A baker's son driven by faith

Moqtada al-Sadr fills his militia with Shiite 'true believers.'

There was never any doubt that the young Iraqi Shiite with green eyes and close-cropped beard would pick up arms when called to fight by Moqtada al-Sadr.

In 2004 this militant along with a handful of his brothers – all of them like-minded true believers – got their first taste of "holy war" fighting with the Mahdi Army against US forces in the Iraqi capital.

"When I went out to fight an [American] tank, I expected to die," Abbas says, matter-of-factly. Mr. Sadr's militia was still in its infancy when it faced the Americans in the broken streets of Baghdad's biggest slum, Sadr City. Abbas was there for the historic fight. Today, he and his family still pledge their loyalty to Sadr, but ask that their real names not be used for fear of reprisals.

"I don't want to be a martyr just to die. But we want martyrdom to destroy injustice," says Abbas, who trained to be a teacher. In his pink shirt, knitted vest, and beige shoes, he looks like anything but the stereotypical Mahdi soldier dressed in black. "We sacrifice ourselves to guarantee our sons and next generations to live free after us, without injustice."

His father set a militant tone, drawing upon Shiite faith. "This real jihad – not terrorism – guarantees you a second life in heaven," states the father, a black-and-white checked kaffiyeh framing the deep lines of his face. "So we [would] go to these places, Afghanistan, Iran, even America [to fight]. This is our Islamic faith."

"With our patience and jihad ... we can win," adds the father, who works as a baker to support his nine children. "Not just against America, but all the world."

Support for Sadr runs like a river among the 2 million Shiites who live in Sadr City. The Mahdi Army has a few thousand core fighters and an estimated 10,000 to 60,000 closely linked militants. Funding to the militia includes protection rackets and mafia-style control over resources such as cooking gas. Iran is reported to be increasing its support – seeing in Sadr an increasingly powerful instrument against US and extremist Sunni influence.

During the 2004 conflict in Sadr City, one of the baker's sons was just 13. He carried food, water, and ammunition to the fighters. One day, the son says, he was just 20 yards away when an armored American patrol blasted back, killing four militants. But that flash of carnage only reinforced the boy's lifelong theological instruction.

"When we go to Friday prayers, my father always tells me: 'If I die, you [should] stay with the Sadr movement,' " says the boy, now 16 and who, like many teenagers here, wears jeans and gels his hair.

"Even our 6-year-old son," interjects the proud father. "I told my wife to raise him to follow Sadr."

A battle framed in Islamic history

If the beliefs of this Sadrist family are any measure, Sadr has successfully transplanted a centuries-old Shiite epic about the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, killed in AD 680, onto a modern war that portrays US forces as the enemies of God and Islam.

"Now we can see the [new] occupiers," he says. "They take our lands and our country, [but] we don't find any other man carrying the revolutionary spirit to the street – just Moqtada."

The seeds of those ideas first found water during the rule of Saddam Hussein, when Iraq's majority Shiites were repressed and attacked. Sadr's father, a grand ayatollah killed by the regime in 1999, was the catalyst for change.

"He started to change the ideology of these young people," says Abbas's father. "In Saddam's time, we could not say anything." But the elder Sadr's murder sparked a low-key mobilization that serves Shiite militants in Iraq today.

This father, for example, did not know that his son was secretly distributing antiregime flyers. And the son did not know that the father deliberately missed his Iranian targets while serving as an Iraqi artilleryman during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He says he knew that his fellow Shiites on the other side of the front line were conscripts, also.

"We learned good things for the future from that era of repression," says the father. "How to lead society without a leader and organize small cells against the regime – and now the occupation."

These foot soldiers say they respect Sadr's current orders: keep a low profile until the Americans leave – or are pushed out. "We can't [yet] say 'God is great! We survived!' because we are expecting another war, says Abbas. "If the Americans make trouble for Moqtada, we will fight the occupation."

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