Sunday, August 22, 2004

Strange Days

A Newsweek article describes the festival-like atmosphere within the area surrounded by US troops in Najaf.

Townspeople make their way to the mosque at all hours, night and day, for prayers and companionship. They generally seem calm and comfortable, even when —the shelling outside is heavy. At night, festoons of colored lights cast a carnival glow on the men who stand and chat in the mosque's vast courtyard. During the day—between gun battles, anyway—the place almost resembles a big cookout, when huge stew pots are set up in the rubble outside the south gate beneath a canopy of fallen electrical lines, and plates of rice with tomato sauce are served to all comers. ...

At times the insurgents act as if the siege is practically a street party. One afternoon I met a dozen or so guerrillas a few blocks from the shrine, racing east through the deserted neighborhood toward the U.S. line. The group's leader, just out of his teens and built like a wrestler, was running barefoot, apparently not bothered by the shrapnel that covered the pavement. He said his name was Ali; he and his men had traveled from the far northern city of Mosul to join al-Sadr's revolt. They were going to attack an American armored vehicle. Almost within sight of their target, they were greeted by other pro-Sadr fighters from Nasiriya and Karbala. The youngest of the group, spotting a poster of al-Sadr on a nearby wall, asked me to photograph him with it. At that, the whole bunch broke into a wild dance, bouncing and chanting: "Moqtada! Moqtada!" Then mortars began hammering the area, and I left for safer ground. I haven't seen Ali since.

A strange sort of festival where the lights and faucets work and men fire from positions lit by colored lights. The fighting at Najaf isn't just a military operation, it's an event: a scene. Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor, who organized a convoy into the Ali shrine on August 20, when it seemed likely that it would be assaulted was surprised to find acquaintances from Baghdad when he got there:

Inside the shrine itself, there were no weapons to be seen, but there were hundreds of Mahdi Army supporters, some of them familiar faces from a demonstration one week ago in Baghdad. They were voluntary human shields, the youngest perhaps 8 years old, the oldest 70. Together, they marched around and chanted, turning an impromptu press photo op into a punk rock mosh pit.

We were led around to the north side of the shrine and into an air-conditioned office, where al-Sadr's spokesmen, Sheikh Ali Smeisim, gave a news conference. Smeisim's statement was a complete reversal of what we had been told. He said that al-Sadr had accepted all of the conditions of the National Conference delegation, although he was unable to meet the delegation in person because of concerns for his safety.

The political conditions under which the campaign against Sadr is being conducted has created scenarios that have no parallel in military history bar none, and quite possibly, since the world began. Rice and sauce served to all comers beside field hospitals; chanting punctuated by heavy machine firing; extreme vitality juxtaposed with death. Here is camaraderie souped up with adrenaline and fame, where the difference between momentary celebrity as the object of interest of a Newsweek reporter and the cold silence of the tomb are the seconds it takes for an 81 mm mortar round to arc over a thousand yards. The gulf between Moqtada Al Sadr's boys and the followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani may in the end be wider than Koranic learning. It is generational. Sadr, a young man still in his thirties, has provided that magnetic, almost irresistible draw: a place for young people where something is happening. He sets up the situation, America provides the music and the rave begins. 'I tell ya, I wuz there man', in Arabic, casts the same spell it does for youth the world over. The strange thing is that the Marine teenagers on the other side will be writing the same lines, in English, to their parents and friends back home, where in exact symmetry their elders are debating Najaf not in terms of the Koran, as Sistani's adherents are wont,  but through the prism of riverine actions in Vietnam thirty five years ago, and congratulate themselves for being more scientific.

Yet the present has a way of destroying the past. Critics who accuse President Bush of widening the war by pursuing Sadr often forget that wars widen both ways. It would be equally valid to say that Iran has widened the war against Iraq by keeping the pot simmering in Najaf. Sadr, as the bellweather of Teheran, has as much as declared a steel cage death match with Prime Minister Allawie. Those who accuse President Bush of living in the past often do so as ghostly voices from the mists of the Mekong Delta. The party which started on September 11 can return to America or it can finish up in Teheran. The one that happened in Vietnam ended a long time ago.

But it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know, why should I care
Please don't bother tryin' to find her
She's not there

Well let me tell you 'bout the way she looked
The way she'd act and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool
Her eyes were clear and bright
But she's not there
The Zombies