On Thursday afternoon last week, plumes of black smoke drifted into an otherwise blue Baghdad sky. Rockets, mortars and gunfire shook the earth, causing both buildings and people to tremble; almost all of Iraq suddenly seemed as if it were teetering on the edge of collapse. This was especially true for Tahsin al-Sheikhli. As the government spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, Sheikhli was in charge of reassuring people that Iraq was becoming a safer place, that electricity was being restored, and that reconstruction was on the right track. So what would it mean for Iraq if that very authority on security suddenly vanished? He would that afternoon.
Like other events last week bloody clashes between Shi'ite militias and government forces in Basra and Baghdad, a crippling curfew across the south, and ceaseless mortar attacks on what was thought to be the modestly safe, fortified Green Zone Sheikhli's disappearance was a symbol of the further deterioration of the situation in Iraq. But Sheikhli was lucky. He survived to relate his own personal encounter with terror and a provide a glimpse of how the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr wields influence over his many-headed Mahdi Army.
"There were 40 of them," Sheikhli told TIME, describing the masked men who arrived at his home that afternoon, armed with assault rifles and RPGs. "My guards engaged them [with gunfire] for 45 minutes. Part of the house caught fire. They destroyed it." Before long, it was clear that Sheikhli's five bodyguards were no match for their attackers. Some of the guards abandoned the fight and tried to escape. "My family was in the house," Sheikhli says. "My mother tried to get out. She went out a back entrance and got outside. But they captured her, and they put a gun to her head. It was at that point that I agreed to go with them." Though he didn't know any of them by name, Sheikhli never doubted where his attackers had come from. They were members of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.
To the group of Mahdi Army fighters who kidnapped him, Tahsin al-Sheikhli was a useful tool at the right time. Maliki had just launched what would turn out to be a fruitless assault on Mahdi Army forces in the south. The Sadrists attacked Sheikhli's home and abducted him two days after that military thrust began, just as the fighting in Basra and Baghdad escalated to near fever pitch. "They attacked not because of who I am Tahsin al-Sheikhli but because I am part of the government," he told TIME. "After they took me, they covered my eyes and took me to one of their mosques. We were only a few blocks away from my home, in the same neighborhood, al-Amin. But they were scared."
Sheikhli says his captors moved him five times during his three days in captivity, but that they took care of him. "They tried to be generous with me. They brought me cigarettes, food, and water. They told me, 'this is nothing personal against you; we just want to send a message to the government.' They told me that 'in the morning, you will go home.' As simple as that." But in the morning, Sheikhli didn't go home, and by the next evening, he was getting nervous.
Three men, one of whom he believed to be a Mahdi Army leader, visited him and transported him to a different house in what appeared to be an official government vehicle. During another move, Sheikhli's captors passed through an Iraqi police checkpoint. "We stayed at this checkpoint for 10 minutes. They realized that I was Tahsin Sheikhli, of course," he said with a shrug, a knowing reference to the infiltration of Iraqi security by the militias. At that point, Sheikhli says, he was growing increasingly uneasy, and felt certain that he would be killed. So he started to strategize. "None of them covered their faces, and they were from the same neighborhood. That's a bad sign. So I said to them, 'let me go through the media by phone and let me ask the Prime Minister to withdraw from Basra and solve this whole thing peacefully.' That was very important. I thought that if I went on TV and [repeated] their demands, it would prove that I was not kidnapped by criminals. . . I said [to the Prime Minister, through a televised recording], 'These people [the Mahdi Army] are not your target. They are the social base of society."
After that, he said, word spread within the Baghdad followers of Moqtada al-Sadr that that Sheikhli had been kidnapped by some of their own. "They started to fight with each other after that... and after what Moqtada al-Sadr said [in a call for his followers to end the violence], and after the response of the Iraqi government, there was no reason for them to keep me. I told them that they should do what Sadr said. I said, 'If you release me, you will show them it is an act of goodwill.'" As far as he knows, his invocation of Sadr may have done the trick. He does not know if the cleric had any direct contact with the kidnappers.
Four days after his kidnapping, Sheikhli sat comfortably and gratefully wearing a crisp suit, in the airy lobby of the al-Rasheed hotel in central Baghdad, as doting members of his extended family and inner political circle flocked around him. "I thought they would kill me," he said of his captors, as he took a slow drag from his cigarette. But they didn't. Sheikhli says it was his own actions his careful mediations and behavior around his captors that helped secure his release. How much if any of it ultimately rested in the hands of Sadr himself, now Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite leader, Sheikhli may never know.
I ask him what his own release and the end of the fighting mean for Sadr's current popularity, and his growing power. Sheikhli dodges the question. But then, he looks at me with imploring eyes. And for a second, the air of relief and his easy politician's charm fade, replaced by a heavy, almost desperate sadness. "We are just trying to build a country," he says. "This needs all of us." It is clear he is talking about Sadr. "Maybe now, [the government] shouldn't overestimate [its] power. I think what happened in Basra was a problem of estimation; an underestimation of the ability of the Mahdi Army, and an overestimation of the Iraqi army. This Basra initiative makes us realize that negotiations are the way... If there is going to be another [government military initiative], we will have to do it in a way that uses negotiations and not fighting."
But what do negotiations mean in Iraqi terms? Parliamentarian Abas al-Bayati, a member of a Shi'ite political party closely allied with Maliki's, says that no side came out of last week's fighting as the loser. "Both Maliki and Sadr win," he told TIME. But few outside the government would agree with that conclusion. In what was intended to be a show of strength for the Iraqi government in the end became an opportunity for Sadr's militia to prove that it could put up a fight. Ultimately, it was Sadr who drew the outlines of the ceasefire, not Maliki. And so for Maliki's government, this "win" may be little more than a success at avoiding utter chaos in the final hour of a military initiative gone terribly wrong. For Sadr, it was a test of strength, and he triumphed. Tahsin al-Sheikhli's disappearance and survival is proof of that. With additional reporting by Mazin Ezzat/Baghdad