Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 August - 1 September 2004
Issue No. 705
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Woe betide Najaf

In Najaf Nermeen Al-Mufti provides an eyewitness account of a holy city under siege

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Smoke rises near the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Monday 23 August, as US and Iraqi forces move to expel Moqtada Al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi militia from the city's most revered Shia site. The inset shows a hole blasted by US helicopter fire in the outer western wall of the shrine (photos: AP,AFP)

Possible negotiations with Moqtada Al-Sadr were the subject of conflicting reports last week. Last Friday I arrived in a tense but mostly calm Najaf with an escort of young men affiliated with Al- Sadr. They knew the way into the city. We did not take the usual road, the one strewn with checkpoints and frequently targetted. The highway, known as Road 8, was mostly inaccessible because of the repeated attacks; the targets were occupation forces, contractors, journalists, even Iraqi civil servants.

Along the road we saw buses and small trucks carrying pictures of Al-Sadr and his martyred father, along with green and black flags. The trucks were transporting food and medical supplies donated by the residents of Baghdad and other governorates to Al-Sadr's supporters. These supporters have gathered within the Imam Ali Shrine, which is believed to contain the remains of Prophet Mohamed's cousin and Islam's fourth caliph, Imam Ali. For the Shia, this is the most sacred site after Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. Among the cars is a bus coming from Fallujah, which was the scene of intense shelling and dozens of casualties the night before.

We pass through Kufa on our way, which is home to the tomb of Musallam Bin Aqil Bin Abi Taleb. Bin Abi Taleb was the emissary sent by Imam Al-Hussein to the clans of Kufa, who had promised to fight on his side, but they murdered the emissary and reneged on their promise. Close to the golden dome of Musallam's mausoleum is the Mosque and Tomb of Haytham Al-Tammar, a close associate of Imam Ali. The house of Imam Ali and the Grand Kufa Mosque, where Al-Sadr used to deliver Friday sermons, are also located in Kufa. The city is draped with pictures of Al-Sadr; recordings of his sermons are available, as is his last message to the Mahdi Army in which he called on the army to continue fighting in the event of his own death or capture.

Crossing the Ishrin Square, named after the 1920 uprising against English occupation, one is acutely aware of the US forces stationed just a kilometre away from the Imam Ali Shrine. The roads smell of death and war, their silence is ominous, portending. Cars with Najaf license plates are seen occasionally leaving the city. As we enter the shrine, we see young and old men with machine guns, wearing green and black bandanas. Those who have just arrived from other provinces are still dressed in civilian clothes. Some are barefoot. Abdul-Amir Heidar, my escort, notices that fighters hailing from Al-Imarah, one of the impoverished southern provinces, are fighting barefoot.

The Mahdi Army was founded on the call of Moqtada Al-Sadr in August 2003 following the assassination of Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim. The army's mission is to protect Najaf. Thousands from Sadr City (formerly known as Saddam City and Al-Thawra City) heeded the call and converged on Najaf. To this day, men from Sadr City constitute the majority of the Mahdi army in a show of allegiance to Mohamed Sadiq Al-Sadr, Moqtada's father. Al-Sadr senior, while alive, inspired the youth of Sadr City with his sermons, in which he railed against corruption and crime.

Shells have caused extensive damage to hotels and the marketplace near the shrine. Journalists congregate at the nearby Bahr Al-Najaf Hotel, but owners of shops and stalls in this area do not even think of asking for compensation; like their counterparts in Fallujah and Baghdad, they have no right to compensation for damages incurred during military confrontations. Iraqi police and national guards are stationed with armoured vehicles about 300 metres from the shrine. Their demeanour is one of preparedness, as if the battle for the shrine is imminent.

A poor family has arrived from Bahr Al-Najaf to check on their son who has joined forces with those in the shrine. The father, Abu Hasan, is a rice farmer. "Right from the beginning I was against my son volunteering in the Mahdi Army, although we are followers of martyr Imam Al- Sadr. I had a feeling that this would divide Shia and Iraqi ranks. I was right. You see how Shia are now firing accusations at each other."

Thousands of Shia and other Iraqis are of the same opinion as Abu Hasan, although their sympathy with Al-Sadr, a man who is "resisting occupation", is evident.

We enter the shrine after being questioned and searched. There are hundreds of men inside, arms at the ready in defence of the holy place. They assure us that they never fire from inside the shrine as a mark of respect for its holy status. At news conferences, however, Iraqi officials have shown pictures of shells emanating from the shrine: computer-generated pictures, claims my escort.

The wounded lie down in the courtyard of the shrine. It is hard to get them to the hospital, which also has been shelled. There is only a single doctor, a volunteer, to tend the wounded. While we are in the shrine, one of the men standing near the Al-Tusi gate is killed. A wave of grief washes over the shrine. This gate, a superb example of intricate craftsmanship, is battle-scarred, as are the shrine's golden minarets.

Inside the shrine, one hears of the many "miracles of the Mahdi Army" and of "divine intervention" during the battle. One of these stories tells of a mortar gun which started firing on its own. "But who was reloading it?" I ask. My question is disdainfully ignored.

The entire city of Najaf is a battlefield and Iraqi police forces have succeeded in positioning themselves in a section of the Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery. This sprawling graveyard, 12 square kilometres in size, is reportedly the largest in the world.

I leave Najaf as the conflicting reports become even more opaque. Who is going to take the next step. Will it be Al-Sadr, Allawi, the Iraqi police or the US forces? No one can predict the future of Iraq. Members of the Mahdi Army have bombed oil installations in the south and gunmen have attacked the oil pipelines running out of Karkuk. The defenders of these actions say that America has occupied Iraq because of oil, and disruption of the flow of Iraqi oil is therefore justifiable.

Hussein Heidar is a follower of Al-Sayyid Al- Sistani. "Moqtada should hand in the key and leave Najaf," he says. "The holy shrines are bearing the brunt of this conflict, the damage to which amounts to millions of dollars; the conflict is also a struggle for power."

Abbass Al-Khoui is the brother of Abdul-Majid Al-Khoui whom Al-Sadr has been accused of killing on 10 April in Najaf. In a press conference held in Baghdad last week, however, Al-Khoui stated that Al-Sadr was innocent and declared his support for him.

Ahmed Al-Madani feels that Al-Sadr has the right to demand a political role in Iraq. "Those poor people who reside in Sadr City suffered intensely under Saddam, and now they find themselves suffering an even greater injustice, whereas foreigners have all the perks and positions." Al- Madani also thinks that the only solution to the situation Iraq is for the occupying forces to leave; they are no different from Saddam, he says. Like Saddam, the occupation forces are ready to kill and inflict injustice in order to stay. The losers are the Iraqis who are only dreaming of a single night without fear.

The Shia are divided over the events in Najaf . The Al-Dawah Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq have faded into the background and the Shia are unable to resolve the situation. Some people blame Al-Sadr for agreeing to deal with those Shia who represent Chalabi and members of the former Interim Governing Council. Amid the fear and uncertainty, I wonder about hope. What will it take to heal the wounds of Iraq, a country traumatised equally by Saddam Hussein and now Iyad Allawi?

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