Every day the old man feels the presence of his dead son. “Harith is still with us here in this house,” says Abid al-Sudani. He is a simple, hard-featured man who speaks through thin rows of teeth. His son Harith is a hero. A master spy of the “Falcons”, an elite unit of the Iraqi secret service. When the “Islamic State” (IS) still ruled large parts of Iraq and the terror of its suicide bombers shook the capital Baghdad at short intervals, Captain Hartih al-Sudani infiltrated the jihadist organization. He prevented dozens of suicide attacks, drew those who longed for death into the clutches of the agents, who then faked explosions or spread false reports, so that Harith’s cover would hold up.
But at some point the jihadists became suspicious. In the last few days of 2016, they bugged a truck packed with explosives, which Harith once again failed to drive to its destination at the turn of the year. Harith was blown up, lured into a trap. In August 2017, IS released a video showing the beheading of several prisoners. One of them was Harith.
“A memorial should be done for him in one of the big squares in Baghdad,” says the father, who is outraged that he has been abandoned by the state. It was quite a feat to get a death certificate. It was only when the New York Times reported on Harith’s exploits in August 2018 that his complaints about the agency’s inaction were heeded. “The politicians have promised us help so that we can pay for a new house for Harith’s family,” says the old man. “But nothing has happened to this day.”
Like many Iraqis, Abid al-Sudani is angry about the economic condition of his country, on the incompetent, corrupted government apparatus and the selfish politicians who benefit from a system that had divided society along sectarian lines for years. “The state is broken,” he says angrily.
The family lives in an area where the problems of Iraq are omnipresent: Sadr City, that impoverished and neglected Shiite suburb of Baghdad, which in the years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was notorious for brutal death squads, a bloody guerrilla war by Shiite militias against the US occupiers and for terror by Sunni extremists. The long, dead straight main streets of the suburb are lined with run-down functional buildings. In the dusty, winding streets of the residential areas, people live in modest houses that are hidden behind high walls.
There is a lack of everything in Sadr City, except for weapons and militiamen. When mass protests against the government and the political class broke out in Baghdad in October 2019, armies of young men from the suburbs threw themselves into the bloody street battles. It is very difficult for them to find work, and not a few prefer the wages of the militias to poverty.
“The politicians should all follow the example of my son’s patriotism and selflessness,” complains Harith’s father. “You have to create a good atmosphere for the youth.” He thinks of it differently than many of the young men in the neighborhood who not only want work, but also want more freedom. Abid al-Sudani is a strict patriarch who demanded ambition, renunciation and obedience from his children, forced his son Harith into an arranged marriage and regularly punished his demands.
Under the spell of Imam Hussein
Abid al-Sudani is also a deeply religious Shiite who, as he says, walks through his modest house every morning at four o’clock and, like the muezzin in the mosque, intones the call to morning prayer. Two pictures hang in the barren, neon-lit reception room: the picture of Harith in a black uniform, a piercing look, the Iraqi flag in the background, is simply framed. Opposite, in a glittering plastic pompon, the image of an equally determined-looking Shiite saint: Imam Hussein.
He is the grandson of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and son of the caliph Ali Ibn Ali Talib. In a struggle for power over the Muslim community, Hussein led a small group of loyal followers to certain death in the battle of Karbala in 680. The fighters of the “Party of Ali” (Shiat Ali) were massacred by the overwhelming army of the Umayyad caliph Jazid. Hussein’s suicide mission sealed a schism that has shaped the Islamic world to this day: the Shiite direction in Islam developed from the Ali party, which gave rise to its own beliefs and political concepts. And no founder figure is as revered in it as Hussein. Harith’s father seems deeply inspired when he is asked about the picture on the wall. His expression brightens and he lapses into a long pious lecture. “My son sacrificed himself like Iman Hussein,” he says.
Karbala, once the scene of that fateful battle, is now one of the most important Shiite pilgrimage cities. From here the number one Iraqi religious scholar, the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, brings his messages to Friday prayers. Kerbela, so it is said by his supporters, is al-Sistani’s transmission mast. It is a comparatively wealthy place. Karbala is considered the “fruit basket” of Iraq and is interspersed with lush palm groves. Above all, the millions and millions of believers who make a pilgrimage to the gold-adorned Hussein shrine year after year bring money to the city.
The faithful walk around the tomb under glittering chandeliers, kissing the silver bars of the shrine, which lies under a golden dome in the heart of a magnificent tomb mosque. Fathers lift toddlers over the heads of other pilgrims so they too can touch Hussein’s shrine. Believers crouch on the carpets, weeping Hussein’s martyrdom as if he had just fallen yesterday. Others pray on the deep carpets, next to which day laborers sleep, who find shelter from the scorching heat in the mosque for a while. Old and disabled people are pushed to the shrine on wooden carts. Women veiled in black roam the market streets illuminated by colorful neon lights. The dealers sell cheap imported goods, ranging from plastic toys of dubious quality to candy-colored cheap fashion of dubious aesthetics.
Not far from the shrine, a poster shows that Karbala has not been spared from Iraqi grievances either. “Who killed me?” Is the slogan that is written there – next to the likeness of a murdered political commentator and opposition activist who is referred to as the “hero of Karbala” among his peers: Ihab al-Wazni.
He was the leading head of the protest movement that mobilized the frustrated population in Kerbela in the course of the October demonstrations in 2019. As everywhere in the country, the vigor of the masses has long since vanished in the pilgrimage city. Today, freshman activists at coffee house tables discuss strategies to breathe new life into the uprising. They too may be deeply religious, but they interpret the work of Imam Hussein differently than those who, driven by the expectation of salvation, weep Hussein’s death and sacrifice and kiss the shrine. For them, the prophet’s grandson is a social revolutionary who, despite an overpowering opponent, rebelled against injustice. They want to take their salvation into their own hands – in the present.
The home of Ihab al-Wazni’s family is at the end of a side street. This is where the murderers struck on the night of May 9. It was half an hour past midnight when he was shot, says his lawyer brother Marwan. He points to a flat-screen television on which the images from the surveillance cameras flicker. They were canceled the days before the crime because the power supply was interrupted. Marwan says a car with black tinted windows and two scooters were in the neighborhood on the night of the murder.
He is certain that his brother was murdered in order to “cut the head off” of the protest movement. In the circle of Ihab al-Wazni’s companions, there is speculation as to whether, in addition to politics, a “personal feud” with a powerful adversary could have played a role. “Let the hearts of the murderers burn as my heart is burned,” shouts al-Wazni’s mother. For them, as for so many others, it is as clear as day who is behind the murder: militias that are in league with neighboring Iran and who have murdered or abducted activists in other Iraqi cities.
Dozens of cases are known and the government in Baghdad has not been able to contain their activities or bring the perpetrators to justice. There have been arrests of suspects, and at the end of May a high-ranking paramilitary named Qasim Muslih, who comes from Karbala and is linked to the Al-Wazni murder, among other things, was arrested. But the trial of strength that followed the blow by the authorities shows that the arm of the law in Iraq has only a very limited reach. Heavily armed militiamen promptly rioted in the government district. Muslih was released on Wednesday. In a triumphal procession of all-terrain vehicles and flatbed trucks, he rolled into his hometown of Karbala and moved to the Hussein Shrine in a flag-waving crowd of people, repeatedly stopped by loyal followers who kiss his cheeks or proudly take selfies.
For the grieving family, these images must seem like sheer mockery – and another setback in their fight against impunity. “The decision to release Qasim Muslih is illegal,” says Marwan, who knows, however, that it was a political decision. He fears that evidence may now be destroyed. The Muslih and al-Wazni families know each other. For many years, as the mother of the murdered reports. Qasim Muslih’s brother, also a powerful militia commander, was one of those who had threatened her son for about a year and a half.
Anger for Tehran too
Days before the crime, the latter had announced that if Ihab did not stop his political work, he would be killed like others before him. “Other relatives of Qasim Muslih visited us after his arrest and threatened us: If he is not released, we will blow up your house,” says al-Wazni’s brother Marwan. He doesn’t want to rest until the perpetrators are brought to justice. Despite the fear of death, he continues to the sporadic protests, whose participants no longer enjoy the protection that their sheer mass once offered them. “I was told by the security forces that I, too, was a target,” he says. “But to keep going is the only way.”
The anger is directed not only at the Iraqi bombers, but also at their Iranian sponsors. “The army should just seal off the border, then we Iraqis can live in peace,” the mother complains. One encounters mission-conscious antipathy towards the encroaching neighboring country in Karbala again and again. Protesters have attacked the Iranian consulate in the city three times. Companions of Ihab al-Wazni are not only angry with the murderous vassals of Tehran, who played a major role in the fact that many Iraqis no longer dare to come to the demonstrations. They also complain that Iraqi straw men are securing real estate or lucrative economic projects for the Iranians.
Kerbela’s pilgrimage sites themselves are the subject of power struggles between the forces loyal to the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and those whose loyalty is primarily to the Iranian revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Local politicians and journalists say that there is competition for control – for the income from the pilgrimage business – among the security forces, who are actually only tasked with protecting them.
The religious leadership of the Iraqi Shiites under al-Sistani has grown into a very unpleasant adversary in the form of the militias. In June 2014 the Grand Ayatollah called on the Iraqis to take up arms and stand by the staggering armed forces in the war against the “Islamic State”. Hosts of volunteers responded to his call, and they played a key role in wiping the IS caliphate off the map in the end. In the meantime, the fighters of the “popular mobilization” (Al-Hashd al-Shabi) have been integrated into the state security forces as a paramilitary umbrella organization. Only those brigades that do not feel obliged to the state or al-Sistani, but above all to Chamenei and the unscrupulous and cunning pullers in the ranks of the Iranian revolutionary guards, also operate under his banner.
There is great resentment about this in Najaf, the center of powerful Shiite scholarship. “The young people wanted to defend Iraq. We support the families and children of the martyrs, but others have benefited from their willingness to make sacrifices, ”says Zaid Bahr Aluloom, who is a leader in one of the many religious seminars in the learned city, which like Karbala is a birthplace of Shiite Islam. “The problem is that the Iraqi government is weak. If it were strong, Iran would not be able to act like that in Iraq. The “Al-Khoei Institute”, named after the old and influential family of scholars from which its head came, is one of the most important of its kind. It is considered to be moderate, modern.
The dusty facade and the door covered with transparent plastic strips fit seamlessly into the dreariness of the alley. But a few steps inside the view opens onto an imposing seven-story new building with a spacious prayer room with high columns on the ground floor. From the office of Zaid Bahr Aluloom the gaze falls on one of the most important Islamic shrines: the Imam Ali shrine.
Like Karbala, Najaf is one of the most important Shiite pilgrimage sites. Only a few kilometers from here, Ali Ibn Ali Talib, the fourth caliph, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, was murdered by an assassin in 661. He is now buried in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.
Before Zaid Bahr Aluloom explains why Najaf is the “capital” of the Shiites, he first lights a cigarette, which doesn’t really go with his robe and turban. He belongs to a new generation of scholars. In the course of the mass protests, some of them took off their religious clothing in order to take to the streets with the demonstrators in Najaf. Aluloom also has a clear political stance. He also supports the protests against the run-down system and sees Imam Hussein as a fighter against corruption. “Iraq is a rich country,” says Zaid Bahr Aluloom. “It cannot be acceptable that some of its citizens do not know how to get food.”
The cityscape suggests that the economic situation in Najaf is worse than in Karbala. Both cities are at the forefront of the most important pilgrimage sites, both are considered to be important centers of power in Iraq. But Najaf is deeper in the desert and looks more neglected. The streets around the grave mosque of Imam Ali are orphaned, many of the pilgrim hotels are empty because of the corona virus, some are already falling into disrepair. The merchants’ displays in the streets around the Imam Ali shrine, where al-Sistani lives in a modest house, are less lavish than in Karbala. The grave mosque with the golden sanctuary also looks less splendid. There, a security guard who has offered to act as a tour guide points out a group of eight men who are carrying a coffin through the courtyard of the building in the midday heat. “Sometimes there are two hundred a day,” he says, and at the same time makes it clear with a sweeping shrug that this is a very rough estimate. During the war against IS, he adds, there were also thousands a day.
It is the last will of many Shiites to visit the tomb of Ali, the redeeming figure of their faith, again after death – and then to be buried in the “Valley of Peace”, a huge, steadily growing city of the dead. Ali himself is said to have called the area near the shrine “part of heaven”. As far as the eye can see, the dusty, mud-brick-brown burial ground on the great Najaf Lake extends. The simple grave stelae stand close together, some of them are hung with colorful garlands made of plastic flowers, which are also faded by the sun, as are the portraits of the dead that are attached to some graves: old men in tribal clothing and, again and again, young men in uniform. Millions of people are supposed to find their final resting place in the “Valley of Peace”, and according to tradition, they go straight to paradise from here.
Here, in the city of the dead, there is a portal into a better world. The space is accordingly scarce and expensive. But even here powerful militias have secured their own empire.