Morti peste morti, sange peste sange ENG
death, blood after blood'
Killing goes on
despite claims that siege is over
inside the Imam Ali shrine, Najaf
Saturday August 21, 2004
Inside the pockmarked entrance of Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, there
were no police to be seen yesterday afternoon.
Supporters of the rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr loafed on
carpets in the pigeon-infested courtyard. A few smoked; others
dozed. A couple of young students stood next to a makeshift
infirmary; parked nearby was an empty pallet covered in blood.
"We haven't given up. This is a lie by the government," said
Amar Al-Khaji, a 29-year-old civil engineer from Baghdad. "As
you can see, we are still here."
Only hours earlier a senior Iraqi government official had
claimed that Iraqi police had secured the shrine, apparently
bringing to an end the two-week standoff with Mr Sadr's militia.
At least 400 Mahdi army members had been arrested, and the
bloodshed had ended.
By dusk, it was apparent that this was not the case. Hundreds
of unarmed supporters of the cleric were bedding down for
another night in the mosque. In the rubbish-strewn alleyways
around the shrine, fighters armed with Kalshnikovs sat on metal
The evidence of withering American bombardment was all
around: tangled electricity wires, pulverised remains of earth
barricades and the smell of decaying human flesh.
Far from being vanquished, the Mahdi army is still in Najaf,
battling to win. "The fighting is still going on," Saeed Mustafa
confirmed, as we crunched through Najaf's glass-strewn old city
toward the shrine, arms raised and waving a white handkerchief.
All afternoon the dusty streets had echoed intermittently
with the crump of mortars. Puffs of black smoke wafted over the
Imam Ali shrine's golden dome.
The standoff in Najaf has plunged Iraq's beleaguered prime
minister, Ayad Allawi, into his worst crisis so far. Mr Allawi
issued a "last call" to the cleric on Thursday and the battle is
clearly a defining moment for his interim government, which owes
its existence to Washington.
Mr Sadr has rejected its authority and refused to compromise
with foreign occupation.
What happens in Najaf next will determine Iraq's future, for
better or worse. That may in part explain the confusion which
surrounds events. The claims of victory, of a Sadr cave-in,
appear to be wishful thinking, more than reality.
So, too, is the attempt to portray the battle for the Shias'
holiest city as one in which the US military is merely assisting
At the moment, the Americans are doing all the fighting. The
Iraqi police play merely a cameo role: a massive convoy rode
towards the shrine yesterday, sirens blazing, celebrating a
victory that never happened. Two minutes later it turned back.
On the streets there is exasperation. "Our situation is
disastrous," said Abu Qatam, a 25-year-old taxi driver. "We
don't have water or power. My neighbour came back yesterday to
check on his house and he was killed. We don't know whether the
Americans did it or the Mahdi army."
Where the Mahdi army has been newly turfed out, there is
little sympathy for Mr Sadr, or for his militia, many of whose
corpses lie unburied to the north of the shrine, in Najaf's vast
"They are looters, murderers and Ba'athists," a shopkeeper,
Abdul Amir, said. His troubles started six months ago, he said,
when an American soldier bought one of his fridges. "A month later the Mahdi army took me to the cemetery,
accused me of being an American agent, and beat me up. After
that I had to appear before Moqtada's Sharia court. Dozens of
people have been tortured or disappeared. Moqtada has a secret
underground jail. His followers have executed at least 300
people," he claimed.
It is not a claim that can be easily verified. But what is
clear is that in the battle for Najaf, civilians are dying.
Forty six people were injured and 11 killed in the past two
days of fighting, the director of Najaf's hospital, Falah
Almahana, said yesterday.
A short stroll from his office was the evidence. The newly
dead were stored in a makeshift truck, next to a German
refrigerating unit that did not work. In it, the bodies were too
numerous to count.
But it was clear the small girl with the gamine haircut and
the other corpses had little to do with the battle that has been
raging down the road. Three blanket-covered bodies lay nearby in
"They were walking down the street when a mortar landed on
them," a morgue attendant, Abu Muhammad, explained.
Even if Iraqi troops eventually storm the shrine, or kill Mr
Sadr, it seems optimistic to think his uprising will then
disappear. In the town of Kufa, close to Najaf, dozens of Shia
militiamen armed with rocket-propelled grenades were yesterday
standing on the streets.
As night fell, the small girl's body lay unclaimed in Najaf's
morgue. Next to her lay the corpse of a middle-aged woman who
might have been her mother.
"I don't believe in violence. I've never fired a gun. The
only way to solve this problem is through peaceful means," Dr
Almahana said. "But this isn't happening in Najaf. Instead we
have sadness after sadness, death after death, blood after
blood." © The Guardian