Nathan McClure served in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq War. When he was severely wounded in 2007, ending his military career in the US Army, it was thanks to a weapon called an EFP — or explosively formed penetrator — piercing his Humvee. The lethal roadside bomb killed and wounded hundreds of coalition troops — and was choice for a militia under the control of a man who’s now poised to be kingmaker in Iraq’s new government.
For those who were on the front lines battling Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces just over a decade ago, many of whom told BuzzFeed News they had distanced themselves from following developments in Iraq after they left, the return of one of America’s most deadly enemies to headlines is surreal.
The surprise victory of the 44-year-old Shiite cleric, whose militias led two uprisings against US troops during the bloodiest years of the occupation, has rattled some US veterans and reopened frustrations for others. While Sadr can’t become prime minister himself, his coalition became the frontrunner in Iraq’s parliamentary election May 12.
“It just rips the flooring right from underneath you, makes you feel like everything you did was worthless,” said McClure, who served at the peak of the US military’s “surge” with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion — a unit he drily describes as being “quite familiar with Sadr and his followers.”
“You cannot take war personally,” he said. “But I know for many this can open old wounds, the questions about what we were doing. What was it all for? What did we accomplish in the next 15 years that we didn’t accomplish in the first 45 days?”
For some, it has been hard to reconcile that the same man who at one point was “heavily hunted” by the US, whose face they had memorized, is now on top.
“The mission of the US forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr,” Gen. John Abizaid, who headed US Central Command, said in 2004. “That's our mission.”
After the US-led invasion in 2003, Sadr, the son of a revered Shiite cleric killed during Saddam Hussein's rule for defying the regime, evolved from a young, little-known preacher to a “militia leader responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and the scourge of American generals,” said Bill Russell Edmonds, who served as a US Army Special Forces officer in Iraq.
He was able to capitalize on anger at the US occupation to lead two insurgencies against American forces and incite sectarian violence against the Sunni population. Edmonds pointed out that as recently as 2016, Sadr declared that American troops fighting ISIS in Iraq were “open targets.”
“Now, he's reimagined himself once again; but what Americans should imagine were Sadr's bloodied hands on Black Sunday,” he told BuzzFeed News, referring to an ambush in Sadr City in 2004 that killed eight US soldiers and wounded more than 50 others. “When ISIS took Mosul, I felt pain and sorrow. When Iraqis chose Sadr, there were echoes of betrayal.”
The Mahdi Army was blamed for mass killings of Sunni civilians in the country’s worst sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. In Sadr City, a Shiite-dominated district of Baghdad named for his father that was the scene of heavy fighting between US forces and his supporters, prominent banners and graffiti written in English taunted US soldiers — “Welcome, America, to the second Vietnam.”
“He absolutely has a lot of American and coalition blood on his hands,” said Brian Casey, a US Army veteran who also served in the 2-16.
“He was a person I would have loved to have seen brought to justice,” he told BuzzFeed News, describing several “windows of opportunity where it seemed we could have gotten rid of him,” but it never happened. “Now to see him back, well…it sucks.”
Casey was shot by an al-Mahdi sniper in 2007 when he was leading a platoon securing a gas station near a main route into Sadr City, collapsing his lung and fracturing his ribs.
“We were there, we tried our best,” he said. “You know, part of what we were attempting to accomplish was to set up a functioning democracy. If what the Iraqi people want now is a hardline Shiite, anti-Western leader, I guess that’s what they cast their votes for. I can’t imagine this moving the country forward, but certainly we don’t want to be back there doing the exact same thing.”
For a lot of people who lost friends in the fight, that doesn’t make Sadr’s victory any easier to swallow.
A lot of the disbelief and anger has been directed toward the tone of the news coverage of Sadr’s political win. In recent years the cleric has rebranded his image as a populist champion on a platform of fighting corruption, dropping some of his vehement anti-American rhetoric and distancing himself from Iran.
Having to reintroduce Sadr to Americans 15 years later, many prominent news outlets called him a “maverick” and a “firebrand,” which didn’t sit well with some veterans.
When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday joked about not being able to pronounce his name, US service members, family members of soldiers who had died there, journalists, and others who had been in Iraq during the war pointed out that anyone who had spent time there would know not only the name but also the face of the cleric who had loomed as a larger-than-life figure during those years.
Some described soldiers in Baghdad in the early years of the war having photographs of Sadr on the walls of their barracks “so they wouldn’t have to hesitate before shooting him.”
Sadr has been more muted in his public anti-American criticism after the US withdrew troops in 2011. He has been running on a platform of ousting Iranian as well as US forces from the country. There are currently roughly 5,000 US troops in Iraq as the fight against the Islamic State has wound down, with most of the mission focused on training and clearing parts of the country retaken from ISIS militants.
At the Pentagon, US military officials would only say that they were aware of his history and would support the outcome of the election.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who commanded troops during the US-led invasion in 2003 and some of the most violent years of the conflict, deflected questions about whether he was upset by Sadr’s victory Tuesday.
"The Iraqi people had an election. It's a democratic process at a time when people, many people, doubted that Iraq could take charge of themselves,” he said. "So we will wait and see the … final results of the election. And we stand with the Iraqi people's decisions."
Iraq’s complicated parliamentary system means that Sadr’s coalition did not win the majority it needed, and negotiations are ongoing. His victory came in an election in which almost 7,000 candidates vied for 329 parliamentary seats.
“Well, he's been on a journey, so to speak,” retired Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who planned military operations against Sadr as a staff officer, said in a radio interview Tuesday. “And at one point, we viewed him as a significant threat to the campaign and the democratization of Iraq, and he was pretty high on our list of people that we wanted to take off the battlefield, so to speak.”
Like Mattis, he would not answer whether he was disheartened seeing Sadr rise to the top, only saying that he “would not have been our choice for the No. 1 spot in the recent elections,” and noting that the cleric is “evolving towards a more pragmatic stance in a lot of ways.”
Iraq veterans who served in Sadr City told BuzzFeed News that they were not naïve about figures like him reappearing in Iraqi politics. Rather they, like most Americans, had tuned out. It was healthier, they said.
“I’m retired now and I don’t watch much TV, nor do I care about what is going on in Iraq,” one of them said in an email declining to be interviewed, echoing the sentiment of many veterans who did speak with BuzzFeed News.
The sudden reemergence of Sadr after his surprise victory came as less of a shock that he was still around than a “crushing reminder” of the years and friends lost fighting his supporters.
They served, they left, restarted their lives back home, and intentionally tuned out as much as they could, they said. But a byproduct of a conflict that never really ended is that even with the drawdown of major operations, “you would suddenly hear that one of your buddies was back there and you’d get a reminder that this thing keeps dragging on," one Iraq veteran who fought Mahdi forces in Najaf told BuzzFeed News. (He asked to not be named in this article, based on his work with soldiers struggling with PTSD.)
“We didn’t get a clear-cut war like World War II. We were fighting over city blocks with [Sadr’s] militias, and then we had to come back and try to explain it,” McClure said. “It’s just…the main feeling is that you do a lot of great work to leave and watch it all fall apart.”