By Hannah Allam
Detroit Free Press correspondent Hannah Allam and a handful of journalists were trapped inside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf on Monday (August 23). Allam walked into the shrine unchallenged as sporadic gunfire erupted but could not leave the building because fighting intensified. Here is her report.
The pigeons in the Imam Ali shrine were flying out of the vast courtyard Monday into a sky filled with the smell of blood and the echoes of urban warfare.
The shrine’s other residents—about 500 exhausted supporters of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—slept in patches of shade as U.S.-led forces crushed their comrades in intense street battles just outside the compound. Sniper bullets danced about the ankles of the rebels who ran across the street and through the shrine’s ornate doors.
This was Day 19 of the standoff in the southern Shi’ite Muslim city of Najaf. And no one inside the sanctuary was talking about a peaceful outcome.
“If we hand over the keys to the shrine, will that end the occupation of Iraq?” asked Sheikh Ahmad Sheibani, a top al-Sadr aide in the shrine, which Shi’ites consider one of their holiest sites. “If the Iraqi forces come in, we’ll fight. We’ll all fight.”
The countdown is on for those who remain in the shrine. It’s been days since the Iraqi government said it was giving al-Sadr hours to vacate the shrine before an elite group of Iraqi National Guardsmen would be sent to reclaim Najaf.
Al-Sadr hasn’t appeared publicly in a week. Meanwhile, the U.S. military perimeter around the compound tightened, and the bombs moved closer. At nightfall, U.S. attacks increased. The buzz of an AC130 gunship could be heard. Nine or 10 times by midnight, aircraft could be heard circling overhead, then a whistling sound and the explosion of a bomb. Shrapnel flew into the shrine’s courtyard.
Members of the Madhi’s Army—as al-Sadr’s militia is known—kept their spirits up with chants of “We’re with you, Muqtada. We’ll die for you, Muqtada.” They staged an impromptu rally at midnight, marching through the courtyard.
Wounded militia members were brought in throughout the evening to a makeshift trauma center in the shrine. A little girl hit by shrapnel was carried in. Outside the shrine, militiamen and U.S. troops continued their mutual hunt for the enemy throughout the day.
Down one decrepit alley, a door swung open and Mahdi’s Army fighters emerged carrying a body trailing penny-sized drops of blood. The walk through the wasted land around the shrine is a pins-and-needles trip, in which a sniper could be behind every creaky door or swinging shutter.
At one bend in the labyrinth of alleys, a group of young boys with rocket-propelled grenade launchers sauntered up to a Free Press reporter and offered to lead the way to the shrine. “Don’t be scared,” said one sweet-faced boy with a black scarf tied pirate-style on his head. He clutched his launcher as a thunderous explosion shook the path.
The hard-core fighters stayed outside. Only a handful of armed men ventured inside the shrine, where few weapons were visible. Mostly, al-Sadr supporters cherished their relative safety and wondered how long it would last. “There must be a result from all this,” said Haider Qassim, 33, who sold shoes before joining al-Sadr’s forces. “Blood just can’t spill like this for nothing. Why? Why were all those people killed?”
Iraqi and U.S. officials say hundreds of al-Sadr’s fighters have been killed in the fighting that began Aug. 5, though the militia says its casualties have been far lower. At least eight U.S. soldiers, 40 Iraqi police officers and dozens of civilian bystanders have been killed.
Young men curled up in brilliantly tiled nooks to read the Koran. There was public praise for a man from the western Sunni town of Fallujah who is now fighting with the Shi’ite-dominated Mahdi’s Army. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims are traditional rivals.
Most of the Shi’ite supporters weren’t from Najaf; several begged to use a satellite phone to check in with loved ones. “Please let me call my mother in Baghdad,” a 14-year-old boy pleaded. “She has no idea whether I’m alive or dead.”
As night fell, streams of tiny electric lights illuminated the deep blue of the shrine. The dark also hid shrapnel-chipped tiles and the bullet-speckled landmark golden dome. An imam’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker, claiming rebels had burned three U.S. tanks. Most worshipers perched on mats were too tired to cheer.
In the steamy offices of the shrine, a volunteer brought a large tray of white rice topped with a navy bean sauce. The meals came courtesy of women who have husbands or brothers on the front lines. They said they had abandoned their homes to act as human shields and helpers during the uprising.
Two dark-eyed 7-year-old girls both named Fatima tugged at a reporter’s sleeve during a renewed wave of bombings.
“Are you scared?” one asked with a nervous giggle.
“A little,” the reporter answered. “Are you?”
“No, not me,” she said, “I’m army. Mahdi’s Army.”
—Detroit Free Press, August 24, 2004