Spam-Be-Gone!

I’ve installed MT-Blacklist 2.0e. Huzzah!

Thank Christ that Jay Allen has finally released MT-Blacklist 2.0e. As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with the spam deluge in comments and trackbacks since I upgraded to MT 3.0D and it’s been a nightmare and an unnecessary level of stress to deal with here. Now, let’s all thank Jay for helping clean up the blogosphere from these bastards.

Whew, off deadline

Wow, off deadline finally, and the good news — as it stands now — is that the last three days will be chronicled in the lead Iraq story in the coming week’s TIME Magazine. And you guys got to read the bulk of it here first.

Wow, off deadline finally, and the good new — as things now stand — is that the last three days will be chronicled in this coming week’s TIME Magazine. And you guys got to read the bulk of it here first! I’ll post a link when it’s available in the next couple of days.
[UPDATE AUG-30: And here’s the “story”:http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040906-689431-1,00.html.]
As I mentioned, Thursday was a day of entering the Shrine with the pilgrims and going to the Sistani press conference Thursday night. When the cops came to fetch us, many of us — including this “brave” correspondent — turned out the lights in our rooms and locked the doors. I considered hiding under the bed, but there was no need this time. They didn’t shoot at us and they were (mostly) polite. I hope someone got in trouble for shooting at us.
I wish I had been able to learn more about Thursday’s protest shootings and the attack on Kufa’s mosque, but I couldn’t be everywhere at once. I think I should have gone to the protests instead of the Shrine that day. ‘Twould have been better news judgment.
The cops came again on Friday morning at 6:15 (thanks, guys!) to take us to the Shrine. Tens of thousands of pilgrims were streaming through police checkpoints to get to the Shrine. The Mahdi militiamen turned in a few of their weapons. I didn’t go, however. I had to get back to Baghdad to file and we had to leave early to avoid kidnappers in Latifiya.
I’m glad the fighting in Najaf has stopped. I’m not sure what will happen now, but perhaps there’s some hope. Moqtada has put down his weapons before in negotiated cease-fires, only to order his men to fight again. Many of his men are keeping their weapons, and it looks like the Mahdi Army will continue as a twilight militia. If Moqtada decides the political realm is not for him, anything could happen. In Iraq, it’s best not to hope too hard.
And as we saw yesterday, there is already new fighting in Sadr City. Someone didn’t get the memo.

Images and sounds of War

Photos and a movie from the action in Najaf.

Back in Baghdad and, unfortunately on deadline now, but here are some “photos”:http://homepage.mac.com/callbritton/PhotoAlbum30.html and a movie I shot while in Najaf.
Think the Battle for Najaf is over, and Sistani is the big winner here. But I’m too frazzled and on deadline to make heads of this right now. More later, _inshallah._

Bear with me…

Bear with me, today will be light. I’m fine, and back from the Shrine for a third time in three days and I’m just too tired to write too much right now. My apologies.

Bear with me, today will be light. I’m fine, and back from the Shrine for a third time in three days and I’m just too tired to write too much right now. My apologies.
But at least I was in the Shrine when the pilgrims made it in. Hundreds, thousands of them flooded the war zone and turned what was a burned out neighborhood into something almost festive — assuming you find RPGs cool (like I do.)
Anyway, I think this cease-fire is actually working. It’s giving the Mahdi militiamen time to leave the area and vacate the Shrine. We’ll see, obviously. There’s no way to ever be sure or anything in this place.
Going to rest a little now. Will try to blog more about today later.

Bad day in Najaf

NAJAF — I don’t know what the news is from the rest of Iraq or even what’s going on with the governor of Najaf. I do know what’s happening with the police department, however. They’re raiding the Sea of Najaf hotel and rounding the 100 or so journalists at gunpoint and subjecting them to mass arrest.

NAJAF — I don’t know what the news is from the rest of Iraq or even what’s going on with the governor of Najaf. I do know what’s happening with the police department, however. They’re raiding the Sea of Najaf hotel and rounding the 100 or so journalists at gunpoint and subjecting them to mass arrest.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We started out to the shrine again today, using a different route. The front is constantly shifting and the fighting is very fierce between the Mahdi, the Americans and the New Iraqi Army. Several times my group — which included reporters and photographers from the New York Times, the Observer and CNN — had to turn back because of tanks and Bradleys firing on Mahdi positions. It seemed a little presumptuous to ask them to stop firing so a gaggle of journalists could cross the street.

We ended up going through the Sea of Najaf, the forest and village on the skirts of the old city. In typical Iraqi humor, it’s not a sea at all, but a hot, burning furnace of a destroyed village. It was a 2-hour walk through rubble and sniper positions, constantly being on the lookout. It was here that my trouble started.

We didn’t encounter any firing, but I fell victim — again — to heat exhaustion. It set in and I was able to hold it together until we got to the front gates of the Imam Ali Shrine, but from there, I just had to sit and rest.

Then the bombs started. Massive munitions were landing no more than 50 or 100m from us, and a photographer said a missile struck the barricade that protected the people running in and out of the shrine, setting the barrier on fire. I didn’t see it, but there was so many things exploding. We stayed with a group of Mahdi who gave me ice and water to cool me off while my translator did a few interviews for me. I felt like the biggest loser on the planet that I was so wiped just as we had gotten where we wanted to go.

We couldn’t get into the Shrine; the path was under too much fire. The entrance to the Shrine sits at the meeting point of two streets which end at the Shrines gate. We rested in a protected area on one street, and the other street contained Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s offices. As I sat, we heard incoming screaming in, but I was too exhausted to do much but cover my ears and lean closer to a wall. We kept having to fall back as the Americans bombed closer and closer to our position.

There is a small alleyway connecting the two streets. Feeling a little less wiped, I crossed over to the other street to catch up with the others. As I rounded the corner, I heard one of the other reporters say, “We can wheel him out of here in a trolley.”

“You’re not doing that,” I said as I approached them. “I’m walking out of here.”

CRACK CRACK! Scramble, dust in the eyes, yells of “sniper!” and we all scrambled for cover. My fixer and I dove into a open store front, pushed by three Mahdi guys who were nearby. My colleagues ran round the corner. We were pinned.

The Mahdi militants were as friendly as they could be under the circumstance and urgently pressed me to the ground, protecting me. One stuck his head out the door only to be answered with more sniper fire. He jerked back.

As I sat on the floor with the three armed me around me, I looked up at them. “So,” I said. “Shaku maku?” (Iraqi slang for “What’s happening?”) They started to crack up and then turned serious again and told me how they were fighting to protect the Shrine. At the moment, they were protecting me and I thanked them.

After a few minutes, we gingerly crept out and reunited wit the others. After the sniper fire, my adrenaline was pulsing and I wasn’t exhausted anymore. We decided it was time to head home.

However, we had to go back through the Sea of Najaf again. And I gave out again from the heat. Luckily, we found a taxi and were able to get back to the hotel where I re-hydrated, rested and felt a bit better.

Until tonight. I was on the roof trying to get my BGan to connect when Najaf’s finest burst onto the roof with a Kalashnikov and order me and the other journalists down to the lobby. The cops had raided the hotel and forced all the journalists out onto the street. We were terrified. The cops yelled at us and pointed their weapons toward us. Several large trucks were waiting and knew we would be loaded onto them. Then they started shooting.

“Yella, yella” they ordered us. BANG BANG! They fired their weapons just over our heads forcing us to crouch. The foreign journalists and the Arab media were separated into separate trucks and we were all brought to the police station at gunpoint. On the way, they continued to scream at us and point their weapons in our faces. I tried to put my money in my bag, but a young police officer thrust his Kalashnikov at me and rifled through my bag.

Finally, we made it to the police station. My friend Phillip urged me to ride it out, be calm, smile a little. Then we were herded into the police chief’s office for the most bizarre press conference of my life.

The Shrine would be stormed tonight, he said, and we would be allowed to get on a bus and go visit it tomorrow to see the damage the Mahdi Army had done to it. The Sistani protesters in Kufa were really Mahdi guys and they had to be killed. Oh, and thank you for coming.

A few of us put up a fight, demanding why they couldn’t just invite us down for a presser instead of kidnapping us. Oh, no, the commander said, that must have been a mistake. I just asked them to bring you to me… There was no order to brandish weapons, push journalists around and fire into the air. One cop, a lieutenant, just smiled at us when we pointed our fingers at him and said he was the one leading the raid, yelling and pointing his side arm at us.

These are Najaf’s finest. They’re like the old regime, only less disciplined. They’re terrifying and they’re the most dangerous element in this conflict. The Americans and the Mahdi Army have pretty set positions and you know they’re not targeting journalists. But the police here have been engaging in a systematic intimidation of us for three weeks now. The governor of Najaf has reportedly threatened to jail journalists who don’t write down exactly what he says when he says it in interviews.

So we were returned to the hotel on bus. This was another warning to stop covering the Mahdi Army. To get out. My office manager in Baghdad is urging me to leave, but I really want to stay. I’m unsure what to do, and the cops’ unpredictability is unnerving.

(Sorry this is not better written; I’m still pretty exhausted and it’s late here.)

Inside the Imam Ali Shrine

A day in the Shrine

NAJAF, Iraq — There’s a storm brewing over the Imam Ali Shrine in the old city here, and it’s going to get ugly.

We made it into the shrine today after an early morning dash to the city of Najaf from Baghdad. I had to hunker down in the back while traveling through Mahmoudiya and Latifiya, because those are the two hot spots where most journalists seem to get themselves kidnapped. We made it through without incident, however, mainly because we were going about 180 km/hour and we were there before any of the kidnappers were awake. It was 6:30 a.m. when we blasted through the twin ’burgs.

We hit Najaf around 8:30 a.m. or so. After a quick check in at the Sea of Najaf hotel, which is about as crappy as it sounds, we surveyed the surroundings. The hotel was crawling with reporters. Some were old friends from Baghdad who had been on this story for a week longer. And tempers are short. If you’ve not been here for three weeks, the completely fried old hands just hiss at you.

We headed out. Najaf is divided into the old city and the new city. The old city is a roughly circular area surrounding the shrine while the new city sprawls out to the east and south. To the north is the Wadi al-Salaam, the Valley of Peace cemetery that some say is the largest in the world. It’s currently occupied by the U.S. Marines and other Army units. The Mahdi Army has been pretty roundly chased out of there.

A huge fire burns on the other side of the front in Najaf. (Christopher Allbritton ® 2004)Anyway, we had to cross Medina Street to get into the Old City. We approached from the south. The place is crawling with snipers from all sides — Americans, Mahdi and Iraqi Security Forces. We hugged the walls of the close-to-collapsing buildings and raised our hands to show we were unarmed as we crossed every intersection. H and I had hooked up with some Iraqi and Algerian photographers from AP, AFP and Reuters, and they seemed to know what they were doing — until the Reuters guy almost started crying in one intersection. It’s understandable. It’s an incredibly stressful thing to do, to walk out into the middle of a free-fire zone with a bullet-proof vest, “TV” or “Press” taped to it, and hands raised in the air. Throughout this two-hour ordeal, the sharp bang-bang of small arms fire and the colossal booms of Bradleys and M1-A1 tanks firing constantly surrounded us. Oh, and mortars being launched and landing about two blocks over. That was fun. At one point, a huge plume of black smoke rose up and a Bradley or an M1-A1 — I couldn’t tell from the distance — was returning fire. It was about 500m away from us, but the smoke was too thick for me to shoot through.

As we rounded a corner approaching Medina Street, which is the Red Line on the front, the sound of gunfire opened up around us. We scrambled to the lee of a building and squatted. As the exchange died down, incredibly, some guy came up and sold us all ice cream.

I asked him what he was doing.

“I’m supporting the Mahdi Army,” he grinned. “They like ice cream and I have a lot of customers.”

It was good ice cream, I’ll admit. So while bullets whizzed around and over us, we crouched by the side of a wall that radiated heat from the mid-morning sun and snacked on a rainbow swirl. Unreal.

Finally, the shooting eased up and we backed up to another block further away to try another run toward the front. Mid-block, several men sat on the sidewalk discussing the state of the war.

“I would not call this the worst,” mused Muhammad Jasim, who seemed to know the photographers. “All of the days in Iraq are worse than the others, but these are dark days.” He instructed his son to fetch us water, mattresses and pillows. We all stretched out on the sidewalk and napped. The incoming shells didn’t seem to be getting any closer and I found myself oddly unworried about this improbable turn of events.

Jasim doesn’t think Moqtada al-Sadr should be in the shrine. “If you attack the Americans,” he shrugged, “then they will attack you.” He seemed to think that Moqtada should go far away and fight the Americans somewhere else. “All that I hope is to see peace in the city and the shrine,” he said. As we spoke, men wandered up and soon enough it was a salon of sorts, with about a dozen Iraqi men, three photographers, assorted fixers and translators and me. We lounged on the sidewalk. I dozed. Finally, after a couple of hours we decided to make another run for it to cross the line.

Now it got hairy.

Medina Street is wide open, with a low divider in the middle. We were sitting ducks. One of the photographers took off his white shirt and we waved that. We were clearly marked as journalists, but friends had been telling me that the Americans were shooting at everyone. And the Iraqi Security Forces were even worse. The upside is that the ISF are bad shots and the Americans are good enough to fire warning shots above people’s heads and not hit them. It’s still disconcerting to have a bullet snarl past your ear by a few inches I’d imagine. I say “I’d imagine” because no one shot at us. We still were completely freaked out by the idea of an instant death from an unknown enemy perched on a rooftop, but after a while, I started to breathe a little easier.

We crossed Medina Street. Another street, whose name I don’t know lay ahead, and it was guarded by tanks and other heavy armor. As we began to cross, I looked down to see a wire snaking across the alleyway we were preparing to dart from. It led into a pile of debris, and the casing of an unexploded shell was clearly visible. Great. We were standing on an IED. We decided it was time to move. This was when the Reuters photog started crying.

When we got to the other side of the street, we began to relax a little. Until we saw another IED in the ground at our feet. We hopped it and entered the maze of the Old City.

We were met by the children of the Mahdi Army. They couldn’t have been more than 18 or so. And they were so small and fragile compared to the American troops who hulked over everything in this country. They’re big guys. But the Mahdi boys were friendly and searched us almost apologetically. We showed them our pass to the Shrine and they immediately guided us through a warren of twisty, covered alleyways that was straight out of the 11th Century, which is about when the Shrine was built, I believe.

The Imam Ali Shrine (Christopher Allbritton ® 2004)As we approached the shrine, the gold dome gleamed in the mid-day sun. The twin minarets glittered. The whole thing is covered with gold, pure gold, and the tile work is exquisite. I’ve never seen anything more ornate and beautiful. We dashed inside, avoiding more unseen marksmen, and beheld the shrine itself.

Surrounded by high walls, the shrine is the resting place of Imam Ali, the third Imam and intensely holy to the world’s Shi’ites. This was their Vatican.

Inside, we were greeted warmly. The Mahdi know how to work the media, and they know the world press generally likes the scrappy underdog — especially if they don’t actively try to kill you like the Sunni insurgents do. And to give Moqtada credit, he does try to discourage kidnappings and he’s been helpful in getting two of my friends released. There were no weapons in sight, and I don’t think — anymore — that there are any in the shrine proper. But I did watch mortars being fired from just beneath and outside the eastern wall. The mortar teams were right up against the wall, allowing them quickly leave the mortar outside and dash inside to become unarmed pilgrims again.

And this is pissing off a lot of the people who live nearby. The Mahdi aren’t particularly accurate in their firings, and they’re dropping live rounds in a densely populated area. Houses and cars are being blown up. People are dying and the residents of Najaf are blaming Moqtada.

“There is no food, no water,” said Akil Ramahi, 32, in the streets before we entered the old city. “Death is better than this.”

“One man did all this,” he continued. “If Saddam had been here, he would have gotten rid of Moqtada al-Sadr in one day. I accuse Moqtada al-Sadr of destroying the market — ” he was referring to a bombed-out market — “Not the Americans.”

To be fair, more common was the “pox on both houses” sentiment, but interestingly, the Mahdis are about as popular as the Americans, which is to say not very popular at all. And one man had nothing good to say about the U.S. troops.

“Are the Americans here just to see how many Iraqis are dying?” asked Dakhel Sha’ban. “Or is there a point to this shooting?”

We spent the afternoon in the shrine, and a group of human shields — they said — told me that they were helped by Allah.

“The Army of the Imam Mahdi is getting its power from God,” said Ali Hussein, 41. “Our mortars are destroying things the American mortars are not.” Like tanks and helicopters, he said. “This is a heavenly power.”

The supporters in the shrines are devoted men, ready to die for Moqtada, they assured me. And they would die for the Shrine.

“One of the most important things in our lives, as Muslims, is our Shrines, which are more important than our families, our children,” said Sha’ban. “We will die for them.”

One of the things I’m here for is a small story about the fabled treasures of Imam Ali surrounding his sarcophagus. So I convinced Sheikh Shebani, Moqtada’s man in the mosque, to let me enter and take a few pictures of the shrine and the treasures of Ali. So now you see a little of what’s at stake here. (The green light is how they display the sarcophagus and the treasures.) After seeing the treasures, I was taken on a tour of the damage done to the shrine. It was calm affair, and I felt a bit like an insurance appraiser.

In both cases, Sheikh Mustafa Muhammadi told me calmly and without rancor that no Muslim could tolerate it. He seemed to be tolerating it all right, however, and I thought he would be the firebrand! And this is something I’ve noticed around Baghdad: The long-feared outburst of Shi’a anger just isn’t happening. The cemetery has been bombed and occupied by infidels, the shrine has been damaged, and we keep hearing warnings of a looming Shi’a uprising. But shouldn’t there have been some demonstrations or expressions of concern? I hear rote expressions, said more with a feeling that it should be said rather than what they really feel. I don’t have any quotes or anything to back that up, and it’s really more the way they say it anyway. It’s just an impression I’ve been struck by.

Finally, at 4 p.m., we high-tailed it out of there. The bombardments were getting closer and the Mahdi were returning fire more robustly. As we threaded our way out again, with hands raised at every intersection, we ran into an Iraqi Army patrol. The lieutenant in charge said they were the Rapid Reaction Force, which has been one of the few units getting high marks from the American trainers. They’re good, and I wondered just what they were doing here, since Lt. Rafat Kadhim Massoun said they had come down from Baghdad just today. Are you going to storm the Shrine I asked him?

“We hope that tonight or tomorrow this will be finished because the time for them to quit is over,” he said. “The shrine will be attacked; the Marines are getting closer. In two or three days, this will be over.”

I’m waiting to see what happens next. He might have been just talking out of turn, but tonight might be interesting.

Off to Najaf, inshallah…

Going to try to head to Najaf tomorrow.

I’m trying to organize a trip to Najaf tomorrow, and hopefully to get into the shrine. A couple of friends of mine did it last week, but left after three days inside. They reported no weapons in the shrine proper, but instead they were stored around the shrine in the nearby buildings. However, other organizations, including the AP, have published pictures of Mahdi fighters manning machine guns that the cutline said was _in the shrine._ Also, an Iraqi reporter who helps TIME out has reported that people in Najaf are sick of the Mahdi firing mortars from either within the shrine compound or from its minarets. So, I don’t know what to make of that.
And let’s not even get into the whole confusion of Moqtada al-Sadr’s “will he or won’t he?” crabwalk on whether he’s vacating the shrine or not. There have been so many conflicting reports that I can’t begin to make sense of the state of play. Suffice it to say, confusion reigns at this point.
Thus, the expedition to Najaf. I’ll be taking a BGan satellite receiver and my laptop, so I should be able to file, if needed. But I may not be able to get into the shrine or even to Najaf; we’ve got to go through Kufa, where there have been reports of relatively heavy fighting.
So hopefully we’ll be able to see a little bit of what’s going on. Wish me luck.