Calling the shots in Najaf

Ghalab al-Jazaari is the Iraqi police chief masterminding the siege of Najaf. It is an unenviable job by any standards. But, he tells Donald Macintyre, for him it's also very personal

18 August 2004


If nothing else, Ghalab al- Jazaari is a driven man. Seated on a plain sofa in his office at the city's main police station at nearly midnight, glancing repeatedly at the television screen showing an Iraqi station giving the bleak round-up of news on the insurgency, and unable to stifle the occasional yawn out of sheer dog tiredness, he turned every question back to what he sees as his mission: the end of the occupation of the city's holy sites by Muqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army and in effect the disbanding of the militia itself.

If the rebel Shiite cleric had been uncompromising - saying last week that he would fight "to the last drop of blood" and that his followers should continue to fight even if he died in battle - so too was Mr Jazaari as he kept at bay the urge to sleep for a few hours on Monday night: "We will never stop fighting them, even if there are any negotiations, until they leave the city unarmed," he said.

"It is not our preferred choice. I hope they will lay down their arms and leave peacefully. Otherwise we will have to fight them. If they refuse to surrender their arms and leave we will have to storm the place and kill them all. We want to end the battle as quickly as possible. We want to end the bloodshed as quickly as possible."

Of all the visits to the Sea of Najaf hotel made by the city police this week, the fifth and last - so far - turned out to have been the least malign. Led by a blue and white Landcruiser, its lights flashing, the convoy, including a pick-up crowded with plain clothes police waving their AK 47s, suddenly turned up without any warning to escort us to a press conference.

Since this was after 11pm, the city is under a de facto curfew, and the last time we had been invited to one of Mr Jazaari's press conferences it was to be told we had two hours to leave town or face arrest, it was hard to be sure of his intentions.

But this time Mr Jazaari had other things than arresting journalists on his mind.

A tall, grizzled, middle-aged man with piercing brown eyes, Mr Jazaari wasted little time on the four attempts he and some of his more zealous lieutenants had already made to rid the city of reporters. He had simply implemented an order from the Ministry of Interior, which he had had no time to question, he said.

"Technically" the written order expelling journalists was still in force. But he had personally phoned the Ministry that very morning to tell the people at the Ministry it was unworkable for Najaf, as he put it now, "to be a city without media". The Ministry, he explained, believed that the "media has created a false image" as well as helping the Sadr insurgents by depicting them as heroes.

By Monday night it looked as though Mr Jazaari had come to the view that talking to journalists might be a better strategy than trying to run them out of town. Why did we never print the other side of the story? And the story he had to tell could not have started more personally.

His own 80-year-old father, he said, had just been kidnapped in Basra by a group of Mehdi Army men - some of whom had hit his sisters and who he said were led by a man called Assad al-Basrawi. He added: "I want to ask all the world where is the humanity when they do that? How can they say they are religious, that they are Muslims when they do that? I want to ask the Mehdi Army is it a good thing that they kidnapped a very old man who is very sick, who cannot eat and needs medicine just because he is my father and I am his son? What do they think I am doing? I am doing my job."

The kidnappers had demanded no ransom, he said, only that Mr Jazaari went to them to replace his father with himself. Such a course could well mean instant death for both of them.

But, he implied, he wouldn't have called us here if his father's kidnapping had been unique. Others, including women and children, had been kidnapped too, he said. 40 policemen, he said, had been killed by the insurgents since 4 April, including some 19 or 20 who had been beheaded, among them another relative of his who had had to be buried without the head being found.

There is no independent corroboration for these figures as yet - any more than there is for the US Marines' claim that 300 insurgents died in the first two days of fighting. But (unlike in the case of the US claim) there is no reason to doubt them either.

Guarding the rank upon rank of prisoners - 400 in all - currently held by police in a large, densely overcrowded auditorium next to the police station, spending much of their time at prayer and chanting pro-Sadr slogans and songs, police sergeant Nasser Abdul Ibrahim said that his own father, also 80, had been killed and his body left in the huge Wadi al-Salam cemetery, which has been a battleground between the insurgents and Iraqi and US forces.

Despite his bereavement, he insisted, he went out of his way to help the prisoners with family visits, medicine, food and even a little money. No, he said, he did not want to discuss the killing of his father with the prisoners.

"I do not want them to think that I am using the power I have over them. I just want to do my job in a professional way."

But he couldn't go home because the Sadr militants knew where he lived. "I don't want to be killed. My family depend on me." It was difficult, to say the least, to know if Sergeant Ibrahim's self-restraint was remotely typical.

But Mr Jazaari summed up his own feelings: "Every country needs policemen for security. People must respect the police. I want to provide this town with safety and security. A lot of people from this town, civilians, got killed for no reason. If they thought they would stop me from working here because they kidnapped my father they are wrong. They are giving me more reason to do my job."

There was precious little sign yesterday of the "safety and security" Mr Jazaari says he yearns for in the grid of narrow, boarded-up streets - empty of normal traffic - in the slowly shrinking territory between the loose but advancing cordon of tanks around the central part of the Najaf, and the innermost old city which the Mehdi Army wholly control.

Fear is the dominant emotion: fear of what the Americans may do; fear of Sadr's forces; fear for the future of Iraq. In one such street between a kilometre and a mile way to the south east of the Imam Ali shrine you could hear, too close for comfort, the repeated exchanges of gunfire and tank shells as the fighting continued despite the expected arrival of the delegation of Shiite politicians from the national conference in Baghdad, hoping to persuade Sadr to lay down his arms.

At the corner a dead body lay unclaimed, with a blanket covering it, on the pavement at the street corner, as small clusters of men and boys gathered nervously in doorways. One of them, Hani Hassan, said the body was that of a civilian whom he had seen as he was killed yesterday afternoon, trying to move across the intersection, brought down, Mr Hassan thought, by 50mm gunfire from a tank. "Here we are near the shrine and there is always fighting between the Mehdi army and the coalition forces which kills civilians."

He claimed that children had also been killed by accident by Mehdi militants trying to fire at the Americans. He hoped - but did not expect - a peaceful solution. "I think the Mehdi Army don't agree with the national conference. They will not leave the shrine. I think the Mehdi Army will not surrender their weapons. We used to have good business here because of the Iranian pilgrims."

Another, Samir Ghalab, said that people had already started leaving, including most of his family who left for Baghdad a few days ago. "My two brothers and I stayed in the house because we are afraid the Mehdi Army might take it over. We have no power or water and we keep getting attacks from the coalition forces or the Mehdi Army."

It was apparent, touring the city at the end of last week, that many of its inhabitants are divided over Muqtada Sadr. Some saw him as a hero, standing up for the poor and leading the resistance to an American occupation for which even his critics have few good words to say. Typical of these was Hassan Hadi, 22, who said with utter simplicity: "Of course I support Muqtada al-Sadr. The Americans came to my country and took my oil. He is fighting the Americans. That is a good thing."

But yesterday among the shopkeepers and others in the embattled no-man's land between the Americans and Sadr's insurgents the reaction was fearful, and among some overtly hostile to the militant Shiite cleric. One 47-year-old man, one of whose children had been injured in the fighting and who did boldly give his name, said: "The situation is really bad, everybody here is frightened. The Mehdi Army is an unorganised militia. They are thugs and criminals. This is a pro-Saddam army not a Mehdi Army. Muqtada al-Sadr is cheating; he is not doing this for religious reasons."

All of which leaves, of course, unanswered, the question of how, and at what cost, this will end. Will the Americans, the Iraqi National Guard and Mr Jazaari's policemen really storm the holy sites, as he suggests they may, with incalculable potential consequences if they do?

Peace last night still seemed a distant prospect. Mortars continued to land in the afternoon within earshot of the Sea of Najaf hotel, aimed perhaps at Mr Jazaari's nearby police station. Then after dusk a series of explosions close to the shrine lit up the night sky across Najaf; smoke and flames billowed outwards from the old city.

A few hours earlier the national conference delegation - shrunk to a handful of politicians because of no doubt well-placed fears of an ambush - raced into the city centre in two Mercedes, white flags trailing from the windows, after a high-security helicopter ride from Baghdad. At 10.30pm last night, Muqtada Sadr was said to be still refusing to meet them.