The gates of Najaf’s Imam Ali Shrine were forced open on Thursday by a sea of weeping and chanting Shi’ite Muslims, ending a siege of the shrine that had lasted for days and weeks of fighting with United States forces.
Yet as the camp of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led a rebellion against the US-led forces and the new Iraqi government, went into talks with the country’s highest Shi’ite authority, the military stand-off appeared far from over.
Akir Hassan (63) woke up at 6am to heed a call by his spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to leave his village south of Kut and converge on the revered mausoleum.
Tears ran down his wrinkled face and his feet barely touched the ground as the elated crowd squeezed through the gates and into the shrine’s courtyard.
He and the others were greeted like heroes by the 300 besieged al-Sadr militiamen inside.
“God is great. This is democracy, this is the new Iraq, this is the greatest defeat we could have inflicted on the Americans. It’s the most beautiful day in my life,” he shouted, hurrying inside the main mausoleum to pray.
“We have been on the road since yesterday [Wednesday]. When we reached the area, the national guard and the Iraqi police tried to prevent us from heading towards the shrine, but there was nothing they could do,” said 20-year-old Hussein Noma, from the town of Amara.
Most of the demonstrators were Sistani supporters.
“It is my duty to follow the orders of the ayatollah and it was the duty of all Muslims to work for a peaceful solution,” said Ali Rasheed, a young man from Kut.
Al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army fighters brandished Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers as they watched the seemingly endless flow of marchers flowing into the holy site.
Some of them were looking for relatives they have not seen in months; others pounced on biscuits, sweets and soft drinks.
Further up the stream of at least 20Â 000 demonstrators, in the Al-Jadida neighbourhood outside the Old City, a surreal scene unfolded as bewildered American soldiers trapped in their tanks watched as posters of Sistani and al-Sadr were waved in their faces.
The presence of the US troops in the neighbourhood underlined that the battle was not over and that a tense “armed truce” could follow the jubilation.
US forces were still deployed all along the edge of the sprawling Valley of Peace cemetery, one of the largest in the world, as well as in several neighbourhoods outside the Old City.
“Insh’allah [God willing], the battle is over, but I will put my weapon in a safe place because I have a feeling I could need it again soon,” said Athir as he hugged his fellow militiamen outside the gates of the shrine.
Several incidents rattled the truce within minutes of the end of the siege.
A group of fighters who ventured into areas that they had lost to the Americans in recent days were shot at by US soldiers as they tried to retrieve dead and wounded they had been unable to reach for several days.
At least six bodies were brought to the makeshift clinic inside the shrine while the other wounded, including some who were in urgent need of medical care, were gradually being evacuated to Najaf hospital.
Bursts of automatic gunfire and sniper shots from the cemetery could still be heard two hours after the marchers broke the deadlock.
Many of the pilgrims who volunteered to serve as human shields in the shrine over the past few weeks to support Sadr were already heading home.
The besieged shrine had become increasingly insalubrious in recent days. Food shortages were looming and the dead had to be hastily buried in cellars.
The marchers themselves weren’t spending much time in the compound, as many of them already started heading back.
“I have done my duty,” said one, “now I have to go home. I hope the talks will quickly bring a solution”. — Sapa-AFP