NAJAF, IRAQ — `THERE are no rebels here. The Army rules here now,'' the young, unshaven officer shouts, his voice betraying his nervousness. Just a few yards away, opposite this southern Iraqi city's major shrine, the shopkeepers of the Najaf souk watch the scene in silent hostility. The crackle of machine-guns punctuates the somnolent afternoon heat, causing the bazaar sparrows to scatter in a flurry.
``We're shooting in the air. There are no rebels here; they've all gone to Iran,'' the officer shrieks.
Shiite Muslims in the holy city of Najaf have been protesting the ban on access to the local cemetery. Foreign journalists are forbidden to go where the protest is taking place.
The cities of Najaf and Karbala are sacred to Shiite Muslims around the world. Burial in Najaf is a dream which they believe puts them one step closer to heaven. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war and in the Gulf war have been buried there.
But today, the catacombs and burial chambers which stretch mile after mile are largely destroyed. The aftermath of the Iraqi Shiites' rebellion against President Saddam Hussein in March has left the 1,300-year-old shrines in the two cities - burial places of the revered Imam Ali and his sons Hussein and Abbas - blasted, bloodstained, and closed to the public.
And the residents of these southern regions of Iraq are sullen, tight-lipped, and under the control of Saddam's elite military corps.
``I cannot speak to you,'' says an Iraqi woman in Western-style attire as she hurries by. ``Every time there's a knock at my door, my heart stops.''
Another man bumps into this writer on purpose, whispering: ``Saddam: Fascist! Fascist!'' before continuing on.
In Karbala, out of sight of the official from the Baghdad Information Ministry, another man reveals, in snatches of conversation, that 17,000 people have been arrested in the city. He himself has just been released from jail in Baghdad, he says.
``They told us that they were going to kill all Shia,'' he whispers, looking nervously up and down the narrow lanes of the market.
Shiites constitute 60 percent of Iraq's population, though their majority status has never been reflected in the ruling Baathist government, dominated as it is by Sunni Muslims. In the next few weeks, the United Nations is to send a force of disarmament observer guards southward to play a ``reassurance role.'' The effort will duplicate the UN role in the north, where Kurdish-populated areas have received allied and UN protection.
Saddam is conducting ``meet the people'' tours around areas of country his government still firmly controls. So far, he has avoided the south. The desecration of the holy shrines will make his task of repairing his relationship with the Shiite majority even more difficult.
Historians consider the shrines in Najaf and Karbala to be among the most beautiful examples of Islamic art and Persian glass work.
The most severely damaged is the tomb of Imam Hussein, the son of Ali, who died in one of the 7th century battles which left the Muslim world permanently divided between the two sects of Islam.
The glass work and marble pillars in the inner sanctum of Hussein's tomb are pocked by sprays of machine-gun fire. It is clear that a major shootout took place here between the rebels and the Iraqi Republican Guard.
The 10-foot-high, silver decorative casing surrounding the tomb is scarred by burn marks. The carved woodwork encasing the actual coffin is shattered by bullets in one corner. The high ceilings of delicate glass mirror tiles have been scorched and blasted. At the entrance to the sanctum, a golden carved door hangs twisted and off its hinges.
In the courtyard of Hussein's shrine, executions have taken place: Six nooses dangle in the breeze in a side room off the main quadrangle, where once thousands of Shiite pilgrims gathered daily. A shattered wall behind and bloodstains on the floor are testimony to the firing-squads that operated here barely two months ago.
Iraqi government officials say that the desecration is the work of the Shiite rebels.
All the rebels, the Iraqi government charges, were backed by Iran. For eight years the names of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala were used to inspire the Iranian soldiers in their war with Iraq.
According to Iraqi officials the rebels were ``anarchists'' and criminals.
``They drank whisky inside the shrines, made love to women,'' claims one Information Ministry official as he puffs on a cigarette in the Najaf shrine.
Local townspeople and officials, however, say the rebels holed up in the shrines in the belief that the sanctity would protect them from attack. Rebels say that their revolt against Saddam Hussein failed because of lack of weapons against the superior firepower of the Iraqi armed forces.
There is no explanation as to why the shrines incurred external as well as internal damage. The delicate turquoise mosaic tiles which decorate the outside walls of the shrines look as though they have been blasted by tank fire.
Today, the sound of hammers reverberates throughout the shrines as the Baghdad authorities hasten to repair the damage of the rebellion and obliterate the memory of the bloody events that took place there.
Portraits of Saddam adorn the tiled mosaics. Soldiers lounge around in the courtyards of prayer, their washing strung out between the marble pillars.
Graffiti reading: ``Asha qaed Saddam'' (Long live Saddam) has been scrawled in adjoining rooms of the Najaf shrine.
Rebel slogans against the Iraqi president on the external walls have been blacked out by paint. Inside the shrines, the smell of incense still lingers.
It is Friday, the day of prayer, and occasionally women dressed in black come to Imam Hussein's mosque. They are shooed away by the soldiers blocking the entrance to the shrine.
The women gaze longingly at the golden cupolas inside, and content themselves with kissing the bullet holes in the archways leading to the shrines.