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.