Fear of cleric's militia hides voice of dissent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:00am

Residents in Najaf, the Iraqi town where Moqtada al-Sadr is leading an uprising against US-led coalition troops, are increasingly tight-lipped about the young rebel cleric, according to American filmmaker James Longley.

As resentment toward Mr Sadr grows and skirmishes continue, Longley, who is making a documentary about the cleric, has found that it is virtually impossible to find a voice of dissent.

'During the last month or so, what I've noticed is that the willingness of people to talk about what is going on has really declined. No one will speak their mind if they have an opinion opposing Moqtada al-Sadr or his militia,' Longley said.

'I went to do an interview with a schoolteacher I know but he declined.

The man was worried that people would question him about why he gave an interview to an American and what they talked about, Longley said.

'Most people in this city are not very pleased and they just want to get back to normal, but no one is going to say that out loud,' he said.

Longley said a Sadr supporter harassed him to erase his tape soon after he filmed an interview with a man who said his house had been hit by gunfire and life made miserable by the militia.

Though negotiations between Mr Sadr's deputies and other Shi'ites for a peaceful end to the standoff in the holy city have broken down, sheikhs came from Fallujah last weekend to offer support. They brought a month's worth of food and medicine in a convoy that was not searched by the US army.

For groups still advocating armed resistance against the occupation, the rallying cry remains the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US troops.

Five men from Amarra, four hours south of Najaf, who buried a man who had been killed by coalition forces during demonstrations also brought allegations of torture.

Shi'ite martyrs are often buried in Wadi As-Salam, the Najaf cemetery north of the mosque where some of the fiercest fighting of the uprising broke out between militiamen and US troops this month.

One of the Amarra men, Jasim Hamid Bahadi, said: 'The British are torturing them [prisoners] and they cut off their hands and their eyes.'

With fighting continuing to claim lives, the procession of bodies is one thing Longley has still been allowed to film. But his frustration is growing.

'The attitude that I've been seeing is very reminiscent to the attitude I saw under the Saddam Hussein regime, and I see this being repeated on a miniature scale with Sadr and his militia,' he said.

'I think is unfortunate, because some of the things they're talking about may actually have a certain amount of merit. Some of the popularity he's garnered is because of his opposition to the occupation, which is a legitimate feeling that people have.'


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