As the crowd of chanting men grew around us, my translator gave me a sidelong glance.
"We should leave now," he said.
Normally I complained when a translator told me it was time to go, but I felt the urgency too. I looked around at the crowd, continuing to swell. Those who were aware of my presence, the presence of a foreigner, did not look happy. It was easy to believe this angry mob might suddenly use me as a stand-in for the American army they hated so much. I backed out of the building and walked toward the car without questioning, calmly but quickly, and with the sense I had just witnessed something monumental, precipitous.
It was June 2003, and Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most influential leaders of the Shia branch of Islam in Iraq, had just formally called for armed resistance against the US military. Sadr's decree went out at noon prayers, still a veiled threat at the time, but the message was clear. By late afternoon, hundreds, if not thousands, of young men swarmed the Sadr office in Sadr City—and Sadr offices all over the country—to become members of the Jeish al-Mehdi. The army of the Mehdi—the long prophesied imam and redeemer who will cleanse the earth in the last days. His army. The Mehdi Army. The Jeish al-Imam. JAM, as the US military would acronymize them.
Eight months later, the Jeish al-Mehdi engaged US troops in Baghdad and Najaf, bloody battles that cost the US few troops but proved that the Mehdi were far more interested in fighting than in strategy. Soldiers who saw action in Falluja against Sunni insurgents were not embarrassed to admit that the Shiite guerillas worried them much more. Instead of the hit-and-run tactics of the Sunni resistance fighters, who rarely gave the military a chance to shoot at them, the Mehdi adopted a strategy of full frontal attacks. They were easy targets, but undaunted. I have no doubt that many of the men I have met inside the movement, especially during that first uprising, were certain paradise awaited them.
As a young correspondent fiercely opposed to the US occupation, I wanted desperately to find an honorable resistance, so I, too, was drawn to the Mehdi. The class arguments and anticolonial sentiments initially advanced by many of the followers of Sadr, the Sadrieen, were acceptable, even supportable. Their religious conservatism and belief in a state led by clerics were less appealing. But somehow I could forgive that. These were the poorest of the poor, reviled by most Iraqis as uneducated, as rabble; I could understand how the rhetoric of being God's chosen ones would appeal to them. What I didn't understand then was how quickly the logic of violence makes everything impure.
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