The U.S. Rolls the Dice in Najaf

The main character MIA in the present Iraqi drama is that over-stuffed “embassy” in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

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By Tom Engelhardt

What’s wrong with this picture? The United States invaded Iraq to “liberate,” above all others, that country’s oppressed Shiites, so many of whose rebellious relatives were buried in those “killing fields” Saddam Hussein created while crushing their 1991 uprising; killing fields that were an obligatory stopover for Paul Wolfowitz and his ilk on their brief passages through Iraq. (“We thank all of the citizens of Iraq who welcomed our troops and joined in the liberation of their own country,” said George Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln in his “mission accomplished” speech, as on countless other occasions.) So who are we killing now — and whose dead bodies are we counting up with a certain pride? Iraqi Shiites. (“Captain Carrie Batson, a marine spokeswoman, said: ‘We estimate we’ve killed 300 anti-Iraqi forces in the past two days of fighting.'”) We also invaded Iraq to “liberate” suffering Shiite cities, including the Shiite slums of Baghdad, which had been given the short end of the electricity, food, and jobs stick by Saddam. Now, in those cities, still lacking regular electricity or clean water, short on food, and short on jobs, what are we doing? We’re strafing, rocketing, and bombing parts of them. Both Najaf and Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in Baghdad, experienced this yesterday.

Or what’s wrong with this picture? We invaded Iraq, as our President has stated so many times, to offer the Iraqis “democracy.” (“In Iraq,” he typically said, addressing Americans four months after Baghdad fell, “we are helping the long suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East.”) Now, our version of Iraq is led by an unelected Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, the ex-Baathist head of an exile organization, the Iraqi National Accord, made up largely of ex-Baathist military officers, backed by the CIA and Britain’s M16, known for planting car bombs in downtown Baghdad in the 1990s. His first democratic impulse on learning that he would be the new Prime Minister was to suggest that perhaps the country’s January elections should be postponed. (He backed down. It wasn’t a good line for the home front — in the U.S.) He just banned a major Arab television network, al-Jazeera, instituted a curfew in Sadr City (presently being ignored) which he doesn’t control, possibly murdered six insurgent suspects in cold blood in a Baghdad police station (a story that disappeared beneath the waves), and reinstituted the death penalty for more or less all acts of insurgency or rebellion; while a judge connected to his regime has issued warrants against former Pentagon darling Ahmed Chalabi (counterfeiting) and his nephew Salem (murder). The State Department and the CIA, now firmly ensconced in the largest “embassy” in the world in Baghdad’s Green Zone, have in the meantime just finished instituting their own American-style “regime change.” They (and Allawi, their man in Baghdad) have taken down the Pentagon neocons (and their man Chalabi, at present in Iran).

So fighting and in-fighting are everywhere; planes are bombing and helicopters strafing parts of the capital, while insurgent mortar shells land nightly near or on government buildings. (Three hit the Oil Ministry Monday, according to an NPR reporter). Amid the mayhem, Allawi has officially sent “his” troops and ours south to crush another of his opponents — the young radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — and “re-liberate” the resistant Shiite south through brutal combat on the streets of Najaf and elsewhere.

Allawi’s administration, now the “face” of Iraq — American officials had long talked about putting an “Iraqi face” on things — would in another age have been called a puppet regime. (Keep in mind, however, that puppets can have their own strong ideas about policy and can make their masters heed their desires in all sorts of complex ways.) Of course, in our press such things cannot be said directly, so you get strange, coded passages that cry out for interpretation like, for instance, this one in an article by Edmund Sanders and Henry Chu in the Los Angeles Times (Most of Najaf in U.S. Control): “In an effort to improve coordination, U.S. troops took ‘operational control’ of Iraqi police and national guard units in Najaf, an American military spokesman said.” Operational control indeed.

What you can follow, now that Iraq has returned to the front pages of our papers, is the fighting in places like Najaf; what you can’t learn is much of anything about the decision to fight and what to make of that decision, which is why the piece below by Michael Schwartz is important. If the foot soldiers are largely in sight; what’s missing is the brain; or put another way, the main character MIA in the present Iraqi drama, the ghost in our media machine reporting from Iraq, is that over-stuffed “embassy” in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Remember when — it seems eons ago — the Coalition Provincial Authority was running things in Baghdad, and our man there was the desert-booted L. Paul Bremer? Either he or military spokesman Brig. Gen Mark Kimmett was in front of the cameras hourly, it seemed, making announcements about Iraq’s fate. From Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz on down, in fact, the Pentagon hardliners and neocons, whose emissaries arrived in Baghdad ready to rule (and without any Iraqis except Ahmed Chalabi in tow), seemed to love nothing more than face-time in the media.

What the “turning over of sovereignty” at the end of June signaled was the arrival in Baghdad of a new regime from the State Department and the CIA. With new regimes, of course, come new styles and the new style of this desert-bootless one is no-face-time at all. Soft-spoken Ambassador John Negroponte, a man with much brutal counterinsurgency experience in his background, has simply faded into the woodwork, as has his huge staff, while they’ve put Iraqis forward to do all the talking. Try to remember the last piece you’ve seen about them or our military high command in Iraq. Try to remember the last piece you’ve seen in our media even speculating on their strategies, on what they intend in Iraq. It’s a simple case of out of sight, out of media mind.

But as Michael Schwartz (who last wrote for Tomdispatch on the purely “symbolic sovereignty” being transferred in June) notes, they have quietly made a momentous decision. They’ve decided to roll the dice, go all the way in Najaf. It’s a massive gamble and its brutal results are already before us.

We’re now in the seventh day of bloody combat, involving tank, helicopter, Predator drone, and jet assaults on the downtown area of one of Iraq’s holiest cities, which is — or at least should be — shocking. Where is that liberation now? But it would be — or should be — a shocking decision in relation to any densely populated city, holy or otherwise. And yet where are the anguished or angry editorials in American newspapers? Is this really the “course” we want to stay on? Is this what we’re really intent on not “cutting and running” from? If so, just remind me: Who exactly gave us the right to bombard heavily populated urban areas or let Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles fire into them? What exactly does this have to do with liberating anyone? Is it really enough that we call the radical Shiite militias — largely made up of unemployed young men we didn’t bother to “reconstruct” (and al-Sadr did) in our many months as the official occupying power in the country — “anti-Iraqi forces,” or “terrorists,” or “criminals,” or “thugs”?

I don’t, of course, want any of this to impugn our generosity, or Allawi’s. We may be destroying downtown Najaf, but our Iraqi prime minister has sworn that we’ll be generous indeed in offering reconstruction funds to rebuild the city afterwards. (“Allawi promised that an end to the militiamen’s occupation of An-Najaf’s old city and its golden mosque, one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, would be followed by generous government funding for the city’s reconstruction.”) Now that we’ve been rocketing the city and putting tanks in its sprawling holy cemetery where the fighters of Moqtada al-Sadr have been holed up — “U.S. and Iraqi forces ‘will not allow them to seek sanctuary and hijack this holy cemetery from the people of Iraq,’ Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the Marines in Najaf, said in a statement. ‘We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations. There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf.'” — now that we’re destroying Najaf to save it, I just want to know: How exactly do you rebuild an ancient cemetery after you’ve blown parts of it to bits? How do you reconstruct the dead? I’m sure there’s a way.

And more of the same may lie ahead. We know, for instance, that Prime Minister Allawi has already given the Americans a green light to push their combat operations into the previously off-limits area around and including the city’s sacred Imam Ali Shrine. “‘We fully understand the implications,’ the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But by launching sorties from inside the mosque and nearby buildings, Sadr’s fighters had turned the shrine into ‘a legitimate target of attack,’ the official said. He added that any move against the mosque would almost certainly be worked out in advance with Najaf officials.”

Don’t worry, though, whatever we knock down, we can just rebuild. (Of course, just replace Najaf’s holy cemetery or the Imam Ali Shrine with some more familiar revered site, say, the Vatican, or the Wailing Wall, or in an American context, the White House and see how comfortable all this really feels.) Looked at in any light but ours, air attacks on heavily populated civilian areas in Najaf or elsewhere are really criminal acts (no matter the nature of the fighters on the other side); but forget morality, since it’s really not much of an issue in this country, certainly not for the most “moral” administration we’ve ever elected or the media that covers them.

But didn’t any of these people ever pick up a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People? Don’t they know that all those Iraqis we’ve killed have families and friends, as do the buried dead we’re saving from desecration by blowing them to kingdom come? (“Soldiers involved in the fighting described how many of the most recent graves are marked by photos, which crumble when U.S. forces shell the cemetery walls to reach the militiamen hiding within. ‘Wives, daughters, husbands,’ said Sgt. Hector Guzman, 28, of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 5th Regiment. ‘You just know you’re destroying that tomb.’ The Houston native shook his head. ‘It doesn’t feel right sometimes.'”) Don’t they know that military “victories” in wars like this are almost invariably Pyrrhic in nature?

Every one of our top officials in Baghdad is a veteran of the Vietnam experience, but none of them seems, on the evidence of recent developments, to have learned a thing from it. Yes, you can hem an overmatched enemy army into a city and defeat it, even crush it (whatever the toll on the city itself). But no matter how many people you kill, it’s far harder to do that with a movement. Already unintended consequences of our assault on Najaf are spreading. On Monday, after serious threats from al-Sadr militants, the southern oil fields around Basra were even briefly shut down — and global oil prices spiked yet again.

What our officials in Baghdad have done over the last year and a quarter is take a junior cleric, an extreme but relatively minor figure on the Iraqi religious and political scene, although also a man with growing numbers of young, poor followers, and make him into a figure to be reckoned with. Now, in a land with a powerful tradition of martyrdom (not exactly an unknown term, let’s remember, inside Christendom), they threaten to create a martyr, and if they do, they will certainly live to regret it, as they would live to regret damage done to the Imam Ali Shrine, even if al-Sadr was hiding an army inside.

And remember, al-Sadr’s is still a minority movement. The Americans have yet to experience what Iraq would be like if the Shiite majority turned actively against them and took to the streets. In the meantime, we’ve shown Iraqi Shiites what American-style liberation means. We’ve just ordered all civilians out of downtown Najaf for their own good. Free-fire zones anyone? Tom

Gambling in Najaf:

Iraq as the Twenty-first Battleground State
By Michael Schwartz

The Bush administration has embarked on a desperate military adventure in hopes of creating the appearance of a pacified Iraq. The assault on the holy city of Najaf, with its attendant slaughter of combatants and civilians, its destruction of whole neighborhoods, and its threat to Shia holy cites is fraught with the possibility of another major military defeat. But the military commanders are hoping it will instead produce a rare military victory, since they are fighting lightly armed and relatively inexperienced members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army. Nevertheless, even such a victory would be short-lived at best, since the fighting itself only serves to consolidate the opposition of the Shia population. The administration is apparently hoping that a sufficiently brutal suppression of the Sadrists will postpone the now almost inevitable national uprising until after our November election.

To understand this desperate and brutal strategic maneuver, we must review the origins of the new Battle of Najaf:

A truce in May ended the first round of armed confrontation between U.S. Marines and Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the al-Mahdi Army, but was never fully honored by either side. American troops were supposed to stay out of Najaf, and al-Sadr’s militiamen were supposed to disband as an army. In the intervening months of relative peace, neither side made particularly provocative moves, but the U.S. still mounted patrols and the al-Mahdi army continued to stockpile arms, notably in the city’s vast, holy cemetery. Lots of threats were proffered on both sides.

The new confrontation began after the Americans replaced Army troops with Marines in the area outside Najaf and then sent two armed patrols, including local police, to al-Sadr’s home. The arrival of the second patrol led to a firefight with casualties on both sides. In the meantime, the Marines and the Iraqi police detained at least a dozen Mahdi’s Army members.

The al-Mahdi soldiers retaliated by attacking a local police station. Previously, there had been a modest pattern of peaceful coexistence between the police and al-Sadr’s followers, except when the Sadrists were directly attacked. They also took policemen as hostages, a new tactic that they justified by pointing to the detained Sadrists and calling for an exchange of prisoners.

On August 5, the U.S. counterattacked in force — with the official blessing of Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi — using a remarkably similar military strategy to the one that had created an international crisis in Falluja back in April. After first surrounding the city, they assaulted al-Mahdi positions with long range weapons, notably helicopter gunships armed with rockets, and even jets. They then sent Marines (and Iraqi security forces) into the holy cemetery at the heart of Najaf to root out dug-in al-Mahdi soldiers and capture their weapons caches. This fierce attack produced two days of heavy fighting, heavily reported in the press, and evidently destroyed significant portions of the downtown area. A tank, for instance, was described in one report as firing directly into hotels where al-Mahdi fighters were said to be holed up.

In the three days that followed, the Marines penetrated ever further into the city (at a cost so far of 5 dead, 19 wounded, and one helicopter downed) and for a period, even took the cemetery itself, though in a description which had a Vietnam-era ring to it, “A Marine spokesman said insurgents had fled the cemetery after an assault on Friday. But when U.S. forces withdrew from the area, the insurgents moved back in.” By day six, Americans tanks had moved into the cemetery and helicopters were strafing the area. The Sadrists warned that further attacks would be met by extending the fight to other cities (as had happened in the previous round of fighting in April and May) and al-Sadr himself swore he would never leave the city but would defend it to “the last drop of my blood,” calling for a more general uprising. At least some Shia clerics supported this call for general insurrection.

As the fighting continued, it became ever clearer that this was anything but a small incident that had spun out of control; it was, on the American side, a concerted effort to annihilate the Sadrist forces. The development of the battle points strongly to this conclusion:

*The original patrols to Muqtada al-Sadr’s house and the arrest of his followers were unprovoked, distinctly provocative acts. They occurred just after the Marines replaced Army troops on the scene and are among numerous indicators of a planned new campaign against Sadrist forces.

*Once the city was surrounded, the helicopter and jet attacks on “suspected positions” of al-Mahdi soldiers would hardly have been needed to rebuff the modestly mounted Sadrist attack on one police station, but fit perfectly with a larger strategy of “softening up” the resistance after preventing it from escaping. So do a number of other American acts, including the commandeering of Najaf’s major trauma center (ostensibly for a military staging area), clearly a punitive measure of a kind previously used in Falluja, meant to maximize suffering and expected to hasten surrender.

*Instead of denying or apologizing for the initial attack on the holy cemetery, the Marine commander on the scene justified it in a public statement. (“The actions of the Moktada militia make the cemetery a legitimate military objective.”) The same statement also implied that the Marines would destroy the Holy Shrine if the al-Mahdi occupied it. •

*Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shia cleric in Iraq, left Najaf just as hostilities erupted. Though he gave what may have been valid medical reasons for his departure for Lebanon and then England, his timing as well as other factors made it appear that he had been informed by the Americans of what was to come and had made a decision to avoid being caught, in every sense, in a major battle for Najaf. (It’s possible as well that the Americans, through intermediaries, informed him that they could not guarantee his safety.)

*Public statements by Iraqi officials of Iyad Allawi’s Baghdad government and of American military commanders, as reported in the New York Times, made it clear that their goal was to take control of the entire city away from the Sadrists. The national police commander, for instance, told the press that “the interim government ordered a combined operation … with the task of regaining control of the city.” The governor of the province in which Najaf is situated, Adnan al-Zorfi, told a press briefing: “This operation will never stop before all the militia leave the city.” And the Marine commander left no doubt that this conquest would involve the physical occupation of those areas currently controlled by the al-Mahdi army, including the cemetery that had previously been “off limits to the American military for religious reasons.” He told Times reporters Sabrina Tavenese and John Burns, “We are fighting them on close terrain but we are on schedule. You have to move very slowly because the cemetery has a lot of mausoleums and little caves [where guerrillas could hide].” (The words “on schedule,” by the way, have a particularly ominous ring; they suggest a battle plan for conquering all parts of the city on a street by street basis, a strategy that annihilated whole neighborhoods in Falluja.)

This well-planned attack thus constituted the beginning of a major U.S. offensive almost certainly aimed at making Najaf into the showcase military victory that Falluja was once supposed to be. A rapid and thorough defeat of the insurgents, followed by an uncontested occupation of the entire city, was undoubtedly expected, especially since the lightly armed al-Mahdi soldiers had previously proved a relatively uncoordinated fighting force. Huge and well publicized casualties, as well as heavy physical destruction, were, as in Falluja, undoubtedly part of the formula: since they provide an object example to other cities of the costs of resistance.

The immediate goals of the ongoing battle were summarized by Alex Berenson and John F. Burns in the New York Times, in response to an offer of a cease fire by the Sadrists:

“There was little sign a cease-fire would be accepted by the Iraqi government and American commanders. Instead, the indications at nightfall were that the American and Iraqi units intended to press the battle, in the hope of breaking the back of Mr. Sadr’s force in Najaf.”

Reporters Tavernese and Burns characterized the more general goals of the offensive in this way:

“In effect, the battle appeared to have become a watershed for the new power alignment in Baghdad, with the new government, established when Iraq regained formal sovereignty on June 28, asserting political control, and American troops providing the firepower to sustain it.”

In their attempt to achieve a noteworthy victory, the Bush administration and its Iraqi allies have created a potential watershed for both the war and the American presidential election. To understand why this might be so, consider the following:

*This major offensive was probably motivated by the increasing possibility that the U.S. and its allies were losing all control over most of the major cities in Iraq. In the Sunni parts of the country, city after city has in fact adopted the “Falluja model” — refusing to allow an American presence in its streets and establishing its own local government. As a recent Tomdispatch succinctly summarized the situation: “Think of Sunni Iraq — and possibly parts of Shia Iraq as well — as a ‘nation’ of city-state fiefdoms, each threatening to blink off [the U.S.] map of ‘sovereignty,’ despite our 140,000 troops and our huge bases in the country.” The attack in Najaf is certainly an attempt to stem this tide before it engulfs the Shia areas of Iraq as well, and it validates historian Juan Cole’s ironic description of Prime Minister Allawi as “really… just the mayor of downtown Baghdad.”

*The U.S. and its Iraqi clients probably chose Najaf because it represented their best chance of immediate success. Unlike the mujaheddin in Falluja (and other Sunni cities), the al-Mahdi soldiers were generally not members of Saddam’s army and are therefore more lightly armed and considerably less undisciplined as fighters; nor do they enjoy the unconditional support of the local population. (For an indelible portrait of civilian attitudes in Najaf, see Scott Baldauf’s first-hand account of the fighting in Najaf in the Christian Science Monitor.) An ambivalent city is easier to conquer, even if victory results in a sullen hatred of the conquerors. A quick victory would therefore be a noteworthy achievement and might have some chance of convincing rebels in other Shia cities not to follow the Falluja model — at least not immediately.

However, a loss in Najaf (which could occur even with a military “victory”) would be catastrophic for the U.S. and for its interim administration in Baghdad, which is now indelibly identified with the Najaf offensive (and has ostensibly “ordered” it). Even a victory would, at least in the long run, undermine the already strained tolerance of the country’s deeply suspicious Shia population. The Americans inside the Green Zone in Baghdad (and assumedly in Washington) are, however, banking on the possibility that an immediate victory might be worth the negative publicity. It might establish the interim administration (and its American muscle) as a formidable, if brutal, adversary, worthy of fear if not respect. A defeat, on the other hand, would make it nothing more than an impotent adjunct of the American occupation.

For the Bush administration, the battle of Najaf shapes up as a new Falluja: If it doesn’t win quickly, it will likely be a major disaster. A quick victory might indeed make it look, for a time, as if the occupation, now in new clothes, had turned some corner, particularly if it resulted in temporary quiescence throughout the Shia south. But a long and brutal fight, or even an inconclusive victory (which led to further fighting elsewhere in Shia Iraq or renewed low-level fighting in Najaf) would almost certainly trigger yet more problems not just in Iraq but throughout the Middle East. And this would lead in turn to another round of worldwide outrage, and so to yet another electoral problem at home.

A loss after a long bloody battle would yield all of the above, while reducing the American military to the use of air power against cities, without any real hope of pacifying them.

Our presidential election could be decided by this battle. President Bush’s approval ratings dropped 10% during the April and May battles, creating the opening for a Kerry victory. Since then they have neither recovered, nor deteriorated further. If the battle for Najaf dominates the headlines for as long as a week, it will likely be the next big event in the Presidential campaign. A resounding victory for American forces could be exactly what Karl Rove has been dreaming of — proof that the tide has turned in Iraq. At the very least, it might remove the subject from the front pages of American papers and drop it down the nightly network prime-time news for a suitable period of time. But a defeat as ignominious as Falluja — or even a bloody and destructive victory bought at the expense of worldwide outrage — would almost certainly drive away many remaining swing voters (and might weaken the resolve of small numbers of Republican voters as well). This would leave Bush where his father was going into the electoral stretch drive –in too deep a deficit for any campaign rhetoric to overcome.

One has to wonder why the Bush Administration has selected such a risky strategy, fraught with possibly disastrous consequences. The only explanation that makes sense is that they are desperate. In Iraq, their control is slipping away one city at a time, a process that actually accelerated after the “transfer of sovereignty.” A dramatic military offensive may be the only way they can imagine — especially since their thinking is so militarily oriented — to reverse this decline.

In the United States, their electoral position is not promising: their hope for a dramatic economic turnaround has been dashed; a post-sovereignty month of quiescence in our media about Iraq did not reduce opposition to the war; and recently there has been a further erosion of confidence in Bush’s anti-terrorist policies. No incumbent president (the Truman miracle of 1948 excepted) has won re-election with a less-than-50% positive job rating. (The President’s now stands somewhere around 47%.) A dramatic military victory, embellished with all sorts of positive spin, might reverse what has begun to look like irretrievable erosion in his re-election chances. The Bush administration appears to have decided that it must take a huge risk to generate a military victory that can turn the tide in both Iraq and in the United States.

The agony of the current American offensive begins with the death and destruction it is wreaking on an ancient and holy city. Beyond that, the primary damage, may lie in the less visible horror that animates this new military strategy. The U.S. is no longer capable either of winning the “battle for the hearts and minds” of the Iraqis or governing most of the country. But by crushing the city of Najaf, the Marines might be able quiet the rebellion for long enough to spin the November election back to Bush.

For details on the battle of Najaf, see the excellent daily summaries of Juan Cole on Informed Comment

Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared at ZNET and TomDispatch, and in Z magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo).

Copyright C2004 Michael Schwartz

Read more dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


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