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29 Aug 2004 09:42
The noise of the two Black Hawk helicopters shattered the eerie silence that on Saturday had enveloped the city of Najaf. On board were a team of five Iraqi ministers led by Minister of State Kasim Daoud.
They landed and were driven in a convoy, led by police cars with sirens wailing, through streets littered with the wreckage of battle, to the sacred Imam Ali shrine to inspect the damage.
The trip came two days after Iraq’s top Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, brokered a peace deal to end fighting between the Mehdi Army of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and United States and Iraqi forces which left hundreds dead.
‘We have come to consolidate the peace settlement we reached and to congratulate Sistani,’ said Daoud.
The siege of Najaf is over. By Saturday the surviving fighters of the Mehdi Army had left the shrine and dispersed, their weapons thrown on wooden handcarts, or some hidden to fight another day. American troops guarded parts of the perimeter of the city, but the newly formed Iraqi security forces have now taken control. One of their first discoveries was 20 decomposing corpses stored in a Mehdi office, which they claimed were executed captives. The Mehdi Army said they were its own casualties and dead civilians, but at least one had what appeared to be a noose around its neck, and police discovered a dungeon under the building. Scared civilians speak of a ‘reign of terror’.
Whatever happens now, the new Iraqi government, installed in power just under two months ago by the US-led coalition, has weathered its most critical test to date. In Washington and London there is great relief—as there is in Najaf itself.
Whole areas of the city are now in ruins; scores of civilians are dead and tens of thousands of people have left—or lost—their homes. The hotels and restaurants that serve the pilgrim trade to the ancient town are smashed hulks, the roads are littered with ordnance, much of the world-famous cemetery has been shot to pieces.
It seems a world away from the scene a few days ago. On Thursday the helicopters overhead were Apache gunships, readying missiles, while on the street below a tank poured a long burst of heavy machine-gun fire into a building, stopped firing, reversed a few feet with its tracks grinding across the rubble-strewn street, and then fired again, filling the air with concrete dust, the acrid smell of cordite and a blast of teeth-jarring noise. Less than a hundred yards away a wall beside a shop disintegrated as the stream of bullets smashed through it. There was a series of loud cracks—each followed by a gut-wrenching thump—as old Soviet-designed rocket-propelled grenades missed the tank and impacted on buildings around. The fighters resisted with sharp rattles of Kalashnikovs, answered by the steady, chugging thump-kathump-kathump of the cannon mounted on the three armoured personnel carriers in the next street. Above, the Apaches twisted away. The howl of a jet built up before abruptly cutting out. Another deafening blast, then a pause during which the sound of another fight half a mile away could be heard, and then the Kalashnikovs rattled again.
For most of the last three weeks Najaf has been the site of the most intensive battles in Iraq since the war began. Though fighting only a thousand or so lightly armed men from the al-Mehdi militia—a ragtag of young Shia zealots led by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—the US army faced a block-to-block battle of ferocious urban warfare. The violence reached its greatest intensity in the middle of last week, with the US military using almost every weapon in its arsenal—except artillery and their biggest air-dropped ordnance—to break the will of the dwindling bands of fighters. Some slipped away, but many kept fighting.
Everyone in Iraq knew the battle was coming. Al-Sadr (30) the son of a nationally revered cleric killed by Saddam Hussein, had been rapidly recruiting militia. His fiery anti-American and anti-Semitic sermons appealed to unemployed youth, particularly in the poorer areas of Baghdad and the major Shia-dominated cities of central and southern Iraq, who see the US-led coalition, and the government it relinquished formal political control to in June, as illegitimate. In April an attempt to destroy al-Sadr failed in the face of fierce resistance. A showdown was inevitable.
At the beginning of the month it came—in the religious city of Najaf. Sadr had picked his battleground astutely. The Americans, who provide the new Iraqi government’s only reliable security force, would not be able to attack the shrine of Imam Ali in the centre of the city, the holiest site in the world for Shia Muslims, for fear of provoking all Iraqis. Al-Sadr also had his eye on the lucrative Najaf pilgrim trade. With a secure base and a cellar bunker, al-Sadr and his men prepared for a long fight.
The first two weeks saw US soldiers battling tomb to tomb through the huge cemetery on the outskirts of the city. US officials claimed to have killed hundreds of Mehdi Army fighters; the true figure was far lower. ‘I fought for two weeks in there and I never saw an enemy,’ said one First Cavalry soldier. But the militia took casualties, and by the beginning of last week were forced back into the narrow alleyways in the ‘old city’ around the gold-domed shrine—which the fighters used as a base and ammunition store.
I spent six hours on Wednesday working my way on foot through the fighting and into the old city. The streets were deserted, full of debris, ammunition, unexploded ordnance, dead dogs, rubbish, blackened stock from burnt out stores, smouldering cars, barbed wire and empty US army ration packs. Electricity lines lay strewn across the shattered road surfaces, water spurted from smashed pipes. Those few civilians who had stayed in their homes—tens of thousands had left—kept inside, sheltering from war and the 45-degree midday heat. Salah Alawi Jassm (58) said the people of Najaf had two enemies: ‘the Americans and the Mehdi’. Outside his door bullets hissed along the street.
The US forces used three main weapons: armoured vehicles in the streets, demolishing suspected al-Mehdi positions; Apache helicopter gunships with jets in support; and snipers. Despite thermal imaging, the problem was locating a target. ‘Do you know where the enemy is at?’ asked one First Cavalry trooper, smoking beside his Bradley fighting vehicle.
The snipers established themselves around the edge of the old city. Their aim was to shut down the flow of food and ammunition into the shrine and to limit the Mehdi fighters’ movement in the town. They did it with devastating ruthlessness. At about noon on Wednesday I saw an old man with a donkey cart moving slowly up one of the larger roads towards the old city. A bullet brought down the animal. An hour later I passed the same spot and the man was dead too, a few feet from the animal, blood soaking his white robe.
Snipers also targeted fighters trying to reach the sanctuary of the shrine. A low barricade, constructed from twisted metal wreckage, provided scant cover for the dash from the surrounding alleys to the sacred courtyard. Every movement provoked a furious fusillade of high-velocity rounds. Some fighters made it unscathed. Some didn’t. One wounded fighter, blood streaming from a stomach wound, was pushed on a handcart across the bullet-scarred tarmac, his face astonished at his own pain. The snipers let him reach the makeshift medical clinic staffed by volunteers inside the shrine.
Despite the continual barrage, the fighters were defiant. Messages were broadcast from the shrine’s loudspeakers: ‘O Mujahideen,’ one said. ‘God is great. Long live the Mehdi Army. Fight, fight, fight.’ A false rumour went round that two US tanks had been destroyed. ‘We will fight them to the last drop of our blood,’ said Khalid Hada (23) who had been a soldier in Saddam’s army until it was demobilised by coalition authorities. ‘There has been no withdrawal,’ lied Walid Shaha (34) a bodyguard of al-Sadr. As we spoke, jets roared in twice to drop bombs and two huge blasts shook the ground—one showering us with debris. Each explosion was followed by firing of such intensity that individual reports became indistinguishable in the welter of noise. The men handed round biscuits.
The guns in Najaf fell silent on Thursday at 3pm—the moment Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, entered the city following a triumphal procession from the southern port city of Basra. Sistani, who spent the last three weeks in London convalescing from heart surgery, called on al-Sadr, who was reportedly wounded early in the fighting and had been lying low, to evacuate the shrine and allow the pilgrims in. The injunction from the senior cleric provided a welcome way out for the young rabble-rouser and, on Thursday night, Sistani’s spokesperson was able to announce that ‘inshallah’ there would be peace.
Many questions remain. Will success in Najaf give way to long-term failure for the new Iraqi government? How much more trouble can al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army cause elsewhere?
An indication came on Friday. While being interviewed by The Observer, a Mehdi fighter spotted a group of officers from the new Iraqi police force approaching in contravention of the peace deal. Muttering ‘traitors’, he slid the bolt on his weapon while his friend clipped a belt into a heavier automatic. Within moments, a full-scale fire-fight broke out. Four more men, including three civilians, were being carried away, leaving trails of fresh blood in Najaf’s streets. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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