An Iraqi Shiite looks back on the revolution that was

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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.

Khazali, who continued fighting even when Sadr called for a cease-fire in 2007, formalized his break in the last two years, wooing 400 loyalists in an American prison where he is serving time for the killing of five U.S. soldiers.

Iraqi officials close to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki talk of Khazali as an alternative to Sadr, who they say has fallen under Iranian control and is believed to be studying in Iran to become an ayatollah.

Turfi swears that everything he has ever done has been for the movement, even if it was unpopular with others in the organization.

“Even now I have managed to keep Sadr followers who would have left,” Turfi says, wounded that anyone might accuse him of disloyalty.

Ayatollah’s slaying

Turfi never could have imagined such tensions when he joined Sadr’s father as a college student almost 20 years ago.

He remembers that on the day the grand ayatollah died, the revered cleric sat with hundreds of guests at his office, telling them to continue coming to his Friday prayer services. He urged them to help the poor and then waded through well-wishers and sped off in his car with his two elder sons, toward the gunmen lying in wait.

Turfi and others from the office rushed to Saddam Hospital. Followers waited outside and doctors told them the ayatollah was wounded. It was only after midnight that a small group, including Muqtada Sadr and Turfi, was permitted inside and told that the cleric was dead. Turfi grabbed the stethoscope used to listen to his heart.

The death only deepened his commitment to the movement, and when Hussein fell, Turfi cast off his cover as an ordinary printmaker to join Muqtada. He felt they were fulfilling a religious mission of providing services to the poor and guarding police stations, hospitals and power supplies.

To Turfi, violence was something to be avoided. He wanted the movement to find a way out of confrontation, but instead negotiations failed and the Sadr loyalists and the Americans began battling. Fighting in Najaf in the spring and summer of 2004 leveled buildings and left young men maimed.

When the clashes were over, nothing was the same.

Leaders had been killed, arrested or had gone into hiding, and others took advantage of the disarray to infiltrate the movement. Soon after, the group would seek to become a player in Baghdad’s political establishment.

The ensuing years would see Mahdi Army units operating out of control and new faces replacing the old. The Sadr movement would become associated with death squads and corruption. By the beginning of 2007, Sadr would disappear from the public eye and his communications would come mostly through spokesmen and communiques.

Turfi’s memories of the elder Sadr are strong. He smiles as he recalls how the grand ayatollah sent Muqtada to open mosques for Friday prayers in defiance of Hussein’s security forces. He carries a picture on his cellphone of him leaving his office for his fateful ride home. Turfi is visible in the image, standing behind the car.

He longs for the purity of the early days. When they all trusted one another.

Salman is a Times staff writer. Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.