Inside Najaf's Imam Ali mosque

"We will do anything to stop the Americans. They have sex and drinking and other things, and we don't want this."

Published August 13, 2004 1:44PM (EDT)

As the day wore on, more and more injured young men wrapped in bandages were being carried across the sun-baked tiles of the courtyard in the Imam Ali shrine.

In one alcove in the turquoise-tiled wall was a small makeshift hospital with two metal beds and a stack of drugs and bandages. On the far side of the building, behind a large wooden door, was another room, now a crowded ward chilled by two air coolers. Blood-soaked clothes floated in a metal bath outside.

For seven days the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Iraqi Shiite cleric, had been fighting the Americans on the edge of the holy city of Najaf. Yesterday, on the eighth day, the Americans finally advanced toward the narrow streets of the old city. The push began before 7 a.m. with a wave of heavy bombing; then dozens of tanks and Humvees drove in, blocking roads and fighting off the ragtag militia.

The people of the old city had long ago fled, leaving their streets controlled by small, nervous groups from Sadr's militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi.

This uprising, the second in five months, has delivered the most serious challenge yet to the new Iraqi government. Like the U.S. military, Baghdad wants the militia crushed. But if it blunders into the heart of the old city and attacks the Imam Ali shrine -- Sadr's headquarters and one of the holiest sites in the Shiite faith -- it risks increasing the size of the rebellion exponentially.

Some among the cleric's deputies were privately anxious yesterday. Others tried to shrug off the mounting pressure. By midmorning one of the cleric's most senior lieutenants, Sheikh Ahmad al-Shaibani, was dozing in his air-conditioned room. Occasionally he took text messages on his mobile phone from his commanders in the streets. Outside, loudspeakers around the mosque issued exhortations to the fighters: "God make your feet steadfast. God make you victorious."

Shaibani, wearing sunglasses, wandered into the courtyard. "They are not in a complete circle around us," he said. "We have been expecting something like this any day. It is either a massive attack or a massive withdrawal, and we expect the latter. There is a lot of political pressure in Baghdad."

The sweeping courtyard that encloses the golden dome of the shrine is surrounded by an exquisitely tiled wall. Along its length are a series of alcoves, each housing small offices. Most are now locked or abandoned, but one, near the northern gate, is air-conditioned, thickly carpeted and decorated with dozens of posters of Sadr and his revered father. Under the sofa are stuffed several assault rifles and a pair of umbrellas.

This is the office of the Sadr movement, which now controls the mosque -- perhaps itself one of the goals behind the uprising, since the site brings in a vast annual income from the millions of pilgrims who visit. Clerics from the other parties in the Shiite faith, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which ran the mosque until April, have gone. Even yesterday's prayers were tailored to extol Sadr.

There was no sign at the mosque of Sadr -- whose house in another part of Najaf was raided by U.S. forces yesterday. He has not been seen since making a public statement at the shrine on Monday.

Despite their confidence, the clerics were negotiating yesterday. At one point they insisted the U.N. should be involved. At another, one of the senior clerics, Sheikh Ali Smaisin, bawled into his mobile phone: "Just please ask the American forces to pull back from the old city until the negotiations have finished. Then they can do what they want."

Fighters walked past with boasts from the battlefield. "We had two tanks coming towards us this morning," said Abu Zara. "We destroyed the first tank. We saw the second tank come to tow it, and the soldiers got out and ran away."

Then a crowd gathered to show off trophies of the fight -- chunks of metal from U.S. vehicles, what appeared to be a helicopter tail rotor and an armored panel from a tank, peppered with bullet holes.

Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- in London for unspecified medical treatment -- appealed for an end to the standoff. He was "following the suffering of his Iraqi people and sons and sharing their pains with deep sorrow and great worry," a statement said.

Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, urged the militiamen to abandon their stand. "Our government calls upon all the armed groups to drop their weapons and return to society," he said. "We also call upon the armed men to evacuate the shrine and not to violate its holiness."

His appeal had little effect at the mosque. Among the injured men was Hassan Liwis, 26, a student from Nassirya, who had left his final exams to fight with Sadr's militia in April. Yesterday he was badly burned when a helicopter fired a rocket at him as he stood holding a rocket-propelled grenade.

"We didn't see it coming," he said. "I am fighting to defend my leader, the Imam Ali and my religion. We will do anything to stop the Americans. They have sex and drinking and other things, and we don't want this."

Later, Shaibani and his men sat in their office talking over the U.S. strategy, insisting it would fail. Then silence fell as a man came in to report the injury of a friend, a young man named Haider, shot in the head by an American bullet and barely alive.

Outside, the body of a dead fighter lay unnoticed in an alcove beside the makeshift hospital. He lay wrapped in a blanket and covered by a sheet as the sun set behind him.

By Rory McCarthy

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