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Holy city becomes trap for US troops

From Stephen Farrell in Najaf

IF WAR comes to Najaf it will be fought around the golden dome and minarets of Iraq’s holiest shrine, at a stroke turning the battlefields into a recruiting ground. This is the trap laid for US troops in the holy Shia capital two hours south of Baghdad where The Times yesterday saw the scale of the defences being prepared by Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rousing Shia cleric wanted by US forced for murder and fomenting violence, against a feared American invasion.

At the best of times a city where people come to die, normally-bustling Najaf is now a deserted necropolis surrounded by cemeteries of devout Shias, and abandoned by those who want to live.

For days the US-coalition has warned the renegade cleric that it has readied a 2,500-strong task force backed by tanks and artillery poised on the outskirts of the town, ready to move in if he refuses to surrender and disband his al-Mahdi Army militia.

But there was no sign yesterday of the supposed “exclusion zone” declared by US officers 20km outside the city.

It was also clear that Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s much-vaunted withdrawal from Najaf’s police stations and government buildings, supposedly negotiated with the US-led coalition earlier this week, is a sham.

Outside Najaf’s glittering shrine to Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s supporters patrolled the dusty streets in pick-up trucks, brandishing Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades with not an Iraqi policeman in sight.

In neighbouring Kufa, Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s stronghold, the main mosque is now a fortress — a golden-domed Shia Alamo ringed with sandbagged gun emplacements, trenches, foxholes, razor wire and hard-eyed youths digging trenches and manning tripod-mounted machine guns.

The intention is clear. In 1991 Saddam Hussein wreaked huge damage on the shrines of Najaf and nearby Karbala in his brutal suppression of the Shia uprising. Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s calculation is that if the Americans resort to force, they will bring similar opprobrium upon themselves, and risk inflaming jihad.

“Najaf is a holy place,” said Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, a spokesman for Hojatoleslam al-Sadr. “If they attack it, God knows the results. It is not going to be good for the occupation.”

The highway from Baghdad to Najaf is perilous for Westerners, with the charred hulks of US lorries testifying to frequent and deadly ambushes.

An hour short of Najaf all signs of coalition forces vanish and just before Kufa the al-Mahdi Army’s checkpoints begin. Any other time such checkpoints could prove fatal to foreigners, but with two al-Mahdi Army men in our cars to guarantee our safety, we are waved through. Soon we enter Najaf itself, and there is no doubt who controls the city.

Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s men guard the approach roads and patrol the town, and his portrait is everywhere. His office is in a back alley near the Shrine of Ali, sealed off by his rag-tag army. His aides insist that he is there, but will not grant an audience.

Outside the mosque entrance youths in green al-Mahdi Army headbands frisk all passers-by. Haider Nasser, 23, says he signed up a week ago, driving from Baghdad with his own Kalashnikov to volunteer. “For jihad,” he proclaims. “We are seeking victory against the Americans, the infidels and the Jews also.”

Yet it is noticeable that many Iraqis grumble at being searched: “This is our city. Why are you searching us?” Most Shias in Najaf are loyal to the older and more circumspect Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has urged patience in the face of American-led occupation. In one telling exchange a cigarette seller said he had no wish to see his city sacrificed in a bloody clash between US and al-Mahdi Army forces.

Gesturing toward the shuttered restaurants and trinket stores, he said: “I am asking for peace, I don’t want any trouble here. I care about my business.” An al-Mahdi militiaman quickly interrupted him. “Don’t say that. Why did you tell him that the shop owners are afraid? Tell him they have gone to lunch,” he told the hapless stallholder.

“I have been here for four years, I am telling the truth,” the cigarette seller persisted. “We want a normal life.”

Hojatoleslam al-Sadr said he was prepared for indirect talks with the US-led forces and vowed to press demands for foreign troops to leave. “We are ready to hold talks with the occupying regime, but have no intention of dropping the demands we have placed before it,” he said.