Muqtada Sadr's Battle Against U.S.

<b>Bob Simon</b> Interviews Iraq's Radical Cleric

"The little serpent has left, and the great serpent has come."

That's how Muqtada al Sadr, the cleric who's been rallying Iraqis against the U.S. occupation of his country, describes the war in Iraq.

So the big serpent was Saddam Hussein, and the Americans are the small serpents?

"It is the opposite, my friend," al Sadr tells 60 Minutes Correspondent Bob Simon. "Just because we're rid of Saddam and the evil Batthists doesn't mean the occupation is a good thing. Our salvation from Saddam was only with the grace of God."

If getting rid of Saddam was a favor of God, why was it that God waited until the Americans came in to do the job?

"All praises to Allah! He works in mysterious ways," says the cleric.

It's that sort of radical, and mystical, sentiment that has galvanized masses of poor, mostly uneducated Shiites in the Iraqi slums, and inspired them to back the 31-year-old cleric, Simon notes. And al Sadr's supporters are enthusiastic - and well armed.

Al Sadr's authority comes from his name more than anything else, Simon explains. His father was a revered ayatollah and a martyr, killed by Saddam. Shiite credentials don't get better than that. Saddam City, the teeming Shiite slum in Baghdad, was renamed Sadr City in his father's honor.

But while the younger al Sadr's picture may now be everywhere, he's not thought of highly by the mainstream Shiite clergy, which had been urging him to disarm and rein in his angry followers.

That's no easy task, considering that Shiite resentment toward the U.S. dates back more than a decade. After Saddam surrendered in the first Gulf War in 1991, the first President Bush sent a clear message to Iraq's Shiites. He said it was time "for the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."

The Shiites heeded the call. But when they were in full rebellion against Saddam, the American air cover they expected never came. More than that, the U.S. let Saddam use his own helicopter gunships to crush the revolt. Shiites were killed by the thousands. The mass graves were only recently unearthed.

"The Americans were never interested in what was best for the Shiites," al Sadr tells Simon. "In fact, America wouldn't let a Shiite government exist here, except under its occupation, my friend, because of that fear."

And now that Saddam is gone, it's only the Americans who are standing between the Shiites and control of the country.

At least, that's what al Sadr's followers hear day after day. One supporter nearly lost his leg to Saddam's guards, but still he says Americans have become the enemy and they must leave immediately.

It's the same sentiment Simon heard from the Islamic scholars who are advising al Sadr. One mullah tells him many Shiites in Najaf are waiting to become martyrs.

The U.S. has known for months that al Sadr had no shortage of volunteers, but it is only recently that it learned just how well organized they are, Simon says. Dressed in black, an army of men loyal only to Sadr - the "Mahdi Army" - has been training since the occupation began a year ago, waiting for the right moment to show its force.

That moment came last month, after authorities arrested one of al Sadr's lieutenants and issued an arrest warrant for al Sadr in connection with the murder of an ayatollah friendly to the U.S.

That move accompanied a decision by the Pentagon to shut down al Sadr's small newspaper, accusing it of lying about U.S. attacks on the Shiites.

The reaction from al Sadr's followers was immediate and violent. "Didn't the Americans promise us freedom and democracy?" they asked. Al Sadr's army took over several Shiite towns, and expelled coalition forces from the holy capital, Najaf.

So Col. Dana Petard and his troops surrounded Najaf, trying to catch as many of al Sadr's foot soldiers as they can.

"What our mission is, and our mission is that we'll do as soon as we can, will be the destruction of al Sadr's militia, and then kill or capture al Sadr himself," says Pittard.

They've made some progress. U.S. troops have killed or captured hundreds of Sadr's soldiers and have uncovered weapons caches hidden in mosques.

At this point though, al Sadr's movement seems to have taken on a life of its own, Simon reports. Some of the cleric's followers have even begun using a tactic reserved until now to Saddam loyalists - the taking of hostages.

Fadi Fadel, a Canadian aid worker, was roused out of bed at gunpoint a few weeks ago by men claiming to be members of Sadr's Mahdi army.

"They blindfolded me," Fadi says. "They tied my hands behind my back. And they kept maltreating me a bit. Burnt me with cigarettes."

They burned him with cigarettes and beat him with a hose because his captors accused Fadi of being an Israel spy. He insisted in his native tongue, Arabic, that he's a Canadian, a Christian, and only came to Iraq to help street kids in Najaf. They didn't buy it.

"And then they brought me into this room," he tells Simon. "There was a, a video camera. They sat me in front of it. And they said to say my name, nationality. And that I collaborate with Israel."

He hadn't collaborated, so he refused. That's when the guns came out.

"And then they had a couple of guys come in behind the camera with Kalashnikovs. And I heard, sort of, the bullet going in. And I said, 'Well, I have to, you know, say - what they want me to say,' otherwise I thought I was gonna die."

His confession was broadcast in Iraq by an Iranian-backed network.

Unbeknownst to Fadi, six days later Muqtada al-Sadr gave a speech in which he said, "I want to advise certain people not to harm the hostages. Anyone who is not from one of the occupying nations should be freed and handed over to the legal authorities so they can go home."

That meant Canadians like Fadi were now off limits. Two hours later, Fadi was released, on his way home to Canada, a stark reminder that, for al Sadr, America is the enemy of the Shiite people.

Al Sadr's supporters believe Americans came to Iraq to put down the Shiites, to stop them from establishing a Shiite religious government in Iraq.
In Najaf, Simon points out, al Sadr has done just that. He's set up his own Islamic court - a Sharia court - in small makeshift quarters.

When told that Americans have an image of Islamic Courts in the Middle East as being extremely severe, al Sadr responds, "First of all, why don't the Americans take a look at their own courts. Don't they execute and torture people? What about the terror they inflict upon the inmates?"

And that was said before the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed, a scandal which played right into al Sadr's hands. "The American president Bush is standing shamelessly in front of the world talking about all this prisoner abuse - these inhumane, immoral... images," Sadr told supporters. "What peace can be expected from him?"

As for al Sadr, he's taken to wearing a white funeral shroud, signaling he's not afraid to become a martyr like his father. "I fear only God, all praises to Him," he tells Simon. "It is America who is afraid of the Shiites, my friend, not the Shiites who are afraid of America."

This week saw the first signs of progress in the long standoff with al Sadr and his militia. U.S. forces are discussing a plan to pull out American troops from the Shiite south in exchange for al Sadr's men laying down their arms.
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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