The Spark of Rebellion: Man Plans, Moqtada Laughs

April 10, 2014

Editor’s Note: War on the Rocks is proud to publish this series on the tenth anniversary of the events they describe in 2004. This is part two of five.  Read part one here.


On March 31 and April 1, 2004, the Team Leaders of the USAID-funded Local Governance Program (LGP) gathered at the Baghdad ‘Ishtar’ Sheraton for what none of them could know was the last time. As the government agency responsible for the development assistance projects that complement the Defense Department’s military efforts and the State Department’s diplomacy, USAID had designed and competed the contract before the invasion of Iraq began and had awarded the project to North Carolina-based RTI a full three weeks before the fall of Baghdad. The event marking that fall – the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square – was approaching on April 9, and the Ishtar Sheraton overlooked that square.

LGP was the largest development assistance project in USAID’s history. Along with the Coalition Provisional Authority (or CPA), which served as America’s civilian administration of Iraq, it was part of the largest effort at rebuilding a foreign country since the end of the Second World War. As it approached its one year anniversary, LGP employed 221 expatriate staff from around the world and close to 3000 Iraqis, making it the single biggest employer of Iraqis outside of the Iraqi government. It operated Local Governance Teams in 17 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, as well as a sizeable headquarters inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.  In exercising its option to extend it for a second year, USAID had imposed a 40% budget cut on the project, but even so, that second implementation year alone was worth up to $154 million.  Because USAID’s funding in Iraq was funneled through a Project Management Office within the CPA, it added time to an already time-consuming procurement process and so encouraged “mission creep” (it being easier for the agency to add to LGP’s portfolio than to let new contracts). The cut anticipated the end of the CPA that June and the restoration of USAID’s normal way of doing business, including a broad portfolio of projects implemented by a variety of contractors. So the narrowing of the project’s focus entailed in the cuts was welcomed by the Team Leaders, even if it meant a concomitant reorganization of its staff. Unknown to any of the Team Leaders at that meeting – least of all the leaders of provincial governance teams in the project’s South Central region – was how circumstances beyond their control would reorganize the project without them.

The meetings went well, with the Team Leaders liking the work plan template intended to give the project an overall coherence and their teams the flexibility to propose activities appropriate to their provinces. And most of all, the work planning sessions offered the Team Leaders the opportunity to determine their own destiny within a common framework, and (they thought) eliminate the randomness and unpredictability of LGP’s first year.

Perhaps with a better appreciation of what was possible, the Team Leaders left that meeting unusually and almost universally optimistic. Al Haines, the leader of the Local Governance Team for the capital of Baghdad, noted in his journal that: “I thought it went very well, considering much of the uncertainty and lack of organization and direction that existed before.”

The Team Leader in Karbala, Vijaya Samaraweera, summed up the consensus view of his South Central colleagues once he had returned to his office, expressing his “congratulations on a successful meeting.” And after the newly appointed Team Leader to Diwaniyah, Arnoux Abraham, had returned to his team and reported on the meeting, its seniormost member, a normally taciturn and even skeptical civil engineer named Steve Blanchard, wrote in his journal: “Find myself under the intoxication of believing this mission will succeed.”

Following the template distributed at the Team Leaders meeting, the teams were expected to complete their work plans and return them to headquarters by Sunday, April 4. Most were never submitted because on the day they were due, Hell broke loose and Iraq caught fire. The pressure had been building for days.

On the 31st, the first day of the Team Leaders’ meeting, four members of the State Department’s security provider, Blackwater USA, were ambushed and killed in Fallujah. The bodies of Scott Helvenston, Jerko Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Michael Teague were then burned, dragged through the streets and hung from the supports of a bridge crossing the Euphrates. Images of jubilant Iraqis celebrating in front of the mutilated bodies spread through the Internet and the press, inflaming public opinion in the United States and directly precipitating the First Marine Expedition’s assault in response, what has come to be known as the First Battle of Fallujah.

That battle began after dark on the night of April 4, but with the city cordoned off, an attack imminent and the attention of the U.S. military diverted, followers of the rabidly anti-American cleric Moqtada as Sadr seized upon America’s distraction to open a second, Shia front.

Sadr, the son of a prominent Shia scholar allegedly murdered on the orders of Saddam had yet to finish his religious education, but he had already long been a thorn in the side of the Coalition. Using his position as the scion of a famous family and his access to microphones during Friday prayers, Sadr had emerged in the fall of 2003 as Iraq’s staunchest opponent of the American occupation. In addition, the 30 year-old “boy imam” had founded a private militia of loyalists named after the “messiah” of the Shia denomination’s end times theology, the Army of the Mahdi (Jaysh al Mahdi in Arabic, or “JAM”). On March 28, fed up with Sadr’s constant haranguing, CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer issued an order shuttering Sadr’s mouthpiece newspaper, Al Hawsa.  In response, in an especially bellicose sermon on Friday, April 2, the boy imam urged his fighters to resist. The subsequent arrest of his lieutenant, Mustafa Yacoubi, provoked further outrage, and by the time Sunday the 4th rolled around, Sadr loyalists, inflamed by what they considered an affront not just to their leader but to Islam itself, gathered in Najaf.

In the often derided “coalition of the willing” the U.S. led combat operations in places like Fallujah while lesser powers maintained order in places that had been pacified. So in the initially welcoming and predominantly Shia South and South Central regions of the country, the British oversaw the southern port of Basrah, the Italians looked after Nassiriyah, the Ukrainians were given responsibility for Kut in Wasit province on the border with Iran, the Poles had responsibility for Karbala, and the Spanish looked after sleepy, rural Diwaniyah and the center of Shia authority, Najaf.

But if the southern half of the country had welcomed the invasion and were initially grateful to the Coalition for ridding them of Saddam, Sadr and his followers were ingrates or opportunists, and on Sunday, April 4, protests by his partisans in Najaf quickly escalated into a confrontation with Spanish troops. Each fired on the other in a melee that killed at least one Coalition soldier and perhaps as many as 20 Iraqi protesters. By the time those shots were fired, an open Shia rebellion was already well underway.

The South Central teams were managed from a Regional Service Center (or RSC) in Hillah, Babil Province, so named for its proximity to the ancient ruins at Babylon. The provinces in that region included the Shia holy sites in Karbala and Najaf, from where Sadr ran his organization, along with neighboring Diwaniyah and Kut. The Regional Team Leader in the RSC was Jim Mayfield, professor emeritus at the University of Utah who had appointed the men to the provincial offices, each of which consisted of a technical Team Leader and provincial Operations Officer. In Hillah the Team Leader was Don Seufert. Don’s best friend and long-time business associate, Howard Edwards, served as Team Leader in Kut. Dr. Mayfield had appointed recently retired Marine, Arnoux Abraham to the position of Team Leader in Diwaniyah, and “VJ” Samaraweera was the Team Leader in Karbala. When Dr. Mayfield had been on R&R, and the official Team Leader for Najaf had been out of the country on emergency leave, Don, as acting Regional Team Leader had appointed a public finance advisor named Bruce Hutchins to be Acting Team Leader in Najaf. To assist him with operational issues, Don had also sent along a newly arrived Palestinian named Nabil Razouk. All would have to be evacuated as Iraq caught fire, reminding the project’s headquarters (then waiting for second year work plans) of an old expression: “Man plans and God laughs.”

In Kut, the Mahdi Army attacked police stations and fired on the CPA compound, which was located in a hotel overlooking the Tigris River that ran through the middle of the city. In Karbala, they similarly attempted to overrun government facilities. In Sadr City, (a predominantly Shia slum in Baghdad that was once called Saddam City but, after the invasion, was renamed after the boy imam’s murdered father), Sadr loyalists took 3 police stations, prompting the newly arrived First Cavalry Division of U.S. Army to attempt to take them back. In doing so, the 1st Cav came under extraordinarily heavy fire, losing eight soldiers in the process, while an additional 50 were injured before fighting died down and the police stations were returned to Iraqi control. These incidents only fanned the fires of resistance and encouraged Sadr’s armed acolytes to turn their attention to softer targets.

Although the National Director of Operations of the Local Governance Program had reported only days before that the project’s residences and offices were ‘generally in good shape,’ the expats and Iraqis employed by LGP were considerably more vulnerable than CPA locations or military bases, living as they did within communities, usually in large Iraqi family homes that typically had multiple bedrooms to accommodate several generations sharing the same roof. Even though they had armed guards, those guards were most often local men hired more as a means of generating employment than on the basis of their military skill. Thanks to years of war and sanctions – as well as, especially, Saddam’s suppression of the Shia rebellion after American forces expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the 1990s – whole communities needed jobs and a whole generation of young men needed the dignity of earning a living. So the project bet on a kind of soft protection, assuming that by giving young men employment, it would get loyalty in return (and reliable “intelligence” of any threats brewing in the area).

This “soft security” posture was applied with special care in Karbala. After a car bomb was detonated in the governor’s office complex on December 27, 2003, the Team Leader relocated the project’s offices and accommodations to a site outside of the claustrophobic city center. Through consultations with their neighbors, patient explanation of the focus of the project on restoring basic services, and a respectful attitude (as well as through the confidence and connections of some the Iraqi staff), Vijaya had managed to win over his neighbors and continued to meet with them periodically to resolve differences and seek their advice. In the main that advice consisted of a request to keep the residences from appearing to be military compounds, specifically dissuading the team from erecting guard towers or sandbagging their garden walls. VJ’s accommodative approach of being a good neighbor put him at odds with his expatriate security advisor and forced him to make a choice – either listen to his expat advisor or listen to his Iraqi one.

Ali had been assigned to Vijaya from the Regional Support Center in Hillah (at a time when there had been no expat personal security at all) and had been with him ever since. The trust they had developed made VJ’s choice an easy one. Besides, with family connections in Karbala and with the ability to pass anonymously in Iraqi society, Ali had advantages that no foreign security officer could have, including, most notably, the ability to gather intelligence about the general security climate from sitting in cafés and going to the mosque. And so VJ put his life, along with the lives of his two Australian bodyguards and that of his Ops Officer, a Bangladeshi national and retired Army Major, Firoz Siddiqi, into Ali’s hands.

Separately, Vijaya sought the guidance of the Governor and the Chief of Police on what posture the project should adopt for the Arba’een commemoration, which follows Ashura by 40 days and, that year, would  fall on Saturday, April 10. Immediately upon returning from the Team Leaders’ meeting on April 1, he had contacted the governor’s office, and on the morning of Sunday, April 4, met personally with the Governor and the Chief of Police. Their talk centered on the likelihood of another attack by Sunni extremists on Shia pilgrims. Because of the car bombs that had killed over 100 Shia pilgrims walking their way to Karbala on March 2, the three of them feared a repeat of the Ashura bombings and so resolved that the most prudent course of action for LGP was to avoid movement and close its offices in observation of the Shia day of mourning a week later. More worried about Sunni on Shia violence, none of them anticipated any trouble from Sadr, and comfortable with their decision and unaware of the tension in Najaf, Vijaya returned to his office unable to know that it would be for the last time. Later that same day, as Sadr’s militia attacked Iraqi, CPA and LGP positions across the south, it would be Ali who urged VJ, Firoz and their 2 Aussie PSD to flee.


An attorney specializing in development in the Muslim world, Lamar Cravens has spent the majority of the last 20 years in countries in transition. He spent six and a half years in Iraq, holding several positions on the Local Governance Program, and has also worked in Yemen and Egypt (after the Arab Spring revolutions in each), South Asia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.


Image credit: Alexander Augst