Battle for Iraq's future

Donald Macintyre in Najaf

16 August 2004


Democracy was a long way from Najaf yesterday. As fighting resumed in the Shia holy city, Iyad Allawi's government moved to impose an authoritarian media clampdown before any full-scale assault on the holy sites which insurgents have made their base.

Amid continued exchanges of fire, US tanks rolled deeper into the old city in an attempt to tighten the cordon around the militants loyal to Muqtada Sadr based in and around the shrine of Imam Ali. Sporadic explosions continued throughout the day when US forces used Apache helicopters, warplanes and tank shells in response to mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine-gun fire by the insurgents.

Sadr's militants were shown in a television film parading two pieces of decorated brickwork thought to have been part of a door in the shrine compound that was hit by shrapnel from a tank shell. The blood-covered body of a man, apparently shot in the head, was carried from the scene as insurgents took up positions in the deserted and boarded-up streets within the loose cordon of US tanks.

Peace talks aimed at ending a 10-day uprising in the city in which hundreds have died collapsed at the weekend, and after an uneasy truce during which US forces had loosened their noose around the mosque fighting was expected to resume.

And yesterday was to have been the day a battered nation embarked on the road to democracy. Would-be fathers of the new Iraq travelled to Baghdad for a conference intended to guide the country toward free elections next year. Even there though, in the heart of the capital, the harsh reality is that this is a country in chaos. Mortars fell close to the conference centre. An American soldier died after a roadside bomb exploded. A Ukrainian soldier was killed by a mine south of the city.

At the three-day conference 1,300 delegates are to choose a 100-member assembly to oversee the interim government until elections in January.

But for now, the roads from Baghdad do not lead to democracy. They lead to places such as Muthana province in the south of the country, where a Dutch soldier was killed and five others were wounded late on Saturday. They lead to places such as Najaf.

Despite indications that any full-scale assault in the city might await completion of the conference in Baghdad, most Arab television crews and other reporters left the city last night after armed police came to the Bar Najaf hotel, where nearly all foreign and Arab journalists are staying, to order them to leave for Baghdad. Journalists who protested were told: "You have been warned. You have two hours. If you don't leave you will be shot."

During the day two bullets were fired at the gate to the hotel entrance and through the open doorway of the hotel. The second bullet hit a glass panel inside the hotel, which slightly injured an Arab journalist when it fractured. Although there was no confirmation that the bullets had been fired by police, the hotel is only a few hundred metres from the local police station and much farther from the main positions of Sadr's insurgents.

The move against reporters in Najaf, designed to intimidate journalists other than those embedded with US forces into leaving the city, began when Najaf's police chief, Ghalab Jazaree, summoned reporters to announce that they had two hours to start the return journey to Baghdad.

Initially, Mr Jazaree, whose uncle was recently kidnapped by Sadr's men, told reporters that police had found a car loaded with dynamite which had been intended by insurgents to blow up the Bar Najaf. He said that police had guarded the hotel and added: "We didn't tell you yesterday but we have decided to tell you this morning because it will not be safe this afternoon to travel to Baghdad."

He said: "We know you are neutral journalists, even though you have not reported the bad actions by Sadr people when they beheaded and burned innocent people and the Iraqi police." In view of the media's neutrality "we are protecting you". The order for the journalists to leave had been issued by the Ministry of Interior in Iyad Allawi's interim government, he added.

Mr Jazaree said that while he would not be able to arrest foreign journalists, he would order the arrest of their translators and drivers if they failed to carry out the order.

But nearly five hours after the deadline had passed without incident, police armed with pistols and AK-47s arrived at the hotel and again told all journalists to leave within two hours.

As a group of Arab and Western journalists were attempting to meet the Governor, Adnan Zurufi, to protest against the order, a second police contingent arrived bearing a written order to all journalists in the city to leave. The journalists at the Governor's office were turned back by a plain-clothes security officer who told them: "You have been warned. You have your two hours. If you don't leave you will be shot."

The attempted media ban ­ reminiscent in its own way of the Saddam Hussein regime toppled 15 months ago ­ is in contrast to the media savvy of Sadr spokesmen who have welcomed reporters to the Imam Ali shrine and made visits to the Bar Najaf hotel to give press conferences.

But yesterday afternoon, a convoy of journalists ­ including reporters from The Independent, Daily Telegraph and The Times ­ briefly came under machine-gun fire in the boarded-up streets of the old city between the line of widely separated US tanks and the holy sites controlled by Sadr's militants.

The road to democracy, it seems, it far longer and more difficult to traverse than many imagined.