As some readers already know, independent journalist Nir Rosen is one of the most incisive commentators on Iraq's ongoing civil war. His book, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, is worth the list price though it lacks the analytical framework needed to interpret Rosen's anecdotal evidence.
My companions—a young man named Ahmed, his mother, and their friend Iskander, a driver—came from Sadr City, the Shia bastion in Baghdad named for Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, a popular and politically ambitious Shia cleric slain in 1999. They wanted to hear a sermon by Sadr’s son, Muqtada, who after the war had become the single most important person in Iraq and the only one capable of sustaining the fragile alliance between Shias and Sunnis. His power had only grown, although hopes for that alliance were now gone.
It was Friday, and like my companions, I was going to the Friday prayers. I had been following this practice since I arrived in Iraq in April 2003, when it became clear that clerics were filling the power vacuum created by the war. After the fall of Saddam and his Baath Party, looting and anarchy gave way to forces of more organized violence: men with guns, some wearing the turbans of clerics, some the scarves of the resistance, and many belonging to criminal gangs. Despite American intentions to create a secular, democratic Iraq, clerics were quickly replacing Baathists, and in the absence of anything else the mosque would become Iraq’s most influential institution.