From Militant to Moderate

Salman Sharif Duaffar was a radical and an assassin. Now he says he just wants to help bring peace and stability to Iraq. But can reason still prevail?

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On the day that the Mahdi Army’s bloody rebellion rolled across southern Iraq, Salman Sharif Duaffar, like most of his countrymen, was taken by surprise. Duaffar, 35, a former Shiite mujahid who last summer returned from six years of exile in Iran, is a major political player in Nasiriya, a tumbledown city of 590,000 on the Euphrates River. For months, Duaffar and his colleagues on the 36-member provincial council had listened to the threats of Islamic radicals loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery young cleric based in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. But the Mahdi’s posturing always stopped short of violence, and Duaffar had come to believe that Sadr’s militia was mostly the stuff of bluster.

But on a sultry afternoon in early April, as Duaffar and his aides were discussing the plan of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to transfer some power to Iraqis on June 30, the Mahdi Army took to the streets. Dressed in black, clutching Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, some 200 militants poured through Nasiriya in an angry rampage that mirrored those taking place in other Iraqi cities. It was the CPA that had put spark to Mahdi powder by shuttering Al Hawza, Sadr’s fiercely anti-Coalition newspaper — a gesture that unwittingly echoed the brutal repression Shiites had suffered under Saddam Hussein. Once the rioting had begun, the CPA added gasoline to the fire by arresting a top Sadr aide for complicity in the murder of a moderate, U.S.-backed cleric in Najaf a year earlier. As the subsequent wave of carnage and kidnappings swept over Iraq, Sadr’s men seized Nasiriya’s two suspension bridges over the Euphrates, fired on the Italian carabinieri patrolling the city, chased out the CPA administrators, and forced shops and schools to close down. “Things unraveled fast,” Duaffar told me a few days later, as he sat in the heavily fortified provincial government headquarters. “The situation was completely out of control.”

As a key member of the security committee, Duaffar volunteered to try to restore order. He united several rival parties into an emergency committee and played intermediary between the Sadr organization and the local Italian military command, running messages back and forth through the tense streets. Meanwhile, Italian troops battled Sadr’s militia across the Euphrates, killing at least 15 Iraqis. The Italian commander declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew but had difficulties spreading the word; his troops opened fire on a car caught out after dark, killing nine civilians. The U.S. Marines were poised to assault the city, something that Duaffar and others feared could turn Nasiriya into another Fallujah. Finally, after days of shuttle diplomacy, in which Duaffar and tribal elders cajoled and threatened the local Sadr cleric, the Mahdi Army withdrew.

It was now several days after the chaos subsided, but the city remained on edge. The streets outside the provincial headquarters were barricaded by armored personnel carriers and unsmiling Italian troops, whom Iraqis call “chicken men” — a reference to the black feather that sticks jauntily from their helmets. The chicken men had just dynamited Sadr’s office into a pile of rubble to prevent the Mahdi Army from regrouping there. “That served no purpose. It only aggravated things,” said Duaffar. “It seems the Italians were acting on American orders. We can only hope that it doesn’t lead to repercussions.”

Acting as a voice of moderation is a relatively new role for Duaffar. Seven and a half years ago, he and three fellow Shiite guerrillas carried out one of the most brazen attacks against the Baathist regime in its history: the ambush of Uday Hussein as he drove his Porsche through Baghdad traffic. The 1996 assassination attempt left Saddam’s reviled son crippled and reportedly impotent, and made the unknown assailants folk heroes. Months after escaping into the marshes surrounding Nasiriya, two of Duaffar’s accomplices were tracked down and executed by Saddam’s henchmen, along with every male member of their immediate families. Duaffar’s father and seven brothers were also killed. He fled to Iran, where he lived in exile and helped run the 15th of Shaban Islamic Movement, named for the day the 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam broke out. After the fall of Baghdad, Duaffar returned to Nasiriya and exchanged his guns for politics. Now he and his movement are angling for a role on both the regional and national stages as Iraqis prepare, fitfully, to govern themselves.

Nasiriya, Duaffar’s power base, is located 13 miles east of the ruins of the famed ziggurat of Ur, an ancient civilization that sprang up in the fertile crescent more than 5,000 years ago. Nasiriya is the traditional site of the Garden of Eden and, according to Genesis, the place from which Abraham’s father, Terah, led his tribe into the land of Canaan. In subsequent centuries, the city was occupied by a succession of conquerors — Assyrian, Babylonian, Macedonian, Roman, Persian, Mongolian, Arabian, and Ottoman, who were ousted in July 1915, when the British army seized Nasiriya, a critical victory in its Mesopotamian campaign. In more recent years, Nasiriya was a center of Shiite opposition to the Baathist dictatorship and the gateway to the marshes where Shiite guerrillas established clandestine bases. Nasiriya is also where the two major roads between Basra and Baghdad converge, and thus was fiercely defended by Saddam fedayeen when the U.S. military stormed across the Kuwaiti border in March 2003. It was here that Pfc. Jessica Lynch and her comrades from the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company made their fatal wrong turn, wandering unprotected into the heart of enemy territory. Eleven U.S. soldiers died and six, including Lynch, were captured. Days later, the Marines fought a fierce battle with the fedayeen that destroyed most of the buildings along the river.

Nasiriya’s scars show. The local CPA administrator calls it “the worst town in Iraq.” Mosquitoes swarm over ubiquitous pools of stagnant water. Battered orange-and-white taxis bounce along potholed streets devoid of greenery, and everywhere piles of burning garbage send plumes of smoke into the sky. Yet amid this squalid misery, signs of both a religious and political rebirth abound. The city is awash in billboards for the Iraqi National Accord Movement, the Iraqi National Congress, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Martyr Said Sadr’s Office, the Iraqi Nation-al Unity Gathering, the Dawa Party, and 30 other new parties and movements. Where murals celebrating Saddam once stood, now hang colorful portraits of clerics who, dead or alive, dominate Shiite politics — Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 73, Iraq’s most influential cleric; the martyred Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the founder of SCIRI who was killed by a car bomb in August 2003; and Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, father of Moqtada, murdered with two of his sons by a Saddam hit squad in Najaf in 1999.

I first met Duaffar in mid-February; he was working out of a bungalow on Nasiriya’s outskirts — a quiet, palm-lined street inhabited by the city’s business and political elite. In a spartan, second-floor office, he sat with his hands clasped at a simple wooden desk, clear of adornment except for a plastic vase with a single white rose. Under Saddam, Duaffar recalled, “Nasiriya suffered the most of any single place in Iraq. Most of the mass graves are in this area. The city was destroyed. We were denied jobs, education.” Duaffar is a thin, somber-looking man with a trim black beard and intense green eyes that gaze out from behind wire spectacles. Clad that afternoon in a black cotton jacket, black pants, and black shirt, he cut an austere, intensely focused figure. It was not difficult to imagine him as a young revolutionary, steely with purpose as he plotted the deaths of his enemies. Now he seemed fired up with a new sense of mission, and his voice began to rise accordingly. “This is the place where global civilization started! They say the father of the prophets, Abraham, was born here. All the parties in Iraq rose here. We should make Nasiriya live and breathe again for the sake of humanity.”

At the time of this meeting, Nasiriya had already become a crucial battleground between two visions of Shiite Islam — the pro-Iranian theocracy pushed by the Iran-backed Sadr and his many followers, and the secular, tolerant state that Duaffar and his group say they support. Days earlier, in what was an ominous foreshadowing of the April rebellion, Sadr’s extremists had surrounded provincial headquarters, demanding that the governor sack all members of the CPA-appointed local council and hold direct popular elections immediately. The governor refused, claiming that a direct vote would be premature, and — after he brought in armed tribesmen to protect him and issued his foes an ultimatum — the threat of violence receded, for the moment. “The extremists threatened us,” Duaffar told me. “This is not logic. This is not Islam. This is dictatorship.”

Duaffar was jostling to fill the political vacuum left by the collapse of the Baathist regime. In this he had many rivals, especially the better-funded Badr Organization. The armed wing of the SCIRI, the Badr Brigade had followed Ayatollah Hakim triumphantly across the Iranian border from decades of exile there in May 2003, and today the whole Badr operation was by far the best established of the Shiite political movements, having started charities, youth groups, security patrols, a “Martyrs of the Shrine” religious education program, and 22 branch offices in Thiqar Province alone. Their head-quarters was a dilapidated two-story brown stucco building along the Euphrates that once was the Baath regional seat of power, and when I visited it on a Friday morning, a crowd of locals was pushing past Kalashnikov-clutching guards at the front gate. Peering into a small upstairs room, I watched a Badr official peeling off crisp notes from a stack of $50 bills and dispensing them to eager supplicants; my photographer tried to snap a picture but was pulled away by our escort. CPA officials later told me that the money “almost certainly” came from the group’s Iranian sponsors — a fact the Badr Organization is not eager to advertise. The local Badr director insisted that his group was “moderate” and rejected the hardline Shiism espoused by the Iranian theocracy.

But the real threat to Duaffar — and all the city’s moderates — came from Sadr’s following. At their outdoor mosque along the Euphrates, I watched as a thousand people attended an afternoon sermon of Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji, the black-bearded director of Sadr’s southern offices who’d later lead the Mahdi on their rampage of Nasiriya. He pulled a scimitar from a golden scabbard and brandished it before the crowd, mostly unemployed young men with a sprinkling of Mahdi militants. “No America, no Israel!” he cried. To a roar of approval, the sheikh then denounced CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer, making a pun on the Arabic words safeer — “ambassador” — and safer, “unreliable person.”

Duaffar’s 15th of Shaban Islamic Movement had also seized prime real estate along the Euphrates, turning an abandoned state-owned hotel into a walk-in center for aggrieved constituents. The five-story building was peppered with grenade blasts and bullet holes. Looters had stolen the furniture, the windowpanes, the electric fixtures. Even the stone tiles of the lobby floor had been torn out, exposing concrete and dirt beneath. Five bearded men sat around the broken stump of the lobby’s marble fountain, casually leaning their AK-47s against wooden chairs as they took in an Italian football match on a small black-and-white TV.

In contrast to the bustle at the Badr office, almost nobody entered the hotel during the two hours I was there. Despite Duaffar’s folk hero status, the 15th of Shaban, most of whose mujahideen had remained in Iraq throughout Saddam’s dictatorship, was struggling for funding against more radical, foreign-funded groups. Duaffar acknowledged that reality with undisguised bitterness. “Our struggle inside Iraq was exploited by people who were outside,” he said, alluding to SCIRI and Dawa, two major Shiite parties that operated from Iran during Saddam’s time. “When the regime struck our jihadi bases in the marshes, all the Islamic parties outside Iraq made press conferences and said, ‘We should support our brothers, make donations.’ But the money went right into their own bank accounts.”

By April, when I caught up with Duaffar again, he was clearly shaken by the Sadr uprising and subsequent chaos. He remained grateful to the United States for removing Saddam — “There’s construction taking place, citizens can express their opinions openly. We lived in a much darker place at the time of the gang of Saddam” — but felt that the occupiers had badly botched things. “The American forces bear the full responsibility for what happened,” he said. “They should never have shut down Al Hawza. They failed to act wisely, and they gave Moqtada a lot of power.” Whether or not the U.S. military made good on its promise to “kill or capture” Sadr, Duaffar predicted more struggle and bloodshed ahead; indeed, Sadr’s militia and the Italians resumed fighting in mid-May. “Time is getting close [for the turnover],” Duaffar told me. “We still have to prove that Iraqis can bear the responsibility.”

Duaffar was born in 1969 in Shatra, a town of 90,000 located just north of Nasiriya. Duaffar remembers his youth as a time of promise for Iraq, when the Baath regime lavished oil wealth on schools, highways, and other projects. But his optimism soured with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. His oldest brother, a major, was killed at the front in 1983. Another brother disappeared in fierce fighting around Basra two years later, leaving behind a small son. “At the end of the war, we had achieved nothing,” he says. “I took a 180-degree turn away from the regime. Two years later, the war in Kuwait started. Saddam made the same mistakes, sacrificed a lot of people, and left nothing but destruction.”

At the time of the first Gulf War, Duaffar was studying electrical engineering in Shatra. When President George H.W. Bush exhorted the Shiites to rise up against Saddam, Duaffar and his fellow students chased out Shatra’s governor and occupied Baath Party headquarters for two weeks. But the expected support from the Americans never arrived. “That’s when the random executions started,” he says bitterly. “Many of my friends were shot.” Duaffar and other survivors retreated to the marshes southeast of Nasiriya, a vast expanse of lagoons, canals, reeds, and palm forests more than three times the size of the Everglades. To punish the Shiites for rising up, Saddam’s regime dammed the Tigris and Euphrates, and drained the marshes. Fishermen lost their livelihoods, and much of the population was driven out to squalid displacement centers in Basra and other cities. Duaffar and the rest of the 15th of Shaban stayed and plotted.

In 1996, armed with false identification papers, Duaffar moved to Baghdad and hooked up with a small cell surveilling Saddam’s inner circle, including Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, who is now suspected of leading the resistance in the Sunni Triangle. “We had eight teams of operatives, with between five and ten people in each group,” Duaffar told me. “We used a different cell every day, so that the security forces wouldn’t see the same faces.”

Duaffar’s cell soon settled on Uday Hussein as their primary target. “Uday had violated the honor of many women,” he explained. “He was a killer. Plus, Saddam had been preparing him to be the next caliph. All this was reason enough to sacrifice our lives so that Uday would die.” Uday was also chosen because he was predictable. Every Thursday evening at around seven o’clock, he and a friend cruised the wealthy neighborhood of Mansour for beautiful young women. Uday would stop his car — often a cherry-red Porsche — in front of a popular ice cream parlor or another favored restaurant or nightclub. The accomplice would get out and make his selection while Uday circled. The woman, usually too frightened to resist, would be dragged by Uday’s procurer into the car to her certain rape, and possible death.

Although the neighborhood was riddled with agents of the Mukhabarat intelligence service, Duaffar was undeterred. He returned to the marshes to recruit three other assassins, all originally from Thiqar Province: Moayyad al-Baghdadi, Abdul Hussein al-Shadri, and his brother Tahseen al-Shadri. Secreting automatic rifles, pistols, and ammunition beneath the rear seat of a Volkswagen, they drove to Baghdad in September 1996 and rented a house. “It was a martyrdom operation,” Duaffar told me. “We believed there was a 99 percent chance that we’d die.”

Duaffar took the cell to Mansour several times. “I wanted them to see Uday, to give them a psychological uplift, to overcome their fear,” he said. Thursday, November 7, they loaded their weapons in the VW and set out for Mansour. But Uday didn’t show up that night, nor the following four Thursdays. “We thought, ‘Was the regime aware of us?'” Duaffar told me. “We considered calling it off and retreating to the marshes, but then we realized that if the regime had known, it would have acted immediately.” (They’d later learn that as head of Iraq’s Olympic Committee, Uday was putting in long hours micromanaging — and torturing — the national soccer team.)

Finally, on the evening of Thursday, December 12, 1996, Uday reappeared. He dropped his companion in front of the ice cream parlor and made a slow circuit — it was a balmy night and the streets and sidewalks were packed — around the block. Their Kalashnikovs concealed in nylon tennis bags, the two Shadri brothers stood in front of the parlor as Duaffar played lookout. As the Porsche turned the corner, Duaffar signaled to the gunmen by scratching his head. The Shadri brothers pulled out their guns and sprayed the Porsche with 50 bullets, hitting Uday with 17 rounds. Duaffar and his accomplices ducked down an alley, discarded the weapons, climbed into the VW that Baghdadi had kept idling, and drove away. The attack lasted less than a minute.

Iraqi security forces detained everyone in Mansour and cordoned off Baghdad. But Duaffar’s team managed to slip south to the marshes. Eighteen months later, however, Iraqi agents captured Abdul Hussein al-Shadri while he was on a mission in Baghdad; he was tortured and executed. To this day, Duaffar doesn’t know how Shadri was compromised. Upon learning that Shadri had given their names under torture, Duaffar and his two remaining co-conspirators fled to Iran. Meanwhile, Saddam’s troops rounded up their families. “I didn’t have enough time to take them,” Duaffar says softly. “I was in the marshes, and it was impossible for me to communicate with them.”

Duaffar’s 74-year-old father, 70-year-old mother, and seven brothers were incarcerated at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. “They let my mother out after six months, and they told her they would release them all the next day,” Duaffar told me. He paused for a moment, tapping his fingers on his desk. “But they executed them instead. I got married in Iran and one week later I read about the executions of my father and seven brothers in an Iranian newspaper. That was my honeymoon.” Baghdadi’s father and four brothers were also arrested and shot. And Tahseen al-Shadri was shot dead in Tehran on December 15, 2002, apparently by an Iraqi hit squad.

When I asked Duaffar whether he thought that the deaths of every male member of his immediate family were an acceptable price to pay for crippling Uday Hussein, he didn’t show a flicker of doubt. “Yes, it was worth it,” he said. “Because we avenged all of Uday’s crimes. His cruelty was not limited to women. Everyone in Iraq suffered from his cruel acts. Sure, I did not want to sacrifice my family. I thought I’d die a martyr, but the fates had a different idea.”

Duaffar only returned to Shatra last July, seeing his mother for the first time in 13 years. His wife and two small children soon joined him. Since then, he has divided his time between politicking in Nasiriya and rebuilding his house, which was blown up by Saddam’s forces the day that his family was arrested.

When i last visited Duaffar, he wanted me to see the marshes where he had hidden and plotted for years. “You’ll see how we lived in those days, when Saddam’s army was chasing us,” he told me. “But now everything is different. The marshes are coming back to life, just like the rest of Iraq.” But, he added darkly, these waters of renewal “could also be used in the wrong ways.” He was busy with his politics, so at dawn I set forth with his longtime comrade, Abu Muhammad, a handsome, broad-shouldered man of 42 with a gray-flecked beard. We headed southeast through a bleak, pancake-flat landscape of stagnant water, seas of mud, dull-brown cinder-block houses, and minarets. After an hour’s drive, we reached the edge of the marshes. The Tigris and Euphrates were nourishing the region again, thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a few fishermen were out in wooden longboats, casting nets into the shallow water. Abu Muhammad smiled at the sight of them.

Just past the first lagoons we arrived in Garmat Beni Saeed, a ramshackle town crisscrossed by murky canals. On the veranda of a crumbling white stucco building — the local headquarters of the 15th of Shaban — I was startled to see the glowering visage of Ayatollah Khomeini on a poster. Shishkha Shinyar, the local leader, a large-nosed man with a red-checked kaffiyeh turbaned atop his head, told me that his group saw no real distinction between the late Iranian leader and Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is usually described as a moderate. “If Sistani gives us a fatwa against the Americans, then everybody will join that jihad,” he said, as the dozen other men in the room nodded their assent. But Shinyar was careful to distance their movement from the theocratic dictatorship imposed by Khomeini: “Our history, our blood, our flesh are different from those of the people of Iran.” It seemed as if the 15th of Shaban still hadn’t decided which way to turn and was hedging its bets on the future. Like most members of the movement, Shinyar was dismissive of the far better funded and better organized exile groups: “We are the people of Iraq. We sacrificed more than all the other movements. Most of the mass graves in this region were from the 15th of Shaban.”

The entire region had been subject to the systematic ravages of Saddam Hussein. After the regime drained the marshes, it burned the olive grass and reeds that the Shiite rebels used to conceal themselves. It knocked down the palm and eucalyptus forests, and bulldozed and torched the thatched huts of local villagers who provided shelter to the rebels. Abu Muhammad led me into the marshes, down narrow causeways running past newly formed seas dappled by mudflats and clumps of golden reeds. “This used to be a dry part of the marsh,” he said. “We used to walk over it, but now you see it is filling up.” Snowy herons skimmed low over the water, and choruses of warbling frogs emanated from clusters of lily pads. Sparkles of light danced off the lagoon as black-veiled women punted by in longboats.

It was a bucolic scene, but not all was well in the marshes. The local tribes were up in arms over fishermen who were using battery-charged metal coils to kill every fish within a 10-foot radius. The devices were devastating the nascent stocks, threatening to wipe out the industry before it got off the ground. Tribal elders had recently persuaded Sistani to deliver a fatwa forbidding the use of the coils, but many fishermen were ignoring the order. The only means of prosecuting the offenders was through the tribal courts, because Iraq’s judicial system was barely functioning even in its cities. Judging by the number of fishermen I observed with car batteries in their longboats, the tribal courts weren’t acting as much of a deterrent.

Returning to Nasiriya that afternoon, I realized that Duaffar was correct. Iraq in the post-Saddam era is a lot like the marshes: The old dams have been broken, but the waters are yet unchanneled. The country is bursting with a sense of renewal, but is also lawless and prey to violent shock waves that can easily wipe out any progress. From the marsh fisherman on up to Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the United States’ prison atrocities and ham-fisted policies, many forces threaten to tear apart Iraq’s fragile social fabric. Without an effective police force or democratic institutions, Nasiriya — like the rest of the country — is being held together by people such as Duaffar, who seem to recognize that the alternative to compromise is violent fragmentation or a return to dictatorship. “We [the 15th of Shaban] have an open way of thinking,” Duaffar insists. “We are not extremists. Islam respects freedom, differences, opposite opinions. That is the kind of Iraq we are striving for.” Now, as the United States prepared to relinquish some administrative control to an inchoate Iraqi leadership, there was simply no way to tell how well that fabric would hold together — or what it would look like in the end.


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