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Updated: 05:25 p.m. EDT (21:25 GMT) April 26, 2004
GRAEME GREENBACK reporting…
It was Sunday in Basra when I got the call. I’d blown into the this British-held city a few days before, when I got "the word" that the CIA was planning something "explosive" to "distract" public attention from all the furor "the wanted radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadrin" was raising in Fallujah and Najaf. And sure enough, just like in Saigon in 1954, the bombs went off and scores of innocent people, even little school children, were killed by the usual anonymous suicide bombers — at least, that’s what they told us to report in our dispatches.
That’s how it works here in Iraq most of the time: our "journalistic" careers depend on our being where the sensational events are happening, so a few of us, like me, have "non-attributable" contacts that allow us to be at the right place at the right time. Most of the time we paint by numbers the picture that officialdom wants the wild wild West to see.
But we play a double game too, because sometimes the boys and girls at CIA Central haven’t got their good ear to the ground. Which is why those of us worth our press passes cultivate our own sources call them spies — like Kahlil, my man in Baghdad. Kahlil was a senior counter-intelligence officer in Saddam’s Republican Guard, but saw the writing on the wall and helped recruit a bunch of junior army officers over to the CIA before the U.S.-British-Israeli invasion. In return for services rendered, Kahlil was "detained" in Abu Ghoryab prison for a few weeks, so none of his former colleagues would suspect he was a double agent, and then he was given a satellite cell phone and released on his own recognizance. Unbeknownst to the CIA, Brits, and Israelis, Kahlil also works for Russians, the Kurds, and anyone else who can afford his retainer.
So yesterday, I was sitting at the British Officers Club in Basra, sipping a gin and tonic, when I got the call from Kahlil. Within moments I had retrieved my driver from the local Kasbah, and was tooling up the Highway of Death to Baghdad in my six-cylinder camel, headed for the story of the century.
Rendezvous in Baghdad
I met Kahlil at a little carpet shop off Bobby Sands Boulevard about midnight, high on OxyContin and Benzedrine, ready to rumble. But no magic pill could have prepared me for what the old Republican Guard had up his sleeve.
"Greeny," he said, "Muqtada looks around him and sees his country in rubble. Infidels in tanks and humvees, flying in formation overhead, dropping napalm on mosques as if this was Philadelphia in May 1983, when the cops bombed the MOVE compound and destroyed 60 houses. ‘This is wackier than Wacko,’ he says to me. ‘Women and kids turned into toast, I mean, like when George the First incinerated that Black section of Panama City just to whack Manuel.’
"Muqtada looks around," Kahlil continued, "and he sees the world look away. Which might seem unbelievable, if it hadn’t happened a thousand times before. From, the Halls of Montevoooma, you know what I mean? Now this fancy General Hertling has the balls to tell Muqtada to give up or get killed. Meanwhile some Marine colonel, who thinks he’s Santa Anna, says, ‘What is coming is the destruction of anti-coalition forces in Fallujah. . . . They have two choices: submit or die.’"
Kahlil’s eyelids narrowed, then popped open wide like he’d broken open a vial of Amil-nitrate. "Telling Muqtada to ‘submit or die’ in HIS own country, for exercising his right to free speech, his right to bear arms in self-defense against foreign invaders! Meanwhile the CIA’s got SEAL teams led by Israeli and Libyan assassins stalking him day and night, and holding his wife and kids hostage."
"Well, yeah," I said. "Everyone knows all that. So what’s he going to do?"
With that, Kahlil pulled two tickets from out of his sleeve, and cupped them in his palm, like a fence flashing a pair of diamond earrings under a streetlight.
"Muqtada got his band together for a Farewell Performance tonight, and for a thousand dollars each, I acquired these, my brother."
Buckaroo Bonsai’s Last Tango On Planet Ten
I couldn’t believe it! Two front-row tickets to see Muqtada And The Mehdi Fedayeen in their Farewell Performance at the Apollo Mosque in Najaf. A steal at a grand a piece. I hugged Kahlil, and then, like teeny-boppers on our way to see Brittany Spears, and we ducked down an alley, dropped into one of the old sewers that crisscross the city, passed under a 1st Armored Division checkpoint, and surfaced two blocks from the golden shrine.
The streets surrounding the place were packed with Shiites and Shia, all shoving and pushing and trying to get close enough to hear "the radical cleric." Luckily, one of Kahlil’s old buddies, a former Republican Guard now serving as security for Muqtada, let us in the service entrance and escorted us through the kitchen and into the main room of the Mosque. Inside a ring of black-clad militiamen, astride what seemed to be a flying carpet with this two-piece band behind him, was Muqtada himself, singing his heart out to a cheering throng of true believers.
There was magic in the air as he sang: "Well, you wonder why we always dress in black? It’s for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, bombed-out side of town, and for the detainee at Abu Ghoryab, who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the New York Times."
Oh! The place was going wild, to his signature "boom-chick-a-boom chick-a-boom" country Iraqi sound.
Then all of a sudden, like Elvis, he raised his left hand high and the music stopped; a hush fell over the Mosque as Muqtada slid down on one knee, and slowly lowered his hand till his forefinger was pointing straight at a familiar face sitting only three seats away from us, right next to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The man with the beard smiled for the video cameras and exhaled a long stream of Afghan hashish from the hookah he’s perennially hooked-up to. (People think he’s on kidney dialysis, but not so.)
"Let’s hear it for the our guest of honor, the Grand Templar of Terror, Sheik Osama bin Laden!"
It was like Folsom Prison, I swear, what with all the celebrity evildoers in the crowd. Even Bremer was there; you could see his combat boots sticking out of his robe, and the Blackwater security people around him.
Then Muqtada stood and addressed the audience. "I lived for forty years under the heel of Saddam, but he never slammed me in Abu Ghoryab, or shut down my newspaper, or bombed by neighborhood." The crowd roared. "Sure, he gassed the Kurds – but the CIA sold him the gas! And sure, he invaded Kuwait – but Dizzy Gillespie from the CIA said that was okay too!" People were yelling ‘Allah Akbar!’ and dancing, and waving Kalishnikovs over their heads. Oh, it was the schmaltz!
"Yeah, I had my beef with the dude; but he didn’t impose the ten years of economic sanctions, or the No Fly Zones that drove our country into the dirt. The Americans like to talk about the trouble foreign terrorists that are causing trouble here in Iraq can you image? They think they’re native Iraqis! They think they own this place!"
With that the place went wild. It was bedlam. Meanwhile the band starting playing again and Muqtada said, ‘Let’s here it for the band! Behind me on my left, on lead guitar, Mohamed "Davy Crocket" Ibrahim! And on my right, playing bass, Hajim "Jim Bowie" al-Hassani." With that, the Muqtada swang into his best known tune, ‘When I was just a baby, my mother told me son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns"
The crowd was standing and stomping their feet and yelling for an encore as Muqtada and the Mehdi Fedayeen levitated off the flying carpet and out of sight, and then after about two minutes of pandemonium, they drifted back, with golden halos over their heads this time. The light show was just extraordinary.
"We’ll just leave you with this old ballad," the radical cleric said, knowing he would never address his fans again. And with that he whipped his six-string over his head so the frets were pointing down, and using his guitar like a sword, he drew an imaginary line in the air. "On one side of this line is the New Iraq," he said, "the New improved, Pepsi Cola Iraq, Holy owned and operated by the American Junior Chamber of Commerce fronting for the CIA, Halliburton and KBR. On the other side is Paradise. What’s it gong to be, brothers?"
I’ll never forget what happened next. In the silence that ensued, old Muqtada started strumming and singing these words: "Iraqis were challenged by travelers to die, as the battle for national sovereignty drew nigh" And as he sang, everyone in the audience, even Bremer, held up a Zippo and flicked on a light, giving the place and unearthly glow, as Muqtada sang the last words in public he would ever sing:
"A courier came to a battle once bloody and loud
And found only skin and bones where he once left a crowd
Fear not little darling of dying
If this world be sovereign and free
For we’ll fight to the last for as long as liberty be
Hey Up George Bush, they’re killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Iraq will say, ‘We’ve had enough!’
And remember Fallujah and sacred Najaf."
Out in the streets they shouted that refrain: "Allah Akbar!"
Which, of course, in Iraqi means, "Remember the Alamo!"
GRAEME GREENBACK, aka Douglas Valentine, is the author of The Hotel Tacloban, The Phoenix Program, and TDY. His fourth book, The Strength of the Wolf: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1968, will be published in May 2004 by Verso. For information about Mr. Valentine, and his books and articles, please visit his web sites at www.DouglasValentine.com and http://members.authorsguild.net/valentine