'Death after death, blood after blood'

Posted in Iraq | 21-Aug-04 | Author: Luke Harding| Source: Guardian

Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr sit inside the Imam Ali shrine in the holy city of Najaf.
Killing goes on despite claims that siege is over

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 chairs.

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 government forces.

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 cemetery.

"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 the dust.

"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."