[ This piece covers the U.S. military’s declaration of posters picturing the controversial cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, forbidden. Company commander Capt. Ronald Hayward, who gave his soldiers the order to quell Iraqis’ free expression, said, “I think it was important [to remove the posters] because al-Sadr currently stands for all things that are anti-coalition.” –BL ]
Tension forms when Soldiers take down posters of Al-Sadr
by Spc. Jan Critchfield
BAGHDAD, Iraq (Army News Service, April 21, 2004) — Engineers from Fort Hood avert a possible riot after taking down posters of anti-coalition cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
While on patrol in the Washash district of Baghdad, 1st Lt. Brian Schonfeld, a platoon leader with 1st Platoon, Company C, 91st Engineer Battalion, and his troopers found something a little surprising: posters and photographs promoting al-Sadr.
Schonfeld found these posters in apartments and some shop windows. He said he hadn’t noticed anything to suggest al-Sadr’s influence in the neighborhood prior to this patrol.
After the initial dismounted patrol discovered the propaganda, Schonfeld received orders to re-enter Washash and remove the posters. These posters are considered illegal because of al-Sadr’s extremist anti-coalition stance.
The first few posters were confiscated with great ease. On public display, they did not appear to belong to any one in particular and no resistance was given.
However, a few yards down the crowded market road, Schonfeld and his platoon came upon a shop selling framed prints. The lieutenant tried to explain to the owner of the shop that anti-coalition propaganda is illegal, and that the prints could not be displayed.
The man refused to remove them.
“We explained the best we could without an interpreter,” said Cpl. Mark Steir, a team leader in 1st Platoon. “They started to get angry once they realized why we were taking them down. The further along we got, the community became more upset.”
To make the situation more tension-filled, the loudspeakers of a local mosque addressed the neighborhood, drawing ecstatic shouts from the growing crowd of onlookers.
“There was a lot more finger-jabbing going on than usual,” said Schonfeld. “A couple [people] even tried to grab our hands away from taking the pictures down.”
After several minutes of negotiation, Schonfeld was able to persuade the owner of the shop to remove the pictures, thanks to the help of a few English-speaking locals.
Moving along, 1st Platoon removed one more poster before a sizeable crowd formed and started throwing rocks.
“We’ve got a riot down here, sir,” one Soldier yelled to Schonfeld, who promptly moved his platoon from the area to avoid an escalation of force.
The discovery of anti-coalition propaganda is a negative development for coalition efforts in this neighborhood. The coalition has several such as a playing field, a refuse disposal plan, and a communal textile shop in the works, hoping to make Washash a better place to live.
“It was a significant event for us because there is not a very heavy presence of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr in Washash. The people that we know in Washash have been supporters of [Grand Ayatollah al-Husseini al-Sistani],” said Capt. Ronald Hayward, commander of Company C, who gave the order to remove the posters.
“I think it was important [to remove the posters] because al-Sadr currently stands for all things that are anti-coalition,” he said. “It’s important to show [the people of Washash] that we can deal with the propaganda in a non-threatening way, rather than coming in hard and forcefully.”
(Editor’s note: Spc. Jan Critchfield is a staff writer for the 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)