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.

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.)

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