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Family follows Shiite cleric into holy battle for Iraq

NAJAF, Iraq—Nassir al Asadi is angry that Americans are running his country. He's upset that the police force he works for does nothing to oppose them. And the 35-year-old father has lost patience with the Iraqi holy men of his Shiite Muslim faith who fail to condemn the occupiers.

So when rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr last July called on Iraqis to join the armed resistance, al Asadi didn't hesitate. Nor did his siblings. They believe that should they be martyrs while in al Sadr's Mahdi Army—named after the Shiite messiah—it would be a ticket to heaven, a far better fate than serving any foreign master on earth.

The Mahdi Army is the key threat to American-led forces in central and southern Iraq, and the anger of al Asadi and his family offers a glimpse into why many Shiites the United States had counted on as allies are enemies instead.

"Hopefully, the Americans won't be able to take Seyed Muqtada, but if they do, it'll only be over our dead bodies," said al Asadi, giving Muqtada the title used by Shiites whose families are descended from Islam's prophet Muhammad. Al Asadi was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his parents' living room, slicing apples for his 2-year-old son, Hussein.

Al Asadi's siblings live in a rundown neighborhood that's accessible by a dirt road on the outskirts of the holy city of Najaf.

Although nine of her 10 children have joined the Mahdi Army, Basim Jihad isn't rattled by the prospect of losing them to violence. The 50-year-old Jihad shares her children's loyalty to al Sadr. She beamed at her sons and their seemingly futile quest.

"I think of them as the Fedayeen (men of sacrifice) for our faith," she said. "If they are killed, it's a bravery medal for me."

So far, the medal has eluded her. Jihad's sons have been in a single gun battle against coalition forces, attacking Spanish-led troops in Najaf during an April 4 demonstration. The three-hour firefight killed 22 people and wounded at least 100.

The al Asadi brothers are reluctant to say how they train. "We were soldiers in Saddam's army. We know how to fight," Nassir al Asadi said.

Their weapons hidden as they await orders, the al Asadis are an untapped layer of Mahdi guerrillas who'd pose a far greater threat to U.S. soldiers than the often teenage al Sadr loyalists who patrol the streets of Najaf and Kufa with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

"The Americans promised us freedom, but they lied," Nassir al Asadi said, adding that he doesn't believe the Bush administration will return control of Iraq to its people on June 30 as scheduled. "Since they won't give it, we'll take it by force."

Such sentiments have made April the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since they invaded Iraq 13 months ago. While Sunni Muslim insurgents fight Marines in the west, al Sadr's gunmen fire on U.S. soldiers in the south.

Even al Asadi's sister, Worood, 19, has joined the group. Her gender limits her role to demonstrator and security guard, searching women entering the Kufa Mosque, where al Sadr delivered his call to arms. But like her brothers, she's hungry to fight the Americans and would do so if al Sadr changes his mind.

"I wish I would be permitted to use a gun," she lamented. Her only sister isn't a member because she doesn't live in Iraq, the family said.

The al Asadis concede that they have little chance of defeating the U.S. military, which is camped outside Kufa and Najaf this week on a mission to disband the Mahdi Army and arrest al Sadr in connection with the murder last year of a pro-Western Shiite cleric. Talks have been under way in Najaf to end the standoff peacefully, though few residents believe al Sadr will give up his militia without a fight.

Iraq's senior Shiite religious authorities dismiss al Sadr as a thug, and that attitude only adds to the guerrillas' anger and isolation, the al Asadis said.

It also strengthens their resolve. "If Seyed Muqtada gives us the order to fight, we'll use rocks if we have to," says Ahmed al Asadi, 28, a Hawza or seminary student.

Members of an Arab clan that spans from northern to southern Iraq, the al Asadis said their marja, or top religious authority, was the young cleric's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr. Saddam Hussein had tried to turn the elder al Sadr into an ally in hopes of subduing the other senior Shiite religious leaders, but al Sadr turned on him instead. Saddam's agents assassinated him in 1999.

"The father, he stood in Saddam's face. He became a martyr," said Ahmed al Asadi.

The younger al Sadr lacks the religious credentials to be a marja like his father or his famous uncle, Mohammed Baqr al Sadr, who was also killed by Saddam. But the al Asadis and other al Sadr followers insisted that it's the dynasty that counts.

"We believe in things Seyed Muqtada says. Like the first and second al Sadrs, he's a strong man. We are fighting for our (mutual) cause," Ahmed al Asadi said.

Najaf's more accepted holy men say such loyalty is misplaced.

Amar al Hakim, a cleric who heads the cultural branch of a powerful Iraqi Shiite political party and whose father sits on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, said al Sadr's gunmen are violating the Islamic edicts they believe they're protecting. Many of them are uneducated, underemployed and are being fed misinformation, he said.

He recalled last month how al Sadr supporters who'd come to disrupt a speech he was giving about religious tenets. Instead, after hearing the speech, they wept and kissed him, al Hakim said. "What they are missing is the culture of Islam," he said.

The al Asadis dismissed that notion as snobbery. "Yes, many of our fighters are young and have very little information about their religion, but these believers have awoken," Ahmed al Asadi said. "They started teaching themselves about Islam, they started studying it themselves. They have lots of things they believe in. If they didn't have any idea about our religion, they wouldn't do this."

The al Asadis bristled at suggestions by al Hakim and other Najaf residents that Mahdi fighters are interlopers. They blame such sentiments on the prejudice of more wealthy residents living closer to the city center who view anyone living in the outskirts as outsiders.

Only two shifts of 15 fighters each who guard the Kufa Mosque where al Sadr preaches are from other cities, Nassir al Asadi claimed.

"For now, our overall numbers are small," said Ahmed al Asadi.

"What we need is a full-scale revolution in all parts of Iraq, which will happen. It will shake the whole world if the Americans decide to attack us inside Najaf or Kufa."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): mahdi army


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