Iraq: The Chaos Deepens
At the office of Sistani's representative in the Khadimiya district, we are refused an interview--the question of elections is no longer to be addressed. There are some posters in this neighborhood encouraging people to vote, but most of them simply depict Sistani himself or other revered clerics and Shiite heroes. The real excitement surrounds a funeral celebration for a local cleric the next day; restaurateurs are already cooking huge pots of food in the streets.
As I ride back through the dark of early evening, Baghdad takes on an eerie aspect, a kind of arabesque Gotham. The power is out (on a good day, it alternates being on for two hours and off for four), and most of the light comes from the flames of restaurant rotisseries, filtered through the ever-present dust. The noise from generators is overpowering. We pass the hotel I stayed at for two months last winter, now boarded up, its trade in putting up busloads of Iranian tourists on their way to shrines in Najaf, Karbala and Samarra now completely dried up because of the increased violence.
Men in the gas lines are settling into their cars for the night; the wait can last up to two days. The irony of the fuel shortage is hard to ignore. In Iraq--which has the second-highest proven oil reserves in the world--it costs about $2 to fill a tank, and prices on the black market are roughly the same per gallon as they are in the United States. The words of Khodary ring in my ears: "I am calling for destroying all of the oil infrastructure. They are using it against us."
At Friday prayers in Thawra, or Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that is home to more than 2 million people and is the main support base for Muqtada al-Sadr, thousands fill one of the main streets for a Friday prayer service. Fighting between the US military and Sadr's Mahdi Army ended in September, although the Mahdi warned that it would resume attacks on US troops if they continued to arrest members of the organization. The Americans still target Sadr deputies, but militiamen have largely obeyed orders from Sadr to halt attacks.
Initially, it seemed as though Sadr was hedging his bets on the upcoming election, refusing to endorse candidates or the process, but refusing to condemn it as well. After the prayers I attended, one of his spokesmen relates Sadr's most recent statement. "Our leader will not participate officially in the elections, because there is no real representation for all groups and because there is a Sunni boycott," said Sheik Gheith al-Tamimi. "If [the Sunni] don't participate, it won't be an honest election. It won't be a free and honest election under occupation. We want the United Nations to supervise the election."
"Sadr is being fully watched by the Americans and the government," Nadhmi said. "If I were in his place, I would also choose my wording, because it is not he alone who is going to suffer from what he says--it is a whole town or area. If you take the so-called Sunni areas like Mosul, Salahadin province and Anbar province as a total boycott, and then the Sadr group, it might come to a 70 percent or 65 percent boycott."