On Thursday afternoon, bombs in six parked cars began detonating at 15-minute intervals in three sections of Sadr City, including the crowded Jamila Market. Mahdi Army militiamen quickly spread out around the vast slum, residents said.
They helped the injured into cars and carted the dead to funeral homes, where the corpses would be cleansed according to Muslim rituals. Some donated blood and helped fire fighters douse flames. Other militiamen, some clutching AK-47 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenades, searched for the perpetrators of the bombings. They found one more car, filled with explosives, and took the driver into custody.
At Khadisiya Hospital, militiamen assisted doctors and nurses, carrying patients into emergency rooms, Abid said. With hospital supplies thin, Sadr officials sent over syringes, medicines and other equipment donated by merchants. And with only four ambulances in circulation, most of the wounded were being brought in cars.
"Most of the cars were Mahdi Army, or Mahdi Army men were inside to carry in the wounded," Abid said.
Others fanned out to protect their neighborhoods. On nearly every street, heavily armed militiamen stood guard, residents said. Concrete barriers and barbed wire were quickly erected, closing off streets to unfamiliar cars to prevent further attacks.
Entry and exit into Sadr City were controlled. When he learned of the bombings, Hendul said, he rushed to Sadr City. But the militiamen at the checkpoints refused to let him enter. He showed his Sadr identification cards, but they wouldn't budge.
"They prevented me from coming inside until they made phone calls to check who I was," Hendul recalled Friday. "Yesterday was a good example of how we can handle security. Our city can protect itself better than the government."
During the invasion of Baghdad in April 2003, Sadr militiamen had de-Baathified and secured Baghdad's "Saddam City" neighborhood, and renamed it "Sadr City," even before American troops had secured the rest of the city. During the looting which took place after Baghdad's fall, Sadr militiamen were out in force protecting Shi'a shops and homes. American troops protected the oil ministry.
From this week's Newsweek cover article on Moqtada:
Moqtada al-Sadr did not appearon anyone's radar screen ahead of the 2003 invasion. Even among Iraqis, although he came from an important clerical family he was seen as a weak figure. Moqtada's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, had been a leading ayatollah, a rival to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other top clerics. But gunmen—assumed to be working for Saddam—murdered the elder Sadr along with two of his sons in 1999. Moqtada was 25 at the time.
Saddam kept a close eye on Sadr because the young man inherited a wide network of mosques, schools and social centers built up by his father. The network was focused on the impoverished masses of Iraqi Shiites—the sort of people other religious and secular leaders didn't have much time for. Even some educated Shiites dismissed Moqtada as a zatut, or ignorant child. Some called him "Mullah Atari," because he apparently enjoyed videogames as a kid. He certainly lacked his father's stature: in his theological studies, Moqtada never reached beyond the level of bahth al-kharij (pregraduation research), according to a study by the International Crisis Group. But it's clear now that most everybody underestimated him.
[Grand Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei] returned to the holy city of Najaf, where he was born and raised, under U.S. military protection. He quickly organized a local council to get electricity and water flowing again, apparently with CIA money. (The CIA declined to comment.) But al-Khoei's father had been Iraq's top ayatollah—and a bitter rival of Sadr's father—during Saddam's rule. Now the sons were competing for power and influence. Sadr castigated al-Khoei as a U.S. agent, and demanded that he turn over the keys to the tomb of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law. A gilded cage surrounding the tomb contains a box for pilgrims' donations, a huge and vital source of income for religious leaders.
As al-Khoei and a colleague visited the shrine on the morning of April 10, 2003, an angry mob attacked them with grenades, guns and swords. "Long live Moqtada al-Sadr!" the mob cried out. Al-Khoei was stabbed repeatedly, then tied up and dragged to the doorstep of Sadr's headquarters in Najaf, where he was still alive. A subsequent investigation by an Iraqi judge found that Sadr himself gave the order to finish him off: "Take him away and kill him in your own special way."
The murder of al-Khoei can be seen as the first move in Moqtada's struggle against the Shi'a clerical establishment, and an almost unimaginably bold one. Unlike challenging the American occupation, being seen as having participated in the murder of a Grand Ayatollah could have had real, dire consequences for Moqtada in terms of popular support. He took advantage of the post-invasion confusion to eliminate a competitor, one with much greater scholarly standing as well as the backing of the U.S. coalition. The death of al-Khoei both satisfied what many suspect was a family grudge, and removed a significant rival for political power. (Al-Khoei had also made the questionable move of approaching the shrine that day accompanied by its keeper, a known Baathist, in a conciliatory gesture. The crowd that surrounded and eventually murdered them both, however, was not in a conciliatory mood.)
As with Rumsfeld's blithe dismissal of the looting, one of the retired generals on Jay Garner's staff dismissed the murder of al-Khoei by saying "Oh, it's just them killing each other." Not only was Moqtada underestimated, the people that were put in charge of the occupation had little knowledge of the political-religious context within which he was operating.