THE DESTRUCTION OF SAMARRA’S Al Askari mosque on February 22 set off a wave of unrest across the country, and news of sectarian clashes has been pouring incessantly out of Iraq ever since. The Najaf province remains relatively calm, but that’s not to say that tensions haven’t increased. Anger toward Americans is more palpable; on convoys, people might spit or throw rocks at you, and this is a new development here.
When I first heard about the Samarra bombing, I was having a meeting with the mayor of Manathera, just south of Najaf. The Al Askari mosque is one of the holiest sites for Shiites; I knew immediately that people were going to be enraged. Although Samarra is a distance north from Manathera, my immediate concern was my team. It’s difficult to communicate our vulnerabilities in this situation, but try to imagine riding with your friends through downtown Austin surrounded by a thousand or more angry maniacs throwing rocks and firebombs at you. Once a single vehicle is disabled, you’re pretty much toast. I was trained as a lieutenant to always visualize the worst possible thing that can happen and then take all measures to prevent it.
Our three-Humvee convoy was outside the mayor’s office pulling security while I conducted the meeting. His office is in a cul-de-sac, meaning there’s only one way out. The exit leads straight into the heart of town; behind the office in the other direction is the Euphrates River. I asked the mayor, “Do you think we should leave?” “No, no,” he answered. “You are safe here. No one will harm you. Let’s go look at the schools.” He was guiding me back toward my original purpose for being there, which was to get recommendations from him about potential renovation projects for the city. I felt a little reassured, but in the back of my mind, all I kept thinking about was how the bombing was a really big deal. As far as I could recall, nothing like this had happened before.
We took a stroll in the neighborhood next to the mayor’s compound, and as we walked, I heard the loudspeaker click on at the nearby mosque. Anyone who has spent time in the Middle East is familiar with the call to prayer, and I always find myself wishing I knew what the callers were saying. This time there was no doubt. “ Allah akhbar! Allah akhbar! Allah akhbar!” an unmistakable phrase that means “God is great,” over and over again. Finally, the caller moved on to something else, and I asked my interpreter what he was saying. It was a call for gathering and demonstration, and my interpreter told me, “Don’t worry, Captain. It’s for peaceful demonstration only.” That was good to hear. We checked out a couple projects, and then it was time to return to the forward operating base.
On our way home, we took the main road, which heads north through Najaf. I had assumed there’d be no problem with this, because any demonstrations would occur to the west, near the city’s main shrine. Well, I was wrong. As our convoy drove right into the heart of town, we passed the mosque of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia. Muqtada’s claim to authority is his lineage. His father was Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was allegedly assassinated at Saddam Hussein’s orders for political defiance. Muqtada has leveraged his family’s courage for his own gain, and although he suffered militarily at the hands of the U.S. in 2004, the people in Najaf still hold him up as a leader. It’s always easy to recognize his guys—they’re the ones dressed in black. On that day, they were gathered en masse between his mosque and the road. Traffic was very thick, and we were quickly wrapped into the middle of it, sitting still directly in front of the mosque.
As I looked to my left, I saw all the demonstrators watching us, waving their arms and chanting in unison. My interpreter, who is a Shia Muslim from Najaf, said with a smile, “Oh, shit, Captain. They’re saying, ‘Americans, get out! Americans, get out!’” To be honest with you, that was exactly what I’d had in mind too. As I flipped the switch on my Humvee’s siren, a call came up on the radio from one of our soldiers. “Hey, they’re throwing rocks at us. What do we do?” Instantly I had an image of one of the young, inexperienced soldiers popping off a round unnecessarily and us being directly involved in a nightmare of potentially international proportions. Fortunately, one of the NCOs quickly answered up with the solution: “Nothing. We’re getting out of here.” Soon we were happily out of town.
A few days later, during a visit to Hurriya, a town a few miles east of Najaf, a demonstration of teenage boys broke out while we toured two schools. My interpreter told me that their signs condemned the bombing and implied that