City of defiance

By Donald Macintyre in Najaf

17 August 2004


They came from across Iraq, marching in solidarity with Shia brothers. Civilians ­ they bear no arms, for the moment anyway ­ who are willing die on the steps of the Imam Ali shrine. Thehuman shields have arrived in Najaf.

Hundreds have come to what is one of the most holy Shia sites on solidarity marches in recent days. Many more have made their way in smaller groups from nearby towns and neighbourhoods. More than 2,000 have now pledged their allegiance to the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr and are based in the compound at the shrine.

Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani, a Sadr spokesman, said the presence of the civilians was intended to deter American forces. By simply turning up, they have maximised the loss of human life that could result from any attempt to storm the holy sites, a course already fraught with danger because of the outrage that serious physical damage to the shrine would provoke across Iraq and well beyond. The human shield supporters also appear ready to take up arms left by insurgents killed or wounded in the fighting.

Battles continued yesterday as insurgents used their extensive local knowledge of the huge Wadi al-Salam cemetery, a section of which remains within the area under the control of Sadr's Mehdi Army's to play what one US officer called a "cat and mouse game" with US forces.

Insurgents inside the shrine in alleyways and on rooftops with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sporadically fired at US troops in the cemetery.

The fighting, which has killed at least two US soldiers since the collapse of peace talks on Saturday, overshadowed and divided the Iraqi National Conference yesterday on the second day of its Baghdad session to elect a new interim national assembly.

A delegation from the conference was to arrive here in hope of persuading Sadr to disband his Mehdi Army and turn it into a political party. Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani, a Sadr spokesman, warned that the issue of disarming the militia could only be solved by "negotiations and not a unilateral decision".

His response came as Najaf police followed up earlier threats by arresting one journalist, Ahmed al-Saleh, who is working with al-Arabiya TV network and firing warning shots at the Sea of Najaf hotel, where nearly all foreign and Arab journalists are staying. Their strategy appeared to be a continued harassment campaign against journalists.

A police lieutenant arrived at the hotel at 6.30pm in a convoy of two Toyota Land Cruisers from the local police station. He demanded to know the whereabouts of correspondents from al-Arabiya and the Reuters and AP news agencies.

As journalists protested, the lieutenant said above the hubbub: "We are going to open fire on this hotel. We are going to smash it up. I will kill you all. You did this all to yourselves." In a threat that did not immediately appear to have been carried out, he said four snipers would be positioned on the roof of the police station to fire at any journalists who left the hotel.

His visit was the fourth by police in just over 24 hours and followed a threat earlier in the day by the chief of Najaf police, Ghaleb al-Jazaari, that he would arrest the correspondent from al-Arabiya. But the police chief, who on Sunday ordered all journalists to leave Najaf, added that reporters were free to stay at the hotel at their own risk. "We are not responsible [for you]" he added."

Scuffling broke out as a hotel employee angrily remonstrated with the policemen saying "Are you Iraqis? You are police but you have no right to do this." The police then drove off, stopping 300 metres down the road and fired warning shots in the direction of the hotel.

Later, Mr al-Jazaari sounded a more conciliatory note when he summoned reporters and promised them: "You are not under any kind of threat. We respect your job." He said the order to leave the city was "still technically valid"' but that he had told the Ministry of the Interior that it was not "practical to have a city without any media''. He said that the original order had been issued because the ministry were perturbed that media organisations were giving succour to Sadr's militia.

Meanwhile, the conflict reignited in the main Baghdad battleground of Sadr City where insurgents attacked an American tank, setting it on fire. The crew were rescued and evacuated with minor wounds, according to a spokesman for the US 1st Cavalry Division. While witnesses were reported as saying the tank was hit by a Mehdi Army rocket-propelled grenade, US forces said the insurgents had planted a roadside bomb.

The proposal for a delegation to Najaf was put forward by a distant relative ­ and opponent ­ of Sadr, the Baghdad cleric Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, who told the conference "There are inviolable conditions in civilised countries, particularly that there is no place for armed militias.

But Falah Hassan Shanshal of the Shia Political Council, a grouping of Shia politicians, said the proposal was all "smoke and mirrors".