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An Iraqi Shiite looks back on the revolution that was

Haidar Turfi tries to pinpoint when things went wrong, when the followers of Mohammed Sadeq Sadr and his son Muqtada began to splinter, and notoriety replaced idealism.

December 30, 2009|By Ned Parker and Raheem Salman
  • Supporters at a rally in Baghdad display pictures of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr and his late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr.
Supporters at a rally in Baghdad display pictures of Shiite Muslim cleric… (Ali al-Saadi / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Najaf, Iraq — He still has it: the stethoscope that heard the last heartbeats of the grand ayatollah.

When the revolution by Iraq's Shiite Muslim poor began, Haidar Turfi was there. For 45 weeks in a row, he attended the sermons, each one challenging Saddam Hussein's regime, until the third Friday in February 1999, when revered cleric Mohammed Sadeq Sadr was gunned down.

He was there four years later, after the fall of Hussein, as Sadr's young followers gravitated to his son Muqtada and harnessed an army of thousands of disenfranchised Shiites who could grind the country to a halt.

They proved a thorn in the side of the U.S. military and challenged the very legitimacy of the political parties that had returned from exile.

That was then. Today, the movement's reputation has been poisoned by the involvement of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in gruesome sectarian killings during the country's civil war. Many believe its promise has been squandered, and the burden of failure has splintered the highest ranks of the leadership.

Now Turfi sits in a print shop surrounded by warehouses and dirt lots on the outskirts of Najaf, not far from the scenes of the movement's greatest moments and heartbreaks.

A few older men poke their heads in, and a teenager stacks paper in a workroom.

Turfi, 39, hesitates before talking about the rifts, afraid the wrong word will paint him a traitor and trigger anger from some corner. A bit nervous, he talks in stops and starts about the ones who were there at the beginning. Now they're gone. Some walked away, others died, others were cast aside.

He squints as he tries to pinpoint the moment when things went wrong. He shakes his head.

"Ninety percent of our best leaders have been killed. They were the true believers and kindhearted people," Turfi says with a frown. "In every revolution, in every political movement, there are those who sacrifice, who belong first and lead the whole thing. Later they are removed and others come and take things over."

This is the story of what happens when a revolution dies.

Unassuming man

People underestimate Turfi, a quiet man with a trimmed beard and deep-set brown eyes who looks like a shopkeeper in his pressed slacks and tucked-in pink shirt. His couch is worn and sags in the middle. A few papers rest on his scuffed metal desk.

He displays a poster of a young girl with a white dove, wings outstretched, that bears his party's name, Sadr-Iraq. He believes he has every right to run in national elections under the Sadr name even as he defies those who officially represent the young cleric.

He grimaces while recounting the younger Sadr's drifting away, behind a wall of advisors who had little to do with his initial rise. He blames them for isolating Sadr and gradually weakening the movement. Even now, he makes it clear that he considers Sadr his religious leader, but that he will never follow the direction of the cleric's political board.

His voice cracks as he describes his efforts to reach out to Sadr, only to be blocked by those around him.

Turfi says he was shocked by the movement's decision to join a coalition of Shiite Muslim parties widely perceived as favored by Iran. It was then that the break became official and Turfi entered an alliance with a former Sunni parliament speaker in pursuit of what he describes as the nationalist ideal.

"Sunnis are the oxygen and Shia are the hydrogen," Turfi says. "If they are separated, they are flammable. United, they form H2O, the source of life."

He's not alone in striking out politically in what he calls a move to save the Sadr movement. Other senior followers have been pushed aside, grown disenchanted or simply wished for more power as they saw their revolution tainted by death squads and political gamesmanship. At least six have split with Sadr's circle and founded their own parties to run in national elections.

The men have a shared history, going back to Sadr's father. All of them remember the movement in its golden era, when the way forward was clear, when they faced sacrifice and hardship together.

Turfi speaks almost in a whisper of the meetings where those early acolytes discuss their alienation from Muqtada. Turfi and others worry Sadr's aides will poison the cleric against them. Mainly they wonder how to resurrect a movement that once saw itself as a defender of all Iraqis, before rampant violence stained it.

The names from the past flash by Turfi.

There is the movement's lost hope, Riyadh Noori, a champion of the push for the group's militia to disarm, who had an open channel to Sadr until his assassination in April 2008 outside his home in Najaf. Even now, Turfi chokes up when he mentions Noori, as if the hulking young man could mend the current schisms.

Then there is Qais Khazali, who, like Turfi, studied under Sadr's father and is the most charismatic figure to break with the son.

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