Uneasy truce

As peaceful demonstrators poured into Najaf and the Mahdi fighters finally agreed to lay down their arms, Iraqi police incited an ominous new wave of violence.

Published August 28, 2004 5:52PM (EDT)

The police chief of Najaf, Ghaleb al Jazairi, wanted to talk to the press on Wednesday night, August 25, so he abducted 30 journalists at gunpoint. At nine in the evening, police officers arrived at the Sea of Najaf hotel, fired a Kalashnikov round in the lobby, and then another on the first floor. Armed men ran through the hotel and shouted for the media to leave the building immediately. No one was allowed to take their things and the officers screamed at us while they brandished their rifles and forced everyone outside. I got the impression that they wanted to kill someone. When the press corps was assembled outside the entrance, a group of police led by an unbalanced commander began firing in the air around us. The police forced us into a large truck. When we arrived at the police station, we were given a lecture about how to report the news. Armed guards at the door prevented us from leaving.

Jazairi was calm as he explained that this unpleasant situation was the fault of an Arab satellite channel, which had reported that Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made an appeal for public demonstrations. Sistani was on his way to the holy city of Najaf and had called for mass protests at the Imam Ali shrine to end the war, frightening the police into bracing for an attack. "It is not true that Sistani has called on people to come to Najaf; he never made any such statement," the police chief of Najaf told us. Of course, Al Jazairi's major problem was that the report was true.

After the lecture and a remarkably short period of arrest, Jazairi let us go. Outside, shaken reporters called their desks from the police station parking lot. Jazairi gave us an absurd apology before we left, "I wish for you to excuse our behavior," he said.

The next morning, Jazairi's officers would fire on unarmed protestors as they marched toward Najaf, killing more than twenty. In his own way, Jazairi had been telling us what was going to happen.

Thursday was bloody and incomprehensible. It was also a day when all the familiar polarities of Najaf reversed themselves. Sistani, who rarely leaves his house, was speeding across the country to break the siege in Najaf, collecting followers as he came up from Basra. A closed city instantly opened and instead of people fleeing, marchers were heading in. Hundreds of peaceful protesters would cross the lines of American troops, make it to the shrine and mix with the followers of Moqtada al Sadr without incident. For their part, Mahdi fighters were restrained and spoke of victory.

It was a confusing day because we did not know where to go first. Around midday, in the lobby of the Sea of Najaf hotel, frantic reporters kept track of Sistani's convoy and made plans for covering the news. No one could make a decision. Convoys into the old city formed and splintered.

As we monitored Sistani's progress toward Najaf, the police arrived and said that they would take us to see him. We refused to go with them. Only one journalist, an independent filmmaker named Andrew Berends, agreed. Shortly after leaving in a pickup truck full of policemen, he caught them on tape shooting directly into a crowd of demonstrators. "I just filmed the Iraqi police killing people," Berends told me a few hours later, shocked by what he witnessed. "The demonstrators got a little excited and the police just started firing."

By afternoon, the first waves of Sistani's pilgrims were arriving at Iraqi police checkpoints, coming from distant cities across Iraq, but mainly from the Shi'a south. They had walked through checkpoints near Najaf, where the Najaf police panicked and gunned them down. The demonstrators were unarmed. We were about to see it for ourselves.

Sistani arrived in Najaf at 3 p.m. without his followers, driving directly to his house with no fanfare. He would meet with Sadr to discuss a ceasefire, but wouldn't make a statement until he had rested. While we waited outside for him to appear, news leaked through that peace protesters were headed for the shrine and that some had made it through the American cordon and Mahdi Army lines. Frontlines were breaking down, becoming porous.

A small group of us pulled together a convoy and drove toward the outskirts of Najaf, looking for a way to follow the marchers to the shrine. Two blocks closer to the city, we heard the sound of gunfire and watched cars in front of us make sharp turns to get away. We pulled over, got out of the car and the shooting stopped.

There was a cluster of pilgrims on the sidewalk, mostly older men, waiting to go to the shrine. "Our marjah Sayeed Ali Sistani asked us to come and put an end to the violence, Saad Husseini said. "We come to end the siege of Najaf. When we asked him if he had problems on the road, he nodded. "Yes, they killed 10 of us. If they had the ability to stop us, they would have, but it was a massive convoy. Husseini was talking about the Iraqi police.

We crossed the street on foot, passing Iraqi police pickup trucks, machine guns mounted on the cabs, and walked a few blocks into the city. Najafis offered us water stored in coolers filled with large chunks of ice. They had prepared it for the pilgrims.

We were a few blocks away from a large mass of demonstrators when the shooting broke out again. Men shouted and screamed as they tried to get away from the firing. I looked down the street and saw hundreds of pilgrims lined up and ready to cross a major road into Najaf. It was a long array of men in white and brown dishdashas; after the firing, I looked back and saw they were gone.

A mass of people arrived from another direction and police fired down those streets too, aiming for the demonstrators. The pilgrims called out to us; they wanted us to capture everything that was happening. When there was a break in the firing, I went to a corner and saw the Iraqi police surround a man and whip him with a length of electrical wire. Rita Leistner, a Canadian photographer, caught the scene with the long lens on her Nikon. Iraqi police continued to fire down cross streets to hem in the pilgrims.

The rest of our walk through the shattered city was uneventful. It was quiet. At five in the evening, when fighting is usually the heaviest, there was only the sound of glass under our feet. As we made our way toward the shrine, we saw a line of pilgrims walking along Rasul Street. When we joined them, we saw Mahdi forces leaving town in civilian clothes and civilian pilgrims headed toward the shrine of Ali. In the time it had taken us to walk from the edge of town to Rasul Street, the ceasefire had taken hold; demonstrators had broken the siege.

Walking toward the gold dome of the shrine, we saw that sections of buildings had been sheared away by U.S. bombs. Careful rows of computers filled a shop that no longer had an exterior. The scene at the shrine was worse. Fighting in the past few days had forced Mahdi Army lines to collapse and the mosque was greatly damaged by air strikes. During our brief walk, I could see few untouched sections of the old city. Every block showed the scars of war.

In the mosque's infirmary, there was no doctor. Assistants had left bloody instruments lying in stainless steel dishes waiting to be sterilized. The hospital was filthy, a sign that the Mahdi Army had lost its grip; the shrine was full of wounded, traumatized men. Nurses stared into space. An old man lay on a mat on the marble floor, the victim of flying shrapnel. In the shrine's bathrooms, usually kept clean so the faithful can make their ablutions before prayer, there was little running water and a foul smell.

Near a long wash basin, a man came to me and asked, "Do you know about the Mahdi? I told him I knew about him. "The Mahdi is coming with Jesus to dispense justice over the world. He went on to describe the imminent arrival of the Shi'a Islamic Messiah. During the past few months, Mahdi Army fighters had been quick to tell me about how the Mahdi is coming any day now, how Moqtada al Sadr is the Mahdi. I did not have the courage to ask the man what he would do if the Mahdi never came.

Photographer Thorne Anderson and I left the shrine and walked out of the old city. I saw a few friends on the way out and was pleased to know that they were still alive. In another time they could have been fighting with bow and arrow against men with muskets. On Rasul Street, we caught a bus full of pilgrim travelers from Amarah. The conductor would not take money for a ticket. We were his guests.

The Sistani peace agreement is the final chapter of a siege that shattered Najaf and left it in ruins. Following a series of stalled attempts to end the fighting, Sadr had finally agreed to take his forces out of the Shi'a holy city. (However, when Sistani's representative, Dr. Hamid Hafaf, read the agreement on Thursday evening, there wasn't much to indicate that the deal was little more than a surrender for the Mahdi Army, with a face-saving caveat.) The few remaining Mahdi Army members had to abandon their weapons and leave Najaf and Kufa by 10 a.m. Friday. The demonstrators, too, had to leave the shrine by that deadline.

Despite one last-minute firefight between the Iraqi police and the Mahdi Army, Sistani's return to Najaf and his call for a peace pilgrimage had shut down this zone of the war.

On Friday morning, the Iraqi police arrived at the Sea of Najaf hotel at six in the morning with another announcement. They were always turning up at strange hours. They came to tell us that Sistani's peaceful march was authorized to go into the old city and that we should follow them. If we wanted to see the demonstrators enter the city, then we must leave immediately.

At 1920 square, a traffic circle on the main road leading into town, the police had set up a checkpoint and marchers were searched. Every man was frisked for weapons before being allowed down the road. More were arriving every moment, and soon there were thousands. We followed the marchers into the city and through Mahdi Army lines.

Groups of young fighters watched the marchers without expression. Across the street, two men carried the remains of a comrade in a blanket and shouted at photographers to stay away.

As we crossed into the old city, a network of small alleys and shops torn apart by gunfire, we saw a cluster of Mahdi soldiers watching the procession in silence. Karrar Kadim Jasim, a young fighter, told me, "We have orders from Moqtada Sadr for a ceasefire. If the coalition forces come, we will shoot." I asked him about Iraqi police. "We don't have an order to shoot the police. But the police are no good. One of us can kill 10 of them."

At that moment, a white and blue Iraqi police land cruiser, its lights flashing, pulled up across from Karrar's position. That's when the shooting started. Photographer Rita Leistner was caught in the middle of the street but couldn't tell who fired first. The shooting went on for a few minutes, while Karrar fired his machine gun at the police and rose from it. When it was over, I walked to the shrine, where fighters were having their morning tea.

A few minutes later on Rasul Street, I heard an announcement come over the shrine loudspeakers: "This is an announcement from Moqtada al Sadr. Please respect the demonstrators. All soldiers, please leave Najaf and Kufa without your weapons."

This verbal order was the end of the fighting in the holy city, the signal that the battle had been lost and won. It had taken a mere three weeks for both sides to ravage the old city, causing several hundred deaths and an unknown number of injuries among both civilians and fighters. It was a simple announcement that told them to give up. "If you don't obey the order it will be bad for you and Moqtada Sadr," said the voice on the loudspeaker. I was curious about how they would handle their weapons. Who would get them?

In an alley near the shrine, where we were taking shelter from the sun, Mahdi fighters were moving cartloads of rocket launchers under blankets. They were not turning them over to police, nor were they leaving them behind. Fighters spent the morning collecting their guns but wouldn't give out any details about what they were doing; questions about weapons made them nervous.

A middle-aged fighter named Abu Najim, who was sitting next to me, said that he had seen how frightened U.S. soldiers were in battle, which made him believe that the United States was coming to an end, just like the Soviet Union had. Pilgrims milled around the shrine, kissing the gates, while down the street Sistani supporters, not used to chanting so much, stood around a picture of the Ayatollah, as Mahdi fighters glared at them.

Across the street from the shrine was a three-story building. It used to be Sadr's security office but had been flattened by a U.S. bomb. In the basement, 12 fighters were buried in the rubble. There was a smell of dead things rotting. A man named Thayer stood looking at the collapsed building. He said his uncle and his friends were inside but he had no way to get them out. Slowly, crowds began to form around the shattered buildings on the west side of town. Families came to retrieve the bodies of their dead. But there was no way to move the tons of rubble to get at the bodies. Lacking tools, the families of the victims merely stood and stared at the building's shell. The fighters would not let them go in and search for their relatives.

After the 10 o'clock deadline, when the fighters were not armed, the massive shrine doors were closed and Shia worshippers gathered on the north side, crying and kissing the wood. Everyone had left the mosque, and the pilgrims were drifting away.

The shrine was locked and looked strange with its doors closed.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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