Mon 23 August, 2004 12:05
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - When shrapnel lands in Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, Shi'ite militants holed up inside the sacred complex casually inspect the hot metal and then return to prayers or chanting defiant slogans.
Hardcore supporters of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, under siege by U.S. troops, seem in no hurry to end a standoff that has turned the Iraqi city of Najaf into a war zone and placed the shrine at the centre of a bloody conflict.
Baking in the roofless courtyard of Iraq's holiest Shi'ite Muslim shrine, militants who believe they are fighting Christian crusaders say they have enough food, water and ammunition to last for weeks, maybe months.
"We are here to fight and we have enough stamina," said Hamed Khudayir, 54, referring to himself and his 10-year-old son Ali.
"The Americans are waging a Christian crusade against us with this occupation. They came here to conquer Iraq and rob the country," the father said.
The United States handed sovereignty to Iraq in late June but S adr and other Iraqis still see them as occupiers.
There appeared to be fewer members of Sadr's Mehdi Army positioned along the narrow alleyways leading to the shrine than in previous days.
But Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, a top Sadr aide and Mehdi Army Commander, told Reuters the fighters were being rotated and were ready to keep battling the Americans.
U.S. tanks had advanced to within 800 metres (yards) of the shrine on Sunday but appeared to have moved back slightly on Monday.
TIME ON SADR'S SIDE
Iraq's pro-American interim government knows a U.S. raid on the shrine could be disastrous, inciting millions of Shi'ites in Iraq and abroad and playing into the hands of Sadr.
So time is on Sadr's side despite the U.S. air strikes at night which light up the area near the mosque and rattle Najaf.
The Mehdi Army and supporters of the young cleric cannot compete with U.S. warplanes and tanks but have established their own infrastructure and supply lines that keep them defiant.
Sadr sympathisers cook ri ce and potatoes in huge black cauldrons and then the food is patiently carried in pots to small groups of militants.
"We eat together and pray together in small groups. This keeps up morale," said Abdel Reda, 23, who travelled to Najaf from Baghdad to support Sadr.
Large metal filtered water coolers are located inside the marble inner courtyard of the mosque, essential for fighting off the blistering heat. Metal cups are chained to the cooler to make sure nobody walks off with them.
Sadr supporters sit on the floor and sip tea from old tomato cans.
Amid nearby explosions, sniper fire and shelling, young boys neatly spread out carpets and clean them.
One man smells a piece of shrapnel that landed in the shrine. A teenage fighter is pushed on a wheelchair through the shrine's courtyard after a sniper wounded him.
Mehdi Army casualties are a sensitive subject. Reporters get no access to a makeshift clinic in the mosque and pictures of wounded fighters are prohibited.
Sadr has won over many followers by speaking out for the dispossessed. But educated, middle class young men like Mehdi Fadil also seem inspired by the idea that Shi'ite Islam is under attack by Christian crusaders.
"This is a war against Islam by the Christians and the Jews," the college graduate in French studies said.
Other young boys seem to think it is fun to become rebels and risk their lives. At the gate of the shrine complex, teenagers darted across the street to buy goods for the Mehdi Army to avoid what they said was an American sniper.
Their comrades cheered as bullets crackled overhead.
All the action did not prevent a 79-year-old man from quietly sitting on a step and seeking spiritual comfort in the golden shrine, his weekly routine since he was a young boy.
"Now I have to walk for an a hour because you can't drive around here anymore. I try to just pray on my own. All of this is a bit too much for me now," said Bakka Ibrahim.