The Happy Arab News Service

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Tales of the Mahdi

"They say the Mahdi is coming back," reports the Economist from Basra, Iraq's second largest city and a cursed capital of its south. As the British forces are preparing to pull out of Iraq, they are leaving Basra in a vastly worse shape than it was three years ago and its residents worried.

Many Basrawis use the language of apocalypse to describe the rival Shia parties and their militias (the biggest calling itself the Mahdi Army) that are struggling for control of their city. The police force, set up by the British, is infiltrated by the militias and involved in crime. Some Basra people say the clashes, assassinations, kidnappings, the daily threat of violence and the enforcement of a rigid Islamist code of conduct amount to a “Shia Talibanisation”, with music and wedding parties banned and huge billboards warning women against venturing outside unveiled.

“We live a half-life in Basra,” says a university teacher. “There's no space for life, no parks, theatres, cinemas or space for freedom. Civil and political activities are controlled. When you go outside, the fear is inside you that you may be followed and targeted. We're living in a nightmare.”

The British, who were always highly critical of the Yankees cowboys tactics in northern Iraq, have found their nuanced and balanced approach totally defeated in Basra. The city is infested with violent and unruly militias who harass the population and regularly clash with each other. A looming showdown between the two main Shia groups in the south has prompted the Time to title one of its latest reports "The Next War in Iraq".

The military success against al-Qaeda in Anbar province has led to a certain incoherence in U.S. policy. We are working bottom up, from the tribal grass roots, with the Sunnis ... but top down, and not very successfully, with the Shi'ite majority. According to Crocker, tribes aren't as important among the Shi'ites, who tend to organize themselves in larger structures, especially around two dominant political families, the Sadrs and the Hakims. Each family has a militia. The Sadrs have the Mahdi Army, and the Hakims have the Badr Corps, and these two forces are now at war with each other in southern Iraq.


The irony is that it's happening when the Americans are indeed scoring real gains against Al Kaida and other sectarian plagues in northern Iraq. Death tolls in Baghdad and around are down for two consecutive months. The US military casualties are down too with the 'Surge' now reaching even areas inside the infamous Sunni Death Triangle.

This surprising reversal of fortunes happened after tribal leaders in Anbar and Diyala, fed up with Al Kaida's way of winning hearts and minds the Taliban style, have committed themselves to fighting Al Kaida and called on their people to join police and cooperate with the US army. This unlikely coalition has been further enhanced by a few rebel groups, such as the Revolutionary Brigades of 1920, who switched sides and joined the Americans and tribal leaders against Al Kaida. Even those insurgent groups still committed to fighting crusaders split and set up their own umbrella organization independent of Al Kaida.

In the past two months dozens, if not hundreds, of Al Kaida fighters were killed in Anbar and Diyala provinces, many times at the hands of fellow Sunnis. In his last recorded appearance Bin Laden went that far as to criticize 'Al Kaida in Iraq' group urging it to admit and correct its mistakes, this is how serious the situation of Al Kaida has become.

Even more surprising, it appears that in some Shia areas of Baghdad and around residents started imitating their Sunni neighbors by setting up neighborhood guards, tipping Americans about active Mahdi Army members to be arrested and cooperating with the Madonna Brothers (a Shia adaptation of an Arab term of tribal respect for referring to the Yankees) in other ways. The effectiveness of this combination of a new precision in American arrests and the willingness of the Shias in the north to take on their own militias was indirectly confirmed by nobody else but Moqtada Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, himself who recently started issuing muted threats to resume hostilities if the US and Iraqi forces don't stop raids against his followers (The Mahdi Army has been officially on vacation since a while after Sadr had got very distressed by one particularly bloody clash of his followers with members of a rival Shia militia in the holy city of Karbala).

Yet, just when the 'cowboys' seemed to be at the point to achieve a real stabilization in north Iraq, the situation has started rapidly unraveling in the Shia dominated south. This next war between members of Iraq's largest community that accounts for 60% of the population is promising to be even worse and bloodier than the Sunni Shia wars of the last years. This gloomy prospect is causing utter dismay in some circles who apparently failed to grasp until now that the Arab world has an absolutely huge and still largely untapped potential for external wars and internal strife and this potential certainly does not end with the Israeli Arab conflict and Sunni Shia sectarian rivalries. Even now, years after the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, the US is still only scratching the surface of the shit.

From the beginning the British presence in south Iraq has set the Arab imagination on fire spawning a myriad of conspiracy theories ranging from the British planting snake eggs in Shat et Arab to them releasing huge man eating badgers into the city of Basra. But the most fascinating conspiracy theories were produced by enriching the regular Arab conspiratorial folklore with elements of the Shia religion. Shia Islam is a very peculiar religion. In fact, it may be the most peculiar of major monotheistic religions and one of its core doctrines may shock some people as particularly bizarre - the Shia version of messiah is believed to have stayed alive for more than a millennium and be wandering around us at that very moment.

There is no need to believe in resurrection in Shia Islam as the hidden Imam is supposed to stay in hiding until the time is right for him to reappear and establish the rule of justice. Shias reason that this monumental task of living undiscovered through centuries is made possible by the Mahdi's uncunning ability to remain hidden from human view at will. When confronted by followers of other religions Shias usually argue that the Mahdi's outstanding performance in terms of longevity is no more miraculous than the resurrection of Christ or the resurrection of the dead awaited by Jewish and Christian traditions (In this they may have a point).

Basra is a capital of the predominantly Shia south and it's only natural that Basra is also a capital of the Arab conspirazoid mindset taken to new heights by the creative imagination of the Shia street.

“I HAVE this question for you,” says Abu Ahmed, a businessman with a grey beard from Iraq's southern city of Basra. “Why did the British and foreign forces come to Iraq? Didn't Bush and Blair invade to stop the Mahdi from winning power?”

The ever rational and highly intelligent Economist is not one to be easily thrown off balance by such questions and it strikes back with a devastating counter argument:

It is unlikely that either George Bush or Tony Blair, as they prepared for war, had heard of the Mahdi—the millennial figure who Shia Muslims believe will come with the Messiah to set up a just Islamist government at the end of the world.

The point is moot of course. In the oral and written traditions of Arab conspiracism Western intelligent services are usually credited with magic powers rivaling those of Allah the Almighty. To figure out that the Mahdi's return is approaching should be no challenge for them, let alone Shia religious texts are saturated with information that makes predicting this event very easy. For example it's said that on the eve of the Mahdi's arrival tyrants and despots would rule the world and Muslims would make alliances with non Muslims to fight each other.

Abu Ahmed is not relenting:

The businessman says the invasion was a deliberate attempt to cause so much chaos that the Mahdi's return would be hidden from the world's gaze. “America and Britain want to destroy Iraq and control it,” he says. “We see proof every day. Nothing has been built in four years. We've lost everything—our security, our jobs, our country.” He blames the British, who have overseen Iraq's southern zone, and the Americans for sowing sectarian hatred. British soldiers defaced Sunni and Shia mosques at night, he says, in order to provoke clashes between the two groups. The Americans, he says, secretly brought al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq in containers and gave them money and weapons.

It's a little wonder that the British failed to win over the hearts and minds of the south given the conspiracy mindset of its residents and yet, some Iraqis claim, this wasn't necessarily such an impossible talk.

The British invaders, some Basrawis argue, could have won people over if they had showed a willingness to support the hidden Mahdi. “One of our traditions says that most of those standing against him will be Muslims and most of his followers will be from the Christian community.”


Indeed. At least nominally Christian, British soldiers make the most likely candidates for Mahdi's supporters in case the hidden Imam gets convinced that the stage is ripe for his long awaited comeback. This could have been a brilliant move on the part of the British force crusading in south Iraq.

On the other hand it's not that sure that the British were lacking in willingness to support the hidden Imam. It may rather be that, the Mahdi being a master of hiding and evasion, the British have simply failed to locate him.

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