Battle for Najaf stirs memories of Saddam's revenge

By Steve Negus

Financial Times

Published: August 13 2004

In 1991, Republican Guard tanks loyal to Saddam Hussein smashed into the centre of Najaf to crush a Shia insurrection that broke out after a US-led coalition expelled Iraq from Kuwait. Today the shrines, seminaries and cemeteries of this holy city have again become a battlefield as the rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army stand defiant against US marines, Iraqi National Guardsmen and the authority of Iraq's interim government.

"I will remain in the city until the last drop of my blood has been spilled", Mr Sadr said on Monday, addressing his followers in the Imam Ali shrine, the city's centrepiece and the cornerstone of his defence.

The walled edifice topped by gold-plated domes marks the burial place of the Imam Ali, the seventh-century son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, venerated by all Muslims, particularly the Shia. Until last April, pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, India, and elsewhere across the Shia world flocked to the shrine, controlled by guards loyal to senior Shia clergymen, to pay homage to the imam and donate money to the upkeep of Muslim holy sites.

The symbolic and material benefits conferred by control of the shrine have made it a prize for any Shia faction aspiring to religious leadership.

Last April, the Mahdi army occupied the shrine and is now reportedly using it as a refuge from US troops and the attack helicopters that regularly fly over the city of half a million people. According to re ports by human rights groups, 13 years ago Mr Hussein's forces peppered the shrine with mortar fire before storming inside, causing considerable damage.

Witnesses have reported little battle damage to the shrine's outer walls during fighting in the past week. But the prospect of massive destruction wreaked on a Muslim holy site particularly if inflicted by American forces has so far deterred a final assault.

Fighting has already reached into the tangle of narrow streets surrounding the shrine, where blue-tiled inscriptions over alley doorways mark the different seminaries that collectively comprise the Hawza, the training ground for future generations of Shia scholars.

Within these streets lie the homes of senior Shia clergy such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shia cleric. Hotels and restaurants in the area that catered to religious tourism before the fighting are now used by the Mahdi army as firing positions.

Last week, Mr Sistani left Najaf for London for med ical treatment, but on Thursday his spokesman said he was ‚pained‚ by the fighting and repeated a plea for the ‚holy soil and holy sites of this city to be respected‚.

Although fearful of American firepower, many Najafis who tend to take their religious guidance from Mr Sistani or other senior scholars blame much of the destruction in their city on Mr Sadr's followers, most of whom are from Baghdad or towns in the Shia south.

‚They are outsiders and outlaws,‚ said the owner of a shop, shut down by Mahdi army decree, who asked to be named only as Abu Jaafar for fear of the radical militia.

To the north and east of the city are cemeteries. Shia worldwide aspire to be buried close to the Imam Ali, and an estimated 5m lie in tombs ranging from simple graves in crowded family plots to spacious marbled mausoleums.

As in 1991, this labyrinth, the ‚Valley of Peace‚, has become a combat zone. Insurgents use the tombstones and underground vaults for cover against the tanks an d helicopters of a conventional army.

Central Najaf is now sealed off by concrete barriers and barbed wire manned by US marines and Iraqi National Guardsmen. The water and power have been cut off in a bid to force the Mahdi army to surrender.

Bands of the Mahdi army roam beyond the wire in Najaf's sprawling suburbs, however, ambushing police patrols or sniping at isolated National Guard checkpoints.

According to witnesses, many of them have come up from Kufa, Najaf's sister city and the ancestral home of the Sadr family, 10km to the south. Kufa's central mosque operates as a forward base for the Mahdi army in Najaf.

In the first days of the insurrection, minivans unloaded Mahdi army volunteers from across the Shia south and trucks unloaded weapons in the avenue outside its gates.

Here, police direct traffic under the watchful eyes of armed militiamen a reminder that Najaf is one of only many Mahdi army strongholds in the country.