Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 September 2004
Issue No. 706
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Death in Najaf

Iraqis are unsure about the outcome of the battle of Najaf, reports Nermeen Al-Mufti from the devastated holy city

Is the Najaf crisis over? Have the Americans and the Iraqi government won or was Moqtada Al-Sadr the real victor? All of these questions are common on Iraqi streets, and the answers are lacking. Since the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis have yearned for peace and found none.

The Iraqi people can only guess at who's fighting for them and who's fighting for personal glory. Many questions linger as the country revolves in a whirlwind of destruction, fear and death. Iraqis are perplexed and tired of it all.

Najaf was quiet following the initiative of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and the acceptance by Al-Sadr of a peace deal. But on the first day of peace, Najaf was a ghost town. Families that have left the city to the outskirts of Abbasiya, or the nearby provinces, haven't come back; perhaps they wanted to see peace survive another day. Their caution is justified. According to official records, 110 were killed and 501 injured the day Al-Sistani returned. The markets in the old city, particularly those close to Imam Ali shrine, still bear the devastating marks of violence.

Some buildings have disappeared entirely, burnt into rubble and ashes. Hotels -- most of which had been renovated over the past few years -- stand like scorched shells, as if they hadn't been full of visitors until recently. Pain blends with the wish that the town would be disarmed, turned into a symbol of peace, neighbourliness and dialogue.

As Najaf calmed down, things went berserk in Al-Sadr City, Baghdad. Bombardment left many killed and wounded, some civilian, some from Al-Mahdi Army. Eventually, a truce was called and negotiations started between the dignitaries of the Baghdad suburb and the American army. And yet Al-Mahdi Army fighters in Basra said they were not committed to the peace deal and would continue to resist the occupation forces.

On the second day of calm, last Saturday, top Shia clerics met at the home of Al-Sistani and issued a statement in which they "renewed their opposition to armed resistance against the occupation forces led by the US" and declared their support for peace and dialogue. As clashes raged in Al-Sadr City, a high- ranking government delegation, including five ministers, arrived in Najaf to thank Al-Sistani and enquire about the needs of the town.

Nesreen Birwari, minister of municipalities and public works, was among the delegation. She told Al- Ahram Weekly that "the visit to Najaf was in support to the efforts of Al-Sayed Al-Sistani, to thank him, confirm the ceasefire and launch the reconstruction."

Al-Sistani, according to Birwari. "was in good shape and high spirits." She added, "We'll take care of security first and then construction."

Concerning the statement by top Shia clerics that they oppose armed resistance, the Weekly contacted Al- Sistani's office in Damascus (approaches to his Najaf office were not successful). The office said that it has not received information to that effect yet and could not confirm the statement.

Speaking to the Weekly, Adnan Al- Ebeidi, from the press office of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said, "We haven't seen the statement so far. But it is the position of top Shia clerics and the major Islamic currents in Iraq, such as Al-Dawa and SCIRI, to support dialogue and negotiations."

Concerning foreign forces in Iraq, Al- Ebeidi said that these forces are not occupation forces but multinational forces deployed in Iraq in response to the demand of the Iraqi government.

Al-Ebeidi denied that Moqtada Al- Sadr was uner Al-Sistani's protection. "He is protected by the pledges given by the Iraqi government," Al-Ebeidi said. And what about the clashes in Al-Sadr City? "This is a different matter. There are, undoubtedly, ramifications, pockets and strongholds affecting all of Iraq. There are some people affiliated with Al-Sadr who are violating the pledges made so far, but life will go back to normal," Al-Ebeidi stated.

As for the Al-Sadr movement? "The leaders of that group said that they are willing to turn into a political movement," Al-Ebeidi said.

In a telephone interview Hamid Al- Khaffaf, official spokesman for Al- Sistani's Damascus office, he denied that the top Shia clerics were calling for an end to armed resistance, added that certain people want to smear the achievement in Najaf.

Where is Moqtada Al-Sadr now? The answer comes from Moqtada's followers. He is still in Najaf and has never left it.

One question remains: Who was the winner in the crisis? Political analyst Ali Al-Zubeidi says, "The first winner is Ayatollah Al-Sistani. His victory is one that benefits Iraq more than the top Shia clerics. As for the losers, we have many, including the government of Iyad Allawi, for it has failed to bring about a solution and remained until the last moment intent on a military solution. As for the US forces, they knew from the very beginning that the murder or capture of Al-Sadr would lead the entire country into a bloodbath, and yet they were willing to go for a military solution."

Karim Mokhtar, a specialist in Iraqi affairs, insists, "There is no victor in this crisis. The big loser is not the government but the Iraqis. The US forces used the media infatuation with Najaf to bombard Fallujah and carry out operations in Samarra and Baghdad. Hundreds were killed or wounded in Najaf and Baghdad, and dozens of families lost their homes and shops."

The Najaf crisis has added to the sense of perplexity in Iraq. According to one observer, the transformation of Najaf into a disarmed city, no longer a hotbed of resistance but merely a religious relic, is just another step towards the division of Iraq.

The future is uncertain, but the people of Najaf, those who have suffered most and for no good reason, hope to see Al- Sadr's movement turn political. They are tired of the stench of death.

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