- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 11, 2004

BAGHDAD — Firebrand Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is using Mahdi’s Army, his black-clad militia drawn from Baghdad’s unemployed and undereducated youth, to shut down schools in Sadr City and other poor Shi’ite neighborhoods across Baghdad.

In Hurriya, a working-class Shi’ite slum with a sizable Sunni minority, most of the schools have been closed since April 5.

That morning, Ali Mohammed, 17, was on his way to school when he encountered five armed men, dressed all in black, blocking the road with a car and some razor wire.

“Go back home,” they told him. “There is no studying today. This is a day of denunciation.”

“It reminded me of the old regime,” said Mohammed, a gangly, studious youth with wire-rimmed glasses and the hopeful mustache cultivated by most teenage Iraqi boys. “They used to do the same thing.”

The April 5 “day of denunciation” followed a week of escalating violence between the cleric’s militia and U.S.-led peacekeeping forces. On March 28, U.S. troops shut down the cleric’s newspaper, Al-Hawza, for 60 days for inciting violence against the U.S.-led forces.

The padlocking of the newspaper touched off days of protest in Baghdad and Shi’ite-dominated southern Iraq. Young men began flocking to the militia’s ranks.

Mohammed defied the militants and walked to school anyway, because he was worried about his upcoming finals. Like many young Iraqis, he is anxious to make up for the months of studying lost during last year’s war.

But when Mohammed arrived at his high school, the principal and vice principal were standing at the front gate. They told him to go home.

“I’m not sure, but I think I saw fear in their faces,” said Mohammed, his lanky limbs folded awkwardly into an armchair.

At Mohammed’s high school, the principal was still fearful over the weekend. The black-clad men had showed up there, too, and commanded him to close the school.

“I didn’t follow their orders, because I take my orders from the Ministry of Education,” said the principal, a portly, balding man who begged that his name and that of the school be withheld.

“Not everybody at this school agrees with what is going on,” added the principal. “But I can’t give you my opinion, because the situation is very dangerous right now.”

Like Mohammed, the principal disobeyed the men in black. He reopened school the next day, April 6. But hardly any students showed up.

“They’re more afraid of the Mahdi Army than they are of failing their exams,” said the principal, shrugging sadly.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide