no appetite for this sort of global jihad. Resistance groups began to feud with Al Qaeda, as leaders were assassinated. In 2007 the Islamic Army of Iraq publicly broke with Al Qaeda, condemning its tactics and claiming that thirty members of the Islamic Army had been killed by Al Qaeda. These clashes began in Amriya. That year three leading resistance groups established the Jihad and Reform Front, which condemned Al Qaeda’s tactics (such as targeting civilians) and goals.

Al Qaeda men condemned tribal traditions for being un-Islamic, and actively undermined or usurped traditional authority. This alienated local communities. During the modernizing era of the 1970s, tribes were marginalized as the state asserted itself. But in the ’80s tribes were co-opted and armed in the war against Iran. Tribalism was used by the regime, and tribal leaders who proved loyal servants were empowered. Although tribal leaders were initially ignored by the occupation, the Americans also began to co-opt and collaborate with them during the surge, empowering them to rebel against Al Qaeda.

Sunnis in Anbar might have opposed the occupation, but they also wanted stability, and Al Qaeda brought only chaos. The Sunni tribal “Awakening” began in Anbar, led by Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. Soon other tribal leaders joined him. Many were not important or powerful until the Americans empowered them. Abu Risha himself was widely known as a highway robber, operating on the highway between Baghdad and Amman. His conflict with Al Qaeda might have had more to do with a dispute over looted goods than ideology. But when Al Qaeda killed his tribesmen, a blood feud between it and the tribes started. Al Qaeda taxes on smuggling also made tribal leaders chafe. The explicit American shift in emphasis from killing the enemy to protecting the population allowed it to be more subtle when dealing with resistance groups. By the end of 2006, the Syrians had also cracked down on illegal border crossings, closing some of the routes Al Qaeda relied on for personnel and supplies. As for Sheikh Sattar, shortly after meeting President Bush, he was blown up outside his home in September 2007, which was probably convenient for both the Iraqi government and the Americans, who now no longer had the problem of disposing of him once he outlived his usefulness.

At the same time, the Sadrists were facing a backlash from fatigued Shiites who saw them as an onerous gang. An increase in American troops focusing on Baghdad was guaranteed to lead to a crackdown on the Mahdi Army, and Muqtada al-Sadr always retreated before the Americans could defeat him, a lesson from his 2004 experience in Najaf. But if his people could lie low and wait for the Americans to reduce their troops once more, they could emerge unscathed and even benefit by letting the Americans cull his ranks of disobedient and criminal-minded elements, strengthening his control.

By the summer of 2007, tension between Maliki and the Sadrists had increased. Though the Sadrists had backed Maliki’s rise to power, they now withdrew from the government, hoping to weaken him. Maliki went so far as to compare Sadrists with Baathists. On the other hand, many of the Sadrists in the government were viewed as corrupt and brutal, so it is also possible that Muqtada withdrew them to clean his movement’s image. The year 2006 was supposed to be the year of the police, according to the Americans. Instead it was the year the police and Mahdi Army became one. The rank and file were dominated by Sadrists. Officers were terrified of their own men. The Mahdi Army took for granted its authority over certain areas. Nobody could challenge the Sadrists—not the Iraqi Security Forces and not the Americans. Just like Sunni criminals using fatwas to justify their crimes under the guise of Al Qaeda, so too did Shiite criminals profit from the booty they seized from Sunnis under the guise of Mahdi Army activities. As a result of its criminal activities, seizure of Sunni property, and control over essential services such as gas and benzene distribution, the Mahdi Army was well funded. Its wealth also allowed it to provide social services so as to maintain and even increase its base of support from urban youth to the many families it now assisted, especially among the displaced.

Control over its men was always a concern for the Mahdi Army leadership. As leaders were arrested, younger, less-disciplined fighters gained more control. Different Mahdi Army units fought each other. As Mahdi Army territory increased, its leadership lost control over local units. Splinter groups terrorized and preyed on people in the name of the Mahdi Army. Even supporters of the Sadrists began to resent the Mahdi Army.

In the summer of 2007, six months into the surge, the Mahdi Army was still cleansing Sunnis in areas like Hurriya. Although Hurriya was majority-Shiite, its Sunnis were well organized and strong. Shiites were initially on the defensive, with many of their civilians killed on a daily basis. To defeat the threat of Sunni militias, the Mahdi Army systematically cleansed all the areas and began to encroach on the nearby majority-Sunni Adil neighborhood. The assassination of businessmen and religious leaders struck fear into the community, weakening it and facilitating its flight. Following attacks on Shiites, the Mahdi Army would pile Sunni corpses on streets in revenge. Amriya and Ghazaliya were the last two neighborhoods in western Baghdad still fully in Sunni hands. Dora was still contested. In eastern Baghdad, only Adhamiya remained in Sunni hands.

In late August 2007, Mahdi Army men clashed with opponents from the Supreme Council in Karbala. About one hundred people were killed and much property was destroyed while hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were in the city to mark the Mahdi’s birthday. An outraged Maliki, who considered Karbala his town, flew down and made it clear he was the boss, wearing a pistol and giving orders to his special forces to secure the city and arrest Mahdi Army men, in some cases leading his own men into neighborhoods. Maliki realized that the Mahdi Army could threaten his authority. On August 29 Muqtada declared a tajmid (freeze), ordering his army to halt its operations for six months. Soon after he turned on unruly members of his movement, killing or expelling them.

The Mahdi Army cease-fire was the most important factor in the decline in violence. Until the freeze, eight months into the surge, the civil war was still raging and Sunnis were being cleansed from Shiite neighborhoods that had already been walled off. The militias were still advancing on the west side of the Tigris, far from their base in the east, until the freeze halted their advance all at once. The freeze would cost the movement dearly, because in a way its expansion was its purpose. Sadrists had few firm principles except being opposed to the occupation and federalism. The movement represented the angry, dispossessed poor, and it had to express their anger in some way. By the time of the freeze the sectarian killings were beginning to decline. But now the Mahdi Army was in control of areas where it did not have a natural constituency, such as with middle-class or better-educated Shiites. With the increase in American troops and change in their tactics, the Mahdi Army was also less necessary for self-defense, and its excesses were harder for Shiites to tolerate.

A lesser-known element in the new counterinsurgency approach was increased attacks against the Mahdi Army’s key nodes, support zones, and capabilities. Protecting the population through bases inside neighborhoods and erecting concrete walls were the most obvious and essential elements. But the Americans also increased their offensive action against the Mahdi Army both inside and outside Baghdad. This was a key reason for Muqtada’s cease-fire. From February to August 2007, the Americans and their allies arrested an average of one thousand suspected Mahdi Army men per month, and killed many as well. This had a chilling effect on the Shiite militia. The Mahdi Army cease-fire held despite attempts by the Supreme Council and other rivals to provoke the Sadrists into confrontations.

According to Miska, the cease-fire was not declared because Muqtada had a change of heart about the United States. “He did it because most of his militia was fragmented and out of control,” he said. “In order to regain control, he issued the cease-fire. Any elements that did not obey the cease-fire would be subject to discipline. Discipline was sometimes doled out by elements we called ‘Golden JAM’ [U.S. military used the acronym JAM—for Jaish al-Mahdi—to describe the Mahdi Army] coming from Najaf to kill rogue leaders and elements. Sometimes the U.S. forces collaborated with the Golden JAM to get the same targets. We also coordinated with moderate members of JAM against more extremist elements. The majority of JAM would never admit this, but it did happen in very subtle and discreet ways. There are many different flavors of the Mahdi Army, its many different members acting for different motives, using the name of the organization.”

Not all factions were so cooperative. Miska described a 2007 battle by the shrine in Kadhimiya in which the American unit called Iraqi Security Forces for help but none of them came. A Sadrist Parliament member, Baha al-Araji, was sitting in the Iraqi brigade commander’s office telling him not to assist the Americans. “The next day Araji introduced a resolution in Parliament to prevent Americans from coming within a certain radius of the shrine to create a sanctuary for JAM to operate,” Miska said. “It didn’t pass, but it set back American relationships.”

Mahdi Army fighters from different areas would come in to place explosively formed penetrators (EFPs)—a more powerful type of IED—targeting the Americans and the Iraqi general in charge. Normally they would warn civilians to leave beforehand. “There was one particular period after a firefight with the Mahdi Army in Kadhimiyah in April 2007,” Miska said. “Prior to the firefight we did not have an IED in six months in the neighborhood. After the firefight we were getting banged with EFPs right outside our gates. We were able to prevent most of the attacks, but some still achieved success. The people were very frustrated about all of the Mahdi Army attacks in Kadhimiyah. But Mahdi elements played on the fears that the infidels were threatening the sanctity of the shrine. Finally in August, my truck got hit with an EFP during a combined patrol. Eleven people hit the ground wounded when the bomb went off. Eight ambulances pulled up to the scene within thirty seconds of the blast. Casualties were quickly hauled away. No U.S. or Iraqi soldiers were wounded. The backlash from the people was quick. A senior leader approached us and asked to broker a deal. If we would agree to bring a former Mahdi Army leader back from hiding in Iran, he would promise to keep the ‘bad’ Mahdi Army out of Kadhimiya. We gave the former leader thirty days to make a difference. He lived up to his end of the deal, since no further Iranian bombs [EFPs] went off in Kadhimiya. We promised not to detain him as long as he did not conduct extremist activities against the Iraqi people or our forces.”

Unlike the Mahdi Army, Al Qaeda took longer to change its calculations. Its ranks were reduced as the Americans targeted them with better intelligence, the Iraqi security forces attacked them, Awakening men turned on them, and they outstayed their welcome in most Sunni areas. American commanders on their third tour of Iraq were beginning to figure out how to do things better; crucially, they demonstrated an improved ability to take advantage of social dynamics in Iraq. The increase in troops also allowed them to take more action without the same limitations. “It’s unclear if the surge would have worked a year earlier,” John Nagl told me. “Sunnis didn’t realize they had lost and the American military wasn’t ready.”

The Americans called these new Sunni militias neighborhood watch groups, concerned local citizens, Iraqi Security Volunteers, or Critical Infrastructure Security guards. These groups were paid by the U.S. military and operated in much of the country, employing former fighters and often empowering them, to the fury of the Shiite-dominated government as well as the Shiite militias, who thought they had defeated the Sunnis, just to see them trying to regain power through the backdoor. The Americans euphemistically called it “Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems.” General Petraeus paid these former insurgents without first getting approval from Washington. Control over the war had devolved to the field.

Another key dynamic that was fortuitous for the Americans was the success of the sectarian cleansing operations. Militias had consolidated their control; clear front lines were developing. Many Sunni neighborhoods were depopulated. There was nowhere for Sunni militias to hide. The majority of the Iraqi refugees abroad were Sunnis. The Shiites had won the civil war. In 2007 the Bush administration and the U.S. military stopped talking of Iraq as a grand project of nation building, and the American media dutifully obeyed. Any larger narrative was abandoned, and Iraq was presented as a series of small pieces. Just as Iraq was being physically deconstructed, so too was it being intellectually deconstructed, not as a state undergoing transition but as small stories of local heroes and villains, of well-meaning American soldiers, of good news here and progress there. But it was too early to tell if the whole was less or greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghost Town

I decided to visit those parts to find out for myself. In December 2007, I took advantage of the lull in Iraq’s civil war to visit areas that had been no-go zones a year earlier. Baghdad’s neighborhoods were walled-off islands, but Iraqis could now visit areas outside their own for the first time in a year or two. The checkpoints manned by the Iraqi Security Forces were no longer as feared, but a foreign journalist was still a tempting commodity. Iraqis knew to make jokes when stopped, to assess if their interlocutor was a Sunni or Shiite, and to use the right kind of slang. For $250 in Baghdad’s Sadr City I purchased two fake Iraqi National Identity cards: one Sunni name and one Shiite name. It was something many Iraqis had done as the “killings over identity” got worse.

I started in Dora, one of Baghdad’s most fearsome neighborhoods. Dora was a formerly mixed area in southern Baghdad with a majority-Sunni population. It was once a good place to live, with many expensive villas; but their prices had fallen dramatically since 2005, when Sunni militias began to expel Shiites and Christians. The Sunni militiamen who cleansed much of Dora lived in the surrounding rural areas, such as Arab Jubur and Hor Rajab. Criminal gangs took advantage of the chaos to target anybody with money for kidnapping and ransom. As the Iraqi Security Forces strengthened and were populated by supporters or members of sectarian Shiite militias, Sunnis from the Shiite areas of southern Baghdad were cleansed. Soon Sunni and Shiite areas exchanged volleys of mortars, and front lines were drawn between neighbors and friends. Shiites moved into empty Sunni homes and Sunnis moved into empty Shiite homes, creating a further incentive for violence that was part criminal and part sectarian. As Sunni militias radicalized and became more anti-Shiite, Sunnis grew to depend on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq’s fighters for protection against the Shiite militias. Motivated less by nationalism or any interest in the notion of Iraq, and more by grander Manichaean ambitions to fight the West or establish an Islamic emirate, these radical jihadist groups became a golem, terrorizing the very Sunnis looking to them for protection and often acting like criminal gangs. Dora was easily accessible from the southern belts of Baghdad, allowing Al Qaeda to cross the Tigris and enter Karada and other Shiite areas. Dora was also on the highway to Baghdad from the south and adjacent to the still-contested Seidiya neighborhood.

Dora was undergoing a radical transformation that I could not clearly see when I visited in late 2007. Much of Dora, it seemed to me, was a ghost town. I walked down Sixtieth Street in an area called Mekanik with one Sunni militia. Tall concrete walls built by the Americans divided parts of it, separating warring factions. Lakes and rivers of mud and sewage choked the streets, with mountains of trash dividing them. Most of the windows of the one- or two-story homes were broken. The wind blew through them, whistling eerily. House after house and block after block were deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open. Many were emptied of furniture; in others the furniture was covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq. Apart from our footsteps, there was complete silence.

My guide was a thirty-year-old man called Osama, who grew up in this neighborhood. He pointed to shops he used to go to, now empty or destroyed, a barbershop that had belonged to a Shiite man, a hardware store that had belonged to a Sunni man. “This is all my neighborhood,” Osama told me. He wore jeans, a sweater, and a baseball cap, and had a slight baby face concealed by stubble. The previous U.S. Army unit had not been active in his area, he told me. “They were really cowards,” he said. “They let Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army fight.”

We passed by the Ibn Sinna elementary school, which had served as a dividing line between Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army. We continued and he showed me a Shiite mosque that in previous incarnations had been a cafe and before the war a Baath Party office. He pointed to the destroyed mosque. “The Mahdi Army was killing people here,” he said. “They were torturing people and the people destroyed it. They were shooting on our neighborhood. The Americans raided it; it was a great day. If I find somebody from the Mahdi Army I would kill him right away, not give him to the coalition forces.”

Osama had lost many friends and relatives in the civil war. When we drove past the nearby district of Baya, he pointed to the gas station. “The Baya fuel station is all Mahdi Army,” he said. “They killed my uncle here. He didn’t accept to leave. Twenty guys came to the house, the women were screaming. He ran to the back, but they caught him, tortured him, and killed him.” The Mahdi Army also targeted men with Sunni names. “I have three friends called Omar,” Osama told me, “all killed.”

Osama said the Mahdi Army freeze was “bullshit.” In the nearby area of Seidiya, he said, “two days ago they blew up the Sunni Ibrahim al-Khalil Mosque. The Mahdi Army is still killing people. Twenty days ago they killed three Sunni civilians who came back because they heard it was safe.” The Mahdi Army was Iran, he told me, the Quds Force. “The Mahdi Army is not listening to Muqtada and Muqtada is lying,” he said. “The Mahdi Army made Al Qaeda come here to defend people, but then Al Qaeda was worse. The government sucks; you know they are all corrupt. Then after a few months Al Qaeda became corrupt.”

Osama had been a translator working with the Americans; then he had moved on to sign lucrative construction and sanitation contracts with the American company KBR. Al Qaeda got wind that he worked as a contractor for the Americans, and he felt threatened. He and a network of friends of his in the neighborhood started acting as sources for the Americans, sometimes riding along in U.S. Army vehicles with their faces masked to point out suspects.

Osama and his men were first contracted by the American military under Lieut. Col. Jim Crider, who commanded the First Squadron, Fourth Cavalry of the Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division (1-4 Cav), during the surge in 2007 and 2008. They took over the East and West Rashid security districts in January 2007. In May 2007 they took over the northeast sector of East Rashid and attempted to apply the principles of the new counterinsurgency field manual.

“Anyone who was openly Shiite was already gone by the time we got to Dora,” Crider recollected. “We found a few people who were Shiite but posed as Sunni for their own protection. It was common for our troops to find three military-aged males with no furniture living in a house. That is not good enough evidence to detain them, so we would demand that they produce a legitimate rental contract within seventy-two hours or move out. More often than not, we would revisit the house to find it empty again.

“The government of Iraq back then was very sectarian. They were terrified that Sunnis would take back what they had gained.” Crider cited the installation of Dr. Bassima al-Jadri as head of the government’s reconciliation committee as one example. Jadri was a thirty-eight-year-old former senior official in Saddam’s military industry ministry, where she had worked on improving Iraq’s conventional weapons capacity. Even then she was connected to the Sadrists, and after the war she was in Parliament allied with Muqtada al-Sadr. Her formal relationship with the Sadrists began in 2004, when their opposition to Bremer intensified. They sought her out, and she agreed to advise them, meeting with religious and tribal leaders. She later established a relationship with the Dawa Party and became close to Jaafari and then Maliki. By this time her bodyguards had split off from the Sadrists. She was very suspicious of Sunnis and Americans, believing that neither wanted to allow Shiites to rule Iraq. She was very forceful, and when Maliki established his office of the commander in chief, meant to advise him on military matters, Jadri was put in charge of it, in part because of her fierce loyalty to him.

Under her the office developed a fearsome reputation for issuing secret sectarian orders, advising Maliki on military matters and overruling the Defense and Interior Ministries, circumventing the chain of command to order officers to attack targets. She helped Maliki create his own praetorian guard. Jadri wanted to purge all nonsectarian officers and those not loyal to the ruling Shiite parties while promoting sectarian officers by removing Sunni names from lists of recruits to the army and police. She viewed all Sunnis as Al Qaeda supporters. When Maliki established a national reconciliation committee, the Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation, Jadri was put in charge of it.

IN ITS FIRST MONTH in Dora the 1-4 Cav was attacked fifty-two times. Sunni militias used deep buried IEDs to destroy American armored vehicles. In response, starting in June 2007 Crider initiated a twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week presence in his area. This curtailed Al Qaeda’s ability to move about freely. People began to stay outside later into the night.

A fellow officer was reading David Galula’s 1964 treatise Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, which “emphasizes the importance of conducting a census right away,” Crider said. The 2-12 Infantry, from whom Crider adopted the idea, called it Operation Close Encounters. “I knew a good idea when I heard one,” he said, “so we began to conduct this operation daily in order to map out who lived in our neighborhood, what they thought, and who was not supposed to be there.”[1] The goal was also “to build a real relationship with the population one family at a time,” he would later explain in an article he wrote for Military Review. “We found that while people would not talk to us on the streets, they would often speak freely inside their homes. Since we went to every home, no one felt singled out. Galula points out that a census can serve as a ‘basic source of intelligence.’ We found that it was a tremendous source of intelligence that gave us an in-depth understanding of how people felt. We came to understand that Al Qaeda in Iraq was supported only by a small minority of the population. We discovered issues around which we could build an alliance based on a relationship of trust and respect. We could shape our talking points, information operations, and psychological operations to have the effect we wanted because we knew our target audience well.”

The 1-4 Cav visited every home in the area, talking at length with every family. Using handheld biometric data collection tools, the Americans were able to document who lived in every house and made it difficult for the Al Qaeda men to know who was informing on them. By June and July of 2007, the 1-4 Cav was able to use local sources and terminate Al Qaeda cells that dispatched car bombs and planted IEDs. The removal of these cells allowed for the Awakening men to begin operating in the area.

Although an occupation is always onerous, the 1-4 Cav and other units that implemented COIN did not conduct mass arrests in which all men were targeted randomly, as had units before 2007. Officers from the 1-4 Cav visited families of arrested men, explaining to them what evidence they had. In August Al Qaeda men from Arab Jubur infiltrated Dora, bringing their families so that they would appear to be internally displaced persons. As the 1-4 Cav cooperated with the American unit in Arab Jubur, they were able to arrest the Al Qaeda men, frustrating the group’s attempt to reinvigorate itself.

Crider insists that the twenty-four-hour presence in the neighborhoods produced immediate results, with IEDs and murders dropping off significantly. He also suggested that because his unit was made up of young soldiers who were in Iraq for the first time, they were not encumbered with the attitude that the Iraqi people were the enemy. “A platoon would go out and do an eight-hour patrol, handing out microgrants, cutting loose wires, talking to Iraqis,” Crider said. He was struck at the familiarity his lieutenants developed with the neighborhoods and local families. Using a computer program called Tigernet, they could plot the information on who lived in every house, their job, skills, ability to speak English, and other details into every location on the satellite maps of his area.

Back then the only concrete barriers in Dora were smaller “Jersey” barriers around the Mekanik area. “They didn’t stop movement as good as we wanted to,” Crider said. “We were trying to get walls as soon as we could. It forces the population to funnel through checkpoints and protects from gunfire. It took three or four months to put up the walls. Dora was the first place in southwest Baghdad that got walls. There was one protest when walls went up by guys we believe were involved in the insurgency. The insurgents hated those walls. Over the course of a few weeks we saw the impact.” The farmlands that had been used to smuggle weapons or fighters into his area were now cut off.

In September 2007 there was a murder campaign in Dora, with more than nineteen killings. The first victim was Haji Sattar, a local council member. His killers entered the District Advisory Council in broad daylight and asked for him by name. Then they shot him in the head and walked out. “The murder campaign was an attempt to shake up the neighborhood,” Crider said, “They were trying to kill people who they thought were sources for us.” It briefly succeeded. Haji Hashim, the deputy head of the Rashid district council and a close ally of the Americans, fled for three months. “Sattar’s death got Hashim shaken,” Crider told me. Hashim had been collaborating with the Americans since 2003 but had managed to stay alive and stay respected by many people in Dora. “Hashim would give us tips: ‘Don’t drive down this street for a couple of days,’” Crider said.

By July 2007 Crider’s men had cultivated thirty-six new local Iraqi sources. “In August the number of detentions skyrocketed, and soon enemy activity fell down,” Crider said. The last attack that killed one of his soldiers happened on September 9. “The last IED was September 27. When Shiites returned to Dora in early 2008, there was some increase in violence but no killings.” Crider’s unit arrested more than 250 Al Qaeda suspects, with 80 percent of them sent on to long-term detention, although most never faced any court or due process to establish their guilt.

Nick Cook, a captain serving under Crider in Dora and the neighborhoods south of it, helped set up the first Awakening groups in his areas. “In Dora we were approached by a guy named Zeki, an old source of ours, who wanted to help stand up the SOIs,” he told me. They wanted their headquarters set up along the boundary between his troop and the other American troop in Dora. Cook was introduced to Zeki and his partner, who stated emphatically that they had hundreds of fighters ready to take up arms against Al Qaeda. A lot of their members had come from Arab Jubur. As Cook got to know Zeki’s group, it became clear that many had relatives living in Dora, and that they wanted to help their families.

At first it seemed that the group was making little difference in Dora. At the beginning of Ramadan in 2007, however, Zeki’s group received information that the mosques were going to be attacked by Al Qaeda. They asked permission to set up security. “About two dozen guys in red and black jogging suits took to the streets,” he said. No incidents occurred during that time, and the “neighbors seemed happy to see their sons taking to the streets.” From then on the Sons of Iraq were a constant presence. Many members of the group told Cook that they had joined resistance groups right after the invasion because they wanted to get the Americans out of Iraq. Later, though, they felt disenfranchised and identified the selfishness of the groups as the cause.

Cook was also the one who first established a relationship with Osama. “Osama came to me in April of 2007,” he said. “He had run into me the day before, and I had given him my phone number.” The father of one of Osama’s friends had been kidnapped that night, so Osama decided to bring his friend to the combat outpost in Mekanik. Cook met with Osama and heard his friend’s story. Then he immediately directed a patrol to try to find where the father had been taken. Unfortunately, the search was unsuccessful. But Cook said that Osama never forgot the encounter.

About two weeks later, an IED hit and destroyed a Humvee, killing one soldier in Cook’s troop and badly injuring two others. Three days later Osama called Cook and told him he was parked outside a house; inside it, he said, the man responsible for the IED was having lunch. A patrol was sent to investigate immediately. When the troops arrived Osama guided them to the house and pointed out the insurgent. Once the man was brought back to Forward Operating Base Falcon, the unit discovered that he was one of the top-ten “high-value individuals” for a cavalry regiment a little to the south of where Cook was stationed.

From then on, the unit forged a close relationship with Osama and relied on his intelligence. He even helped a patrol surprise a couple of insurgents emplacing an IED in the middle of the night. When Cook and his troops were moved north into Dora, they handed Osama over as a source and friend to the unit that replaced them. But the new unit did not manage the relationship well, and Osama started calling Cook’s fire support NCO to tell him how he was tired of working with them. He said he was planning to start the SOI in Mekanik because he hated what Mekanik had become.

At the beginning of August Cook’s Tactical Humintelligence Team received a phone call. Approximately sixteen members of Al Qaeda were being held by Osama and his fighters in Mekanik. This was no longer Cook’s area of operation, but the unit whose jurisdiction it was said they could not help. So Cook’s troop received permission to go and link up with Osama’s fighters. They joined forces and later transferred the sixteen men into U.S. custody.

Col. Jeff Peterson commanded the 1-14 Cavalry Squadron, which was attached to the 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He was in Baghdad from July 2006 until September 2007, operating both in Haifa Street and areas in the neighborhoods of Saha, Mekanik, and Abu Dshir, just south of Dora proper. Peterson worked with the regular police and the national police in East Rashid. “They were over 90 percent Shiite and infiltrated with Mahdi Army members or at least sympathized with them,” he told me. “I had evidence that their leadership compromised our missions, and I suspected they at least cooperated with the enemy attacking our forces. Some members of the national police were guilty of sectarian violence, and we arrested some officers. The Sunni population was so distrustful of the national police that I built a barrier around the Mekanik neighborhood and didn’t allow the national police in the area.

“The security situation improved somewhat. There was significant improvement to the national police as we more effectively partnered with them down to platoon level. Additionally, the commander was replaced and we arrested several officers that we think were the primary source of corruption in the battalion. Over time they became much more competent, professional in their behavior, and successful in their operations. They also began gaining the trust of the local population.

“The biggest challenge I faced was the sectarian nature of the Shiite-dominated local government structures. They had significant influence over the decisions about resource allocation and controlling essential services like benzene, propane, and kerosene distribution, and medical clinic and school re-sourcing. They gave priority to the Shiite neighborhoods and neglected the Sunni neighborhoods. This made it very difficult to build legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunnis who were being marginalized by their local government. In general, the Shiites, in conjunction with the national police, would attempt to displace Sunnis from their homes and then take physical control of the vacant house. In response, the Sunnis would defend their homes or counterattack into Shiite areas. I never sensed the Sunnis were trying to expand; it was the Shiites that were trying to take control of more area.”

Something I was told by Capt. Jim Keirsey, who served in East Rashid between October 2006 and December 2007, confirmed the endemic sectarianism of the Iraqi Security Forces. “A large number of the national police brigade and battalion charged with securing the population of Dora persecuted the population,” Keirsey said. “They were often very antagonistic toward the population of Dora. It became a vicious cycle. Extremists within Dora would attack Shiite residents to drive them out. The national police would execute reprisal detentions or allow Shiite extremists to attack Sunnis in Dora. Or they would detain Sunnis from Dora outside of the community. Dora Sunni extremists would then seek additional reprisals, perhaps capturing a passing taxi driver and beating him near death. Then the national police, enraged, would charge into the mahala en masse with little fire discipline, terrorizing the populace.”

As I walked the desolate streets in December 2007, it was hard to know if things were improving. But with few killings occurring in Dora, the conflict seemed frozen in place. A man and his daughter walked hurriedly by. I asked them why the area was empty. “It’s a good neighborhood,” they assured me. “People left because there is no electricity.” In another home I found a man shaving a friend. They told me there had not been electricity in the area for a year and a half. The Mahdi Army controlled the electrical station in the area, they explained. “People will come back when electricity comes back,” they said. “We’re afraid to go out at night.” The Mahdi Army fired mortars at this area from the nearby Shiite neighborhood of Abu Dshir, people told me, and launched attacks from there, engaging Al Qaeda in firefights in Dora. I asked one man why he had not fled like everybody else. “Where will I go?” he asked me. Many Shiite homes in Dora were burned down, to prevent the owners from ever returning. Poor Sunnis who were expelled from Hurriya and Shaab or other poor Shiite areas had moved into the homes of better-off Shiites who had been expelled from well-to-do Sunni areas such as Dora, Ghazaliya, and Amriya.

Osama ran three hundred Iraqi Security Volunteers but resented the restrictions placed on him by the Americans. In Seidiya, Adhamiya, Amriya, Ghazaliya, and other volatile Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, ISVs were allowed to patrol freely and carry heavy-caliber machine guns. “We use our own guns,” Osama told me. “The Americans didn’t give us anything.” Osama had a contract to provide a certain number of men at ten dollars per day. He was paid every other week, and he paid his men and provided uniforms and whatever else they might need.

“The only reason anything works or anybody deals with us is because we give them money,” Adam Sperry told me when I visited his office in Forward Operating Base Falcon. A bright twenty-three-year-old who majored in creative writing in college, Sperry was an Army intelligence officer from the Second Squadron, Second Cavalry Regiment. Capt. Travis Cox, his colleague, explained to me that at higher levels a lot of money and time was being spent trying to figure out how to transition the ISVs into other jobs. “To a large extent they are former insurgents,” Cox admitted.

The 2-2 SCR was patrolling Osama’s area in Dora when I visited. The unit’s Major Garrett had to figure out what to do with all these militiamen. He placed his hopes on vocational training centers that offered instruction in automotive repair, carpentry, blacksmithing, electricity repair, and English. But adults who were part of a militia were not likely to want to abandon their weapons. “At the end of the day they want a legitimate living,” Garrett told me. “That’s why they’re joining the ISVs.” I didn’t think anybody was working for a paltry ten dollars per day merely for a legitimate living. These were men who had fought the American occupation as well as the Shiites of Iraq. They had not done so for profit, as the Americans insisted. “The ideological fight, forget about it,” Captain Dehart, the unit’s senior intelligence officer, said when I suggested this to him. “We bought into it too much. It’s money and power.” Peace would come to Iraq “if they just realized they would make more money with us through construction contracts than fighting us.”

In Dora the Americans were the government, building electrical power stations because the Shiite-dominated government didn’t care about supplying electricity or other services to Sunnis. The 2-2 SCR was spending thirty-two million dollars on construction contracts signed with Iraqis and on salaries for Sunni militiamen they hired to be ISVs. They spent twelve million dollars alone building walls around neighborhoods. Sperry complained that American counterinsurgency strategy “is to spend millions of dollars and build walls to make Iraqis more divided than they already are.” But his boss, Lieutenant Colonel Reineke, felt very strongly about building walls around neighborhoods and didn’t care if some people were cut off as a result. He was frustrated that a wall he was paying local contractors to build around Mahala 860 was taking too long. The wall was meant to keep Al Qaeda fighters out and cut off arms smuggling routes. Some locals left outside were upset that they were not being included inside the walls. Often it seemed as if the American strategy was merely to buy Iraqis off temporarily, and they distributed “microgrants” of three thousand dollars to all the shop owners in their area.

I WONDERED what would happen when this massive influx of American money stopped pouring in. Would the Iraqi state become a bribing machine? Would the ruling Shiites even want to pay Sunnis whom they had been trying to exterminate until recently? Sunnis they believed had been trying to kill them? The British occupation of Iraq in the early twentieth century was described as “colonialism on the cheap.” The British did not spend much money on the occupation, and relied on the use of airpower as an alternative to a large standing army. The British bribed tribes and tried to mold the political system in a way that benefited their local allies and enriched them, turning them into feudal lords. This was nothing compared to the billions of dollars the Americans were throwing into Iraq. Adding up all the men employed by the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the other security branches, the Awakening militiamen, and others working for private security companies that contracted with the American departments of State or Defense, there were more than a million Iraqi men in the security sector. This was more than Saddam had. But for the Americans, spending billions of dollars bribing Iraqis was a pittance compared to how much they spent per year just keeping their military in Iraq or the cost of repairing their damaged vehicles, let alone the cost of injured soldiers. But loyalty that can be purchased is by its nature fickle. Would these maneuvers lead to a real or stable political process in Iraq?

Osama was the English-speaking diplomatic face, but behind him were tough men of the resistance. One, called Salah Nasrallah, or Abu Salih, had dark reddish skin, a sharp nose, and small piercing eyes. The Americans required that each mahala have two ISV bosses, so Osama gave half of his three hundred men to Abu Salih’s control. (“We know Abu Salih is former Al Qaeda of Iraq,” an American Army officer from the area told me.) The day I met Abu Salih he was wearing a baseball cap with the Iraqi flag on it. Turning off Sixtieth Street we walked up to the Batul School for Girls. A soldier with the 2-2 SCR had been shot in the throat and killed in front of this school, presumably by Al Qaeda. Abu Salih explained that the Mahdi Army kidnapped Sunni girls from the school and that during final exams they had attacked it and shot it up, then looted it. Osama blamed the Mahdi Army but added, “When I say Mahdi Army I mean the Iraqi National Police.” Abu Salih picked up Korans and other religious books that were strewn about the dusty floors.

A thick muscular man called Amar, or Abu Yasser, was the other brawn behind the operation. Handsome and jovial, Abu Yasser wore a green sweatshirt and matching sweatpants with a pistol holstered his under arm. “Amar is the real boss,” an American Army intelligence officer from the area told me. “That guy’s an animal, he’s crazy.” Osama explained that nobody from Mahala 832 knew that he was in charge of the ISVs in the area. “They think Abu Salih and Abu Yasser are in charge, because my family is still there.” He added that they were still arresting Al Qaeda infiltrators from among the ISVs. Osama was trying to arrange for Abu Yasser to manage his own ISV unit in the nearby Mahala 834, where he actually lived.

Abu Yasser had worked for the General Security Service until 1993 and then joined the Iraqi military industry. In 2004 he joined the Army of the Mujahideen, a resistance organization operating in Mosul, the Anbar province, and southern Baghdad. Although he claimed to have joined to protect Sunni areas from the Mahdi Army, in 2004 that Shiite militia was still cooperating with the Sunni resistance and was not targeting Sunnis. In fact, he had fought the American occupation, operating mostly out of Arab Jubur, he said, where the organization “was young people, mostly to defend the area.” He had not resigned from that organization, he added, but decided to work with the Americans and the ISVs “because of Iranians getting more power in Iraq,” he told me. “They are occupying Sunni areas. They are the bigger enemy.” Like many others, Abu Yasser admitted that Sunnis had made a strategic blunder by boycotting the Iraqi political process in the early days of the occupation, and Sunni clerics had made a mistake issuing fatwas prohibiting Sunnis from joining the nascent security forces the Americans were creating.

Abu Salih had belonged to the 1920 Revolution Battalions. He had decided to work with his former enemies the Americans and join the ISVs because of the Iraqi government. “It’s an Iranian government,” he said, “and the people are its victims.” A colleague of his, Abu Yusef, averred, “Maliki is Iraqi, but he lived in Iran a long time, he works for them.” Referring to Maliki’s political party, Abu Salih added, “The Dawa Party is the first enemy of Iraq.” Unlike some of his associates, Abu Salih did not think it had been a mistake for Sunnis to boycott the security forces. “If Sunnis had joined they would have been killed or fired,” he said. Abu Salih admitted that some men from Al Qaeda joined the ISVs so that they could have the identity card as protection should they get arrested. If the Iraqi government did not allow the ISVs to join its security forces, “it will be worse than before,” he said.

Abu Yusef, who was sitting with Abu Salih, was a former investigator for Saddam’s Special Security Service. Like all members of the security forces, he had been fired when former American proconsul Paul Bremer issued an edict dissolving them in May 2003. Many joined the resistance after that, though Abu Yusef denied having done so (but he told me he fought the Mahdi Army and killed many of them). The Mahdi Army killed twenty-seven members of his family, he said, adding that on one day, earlier in 2007, forty-seven Sunni corpses were found next to the nearby Sunni Tawhid Mosque, presumably murdered by the Mahdi Army. He denied being anti-Shiite, though. His wife was Shiite, and many of the officers he worked with in the security service were Shiites from throughout Iraq.

The Hero House—the sobriquet the Americans gave to Osama’s headquarters—was located behind a tall concrete wall that stretched the length of a highway the Americans called Route Senators. The Americans paid Iraqis to build these walls, Osama said. Before they were erected, he said, the Iraqi National Police had fired on the neighborhood from the highway. Now his guards manned a checkpoint at a gap in the wall that allowed vehicles to enter the area. The house belonged to Abu Yasser’s cousin, a doctor living in Britain. It was also surrounded by concrete barriers and manned by men in civilian clothing casually slinging Kalashnikovs. Inside the mostly empty house was a room with mattresses and another with some chairs, a desk, and a large satellite image of Dora that the Americans had given Osama. As we drank tea in the office, one of Osama’s sources entered and pointed to a spot on the map where an Al Qaeda agent was residing. The suspected Al Qaeda man was called Walid. “He is harmful to people,” Osama told me. “I just want to kill him. Now he is back in the area. His cousins are Al Qaeda also.” But he said he would watch him instead, to see who he worked with. The Americans had recently required the ISVs to wear uniforms, and Osama was annoyed that most of his men were still in their civilian attire.

Inside I met Hussein, a lanky twenty-one-year-old wearing a blue tracksuit. He was one of Osama’s original partners, though he was from Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad. He was working as a guard in a local Sunni mosque when the Mahdi Army, backed by the Iraqi National Guard, expelled his family and other Sunnis from the area. They killed his uncle and cousin. His family fled to Arab Jubur, but Al Qaeda pressured him to join them and came to his house looking for him, so his family told them he had gone to Syria, and he started to work with Osama in Dora. “Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are the same thing,” he told me, “two faces of the same coin.”

Hussein was the fourth-ranking member of Osama’s unit, after Abu Yusef and Abu Salih. He took me with him as he drove through the area to inspect the twenty checkpoints their men were maintaining. We drove through the mostly deserted neighborhood, with its shattered homes. Most of the graffiti on the walls had been painted over, but some still said, “Long Live the Mujahideen.” On various corners two or three men stood or sat with their Kalashnikovs. “Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army destroyed a lot here,” Hussein said as we surveyed the devastation, but he added that “Al Qaeda destroyed the area, not the Mahdi Army.” We were stopped at the checkpoints, and though some of the men recognized Hussein, many cautiously gripped their weapons and questioned us. “We’re a patrol from the central headquarters,” Hussein told them. Some of the men were teenagers, others were in their fifties. One of them covered his face menacingly with a red checkered scarf. The local market, previously shut down, was partially reopened, and as ISV checkpoints were being established some of the Sunnis who had fled the area, though none of the Shiites or Christians, were returning. “Clean Shiites can come back,” Osama told me. While I was there a Sunni family from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, arrived at the checkpoint. They hoped to stay in one of the homes in the area. The ISV men questioned them and demanded copies of the identity cards of all the people who would live in the house. “Anyone else I will arrest,” said Osama. A woman approached the gate to ask for information about men who had been arrested, but the guards could not help her.

One of the men prepared lunch for us: mushy cooked tomatoes; mushy fried potatoes; and kibbe, ground meat fried in dough. Osama called an American sergeant from a nearby base. “Your guys detained this guy,” he said. “He is seventy years old. What’s wrong with this guy, is he bad? Oh, he’s fifty? They told me he was very old. If you know for sure he is Al Qaeda, then fuck him.” Then he asked about a series of men who were detained and warned about an Iraqi who worked with the Americans. “He is a bad guy,” he said. “He threatens people.”

Osama received a phone call from representatives of the Awakening Council boss Ahmad Abu Risha in Ramadi, the brother of the slain Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, summoning him and his men to a meeting. He was very excited and hoped to discuss what would happen in six months, when the ISV program was scheduled to end. He wanted the Awakening groups and the ISVs to form a government for Sunnis with Abu Risha, he told me, “because the Iraqi government doesn’t do shit.” If the U.S. Army left or once more took to remaining within their FOBs, he said, violence in the area would return.

Haji Hashim was the deputy head of the Rashid council who had collaborated with Crider. In 2003 Hashim and others volunteered to set up the local council. Before the war he had been in the Ministry of Education. “I spoke in mosques,” he said, “and said we have to work with the Americans. Dora became very bad in 2005. We were considered collaborators.” Al Qaeda came in, he said, and then it became dominated by locals and was joined by other resistance groups. “Then sectarianism started,” he said. “Al Qaeda killed Shiites, the Mahdi Army and Badr killed Sunnis and former officers. Things got worse after Samarra. Most police were supporters of the Mahdi Army, and Dora was a target for the Mahdi Army. In Shiite mosques they spoke out against Dora. Many Sunnis were killed in Abu Dshir.”

The people of Dora collected their government-provided propane tanks in Abu Dshir. In 2006 “Sunni agents from here went there to get them, and four were killed,” he told me. “After that nobody could get propane, so people had to use wood to cook. So American patrols went to collect the propane, and now it’s better, but there are still lingering fears about being attacked.” Hashim was shot in the head once when he left the house to collect his propane. The Americans took him to the hospital in the Green Zone, but he lost his vision in one eye.

“I have seen dogs eating dead bodies,” Hashim told me. “Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq killed any Shiite, any government employee, and Shiites killed any Sunni. The Iraqi National Police used to shoot randomly when they were attacked. The leadership of the Iraqi Security Forces was sectarian at the time. They made random arrests, would shoot randomly and kill innocent people. The Rafidein Brigade of the INPs made random arrests. They took sixty-eight people from shops, and after that we found their bodies in Abu Dshir. Police shot at electrical stations so people wouldn’t have power.”

One especially vindictive unit came through with PKCs (heavy-caliber machine guns) and shot up the area the day before they were replaced. “They had a strong hate,” Hashim explained. “Anybody who crossed the street was shot. Only cats crossed the street.” He attributed the improved security to the Americans. “One of the most important things they did was walling off the areas,” he said. “It’s true it bothered people, but it worked.” The Americans also helped release innocent Sunnis who had been arrested by the Rafidein Brigade.

A new commander took over the Rafidein Brigade and improved relations with the people, Hashim told me. But the commander was later replaced by another who “did bad things, made random arrests, he made problems instead of solving them.” This one was later punished and transferred to the traffic police. “Then the Wolf Brigade came in 2007,” said Hashim. “They arrested people in mosques right away, tortured people. Boys from the area fought the Wolf Brigade. I asked them why they were fighting. They said, ‘It’s better to die fighting than to end up arrested with holes drilled in our bodies.’”

ONE DAY I ACCOMPANIED men from the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment, a unit based in the nearby FOB Falcon, on a mission as they met up with Osama and his men as well as Hamid, or Abu Abdel Rahman, head of the Hadhir Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC). Hamid had been in the Iraqi army for twenty-two years. Now he represented the six mahalas in his area. The Americans were establishing NACs and DACs (District Advisory Councils), institutions separate from the Iraqi government and funded by the U.S. military. Three Sunnis of the ten members in Hamid’s council had been assassinated. Five others had fled the area to avoid death. Hamid explained that because Sunnis had boycotted the elections for the provincial councils, Shiites dominated them and were trying to appoint Shiites to the local councils. The members of the Baghdad provincial council were mostly from Shiite neighborhoods such as Sadr City, Shaab, and Karada, he said. The NACs and DACs were an American attempt to compensate for the electoral disparities, though as with the Awakening and the ISVs, they were creating separate independent institutions that did not answer to the central Iraqi government. NACs and DACs were loosely tied, and though they were only meant to “advise” the Americans, the goal was to get them to “implement.” Hamid knew Osama and had helped him receive the ISV contract.

The Americans met up with Hamid, Osama, Abu Salih, Abu Yasser, and Abu Yusef at an Iraqi National Police checkpoint and walked down Sixtieth Street to the Tawhid Mosque, followed by their Stryker armored vehicles. The Tawhid’s Sheikh Abu Muhammad wore a green dishdasha with a brown vest. An older, bearded man, he had thick glasses and wore a white cap, topped by a red scarf. Shawn Spainhour, a civil affairs officer with the unit, asked the sheikh what help he needed. The mosque’s generator had been shot up by armed Shiites, and the sheikh asked for three thousand dollars to fix it. Spainhour took notes. “I probably can do that,” he said. The sheikh also asked for a NAC to be set up in his area, “so it will see our problems.” Two bearded middle-aged men in sweaters walked up to the Americans in the mosque and gave them a tip on a Mahdi Army suspect. The soldiers quickly got back into the Strykers, as did Hamid, Osama, and his men, and the Stryker vehicles drove up to a street in Mahala 830, where they found a group of young men with electrical cables. Some of the men ran away when the Americans showed up. Those who stayed were forced into a courtyard and made to squat facing the walls. They all wore flip-flops. Soldiers from the unit guarded them and took their pictures one by one. “Somebody move!” shouted one soldier. “I’m in the mood to hit somebody!” Another one pushed a prisoner against the wall. “You know Abu Ghraib?” he taunted him. Unlike in the nearby Shiite area of Abu Dshir, in majority-Sunni Mekanik it was standard practice to arrest all “military-age males” for “processing.”

As other elements of the American unit raided nearby homes, the two men who had tipped off the unit came up to me, thinking I was the Americans’ translator, and explained that the men in the courtyard were Sunnis and that some belonged to the Awakening. Some of the men had been involved in tipping off the Americans to the Mahdi Army suspect down the block. I tried to tell the soldiers, but the electrical wires on the ground caused the Americans to think the men had been trying to lay an IED, so they blindfolded and handcuffed all eleven of them. “If an IED is on the ground, we arrest everybody in a hundred-meter radius,” I was told, though here it was only an electrical cable, and most likely the men had been trying to connect a house to a generator. In the house the two tipsters had identified, the soldiers found Mahdi Army “propaganda” and arrested several men, including one called Sabrin al-Haqir, or “Sabrin the Cruel,” an alleged Mahdi Army leader.

The Strykers took the prisoners to the nearby COP Blackfoot. Inside, Hamid and the Sahwa men drank sodas and ate muffins. Osama and Abu Salih shook hands with the Americans and thanked them for arresting Sabrin, who they said had a lot of blood on his hands. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, the Sunnis from the first house the Americans raided were released, three of them being taken to sign sworn statements implicating Sabrin. An American captain instructed them to list who did what, what they did, where, when, and how. Abu Salih walked by and quickly told the men in Arabic to implicate Sabrin in some attack. None of the Americans noticed this coaching. Osama met with a sergeant from the unit and asked him if he could put a PKC on top of his pickup truck. “No,” the sergeant said. “But we can hide it,” Osama pleaded. Sabrin was soon moved to a “detainee holding facility” at FOB Prosperity. “We were able to confirm through independent reporting that he was a bad Mahdi Army guy,” said an American Army intelligence officer. “He was involved in EJKs,” or extra-judicial killings, a euphemism for murders.

Osama’s main competition for contracts with the Americans was another local Sunni power broker called Muhammad Kashkul, or Abu Tariq. A former bodyguard for Saddam, he was now a contractor too. “He knows that when security is stabilized contracts will come in,” Captain Cox said, explaining Kashkul’s motivation for collaborating with the Americans. In one meeting with the Americans, Kashkul bragged that while working as a bodyguard for Saddam he had slept with 472 women. “Is that a lot in America?” he asked. Kashkul and Osama tried to play different American units against one another, but Cox helped arrange a meeting where the two were forced to work out what he described as “their turf war.” Osama was not convinced. “Coalition forces like Kashkul, so I have to be his friend,” he said. “They told me I have no choice. I have to be his friend. For two years they were looking for him. Showing his picture. Then they arrested him, took him to Blackfoot, and released him after two hours and said, ‘He is working with us.’”

The Americans were obsessed with the concept of “reconciliation,” which Cox defined as “Agree to quit fighting and talk about problems and get U.S. contracts.”

“Osama hates reconciliation,” Sperry told me. “He doesn’t feel that he has anything to reconcile. He hates that these other guys get contracts.” Osama had recently lost face when he accidentally discharged his Glock pistol and nearly hit an American soldier while in a meeting. Some of his men were proving unruly as well. “A couple of Osama’s guys were caught outside their sector,” the officer told me, “so we detained them and brought in the leaders. Abu Salih was really pissed.” When I was visiting Falcon FOB to discuss the ISVs, a major stuck his head through the door. “Are you tracking that the Heroes beat some guy up?” he asked Captain Dehart. “The Heroes’ usefulness is almost over,” Captain Dehart grumbled. He defended the reconciliation process. “It’s an overt process,” he said. “You can’t be in the shadows. We take mahalas, the Critical Infrastructure Security guards, the local leadership, provide us names.” As a result, he said, the men with real power in the area emerged from the shadows. “I’ve heard them tell me, ‘I will give you a hundred men, you give them weapons, and you will have no problems.’” But the process they called reconciliation required some community vetting in theory. It seemed that the Americans were turning themselves into a commodity sought after by Iraq’s warring factions. The Americans were a way to obtain contracts, influence, weapon licenses, identity cards. “They love ID cards,” joked one Army intelligence officer.

When Osama drove me home from Dora we stopped at an Iraqi army checkpoint near Qadisiya. He noticed a familiar Audi parked on the street and then saw a man he knew as Naseem walking past the soldiers. Naseem was Al Qaeda, he said, and was responsible for many attacks against civilians and the Americans. Osama put his cap on and called a soldier over. The soldier had a green bandanna masking all but his eyes as though he were a bank robber. “That guy is called Naseem, he is with Al Qaeda,” Osama said. The soldier seemed annoyed and I was worried that he would arrest us instead. “I’m with the Awakening,” Osama said, he showed several badges he had been given by the Americans. The soldier told him to keep going but Osama insisted. “What do you want me to do?” the soldier asked. Osama tried to convince them, but the soldiers were indifferent. Frustrated, he drove away.

Osama’s part of Dora, which included Mahalas 830, 832, 834, and 836, was called Hadhir. Though each mahala had its own ISV unit, Osama hoped that eventually all of the Sunni Awakening militias would be united under one leader so that they could attain political power too. We were in Mahala 830. The Mahdi Army used to attack from Mahala 832. Iraqi National Police, who cooperated with the Mahdi Army, would drive up to Sixtieth Street and spray houses with gunfire, Osama told me as we walked by a solitary INP checkpoint. “I want to kill them,” he said, “really, but the Americans make us work together.” Since his men had been granted legitimacy by the Americans they were taunting the national police, telling them that just days before they were shooting at them.

“There was definitely a link” between the INPs and sectarian forces, Nick Cook told me. “I am not sure how deep it went, but you could tell the INP definitely treated the Sunni neighborhoods with a lot of indifference and disdain. Many times I heard the national police refer to the neighborhood as lived in by dogs or criminals, referring to the residents. To the national police every person was a suspect. I never did see outright prejudice, but when you moved from Mekanik, a Sunni area, to Abu Dshir, a Shiite area, you definitely saw a change in personality with the national police.” Captain T recalled, “I remember several instances of units in predominantly Shiite areas actually catching [INPs] in the act of planting IEDs.”

Lieutenant Colonel Miska was based in Kadhimiya’s Forward Operating Base Justice. It had three detention centers in it: the Kadhimiya prison; the Ministry of Justice prison, where the government executed condemned people; and an Iraqi army detention center. Miska worked closely with the Iraqi Security Forces, and at one point he had six brigades’ worth of Iraqi National Police or army men working with him. I asked him about the abuses he saw. “The Kadhimiya prison run by the national police was the most notorious,” he said. “This was Saddam’s former military intelligence facility. Senior members of the national police reportedly tortured, extorted, and killed prisoners, mainly Sunnis. The prison was made to hold about 350 prisoners. They had about 900 there when we first began putting pressure on the NP. At first we would conduct inspections and bring in teams that would write reports. The NP would complain that all the Americans talked about was human rights. They would also do a good job of stonewalling the investigators and making it difficult to gain entrance. We eventually started cycling reporters into the facility and getting front-page stories to embarrass the NP. The prisoner population quickly dwindled as a result.”

One of Miska’s closest colleagues was an Iraqi army brigade commander who was going after both the Mahdi Army and Al Qaeda. As a result, he was put under intense political pressure. Miska accompanied him to numerous meetings with senior Sadrists and other politicians who were trying to get him to back down. But every time he would keep the heat on. The Iraqi commander eventually left Iraq after four attempts on his life, and Mahdi Army hit squads were hunting for his family. “It took me eight months to finally get through the bureaucracy of immigration, UNHCR, and other agencies to help him relocate to the U.S.,” Miska said. “Today his family is safe and living much more comfortably than they did in Iraq.”

The Iraqi government, it seemed, would come up with every possible excuse not to send help to Dora. “When we would go to the Green Zone and ask ministers and deputy ministers to help out, they would claim that Dora was too dangerous,” Captain T said. “We would protest and say that we would take them there to see it themselves and would, of course, protect any government workers or contractors who were working in the area. To them, this was impossible because the area was unsafe!

“It was ridiculous dealing with the Iraqi government. This was particularly clear when we were setting up the Iraqi Security Volunteers as paid security forces in our area. We were attempting to integrate them into the Iraqi security forces, but the government stonewalled this at every turn. They would ask for ridiculously detailed information from the ISVs, which they were, in turn, unwilling to provide to a government they didn’t trust. The government would demand that the ISVs meet standards far above what the ISF themselves had to meet.

“Dr. Bassima al-Jadri was a particular problem in this regard, as she was extremely sectarian. She saw the ISVs as the armed forces for the Sunni political parties. We tried our hardest to make sure that the ISVs were security oriented, not politically motivated. In fact, this led us to deny a small group of low-level informants our sponsorship as ISVs. They turned against us and went ‘rogue.’ They were sponsored by the Iraqi Islamic Party. We eventually had to detain several of them to convince them that we would not permit the politicization of our ISVs. Anyway, Bassima saw the ISVs as a threat to Shiite domination and would try to throw every possible obstacle in our path against ISV integration into the ISF. And this woman was the [government’s] lead on reconciliation!”

Saddam Hussein designed Baghdad with a circle of loyal neighborhoods around it. With its many officers, Seidiya was a place he could count on. But it had become a vital battleground during the civil war. Sunnis and Shiites both wanted it, since it opens up into Sunni strongholds like Dora. Shiites wanted to block whatever was coming in. It was located between Shiite-dominated Amil and Sunni-dominated Dora, and it was on the important road that Shiites took to go south to Karbala and Najaf. The Mahdi Army rained mortars down from the Baya district and destroyed Sunni mosques. The neighborhood was originally 55 percent Sunni and 45 percent Shiite, but by the end Shiites would have the upper hand. Seidiya went from being a relatively peaceful middle-class neighborhood to a deserted and broken wasteland, all under the Americans’ watch. Most of the residents had fled, and abandoned homes were used by militiamen and insurgents.

“The Shiites were definitely winning,” said Captain Noyes, a platoon leader in Seidiya. “They were on the offensive and the local Sunnis were on the defensive, but it was a very violent and contested battle. The Shiite groups were attempting to kick Sunnis out of Seidiya and move Shiites in. The Sunnis were attempting to defend themselves, but some of them had Al Qaeda ties and were targeted by coalition forces, so they were fighting a two-front battle.” Most of the murder victims he remembered encountering were Sunni. “Many were killed with a single shot to the head, and signs of torture were on their bodies. The bodies were placed in areas to intimidate locals. Sometimes IEDs were placed under the bodies targeting whoever tried to recover the body. The Shiites were more effective and organized. They were part of the government, Ministry of Interior, the IP, and INP working there. Sunnis were isolated.”

Noyes lived and worked with the 321 INP, or the Wolf Brigade, which was responsible for Seidiya. “They were extremely sectarian, regularly involved in and committing crimes,” he said. “The Wolf Brigade and Iraqi police were an arm of Shiite extremists, filled with Shiite militia members. I frequently found the Wolf Brigade involved in outright sectarian activities in cooperation with Shiite militias. The Iraqi police were so often tied to attacks on coalition forces and locals that it went beyond complacency or incompetence.

“Eventually an Iraqi Army battalion took over Seidiya, but they were still under the INP brigade command responsible for West Rashid. We got 321 INP kicked out over a long period of documenting and reporting their crimes against the people of Seidiya. Their battalion commander was LTC Haidar. At one point we found him and General Mundher stealing furniture from an abandoned apartment. They claimed it was General Mundher’s apartment and they were moving it out.”

The Americans arrested more than seventy members of the Wolf Brigade, who had been found expelling Sunnis and moving displaced Shiites into their homes. The Wolf Brigade was replaced by the Iraqi army’s Muthana Brigade, itself feared by Sunnis, and the Muthana Brigade clashed with the Seidiya Guard, the Awakening Group established by Noyes and his team. “The Seidiya Guard were by far superior to the INP as a counterinsurgency force. Their leaders were much more competent,” Noyes observed. “They conducted operations to win the support of the population; the INP did the exact opposite. The Seidiya Guards captured people occasionally. They would then turn them over to ISF or CF. Shiites that they handed over to INP were usually released. They understood their legitimacy was on the line, and so they were careful in how they handled people they captured. I encountered only support for the Seidiya Guard with the local populace. However, their relationship with the INP was horrible. They each viewed each other as illegitimate sectarian actors, and probably rightly so. The Seidiya Guard was disbanded after I left, under Iraqi government pressure.”

Not everyone was happy about the new militias being created by the Americans, especially the Shiite-dominated ISF. More a paramilitary force than a team of street cops, the Iraqi National Police resembled the National Guard in the United States, compared with the more local Iraqi police. Both types of police units were dominated by Shiite supporters or members of the Mahdi Army or Badr militia and had fought in the civil war, often targeting Sunni civilians and cleansing Sunni areas. I accompanied Lieutenant Colonel Reineke of the 2-2 SCR to a meeting at the headquarters of the INP’s Seventh Brigade, in the former home of Ali Hassan Majid, the notorious Chemical Ali. It was now a joint security station ( JSS), staffed by Iraqis and Americans. This station was feared by Sunnis, who were often kidnapped by the national police and, if they were lucky, released for ransom. It was rumored to be a Badr militia base for torturing Sunnis.

Brig. Gen. Abdel Karim, the INP brigade commander, sat behind a large wooden desk surrounded by plastic flowers. Behind him was a photograph of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. To his side was a shotgun. Karim controlled three INP battalions and was the senior Iraqi security official in the area. Even the Iraqi army officers in his area were under his authority. Lieut. Col. Jim Crider was partnered with Karim’s Third Battalion, Seventh Brigade, or 372. “Every time we went on patrol with them, we got shot at,” Crider told me. “Every time we patrolled with national police, we were introducing an irritant” into the Sunni neighborhoods. Sometimes Sunni militiamen would let the Americans pass, only to blow up the INP vehicles. Although Crider’s men at the JSS with Karim always had a list of all the prisoners held there and inspected the jails, Crider admitted that abuses probably still took place outside his men’s gaze. Iraqis were relieved when they learned that the Americans, and not the INPs, had detained their sons. “In the context of the surge, our policy was not to turn prisoners over to the INPs,” he said. “I remember Karim as very sectarian. I hated being around him. I once brought an Iraqi army commander from Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, to our JSS to show him our setup. Karim was furious and brought us all into his office, where he sat and stared at the wall. It was weird, so I got up and left. I could tell he was a sectarian stooge from a long way away. Guys like him are the greatest threat to the stability of Iraq. They push regular Sunnis into a corner and then are surprised when they fight back.”

In December 2007 the delegation of Americans led by Reineke was greeted warmly by Karim and his men. Five or six of his officers were with him, all Shiites. Reineke acted with exaggerated deference, saying “naam seidi” (yes, sir) repeatedly when addressing Karim. They discussed where they would place checkpoints and conduct joint patrols. Karim sought assurances that the ISV recruits had been properly vetted by local leaders, the Iraqi National Police, and the U.S. Army. Reineke mentioned that General Mustafa, a local ISV leader from Arab Jubur, had requested to open an office at the JSS. Karim grew tense. “The Awakening is a path for these individuals to get recruited by Iraqi Security Forces for jobs in the government,” he said. “More than that we don’t agree, the government is worried that these groups will be a militia or will be used by political groups.” Reineke tried to assure him that “the volunteers are only a short-term solution until they find jobs in the government.” Karim responded that “we have information that the Baath Party and Al Qaeda have infiltrated the Awakening. It’s very dangerous.” Reineke mentioned that in nearby Seidiya, the Awakening had opened an office. “The Awakening in Seidiya was killing people,” Karim said. “They are not yet in the government. We don’t accept that the Awakening will open an office. There is only one government. Those who qualify can join the police or the government, but the Awakening is temporary. There are two commands in this area: American and Iraqi. We won’t accept another.” The Iraqi general won the showdown.

A stern man named Abu Jaafar had been observing the exchange. Wearing a dark suit and a dark shirt buttoned up, with no tie, he had two thuggish companions in leather jackets who were very friendly with Karim. A Shiite known to the Americans as Sheikh Ali, Abu Jaafar had his own ISV unit of about 100 men in southern Dora’s Saha neighborhood. The Americans said he was unofficially in charge of that area. He was also a Neighborhood Advisory Council representative for Mahala 828. “He may not be Mahdi Army, but he has a lot of Mahdi Army friends,” Maj. Jeffrey Gottlieb whispered to me. He also had a lot of access to Karim’s headquarters.

“We’ve got a sectarian fault line in the Saha area,” Captain Cox explained to me that night, back at his base, drawing a line on the satellite image on the wall. “Saha was a battleground between [Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army]. We took over on September 8, 2007. The drop in violence is thanks to our unit moving in and patrolling every day.” Sunnis had been forced to rely on Al Qaeda for self-defense, he explained, and though northern Saha had been “an absolute killing zone before,” rich Sunnis were now trying to return.

Victims of sectarian killings were down by half since the 2-2 SCR had arrived, Cox said. “We can have meetings and agreements between prominent Shiites who had ties to militias and prominent Sunnis who had ties to AQ.” He sounded triumphant, but I couldn’t help noticing myself that attacks against Americans were also down to nearly zero when I was there.

But not far away, in Mahala 836, Cox admitted, a Shiite man was murdered when he went to check out his house after hearing it was safe to go back. The 2-2 SCR also noted a spike in criminal killings, they told me. I wondered how they could distinguish. The Mahdi Army cease-fire and the withdrawal of Al Qaeda forces to northern Iraq in order to avoid the surge created a power vacuum that allowed criminals to operate more freely.

A few days later I returned to meet with Karim without the Americans present and found him talking to several senior Shiite army officers about the forced displacement of Iraqis and what to do with the displaced. An Awakening member was living in a house that the original owner had sold to somebody else, and now the Awakening man refused to relinquish it to the new owner. “We need a mechanism to solve these problems,” one officer said. A colonel called Najam who spoke with a Shiite southern Iraqi dialect worried that displaced Sunnis had taken over former homes of Shiites in Dora. “We need to bring back the Shiites, but the Sunnis are in the houses,” he said. “This battle is bigger than the other battles—this is the battle of the displaced.” Eavesdropping, I could hear Najam angrily condemning somebody, presumably the Awakening. “They are killers, terrorists, ugly, pigs,” he said.

Karim’s phone rang, and he spoke with a superior officer about a clash the previous day between the Awakening and armed Shiites. “American officers took Awakening men to a sector where they shouldn’t be,” he said. “Residents saw armed men not in uniforms and shot at them from buildings. Four Awakening were injured. My battalion was called in to help.” In truth, they had clashed with the Mahdi Army, but Karim downplayed their role and blamed an American captain for establishing an ISV unit in an area where he should not have. “Yes, sir,” he said, “the Awakening will withdraw from that area. They started the problem.”

Gen. Abdul Amir, another man present, was the commander of the important Sixth Division of the Iraqi army. He warned that men were joining the Awakening for political purposes. “They want to be prominent in their neighborhood so that they will get elected. The prime minister said, ‘I don’t want this to be about politics, I want this to be about security.’”

The sectarian Shiite parties ruling Iraq worried about the Awakening becoming a pan-Iraqi movement. If it succeeded in being nonsectarian, it could displace them from power. Najam joked that 98 percent of the Awakening was Al Qaeda. Just then a U.S. Army major walked in and met with Karim outside the office. An embarrassed Karim returned and said he’d been informed he could not talk to me.

“Gen. Abdul Karim was a completely sectarian individual who was more interested in consolidating Shiite influence and power via his police than in really solving the problems that plagued the area,” an American captain confided to me. “He was also incompetent in that he did not at all understand how to run operations or how to collect and use intelligence. People were fairly scared of him, especially his own subordinates, which suggests he was connected to one Shiite militia or another, though this was never confirmed. I think it was unlikely that he was intimately involved in any particular militia, but only because that might create a problem for him. I remember once, while visiting our AOR [area of responsibility], his personal security detachment, a ridiculous thirty-plus policemen, provoked our ISVs into a confrontation and hauled several away to the INP HQ. It was a near nightmare getting them released, but the event was indicative of Karim’s belief that he controlled Dora and that only he would influence the security situation there.”

I returned on a different day to meet Abu Jaafar, who suggested Karim’s headquarters as a good location. Karim showed me a plaque on his wall that he said was an award from Prime Minister Maliki for being nonsectarian, and he pointed to medals on his desk that the Americans had given him—also, he said, for being nonsectarian. Next to them were a couple of traditional rings worn only by Shiites.

Before the war he had owned some minivans, he said. After the war he built the Shiite Imam al-Hassan Mosque in Saha. “When terrorist activities started in the area, I wasn’t involved,” he said, because it was not clear who was responsible. “When things got clear I saw that people needed somebody to lead them and command them according to God.” He explained that his men had taken the homes of “bad Sunnis” (meaning Al Qaeda) and inventoried their contents. “They don’t want to come back because they were killers,” he said. Problems in his area had started two years earlier, he said, with random assassinations. “My cousin was a school principal and a local council member, and he was shot to death walking home. And others were killed, and we didn’t know why or who killed them. After a while I knew that my neighbor was informing for the killers. Most of the dead were Shiites. I talked to the young men in our area and said, ‘If we don’t cooperate, we will be killed one by one.’ We started to guard our area.” Abu Jaafar and his militia used old refrigerators, cinder blocks, and earth to wall off their area. His enemies—Al Qaeda but also the 1920 Revolution Battalion and the Army of the Mujahideen—were, he claimed, these same people in the Awakening. Shiites did not need an Awakening. “We are already awake,” he said, smiling icily.

Abu Jaafar pulled out a list of forty-six people from Saha. “Criminals in the Awakening,” he said. “For two years I was naming these people.” He singled out Hamid, the Neighborhood Advisory Council boss in Hadhir. “Shiites could not join the local council,” he said. “They would be killed.” He blamed Hamid for dividing Saha in two, with Shiites controlling the south and Sunnis controlling the north. But in fact Shiites had pushed Sunnis out of northern Saha, and that area became a key front line in the civil war. Abu Jaafar pointed to two other names. “The Americans told me, ‘If you see these two men, you can kill them or bring them to us.’ Now they are wearing the Awakening uniform in Mahala 828. They said they have reconciled. I have to be patient. We are awake and our eyes are open.”

Al Qaeda had changed its name and now called itself the Awakening, Abu Jaafar insisted. He claimed that Sunnis were acting weak so that they could attack once they regained strength. I asked him about Awakening Council founder Sattar Abu Risha, who had incurred the wrath of Al Qaeda. “He was just a robber in the street, and they made him a leader,” Abu Jaafar said dismissively. I told him that many Awakening members claimed they were fighting Al Qaeda. “How did they fight Al Qaeda?” he scoffed. “Fight themselves? Fight their brothers? And where is Al Qaeda? Did it evaporate overnight? We know everything, but we’re just waiting.” I asked him how he knew Karim so well. “General Karim is a good guy,” he said. “During the battles I was here every day.”

Ghost Police

I visited JSS Cougar at the Walid INP station, where the First Battalion, Seventh Brigade, Second Division (172 INP Battalion) worked with a U.S. Army National Police Training Team (NPTT). This team, led by the cynical Major Gottlieb, covered the area of Baghdad the Americans called East Rashid. I turned up dressed very casually, in a T-shirt and jeans. Seeing this, American officers from the 2-2 SCR admonished me to wear my body armor to protect myself from accidental INP discharges. “I did convoy security in the Sunni Triangle and was hit by numerous IEDs, complex attacks, small arms, but I never felt closer to death than when I was working with Iraqi Security Forces,” joked Captain Cox.

A tall and lanky tank officer, Gottlieb underwent about seventy days of training with his men to prepare for this mission. “We don’t know as much as we could know because we don’t know Arabic,” he said. “The INPs here are almost all Shiites. Orders from their chain of command are usually to arrest Sunnis, not Shiites. But they don’t go on ‘Sunni hunts’ like the Second Brigade in Seidiya and a lot of other brigades.” The battalion he worked with was mostly from southern Iraq, especially Basra, and many were more loyal to the Badr militia. “At first they were encouraged to resign or given dangerous missions and were replaced by guys from Sadr City.” I asked him if he had any evidence of Sadrist sympathies among the men. “Today I was sitting in the office and the brigade finance officer’s phone rang, and the ring tone was a Sadr song,” he said. Pointing to the newly painted walls, he said, “It’s all cosmetic. They know if everything has fresh paint and looks squared away, we’ll think they’re squared away.” Local Iraqi National Police were resettling displaced Shiite families in empty Sunni homes in this area. Gottlieb called them “United Van Lines missions”: “The national police ask, ‘Can you help us move a family’s furniture?’ There are people coming back, and we don’t know if they were originally from here. Official U.S. policy is, we do not take part in any resettlement activity. I could make up a deed.”

Gottlieb conducted an inventory of the weapons that were supposed to have been assigned to the base. Five hundred and fifty weapons were missing, including pistols, rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “Guys take weapons when they go AWOL,” he explained. “It was funny how they always expended four hundred rounds of ammunition. They would have fake engagements and transfer the ammunition to militias.” There was also a problem of “ghost police,” he said. Although 542 INP men were assigned to his JSS on paper, only about 200 would show up at any time. Some would be on leave and some simply did not exist, their salaries pocketed by officers. “Officers get a certain number of ghosts,” he said. He looked at an American soldier nearby. “I need some ghosts. How much are you making?”

I accompanied the NPTT on a joint raid with the INPs. Captain Adil, a trim thirty-year-old with a shaved head and sharp gaze, led the raid, despite his rank and position as a battalion staff intelligence officer, because only 25 percent of the INP’s officer positions were full. As a result, INP officers end up doing a lot of things that American noncommissioned officers do. Adil briefed his men on the mission using cardboard and Styrofoam on the floor to replicate the vehicles. All the men wore the same blue uniforms, but with a variety of helmets, flak vests, and boots. “Today we have an operation in Mahala 830,” he said. “Do you know it? Our target is an Al Qaeda guy.” Adil would be riding in the Reva, a South African armored vehicle. The rest would follow in Hummers and pickup trucks. His men repeated the instructions; he ordered them to shout the answers.

The targets were two brothers, Salah and Muhamad, suspected of working for Al Qaeda. They occasionally visited their family in their brother Falah’s home. Falah was known as Falah al-Awar, or Falah the Blind, because he had lost an eye. He belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and had been arrested two weeks earlier by the Americans. Under interrogation he revealed that his brothers were involved in similar actions, attacking the Americans, kidnapping, and killing. “He dimed his brothers out,” an American officer said.

Thirty-five Iraqi National Policemen took part in the raid. The INPs climbed over the wall and broke through the main gate. They burst into the house, ordering the women and children in one room while tying the hands of two young men with strips of cloth. One of them was Muhamad, one of the brothers they were looking for. The other young man was Mustafa, Muhamad’s young brother. He wasn’t on the target list but was picked up anyway. Salah was nowhere to be found. Mustafa started crying. “My father is dead,” he said. Adil reassured him, holding the top of his head with his hand, as if he were palming a basketball. Seated in the living room, the women asked how long the two would be taken for. Adil told them they were being taken for questioning, and explained where his base was.

Then it was over. The INPs sped away. The Americans followed, surprised at the hurry. “We just picked up some Sunnis, we’re getting the fuck outta here,” joked one American sergeant. “Yeah, the moral ambiguity of what we do is not lost on me,” said Gottlieb jocularly in response. “We have no way of knowing if those guys did what they say they did.” Gottlieb later said that the Interior Ministry “uses ‘Al Qaeda’ as a scare word for Americans,” describing all Sunni suspects in this way.

Back at the base Muhamad and Mustafa were seated on the floor in the operations room, blindfolded, with their hands in plastic zip ties. Sergeant Costa, an American, high-fived Adil’s deputy, Lieutenant Amar. The names on the prisoners’ ID cards were compared to what Costa and Major Fox had on a printed document of their own. Both were brothers from the Harfush family. These were the guys they wanted. Their pictures were taken, including of their front and rear torsos, to look for scars or wounds and to compare their physical condition then with how it might end up later, in case of future abuse. The older brother had a leg injury, which they photographed. The two were then separated. The older prisoner sat in Adil’s office, which had a locker, a plastic table, two beds, and a television playing an old Egyptian film. Costa and Fox sat on one of the beds with a translator. The prisoner, Muhamad Abdallah Harfush Gertaini, of the Garguri tribe, wore a blue tracksuit. After his blindfold was taken off, he was taken outside to throw up. He came back shivering. “Why are you shivering?” Adil asked with a smile. He gave him Amar’s jacket to stay warm. Adil showed him a picture and asked him who it was. “My cousin Qasim,” he said, and gave his address in the Mekanik neighborhood. “But he was arrested a few months ago.” Qasim was being held in an American prison. “This family, all of them work for Al Qaeda,” Adil said with a laugh.

Adil began a long lecture. “We can do this the hard way or the easy way,” he said. “You’re an Iraqi citizen and you want to serve your country and repent. . . . How many checkpoints were bombed? How many of our men were martyred? We are the state, we put the law above all else regardless of sect. Why didn’t we go after your neighbors, why you?” Muhamad denied any wrongdoing. “I have four sources,” Adil said. “I know everything. I’ll advise you right, I have people I trust who told me about you and your brother. A source saw you with his eyes.” Adil showed him a picture of another man and asked who it was. Muhamad answered and told him that the man had been martyred. “Martyred?” shouted Adil. “He was a terrorist!” Adil showed him a picture of a one-eyed man. “He is my brother,” Muhamad answered. Adil listed people his brother had killed. Both brothers had volunteered for the Awakening. “The Awakening won’t help you,” he said. “I’ll get all of you. You’re a liar. Four sources swear against you.” Muhamad meekly protested. “Ask people,” he said. “I did ask,” said Adil. “I know you. I have a source who will talk for a whole hour about how you were injured in your leg. This is your last chance . . . you have until the morning.” He asked about Muhamad’s brother Salah, who they failed to find on their raid, and called Muhamad a liar when he said he had gone to work in construction up north.

Mustafa was brought out. He had long matted hair and wore matching jeans and a jacket. He stretched uncomfortably. “My hand,” he winced in pain. “My haaand,” Adil mocked him, and asked him about Salah. Mustafa said he worked in a bakery in the north. Adil believed he was in Baghdad. Mustafa was taken out, and Muhamad was brought back, his blindfold removed. “Good morning,” Adil said. “Do you know your religion? You guys are always talking about Islam.” He lectured about Islam and quoted Condoleezza Rice. “These guys are destroying Islam,” he told us, and looked back at the prisoner. “You say we are Iranian. We are Iraqis, we are building your country.” The brothers were accused of expelling Shiites and killing civilians. “No criminal will say, ‘I am a criminal,’” Adil said. “They all say, ‘I’m innocent.’” Adil’s source claimed that Mustafa was wounded while attacking an INP checkpoint.

The next day Sunni leaders from the area met with the American soldiers and claimed the brothers were innocent. Hamid, the Hadhir NAC boss, would not vouch for them, however. When the 2-2 SCR first arrived they had imposed discipline on the 172 INP Battalion, some of whom had gone on forays into Sunni neighborhoods just to punish civilians. “We arrested a whole checkpoint, nineteen guys, in the beginning, from the 172,” Captain Dehart told me, “so they don’t use checkpoints as staging points, so there will be no more shenanigans.” Still, some local Sunni leaders asked that the two brothers be transferred to American custody.

Getting to Know Adil

I met with Captain Adil several times in 2007 and 2008, and we became friends. Adil had been an army infantry officer before the American occupation. His father was a Shiite former Army officer and his mother was Sunni. Adil’s sister married a Sunni man and they fled to Syria, because she feared Shiite militias would kill him. Adil’s wife was Sunni. He had lived in the majority-Shiite and Mahdi Army-controlled eastern Baghdad district of Shaab, but he moved after the Mahdi Army threatened him for refusing to obtain weapons for them. He paid a standard $600 bribe to join the police, but was cheated and denied the job until a friend helped. “Before the war it was just one party,” he said. “Now we have one hundred thousand parties. I have Sunni officer friends, but nobody lets them get back to service. First they take money, then ask if you are Sunni or Shiite. If you are Shiite, good. The army is not sectarian. I dream to get back to the army. In Saddam’s time nobody knew what is Sunni and what is Shiite,” he said. He rejected the notion that most officers had been Sunni or that most of the Baath Party had been Sunni. “If someone tells you, ‘I was not in the Baath Party,’ he is a liar. All Iraqis were in the Baath.” The Americans made a mistake by dissolving the Iraqi army and security services, he said. In Dora the army had a good reputation, and there were many stories told about how soldiers helped people go to the hospital and get through roadblocks.

Typical of an officer who graduated from the military academy before the American occupation, Adil viewed the new sectarianism that dominated inter-Iraqi relations as anathema. The Iraqi army was the least sectarian force in Iraq, he said. In the Seidiya district it had battled the police, and at Dora’s Thirtieth Street checkpoint Iraqi soldiers came to blows with local INPs and IPs from the Balat station in Saha, Mahdi Army men who had gone through the Police Academy. Some of these Mahdi Army policemen were involved in the recent clashes with the Awakening men in the Kifaat area of Mahala 828. A U.S. Army intelligence officer told me that from a Sunni perspective, the Balat station was “problematic.” It was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Muhamad and Sergeant Ali Faqr. Muhamad had his hands tied; a Mahdi Army leader had entered his office and threatened him with a gun to his head. Muhamad asked the Americans to arrest Mahdi Army suspects for him.

Adil admitted that attacks against his people had gone down since the establishment of Awakening units. “The Awakening has the right to join the Iraqi Security Forces,” he said, “but they should be cleaned so we won’t have terrorists inside government. Just like we were cleaning the INPs, they are cleaning up the Awakening.” But he was also suspicious of the Awakening members. “Awakening in Dora is the same people who used to be attacking us, and now they taunt us, saying, ‘We used to attack you.’” He told me that Abu Salih was a former insurgent who had made IEDs. He suspected Muhammad Kashkul, Osama’s rival, of working with Al Qaeda and helping the group to infiltrate the Awakening. I asked him about Osama’s men. “All these people before were shooting us,” he said. He admitted that INPs from the Sixth Brigade had shot at Sunnis in Dora, but not his INPs. He accused Hamid of being an Al Qaeda terrorist. “I have an order from the Ministry of Interior to arrest him,” he said.

The Americans were pressuring him to target the Mahdi Army as well as Al Qaeda. “It’s better if the Americans go after the Mahdi Army,” he said. “If we arrest them, then the chain of command will release them. The sectarian issue is powerful.” Adil did not trust his own men. “Three-fourths of them are Mahdi Army,” he said, locking his door before we spoke. “Sadr and Badr officials controlled the leadership of the INPs, and the Iraqi police—all of them are Sadr.” Although the Interior Ministry’s leadership was dominated by the Badr militia, he said, the majority of its employees were still Sadr supporters. Adil’s best friend and lieutenant, Amar, was Sunni. “I was fighting to get him,” he told me, and was threatened as a result of their friendship. “An officer is a brother of an officer. I want to work with something not for Sunnis or Shiites, just for Iraq.”

Adil was repeatedly threatened by the Mahdi Army. He dismissed the freeze. “No one cares about Muqtada,” he said. “A week ago Mahdi Army guys threatened an INP checkpoint . . . and then sniped at the checkpoint, so the INPs arrested three of them.” The men worked for a Mahdi Army leader called Wujud, who lived in Sadr City. Wujud worked with another Mahdi Army leader called Amar al-Masihi, and together they fired mortars at Adil’s base after the arrests. In nearby Abu Dshir he warned that the Kadhimayn Mosque was an office for the Sadrists, and it ordered the people of Abu Dshir not to join the ISVs. The Americans wanted Adil to go after the Kadhimayn Mosque, but he could not do it.

Adil was summoned to meet Lieutenant Colonel Fadhil, the former brigade intelligence section commander. Wujud and another Shiite militiaman were there. “They stole our vehicles and weapons,” he said, “and Wujud told INPs to be careful because you give Americans information. In front of Lieutenant Colonel Fadhil, Wujud told me, ‘Adil, be careful, we will kill you.’ My boss was sitting there and didn’t do anything.” I asked him why he had not arrested Wujud. “They know us,” he said. “They know where we live. I’m not scared for myself, but I’m scared for my family.”

Wujud worked with Ziyad al-Shamari, a leader of what the Americans called a “special group” because of a poor translation of what may be better termed a “private group,” as Iraqis called Shiite militias and gangs not loyal to Muqtada. Adil added that a man called Abu Yusuf, a contractor who was working with the Americans in Combat Outpost Blackfoot, also worked with Wujud and owned the car used in a recent attack. Adil warned that Wujud and Abu Yusuf stole cars and might blow them up to make it look like Al Qaeda was responsible. Wujud once lived in Dora but now lived in eastern Baghdad’s Ur neighborhood, and he was in charge of dispatching men to Iran for training. General Karim was also from Ur. “He is Mahdi Army,” Adil said, claiming Karim had cleansed Sunnis from other parts of Baghdad and its surrounding towns when he was with the Fourth Brigade. “No one can talk about the Mahdi Army in our battalion or police or in the Ministry of Interior.”

Lieutenant Colonel Fadhil was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Majid. Majid asked Adil to collect the ransom for a Sunni man whose release had been ordered by the Iraqi courts. “He was not Al Qaeda,” Adil said. Majid wanted four thousand dollars, but the prisoner was related to Lieutenant Amar, and his family told him. Like most officers accused of pro-Shiite sectarianism, Majid was promoted out of the position where he caused trouble and moved from division to brigade. “No orders come to us to arrest Shiites, but many gangs from the Mahdi Army are kidnapping people for money,” Adil said, “If he is Sunni, they take money and kill him.”

“Our command,” he said, referring to General Karim, “wants to work with the Mahdi Army.” Karim praised the Mahdi Army when the Americans were not around, he said, and complained when others criticized them. Adil knew Karim’s friend Abu Jaafar as well. “Abu Jaafar is a bad guy,” he said. “He has groups fighting in Mahala 828. He knows Ziyad al-Shamari. He always puts his nose in our operations and tells our commanders where to open checkpoints. Abu Jaafar was a mechanic before the war, so how is he a sheikh? He worked with special groups and made deals with them to fight. Abu Jaafar calls every Sunni Al Qaeda.” Adil believed Abu Jaafar worked for the Badr militia. “Badr came here [from Iran] and took the government and assassinated former Baathists, officers, and pilots,” Adil said.

One day I met Adil in his neighborhood. Though it was not far from where he used to live and still dominated by the Mahdi Army, he was less known there. He grew nervous as we approached an INP checkpoint. He didn’t want them to know who he was, in case his men had informed the Mahdi Army about his attitude, which could make him or his family a target. At home his two boys watched television in his small living room. “I have decided to leave my job,” he told me. “No one supports us.” Lieutenant Amar, a former Republican Guard officer, also wanted to quit; together they would try to join the army. He was feeling pressure from his chain of command, and had been accused of being Sunni. A few months earlier he was accused by the Interior Ministry’s internal affairs department of selling cars to terrorists, and five days before I met him he heard rumors that the ministry had issued an order to fire him. When I mentioned Adil’s concerns to Gottlieb, he said that Adil was always threatening to quit.

I visited Shaab, Adil’s old neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, to attend Friday prayers at the Shurufi Mosque, a center for Muqtada’s followers. My friend Firas picked me up, the same friend who a year earlier had been too scared to let anybody at the Mustafa Husseiniya know that he knew me. To avoid certain checkpoints we drove through a former Iraqi air base that had been looted after the war and was full of indigent Shiite squatters. It was called the Hawasim neighborhood by locals, a reference to looting. Small children with matted hair played barefoot in mounds of garbage. Sewage flooded the roads. Donkeys and sheep dug through trash searching for something edible. “Long live Asa’ib al-Haq,” said graffiti on a wall, referring to a Sadrist resistance group that split from the Mahdi Army. My friend put a cassette of Mahdi Army songs in his stereo. As the chanting and wailing began, he joked, “Now we are Mahdi Army.” The song was a refutation of rumors that Muqtada fled to Iran when the surge started. “He prefers death over leaving his home,” the men sang.

We drove past local Shiite ISVs the Americans had hired to pressure the Mahdi Army. The men wore masks to conceal their faces and avoid retaliation, and they were protected by Iraqi police manning the checkpoints with them, defeating the purpose of having them there. Graffiti on the walls called for death to the Awakening men.

We arrived before the noon prayers so we could talk to the imam and listen to the sermon. I met Sayyid Jalil Sarkhi al-Hassani in a green guest room. He was seated on the floor reading a religious book. He had a beard with no mustache and wore wire-framed glasses and a brown cloak. As we spoke his men prepared him for his sermon, placing a white funeral shroud around his shoulders, a symbol that he was ready for martyrdom. On one side of the room was a large painting of Muqtada’s father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was Sayyid Jalil’s teacher. Sayyid Jalil lived in Sadr City and normally ran a mosque there, but for the past year he had led Friday prayers at the Shurufi Mosque.

When I spoke to him, he denied that the reduction in violence was the result of the Mahdi Army freeze. “That might mean that the Mahdi Army was the cause for the violence, and that’s not true,” he said. “The political situation is not in the hands of the government, it’s in the hands of the Americans. The American forces needed some security. They can increase the violence or decrease it. The Mahdi Army froze because of rumors that it is the source of violence and the Mahdi Army is the reason for the sectarian fighting and the fighting between Shiites, especially after the Karbala incident. That’s why Muqtada saw that it is necessary to re-educate the army and keep them away from the field, and despite this the violence is still occurring and the fighting between Shiites is still occurring. After the Mahdi Army freeze it appeared that they were not responsible for the war among people, so now we see that the Mahdi Army is working on education and leadership. Muqtada ordered his people to pray, to worship, to read, and to preach to general education so that they will show the real picture of the Mahdi Army.” He stressed that the Sadrists opposed injustice and were nationalists. In truth, however, the significant decrease in violence immediately following the Mahdi Army cease-fire belied his assertion and proved just how responsible the Sadrists were for the fighting.

Inside the mosque was painted light green. About five hundred men sat on straw mats. Fluorescent lights and fans hung down from the ceiling. There was a curtained-off section for women. The dome of the mosque was still damaged from a 2006 car bomb attack. The first hossa (slogan) that was shouted asked the men in the crowd to pray for Muqtada, for the release of prisoners, and for death to the Americans and their agents. Another one asked God to grant victory to Muqtada and the Mahdi Army. “Death is an honor to us, arrest is honor to us, resisting the Americans is an honor to us!” went another. Most of the sermon dealt with religious matters and the upcoming month of pilgrimage to Mecca. Sayyid Jalil asked his followers to “pray for other Muslim people in Palestine, Afghanistan, and in all the world, and curse the occupier and the Israelis, and grant victory to all Muslims, to get rid of the Americans, of dictatorships and secularism.” He asked the people to raise their hands in prayer “for victory for all mujahideen in the world” and for freedom.

After the sermon and the prayer that followed, lunch was brought for Sayyid Jalil and other mosque staff. Firas and I were offered food by a famous Mahdi Army IED maker. As Sayyid Jalil walked to his office, men came in and said that an American patrol was in the area and he was ushered away. As we left several young men in the courtyard asked us to join them for lunch. After my friend returned me to Mansour, his friends from the Mahdi Army asked him suspiciously if I was a foreigner and a friend of his. He said I was. They asked him if I drank alcohol, and he said I did not. They asked him if I slept with Iraqi women, and he said I did not. Apparently, they wanted to kidnap me and were looking for a proper pretext to justify it.

We ended up having lunch that day at Mustafa Husseiniya in Ur. Its imam, Sheikh Safa, had fled to Iran to avoid arrest and had not returned. I sat with the caretaker, Abul Hassan, and his assistant, Haidar, in Abul Hassan’s home. (Haidar had been expelled by Sunni militias from the town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. His brother was killed working as a policeman.)

Born in Sadr City in 1972, Abul Hassan, whose real name was Adil, was a muscular and voluble man. He had a raspy voice, permanent stubble. He was jocular and warm and spoke in colloquial Iraqi Arabic because he lacked education. His grandfather had moved to Baghdad from the south when Abul Hassan’s father was still a child, and President Abdul Karim Qasim gave the family land in Thawra (Revolution) City, which would become Saddam City and later Sadr City. Abul Hassan did not attend high school, and after his military service he worked a number of odd jobs, like driving a taxi and small trade. He had always been a Sadrist, he said with a smile, and had followed Muqtada’s father. Following the elder Sadr’s murder, Abul Hassan and his friends established a small underground armed resistance cell but failed to engage in any successful operations. After the war he and Sheikh Safa took over the Baath Party office and were the ones who converted it into a husseiniya. Now Abul Hassan informally led the Ur district.

The Mustafa Husseiniya, which had been demolished after the previous year’s raid, was now being rebuilt. Abul Hassan maintained his office in an adjacent one-room structure, where he sat on the floor behind a desk and received guests and supplicants. The mosque still provided help to poor families and IDPs. “Only Sadrists help the displaced,” he said. They also helped families of martyrs and other needy people, giving them bags with basic requirements such as milk, oil, rice, sugar, and similar items. “The government doesn’t do it,” he said.

The Mahdi Army in the area assisted the families of one thousand martyrs and three thousand prisoners with stipends, the size determined by whether they were married, Abul Hassan said. The family of an unmarried Mahdi Army martyr received seventy five thousand dinars a month (about sixty dollars), as did the family of an arrested man; and the family of a married Mahdi Army martyr received twice as much. Most of the displaced families they helped lived in other people’s homes, he said, but many still lived in tents in the nearby Shishan (Chechen) neighborhood, thus named because Iraqis thought Chechnya was very poor.

Haidar brought lunch in: mushy cooked tomatoes with kabob and bread. As we ate, two women in abayas came in and asked for bags of supplies and children’s clothes. Haidar went to fetch them.

Already in December 2007, before the March 2008 clashes, Abul Hassan was comparing the Supreme Council, which dominated the government, with Saddam Hussein. “Why did Saddam kill Shiites?” he asked. “He was also afraid of Shiite masses. The Supreme Council wants a secular Islam; they don’t reject occupation or even talk about it.” Under Saddam supporters of Muqtada’s father walked to Karbala for pilgrimages. Abul Hassan complained that people walking to Karbala were still targeted because they were viewed as Sadrists. “The Sadr Current represents 75 percent of Iraqi Shiites and is a popular movement,” he said. “Only the Sadr Current helps the poor and represents them.”

Some materials and labor were donated to help with the mosque’s reconstruction, but the government-run Shiite religious endowment was controlled by the Supreme Council. “We always have problems with the Supreme Council,” he complained. “They always instigate it. The Supreme Council are untrustworthy and just want power.” Abul Hassan was suspicious of the Sunni Awakening militias. “There is an Awakening group in the Fadhil neighborhood,” he said. “There is a man called Adel al-Mashhadani, he killed hundreds of Shiites, he beheaded many Shiites. He is well-known by people for his terrible crimes. Later they put him as head of the Awakening in that neighborhood. He is a criminal, he should be prosecuted. This is not logical.”

Since members of the Mahdi Army had committed to the freeze, he observed, they had been arrested, their families displaced and their savings stolen. “Now the freeze is ongoing and the arrests continue. I think it’s better to lift this freeze,” he said. “With things happening like the night raids, I don’t think the freeze will continue. The followers of the Supreme Council displace the families of arrested Mahdi Army members in the city of Diwaniya.”

I told Abul Hassan that Sunnis accused Sadrists of being Iranians. “This is nonsense,” he said. “We are Iraqis. Did you see Iranians or hear us talking the Iranian language? We are the followers of the first and the second martyred sayyids.”

The War Inside the Mahdi Army

The Golden Group—Golden JAM, in U.S. military parlance—was established, composed of trusted Mahdi Army men led by Abbas al-Kufi. The group was tasked with cleaning up the Mahdi Army in Baghdad and killing rogue militiamen. Shiite militias called assassins sakak, the equivalent of “ice men,” maybe because corpses were put on ice. Sak meant to “get iced.” (“Ahmed sak Hassan” means “Ahmed iced Hassan”—or, if he was in New York, “Ahmed whacked Hassan.”) While the ice men were doing their job, it was not clear if Muqtada had miscalculated with his freeze, allowing his Shiite and American rivals to gain the momentum. On the other hand, he may not have had a choice but to flee to Iran, as he did in 2007. “We would have killed or arrested him if he had stayed,” one National Security Council Iraq expert told me.

But the cease-fire was allowing the Mahdi Army to reorganize. In Baghdad it was split into two commands: eastern and western Baghdad. Eastern Baghdad had three subcommands: north, east, and Sadr City. They were further divided into sub-subcommands, each consisting of about three hundred men. At the top of this chain of command was a council in the southern town of Kufa, near Najaf, which Muqtada chaired. In Shaab there were about three thousand Mahdi Army fighters, led by a man called Adil al-Hasnawi. They were required to be devout, lest they be expelled. They did not receive a salary or training; instead they manned checkpoints, attended Friday prayers, protected pilgrims traveling to holy cities such as Karbala, cleaned the streets, and guarded mosques.

Nominally the Mahdi Army responded to Muqtada or his designated representatives. But there were highly criminalized elements that were displaced from Sunni areas and occupied Sunni houses in Hurriya; these elements resorted to a protection racket in order to support themselves and their families. “This was done at the behest of the community civil leadership and clerical leadership to protect against Sunni incursion and attacks,” noted a major who served with the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, Eighty-Second Airborne Division. But then, according to the major, there was the Mahdi Army sent from Najaf—the so-called Golden JAM—to clean up the criminalized elements and bring them in line with Muqtada’s office. At the same time the Iraqi Security Forces leadership either worked in conjunction with the Mahdi Army or independently to conduct offensive actions against coalition forces and sectarian cleansing of Sunnis. The ISF was an “institutional sanctuary” for Mahdi Army members; the Shiite-majority police and national police in that area were actively targeting the Sunni population. Furthermore, the major said, the Office of Muqtada al-Sadr conducted its own census by collecting ration cards, effectively forcing Sunni displacement by preventing Sunnis from receiving goods and services within Hurriya and sending displaced Shiites into evacuated Sunni houses. The Office and Mahdi Army elements funded operations by intercepting propane shipments and conducting their own delivery operations, raising the price of propane and preventing delivery to Sunnis. At the same time, clerical and tribal leadership meddling into socioeconomic affairs allowed the Mahdi Army to become criminalized and terrorize the Sunni and Shiite population. “Most of the Sunni population had been displaced to the district south of the Hurriya DMZ [demilitarized zone], so to speak, when my company arrived in Hurriya,” the major told me.

“There were some Sunnis who lived there, but were mostly women without husbands and lived pretty low-key. My southern border was lined with bullet-riddled and burned houses that distinguished the line between Shiite Hurriya and the Sunni district south of Hurriya.”

The major told me about Operation Seventh Veil, which was aimed at targeting the Shiite militias, no matter the political risk. Dagger Brigade initiated an operation to investigate, track, and detain “radical or criminal ISF leadership to disrupt this longstanding government sanctuary.” Many were confronted with evidence of their criminal links and warned to behave. A major coup resulting from this operation was the arrest of Ghazaliya’s police chief as well as officers from the Iraqi army.

By June 2007 Golden JAM had killed or captured rogue Mahdi Army elements, and the major’s battalion had disrupted the militia’s lines of communications, resources, and leadership, denying them sanctuary and killing “high-value individuals.”

In Dora, the main headquarters for the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army was the Kadhimayn Mosque in Abu Dshir. Its loudspeakers were within listening reach of Falcon FOB, where the 2-2 SCR was based. According to that unit’s senior intelligence officer, Captain Dehart, “We are actively targeting rogue elements of Shiite extremists that have not complied with Muqtada’s cease-fire and the remnants of Al Qaeda.” When Dehart first came into this area, it was Al Qaeda’s top stronghold in Iraq; but after successful clearing operations the leadership fled and the ones left were low-level thugs, young Sunni males with nothing better to do than to call themselves Al Qaeda, string together fellow thugs from the neighborhood, and try their hand at extortion and murder.

On a map Dehart showed me Saha and Mahala 828, or Kifaat, in northern Saha. He pointed to southern Saha, the majority-Shiite area ruled by Abu Jaafar, General Karim’s ally. It had large government-built apartment complexes. The north had villas he said had belonged to mostly Sunni government officials. “In the last few months Shiite militias moved up. Now the north is largely abandoned; it has a 10 percent occupancy rate. That’s where the fault line was. We called it ‘the arena.’ Sunnis from Mahala 830, or Hadhir, would come across and Shiites would come up and fire mortars into Sunni Mahalas 822 and 824 and randomly kill people. We have been able to cut that a lot. I can’t even say we—the surge, as Iraqi institutions have started to stand up and get more efficient. And it comes down to the people too, tired of the violence. We’ve had only one indirect fire incident in the last two weeks, directed at the FOB. It’s been a month and a half since we’ve had anything shot neighborhood to neighborhood. When we first got here it was several times a week. We specifically targeted that, and captured or killed mortar teams on both sides.”

First Lieut. Adam Sperry was Dehart’s tactical intelligence officer. Walking back from the chow hall to the tactical operations center one night, we heard celebratory gunfire and a speech blasting from the Kadhimayn Mosque’s loudspeakers, which he called “the propaganda phone.” Sperry said it was for the death of the Ninth Imam.

A week before my visit three Shiite NAC members who led three mahalas in Abu Dshir had been kidnapped just as ISV recruiting was set to begin in the area. They were taken to the Kadhimayn Mosque and released within twenty-four hours. The mosque’s previous imam, Sheikh Majid, had been arrested a year earlier but was later released. I asked why he was arrested. “Because he was a scumbag,” Sperry said. “The mosque was raided eight months ago. Weapons and a torture chamber were found. We should have raided that mosque a month ago.”

Sperry described Ziyad al-Shamari as the bane of his existence. “He’s the rogue special groups commander of Abu Dshir, responsible for EFPs [explosively formed penetrators] that have killed lots of our soldiers. This guy is not, nor was he ever, a Sadrist. He is funded entirely by Iran.” Sperry explained that Shiite militias did not attack the Americans in Abu Dshir, because it was their command-and-control location. “They don’t want to fight there or draw attention to themselves,” he said. Instead, they placed EFPs in other parts of Dora.

“Abu Dshir is stable,” Sperry said. “We don’t want to disturb that by breaking down doors. The guys we target in Abu Dshir are transiting there.” (The night before 2-2 SCR had gone on a raid to pick up two Mahdi Army suspects. When they showed up, one man drank a few gulps of motor oil and the other swallowed three pills of Viagra and passed out.) Thanks to the cease-fire and reconciliation, Sperry was having a hard time doing his job. “It’s impossible to determine who is good or who is bad,” he said, explaining that the only men the 2-2 SCR targeted were those who attacked the Americans after the cease-fire. “We can’t target anyone based on any evidence before that date.”

In December 2007, on my first Friday with the 2-2 SCR, an imam called Sayyid Abbas spoke at the Kadhimayn Mosque. He condemned killings and expulsions of people. “We are all brothers,” he said, and explained that Muqtada had imposed a cease-fire on his men “to correct all the mistakes and remove the bad members who joined the Mahdi Army without knowledge or religion. “They are just killers and thieves,” he said, “so if you know of somebody from the Mahdi Army trying to do something bad in the name of the Mahdi Army, please tell the mosque. We will take care of him by reporting his name to Kufa, and we will let the government know.” The government would arrest the renegade men, he said, granting the Iraqi Security Forces the Mahdi Army’s approval. The American forces were infidel forces, he said; they were trying to provoke a civil war, and Iraqis had to fight that. “We can’t kill our own brothers and our own people just because they are Sunni and Shiite,” he said. Not long after that, the Americans and Iraqi National Police raided the mosque again and found IEDs, mortars, and rockets.

Mahdi Army leaders were livid about the attempts to recruit Shiites for the Awakening and used the mosque to conduct investigations. They posted a “final warning” on the walls addressed to “the good people of Abu Dshir” and in “honor of the blood of our noble martyrs,” asking people to protect the souls of their sons and not join “the conspiracy known as the Awakening.” Abu Dshir’s main street, known as Rashid al-Tijari (the Americans called it Market Street), was lined with signs on light poles that bore pictures of Muqtada, his father, and various Mahdi Army “martyrs.” A slogan said that not all men were real men, which implied that these really were. A faded poster on one light pole said, “Bush and Saddam, two faces on same coin” in English. Graffiti on the walls warned takfiris that the Mahdi Army would declare them infidels deserving of death.

Sunni militias from the nearby Arab Jubur area had fired mortars at the Shiites of Abu Dshir. Walking through the neighborhood I found a man called Hisham working on his house. He had lost two brothers to the violence. Mortars from Arab Jubur had also landed on his neighbor’s house. “If it wasn’t for the police and the Americans, Al Qaeda would have destroyed us,” he said. “We are poor people, we just go to work and come back. We had no problems with our Sunni neighbors—it was all Al Qaeda.” People expelled from Arab Jubur and the Furat district had settled in the area. Muqtada’s local office and the Kadhimayn Mosque were providing assistance to them, including homes (emptied of Sunnis) and a stipend. Locals complained that the Mahdi Army freeze had hurt them. The militia had guarded the neighborhood and provided propane and kerosene, which they had trouble getting now. I asked who was protecting the area. “Its people,” I was told. “People sit in front of their homes.”

In Dora the Mahdi Army was under the command of the Karkh, or western Baghdad Brigade. The leader for western Baghdad and many of his local commanders were recently replaced for ignoring the freeze, and the Sadrists were trying to provide social services and help local municipalities. Some Sunni families who had been displaced by Al Qaeda in Arab Jubur were received by the Sadrists in Abu Dshir and provided with assistance. Mahdi Army men complained that the cease-fire was paralyzing them and causing them to lose respect or authority in their areas. In the nearby Bayya district, the Sadrist office was furious when an unknown corpse turned up on the street; several days were spent investigating whether somebody had disobeyed Muqtada’s orders. But the Mahdi Army was unable to control the rogue groups; sometimes, in fact, they received help from them.

In Abu Dshir the Mahdi Army relied on lookouts who watched for the Americans on rooftops and street corners. They also released pigeons from coops when American patrols approached. In the past this had led Americans to shoot innocent pigeon keepers. Apart from going on raids in Abu Dshir, the Americans conducted “presence patrols” in which they walked through the streets and interacted with people. I followed a platoon of soldiers from the 2-2 SCR around Market Street and spoke to the local shopkeepers about them. Flocks of sheep were herded through the streets, a common sight in the city. The Americans walked past furniture shops, waved to shopkeepers, and bought roasted chicken and fresh bread at inflated rates. “The Americans don’t have a strategy,” one local observed. “They don’t know who is with them or who is against them, and they’ve been here for four years.” I asked a group of men if Muqtada was powerful in this area. “It’s a Shiite neighborhood,” one said, as if it were obvious. “JAM has lookouts on streets dressed just like that,” an American officer said, pointing to a young man in a matching tracksuit. “It’s funny, you can look at these guys and know that they’re bad and have nothing to detain them for.”

Shopkeepers whose shops were destroyed during the fighting were supposed to receive money from the Americans. “Why did some get money and some didn’t?” I was asked by men who assumed I was a translator for the Americans. A group of men called the American officer over to show him an old man’s leg that was injured in an explosion. “Can’t anybody help him?” they asked. Another man asked if the Americans could help his unemployed son find a job in the security forces.

Platoon leader Lieutenant Cowan decided to visit a random house and ordered his men to “clear” it. Uninvited, they pushed open the outer gate and the door to the house. As the translator was elsewhere with Cowan, I had to explain to a frightened and bewildered woman and her two sons that the officer merely wanted to talk to them and they needn’t worry. The younger boy clung to his mother’s abaya and whimpered in terror. A soldier gave him some candy, and he stopped crying. “I feel bad walking on these people’s carpets with my shoes,” one major said. “My wife would kill me.” He went back outside. Cowan came in with his Iraqi translator, who wore a mask and sunglasses. He asked the woman how much electricity she received per day, about her water and sense of security. Cowan asked her if she knew who Ziyad al-Shamari was and how much influence the Mahdi Army had over the area. She laughed sheepishly with her older son. “We don’t go outside, we close the door,” she said. “You don’t hear rumors?” asked Cowan. “You don’t hear whispers? Do you know if there is JAM activity in the Kadhimayn Mosque?”

In a different home Cowan encountered an old man in a wheelchair who was a retired Iraqi colonel. “All Shiites here love the U.S. Army,” the man told him. “Yeah, well, we love you,” Cowan said with a smile. “In the beginning the Mahdi Army protected us from Al Qaeda,” the old man said. “Then they joined the police, they are all police. They protect us from mortars, Al Qaeda in Arab Jubur.”

One day I accompanied twenty-two-year-old platoon leader Rob Johnston as his men took two masked Iraqi “sources” from the Badr militia to identify Mahdi Army suspects. The Americans had been collaborating with this militia since 2004, when they teamed up with Jalaluddin al-Saghir, the Supreme Council cleric and politician. Saghir would send his security chief, known as Haji Dhia, to the Americans. Haji Dhia would wear a ski mask, point out the house, and tell the Americans what they would find there. He once escorted an American unit to a house at 2 a.m. They found an arms bazaar inside, with more than one hundred Kalashnikovs laid out in neat rows around the walls, along with ammunition, Glock pistols, and two MP-5s. Though at first the information was directed against Sunnis and helped the Americans arrest Al Qaeda cells, the Supreme Council provided information about the Sadrists as well, especially during the 2004 fighting in Najaf.

That morning in December 2007, the Americans descended from their vehicles and entered the main covered market in Abu Dshir. People tried to navigate around the large soldiers, looking at them quizzically as they squeezed through the tight alleys of the market. The Iraqi sources stayed in the vehicle. As women bought vegetables, fish, and clothes in various stalls, the soldiers rounded up all the men in the market, as well as those entering or leaving, pushing them back and holding them by their shoulders, ordering them to obey. One by one they led dozens of men to the street so the sources could identify them. One young boy started crying. A man hurrying back to his stall was halted. “Fish, fish,” he said in Arabic.

I wandered off to buy some popcorn from a stand. As I returned men warned me to go in a different direction because the Americans were stopping people. Sergeant Bowyer, charged with carrying out psychological operations, distributed an Arabic-language newspaper published by Americans and asked people inane questions. “So, how is everything here?” he asked one man. “What’s your sense of the people? Are people really happy in regards to reconciliation?” “Do you think JAM feels threatened by reconciliation?” he asked another. “When JAM tries to influence the people in Abu Dshir, how do they do it?” he asked another. “We can’t talk about this openly,” one man replied. “I’ll take that as a sign that it does happen,” Bowyer said. His vehicle was equipped with speakers, and as he drove through Market Street it blasted an announcement in Arabic calling on the people to continue with reconciliation and ignore those who would “take them back.”

The men raided a house and found some bewildered men working. “We’re laborers,” the men protested as they were taken to be identified by the sources, who had pointed out the house. They were pushed against the walls. One soldier held one of them by the back of the neck. The three men were quickly interrogated one by one. “What do you think of the way he talks,” the lieutenant asked me. “Do you think he’s honest?” Their stories were consistent with the obvious—they were mere laborers. “Can I go?” the last man asked me. “They’re not taking me away?” As I said no, he smiled and kissed my cheek. “We appreciate the time you gave us,” Lieutenant Johnston told them.

Children chased after the soldiers asking them for candy and teasing them. When they learned I spoke Arabic, they pointed to the pigeons that were flying above homes. They had been released by Mahdi Army lookouts. All the children liked Muqtada. “The Americans are dogs and Muqtada will defeat them,” one boy said. “The Americans are donkeys and the boys who take candy from the Americans are donkeys,” another boy said. “When they are here we say, ‘I love you,’ but when they leave we say, ‘Fuck you,’” he told me. Another boy showed me his watch, which had a picture of Muqtada’s father on its face.

Johnston’s platoon raided Abu Dshir one night. The soldiers broke down the gate of a home and rushed into the house. “We are not Mahdi Army, we are in the Iraqi army,” an old man protested. “We are not Mahdi Army or anything.” It was a middle-class home with no overt signs of religiosity and none of the typical things associated with Muqtada’s supporters. The five women and one child were herded into the living room as three men were interrogated. “Mister, I am no Jaish al-Mahdi,” one man protested in English. “Okay, okay, uskut, shukran” (be quiet, thank you), said a soldier. “We hate the Mahdi Army,” said an old woman, “believe me.” Thinking I was a translator, the residents looked at me and begged me to explain that none of them had anything to do with the Mahdi Army. The women were made to stand, empty their pockets, and pat themselves down, starting with their arms, down their chests to their legs.

One man, it turned out, was a laborer who had signed up for the Awakening. Another worked in their father’s pastry shop. Their father was seventy years old, and a brother who was absent was in the Iraqi army. The men’s pictures were taken. They were shown pictures of Mahdi Army suspects and asked to identify them, but they recognized none of them. “We are not terrorists,” the old man said. “We like the government.” Most of their protests went untranslated. “Why do you think automatically I’m looking for the Mahdi Army?” Johnston asked. “Because you have been arresting people and accusing them of being Mahdi Army lately,” the man replied. He was handcuffed and complained that they were too tight. Johnston put his finger between the cuffs and the man’s wrists. “If I can fit one finger, it’s okay,” he said. The two sons were also handcuffed, and they were all taken away. Their phones, computer, and cash were also taken, as were their personal papers, CDs, and other objects of interest that had Arabic writing on them. “They probably got some propaganda in there,” a sergeant explained as he carried off a hard drive.

Neighbors who rushed into their homes when the Americans arrived provoked American suspicion, and they too were brought in for interrogation. One old man started crying, fearing the Americans would take his son away. On the way back the tired soldiers bantered in the Stryker. “You know what I hate most about detainee duty? Watching those motherfuckers shit,” one complained. “I bet there’s an Iraqi rap song about being arrested by us,” another said.

The Reconciliation?