Saturday, August 21, 2004

Inside the Imam Ali Shrine 

Via our esteemed colleagues at All Spin Zone: Contradictory reports have been coming out of Najaf for the last couple of days. Here's an account from the eye of the storm by Luke Harding of the Guardian:
Inside the pockmarked entrance of Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, there were no police to be seen yesterday afternoon.

Supporters of the rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr loafed on carpets in the pigeon-infested courtyard. A few smoked; others dozed. A couple of young students stood next to a makeshift infirmary; parked nearby was an empty pallet covered in blood.

"We haven't given up. This is a lie by the government," said Amar Al-Khaji, a 29-year-old civil engineer from Baghdad. "As you can see, we are still here."

Only hours earlier a senior Iraqi government official had claimed that Iraqi police had secured the shrine, apparently bringing to an end the two-week standoff with Mr Sadr's militia. At least 400 Mahdi army members had been arrested, and the bloodshed had ended . . . .

All afternoon the dusty streets had echoed intermittently with the crump of mortars. Puffs of black smoke wafted over the Imam Ali shrine's golden dome.

The standoff in Najaf has plunged Iraq's beleaguered prime minister, Ayad Allawi, into his worst crisis so far. Mr Allawi issued a "last call" to the cleric on Thursday and the battle is clearly a defining moment for his interim government, which owes its existence to Washington.

What happens in Najaf next will determine Iraq's future, for better or worse. That may in part explain the confusion which surrounds events. The claims of victory, of a Sadr cave-in, appear to be wishful thinking, more than reality.

So, too, is the attempt to portray the battle for the Shias' holiest city as one in which the US military is merely assisting government forces.

At the moment, the Americans are doing all the fighting. The Iraqi police play merely a cameo role: a massive convoy rode towards the shrine yesterday, sirens blazing, celebrating a victory that never happened. Two minutes later it turned back . . . .

Forty six people were injured and 11 killed in the past two days of fighting, the director of Najaf's hospital, Falah Almahana, said yesterday.

A short stroll from his office was the evidence. The newly dead were stored in a makeshift truck, next to a German refrigerating unit that did not work. In it, the bodies were too numerous to count.

But it was clear the small girl with the gamine haircut and the other corpses had little to do with the battle that has been raging down the road. Three blanket-covered bodies lay nearby in the dust.

"They were walking down the street when a mortar landed on them," a morgue attendant, Abu Muhammad, explained.

| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us