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Tuesday, August 03, 2004

We're In Charge Here

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Many missed the news, but yesterday there was a firefight in Najaf involving Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army and US Marines. Sadr is still very much an influential element in Iraq. This story from tomorrow's Christian Science Monitor notes that his army currently has control over an area (Baghdad slum Sadr City) housing a full ten percent of eligible Iraqi voters.

In recent months, the Mahdi Army has consolidated its control over Sadr City - a poor sprawl of 2.5 million on Baghdad's northeastern edge - maintained control over large portions of Najaf, forced a US-backed government council in the southern city of Amara to resign, and rearmed in anticipation of further confrontation with the US.

"We're in charge here,'' says Sheikh Amar Saadi, a preacher in Sadr City and senior Mahdi Army commander. And he goes further:

"Our mission is to clear Iraq of evil, and that's not just about defeating the Americans."

Aside from the fact that Saadi's words are eerily similar to another quote (our responsibility before history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.), this does not bode well at all for the Iraqi public. Not the portion that wishes Iraq to remain a secular nation, at least. As Saadi goes on to say:

"We know everyone here, the good people and the bad people, and we're dealing with them." He also cheerfully confirms that the Mahdi Army has been behind the recent fire-bombings of liquor stores and video stores they accuse of selling pornography. "We're protecting people from these things."...

...Sheikh Saadi, the Mahdi commander, says that while the movement's stature has been mostly built up in relation to the Americans, its mission extends far beyond the day when US troops leave the country. "We're fighting a war to cleanse the world of evil, it starts here but will spread everywhere,'' he says. "It's going to last until the Mahdi returns to earth."

The Mahdi is a mythical figure revered in some Islamic traditions which closely mirrors some Christian beliefs about the end of the world. The Mahdi, the story goes, will one day return to Earth in the midst of violence and moral crises, bring about the full triumph of Islam, and usher in a long period of peace - to be followed by the end of the world.

Many of the group's leaders believe the time of the Mahdi is near. "Saddam's fall was a sign, the US occupation was a sign, our job is to prepare the way for the Mahdi's return,'' says Sheikh Uday al-Maliki, a Mahdi commander who calls himself a parapsychologist. "One way to think of the Mahdi Army is as a Mukhabarat for souls,'' he says, referring to Saddam Hussein's feared domestic intelligence service.

A Mukhabarat for souls. One thing about religious extremists, of any root faith, is that they're always very sure of how to best protect the souls of others. The masses, in Iraq or anywhere else, should beware such as these.

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