World

03.21.13

Iraq War, 10th Anniversary: The Last Grand Mufti

Fallujah’s greatest religious figure proved a valuable ally in quieting the streets until he was quieted himself. John Kael Weston remembers a man whose death he blames on our wrongheaded policies.

A lot of articles will be written this week about our experience in the Iraq War from primarily a U.S.-centric point of view. My goal is different: to help convey the stories of ordinary Iraqis and how our voluntary war affected them, and still does, even as Washington and the American public have largely moved on. These vignettes, which will run across consecutive days this week, include: The Teamster (Bassam)The English Teacher (Abbas), The Highway Patrolman (Waleed), and The Last Grand Mufti (Hamza). I also describe my interaction outside Fallujah with former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a primary architect of our “shock and awe” war.

The final piece in the series is forward-looking. I interview an Iraqi, Ameer, from Baghdad, who worked at the American Embassy and now lives in the U.S. He supported the invasion and continues to believe it was the right decision, with some caveats.

Let's hope one day Iraqis will write their own books about the Iraq War. When they do, their stories in their words should be required reading for all.

The Last Grand Mufti

The junior imams showed up first. They always did. Those with the real power waited for a few days before meeting with us. Al Qaeda in Iraq led by mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi had intimidated the top Muslim leaders out of their mosques to the outskirts of Fallujah. Even Sheik Hamza Abbas al Isaawi, the grand mufti of Fallujah, had to leave his spiritual home, like a pope banished from Rome.

These clerics led by Hamza—which means “steadfast” in Arabic—approached us warily, slowly. They had reason to: the biggest battle of the Iraq war, fought in their city, had just ended. Gray-bearded in white robes, each reminded me of Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf but without a staff in hand. Hunched over, their palms rested atop Qurans. They initially said little, only that Fallujah needed to be rebuilt—and that they would help. Al Qaeda had infected Muslim minds and had to be challenged from within their religion, they whispered. Across the street from where we met weekly, a mosque’s towering minaret had a massive hole through the middle of it, from an American tank round. While escorting imams into meetings, I always looked up at it. They never did.

When Sheik Hamza and his inner circle finally returned to the center of the city, so did a sense of possibility. We talked about projects and, particularly, efforts to get the central government to fund the repair of damaged homes. We talked politics too, with the grand mufti issuing a fatwa or Muslim edict in support of the political process—a major, risky step. I had asked him to lend his voice in support of the occupier’s cause. And he did. The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, my boss, would be pleased. Perhaps the worst was behind us, I thought.

Wrong. Optimism in Fallujah never lasted long.

Soon thereafter a Delta Force squad detained Sara al Jumaili, a local young woman believed to be in her early 20s. They said they needed to question her about Zarqawi ... Was she his terrorist groupie? When the Blackhawk helicopters descended over Fallujah on a crisp October night in 2005, the city could not sleep. The Delta unit grabbed Sara and flew her away to a distant base outside the Marines’ area of operation. She disappeared with them.

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Temporary detainees, later "Sons of Iraq" (Sahwa), 2006. (John Kael Weston)

All of our hard work began to disintegrate in an instant, based on a decision the Marines and I had no input on whatsoever. We were Fallujah’s full-time residents, after all, and most knowledgeable about the various sticky webs of egos, deceit, and vendettas layered and intertwined within it. Our minefield ... dodged daily. Male Fallujans fixated on the worst conspiracy scenario imaginable: a young woman taken from their hometown in darkness by helicopter-borne American brutes. Minds became inflamed. The detention risked becoming the ideal flashpoint extremists needed to turn Fallujans against us—for good. The city suddenly turned a lot more menacing.

Sheikh Hamza, however, refused to join in and rile up the people. The courageous grand mufti would not be intimidated, but he was afraid. While sitting one on one in a sandbagged Fallujah compound surrounded by razor wire, he told me, “You Americans are putting me personally at risk. The terrorists want me to support public demonstrations, but I won’t do it.” I knew he spoke the truth; his decision put him in a precarious and exposed position. Long considered untouchable because of his status and popularity, he had now openly defied al Qaeda.

The Marine two-star commanding general, who shared my concerns, told me the matter was out of his hands. Delta (and SEAL) units had a separate chain of command—all the way back to Joint Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Technically, not even the top four-star general in Baghdad could order Sara’s release.

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Mosque (pre-repair of minaret), central Fallujah, across street from city council building, 2005. (John Kael Weston)
When the embassy asked me who killed Sheik Hamza, I said: we did.

I had few options but decided to act outside my usual State Department channels and directly contacted Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. general in the country. (I found some comfort in telling myself with pre-act-of-insubordination logic, “What is Washington going to do, send me to Fallujah as punishment?”) So I told Casey, “Sara’s face will launch a thousand IEDs in Fallujah.” If Friday prayers commenced the following day and she remained in our custody, I predicted Marines and civilians would be hurt and likely killed. Radical clerics were on the verge of ordering a citywide revolt. Even Iraqi friends in the city began to boycott meetings and warn of a return to bloodshed.

General Casey listened and agreed. The Delta team brought Sara al Jumaili back later that evening. She arrived by dedicated helicopter blindfolded. My job was to transfer her back to Fallujah’s mayor, Sheik Dhari. It was then I saw Sara for the first time. She had dark straight hair, a slight build, and a shyness and quiet composure about her that did not yell “terrorist groupie”—the short-lived, explosive claim as to why she needed to be detained in the first place.

Could she have been complicit? Perhaps. But the case was never made to the Marines or to me. We had built a relationship with Fallujans, hard-earned, and had the most to lose. The rage of the streets would have equaled more roadside bombs. It was a question of their collective sense of honor.

After Sara’s release, Sheik Thamer, a tribal leader who resembled Anthony Quinn and a voice with James Earl Jones authority, told me the tribes had decided to kill her. He said Fallujah could not risk having Sara taken for another round of questioning. They had done the math: one life or many? I immediately requested they not take such a step “officially on behalf of the U.S. government but also speaking as a friend of Fallujah.” Thamer nodded. With her return, the city quieted, and top Sunnis in Baghdad conveyed relief to our embassy.

But another Fallujah tragedy—the list was so long—would not be averted.

The next month terrorists gunned down Sheik Hamza outside his unpretentious and unprotected mosque. The grand mufti’s white robe turned crimson. Fallujans by the thousands gathered at his grave. After his assassination, moderate clerics fled en masse to Syria, to “little Fallujah”—and Zarqawi, a half year later, lay dead, killed by an F-16 laser-guided bomb strike in Baqubah. More Marines and Iraqi civilians would die in the city as anti-American imams gained influence.

When the embassy asked me who killed Sheik Hamza, I said: we did. We had put the target squarely on his back. And I had been the principal collaborator in doing so.

***

Four years later, in 2009, I returned to Fallujah. When I inquired about Sara al Jumaili, an Iraqi friend told me, “We took care of that problem.” I could only assume they must have killed her in the end. Then one added they had forced her to marry and move to a remote part of the province. He sounded mostly convincing, but I’ll never know for sure. I then asked who the current grand mufti was. A prominent town lawyer told me there would never be another spiritual leader like Sheik Hamza. He was irreplaceable.