[ Most citizens of Najaf do not support radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But the U.S.’s sledge hammer approach to winning hearts and minds is helping al-Sadr win converts. Even more sobering, if the U.S. makes good on its threats to attack Najaf, that could well
define the future of Iraq…. Any attempt by the US military even to approach this most sacred of sites, burial place of the Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali, would inflame Islamic opinion across the globe and bring on to the streets of Najaf even those who have little time for Mr Sadr’s extremism.
Gunmen rule in a city gripped with fright
April 16, 2004, The Guardian
by Rory McCarthy
Khalid Ali sat quietly looking towards the sun-baked golden dome rising from the shrine of the Imam Ali, almost refusing to notice the crowd of chanting gunmen who danced through the street before him.
They were a shambolic bunch of excitable young men, though all were heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, and hand-grenades dangling from breast pockets.
They swear allegiance to the Jaish al-Mahdi, the militia of Iraq’s radical young Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose upris ings across southern Iraq last week shook the American authorities in Baghdad to the core.
It is a force the American military has vowed to destroy. Now these gunmen talk of jihad and boast how they would delight in giving a lesson in the bloody art of guerrilla warfare to the troops of the US Army’s 1st Armoured Division, currently massing unseen just a few miles away.
This was the scene yesterday in Najaf, the city at the centre of a stand-off that could define the future of Iraq. If US troops carry out their threat to launch an offensive against Mr Sadr’s militia, the fight would be bloody and could unleash an unprecedented wave of violence and uprisings across the south that could imperil the American occupation.
Few reporters have entered the city in the last 10 days because of the crisis. Although the US military described the city as “stable” this week, it is gripped with fright and still largely in the control of Mr Sadr’s militia.
But it is also ever more clear that few here welcome the rad ical cleric and the ominous threat of confrontation he has brought.
For as Mr Ali gently explained, most of the population of Najaf follow Iraq’s most cautious and conservative Shia clerics, starting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It means they have little time for the new populist radical.
“We have revolutionary people and we have political people,” said Mr Ali, 27.
“We know all the people of Sadr are revolutionary people but Sistani is a politician. Some of the people prefer to remain silent, some of them are not satisfied with Moqtada. Only a few agree with what he is saying.”
It is not hard to see why that might be. In front of Mr Ali, the square around the shrine, normally teeming with thousands of Shia pilgrims travelling from Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, was deserted. Behind him, the two restaurants he owns were empty for yet another unprofitable lunch- time. Najaf has not known days this quiet since America’s war last year, and shopkeepers who rely on the passing custom of the crowds of pilgrims are now closing up early in despair.
All but one of the several vast wooden double doors that enter into the large shrine complex at the heart of the city was locked shut yesterday.
“All the people are scared,” said one man, who sat before a cart laden with biscuits neatly packed in cellophane bags. “When the pilgrims come now, they visit the shrine and leave immediately. It is so quiet.”
Mr Sadr, 30, and his deputies have been involved in days of negotiations through mediators with the American authorities.
Perhaps under the threat of America’s uncompromising military force, the clerics have suggested in recent days they may compromise to answer the demands of the US authorities who want the militia disbanded and Mr Sadr to face trial on suspicion of involvement in the murder of a moderate cleric in the Imam Ali shrine a year ago.
Yesterday in a brief address to journalists from behind a podium in a courtyard that serves as Mr Sadr’s “legitimate religious court” in Najaf, his spokesman said talks were progressing but gave no details.
“The negotiations are under way and we are reaching a good result,” said Sheikh Qais al-Khazali. Mr Sadr’s deputies insisted this week they had withdrawn their militia from Najaf and the town of Kufa nearby as a sign of willingness to compromise.
Yet although policemen manned the final checkpoint before Kufa yesterday, the town was crawling with armed militia.
On the outskirts of Najaf a few wary traffic policemen tried to direct the jumble of cars, but around the shrine in the centre of the city there was not a policeman to be seen and the gunmen ruled unchallenged, however unpopular they may be.
Mr Sadr has chosen his hiding place well. He sits in an office on the corner of the Street of the Prophet, just yards from the Imam Ali shrine.
Any attempt by the US military even to approach this most sacred of sites, burial place of the Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali, would inflame Islamic opinion across the globe and bring on to the streets of Najaf even those who have little time for Mr Sadr’s extremism.
In front of his office, gunmen from the Jaish al-Mahdi have set up checkpoints blocking the main roads, where they frisk pedestrians before letting them pass. Most submit silently, but a few are insulted.
“Who are you to check me like this? We are the people of Najaf. You are outsiders,” said one angry man facing down a gunman near the shrine.
Most of the young armed men are new recruits and nearly all have driven down from Sadr City, the poor Shia district of eastern Baghdad named after Mr Sadr’s father, a learned ayatollah murdered by Saddam Hussein’s agents in 1999.
“I joined the Mahdi Army a week ago,” said Haider Nasser, 23. “I came down from Baghdad with my own Kalashnikov and God is with us. I came for jihad first of all and also we are seeking victory, against the Americans and the infidels and the Jews.”
At night, the militia has been firing on American positions out in the desert on the edge of the city. The 2,500 troops are not easily seen and only a small convoy of American armoured personnel carriers and a mine clearer trundled down the road from Baghdad yesterday. But their threatening presence has raised the ire of these young men.
“We are not scared of them, because we have right on our side,” said Yusuf Hamdan Mohammadawi, 38, another gunman recently arrived from Sadr City.
“We have all kinds of weapons and we will fight even with stones. We are not going to give them any land in Iraq.”
If it came to a fight, and the US military still insists it will “kill or capture” Mr Sadr, it would be bloody.
While the parade of chanting gunmen danced past the shrine yesterday afternoon, others in buildings off the main square were watching over boxes of heavy ammunition.
A small crowd gathered by one corner of the shrine to read a statement recently posted and written by Sheikh Khadum al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric living in Iran who is one of the most important intellectual figures behind Mr Sadr’s movement.
“It seems the coalition forces believe only in the language of fire and the grip of iron,” he wrote. “We warn them not to break into the holy sites and to stop threatening us, or they will open a door that will never be closed.”