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NAJAF: No Way Back


“The Office of the Martyr” – the headquarters of the Mahdi Army in the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City in Baghdad – is closed. With US tanks sitting a few hundred metres up the street, a lone gunman wearing the green headband of the militia stands guard at its back door.

Outside, Mahdi Army militiamen dig holes in the pavement, plant explosives, and run the wires to nearby buildings in case US troops storm into this northeast Baghdad slum to break the militia’s hold over this district.

For over a week, Sadr City and other strongholds of the Sadrist movement have been up in arms in solidarity with its leader, the young Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, still holed up in the shrine of Imam Ali in the holy city of Najaf after the collapse of peace talks yesterday.

The heart of Najaf remains in the grip of the US marines who, backed by tanks and aircraft, seized it in a major assault last week. They have so far remained outside the shrine itself, a site sacred to millions of Shiites around the world, although planes and Apache helicopters have pounded militia positions in a cemetery near the Imam Ali Mosque, igniting protests in at least five other cities as an uprising that has killed hundreds across southern and central Iraq entered its second week.

Although the Mahdi army guard we meet in Sadr city says it is impossible to meet any Sadr representatives, he gives us the phone number of the army’s official spokesman, Abu Dhara al-Kinani. He confirms recent reports that al-Sadr was wounded by shrapnel in the latest fighting, and that across the Shia south local officials have vowed to disobey orders from the interim government of prime minister Iyad Allawi if fighting in the holy city did not stop.

“We want an immediate ceasefire in Najaf and the withdrawal of Americans from Najaf,” he says confidently.

In Baghdad’s Sadr City meanwhile, the sound of gunfire echoes through the streets – the Mahdi army mainly fires into the air to get the people’s attention and bring them outside to join protests.

A pick-up truck filled with militiamen cruises down the main highway, a mounted loudspeaker blaring a summons to Sadr City’s population.

“To all the faithful, come to a demonstration outside the Conference Centre.” – the downtown Baghdad office which serves as the seat of Allawi’s government – “Come peacefully.”

In the next few minutes, Sadr City residents emerge from the narrow streets, climbing aboard cars, minivans, and other vehicles, moving downtown.

They disembark some kilometres away, in Tahrir Square, just across the Tigris river from the centre. The crowds, now easily into their thousands, begin to move across the bridge.

“It’s a peaceful demonstration, we have no connection with police, army, or Americans,” announces one youth, with a name tag pinned to his chest identifying him as Mahdi army. He has no weapon.

Other Mahdi army militiamen have set up a makeshift checkpoint on the bridge, searching demonstrators to make sure that they too are unarmed.

The chant “Allahu Akbar”, God is great, swells from the crowd as they cross the bridge, marching in front of the main gateway to the Green Zone, the seat of the Americans in Baghdad.

From houses and shops on the other side, residents emerge bringing water to the thirsty marchers. The crowd comes to a halt outside the zone, with Mahdi army organisers linking hands to prevent any clashes with the American troops and Iraqi police standing guard.

From a vantage point on top of a nearby hospital, we can see the crowd stretching the entire two-kilometre route back to the bridge. Another avenue leading to northern Baghdad is also swollen with marchers.

A young police officer beams at the marchers, clearly moved by the display. “We’ve come here to protect them, not stop them,” he says. Word circulates in the crowd that the Muslim Scholars’ Board, a conservative Sunni organisation with links to Sunni insurgents, has issued a fatwa in solidarity with al-Sadr banning any Iraqi policeman or official from cooperating with the coalition and government forces.

“It’s a great step. Bless them,” says one of the demonstrators. As the time comes for noon prayers, and preparations are made, Sadrist sheikhs announce that the faithful should make the journey down to Najaf itself, to demonstrate at the gates of the holy city.

When prayers end, the marchers disperse, walking to a square on Baghdad’s outskirts where trucks are assembling to take them south.

That evening, the US military suspend operations in Najaf. Provincial governor Adnan al-Zurufi declares that he hopes negotiations will be a success, and that the Mahdi army will shortly leave .

Later al-Sadr himself, bandaged but clearly not seriously injured, is televised delivering a confrontational address to his followers outside the shrine. He tells them to continue fighting, and calls on Allawi’s interim government to resign, declaring it ‘‘worse than that of Saddam”.

Having decided to try to enter Najaf itself, we make the journey south, nerve wracking not least because we’re accompanied by an American reporter.

The road takes us through such citadels of Sunni radicalism as Mahmoudiya, Latifiya, and Iskandiriya, where foreigners have been attacked and even abducted. Rumours that police at checkpoints on the road might actually alert local insurgents to foreigners’ presence do little to reassure us.

As it turns out, the journey goes smoothly, with only one checkpoint – manned by the Iraqi National Guard – stopping our car.

After two hours, we come to the huge stele outside the ruins of Babylon, which once bore Saddam Hussein’s portrait, but now depicts the Imams Ali and Hussein, indicating that we have left the mixed Sunni-Shia communities south of Baghdad, and entered the almost exclusively Shia south.

Local drivers tell us that the road to Najaf is blocked, so we decide to take a detour via Najaf’s sister city of Kufa, al-Sadr family’s home, only 10km away. Neither Americans, police, National Guard, nor Mahdi army stop us as we drive over the bridge and into Kufa.

In front of the mosque, in which Moqtada usually addresses his followers, police direct traffic as a militiaman, a canvas bag with eyeholes over his head to hide his identify, keeps watch.

Other militiamen stride confidently outside the shrine, heavily laden with ammunition for rocket launchers.

As we enter the shrine to try to speak to a Sadrist spokesman we are escorted by a young black-turbaned cleric into an office at the back of the mosque, and asked to wait outside.

From inside, however, we hear a more senior official angrily refusing to speak to us.

“Didn’t I tell you that nobody should enter here? Get him out right now. We do not talk to journalists here.”

The young cleric explains that if we want an interview we must go to the Sadrist office in Najaf itself. He claims the road is open – he has just sent five other journalists up there.

We take the dusty backroads through Najaf’s industrial and residential suburbs and stop a passer-by, who directs us to a hospital where, he says, the Mahdi army can be found.

Then he adds, “Are you Sadrists? If not, I’ll kill you.” It’s difficult to tell whether he is joking or not.

We meet a group of men outside the hospital, who claim to be Sadrists and who tell us to follow their car, they’ll take us into the centre of the city

But we decide not to follow. For all we know, these men could be a criminal gang, luring us into an ambush to take our car or kidnap the American with us. We drive on. In an empty street a few hundred metres from where locals told us the Americans and Iraqi National Guard had set up a roadblock, we pause to consider what to do next. We consider the wisdom of going further on foot.

Within moments, shots ring out. It’s impossible to tell from where.

“Get back to the car,” our driver shouts. He has just seen a police car cruise up the street, and gunmen hiding in the alleyways open fire upon it.

We speed off, parking by some shops. As we weigh up our options, a white-turbaned cleric emerges. His name, he says, is Sheikh Ahmed Ibrahim – a junior cleric in al-Sadr’s organisation.

“I accuse the Iraqi police of escalating the situation,” he says. “They don’t serve the people. They serve the government which belongs to the Americans.

“Police abroad, in Europe or America, would not shoot demonstrators or opponents of the regime. They fire in the air to frighten the people, here they kill the demonstrators.”

Driving on, we encounter, a convoy of Iraqi National Guardsmen which comes tearing around a corner, firing in the air. We watch as they pile out of their vehicles outside a factory. Some take cover behind heaps of earth, while the others storm inside.

As the shooting continues, we take shelter in the courtyard of a house owned by an elderly shopkeeper. He asks us only to identify him as Abu Jaafar, lest the Mahdi army take revenge on him for what he says. The Mahdi army has used the factory as an ambush position, he tells us, although the militiamen have probably departed.

He has no problems with the guardsmen, he says – they never shoot at civilians. But for the Mahdi army, who had occupied his town and forced him to shut his store, he has nothing but scorn.

“Outsiders and outlaws,” he says, echoing the belief – expressed by many in Najaf – that the Sadrists are primarily troublemakers from Baghdad and the south, who have turned Najaf into a battle zone and destroyed the religious tourism on which it had survived.

While we are in Najaf, US Marines are tightened their grip on the city blocking entry to the Imam Ali Mosque. Some 2000 US servicemen and 1800 Iraq security men are deployed around the perimeter and centre.

In the southeastern city of Kut, at least 72 people are killed in US air raids and fighting between Iraqi police and the Mehdi army.

In Najaf, militiamen respond to the American assault with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, firing at times from inside the mosque’s walls. Many civilians flee the city centre, some escaping on carts pulled by donkeys.

US forces say they have killed 360 al-Sadr loyalists so far in Najaf. Al-Sadr’s spokesmen say far fewer have died, in what is the second rebellion by the militia in four months.

A Reuters photographer reports seeing dozens of dead militiamen in houses in Najaf. He says the bodies have been taken from the battle zone and covered in ice to preserve them before burial. It’s unclear when they died.

After the collapse of talks yesterday and the interim government’s decision to resume military operations, the next few days will be crucial. From Baghdad to Basra, Kufa to Kerbala, thousands of Shiites are taking to the streets in support of al-Sadr and his Mahdi army.

“The morale of our fighters is very high,” says Ahmed al-Shibani, a senior Sadr spokesman in Najaf. That is the last thing Washington wants to hear.

Dhiya Rasan and Mohammed Fawzi work for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) London

15 August 2004