A journey into the epicenter of the Sadr standoff
Technically speaking, what we were about to do was more than risky. It was foolish. But we told ourselves that it was a risk for a cause.Skip to next paragraph
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Thursday, several journalists and I began organizing a delegation to enter the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.
We had two goals: First, to seek what may be the final comments of the top leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, who were taking shelter in the holy site. Second, we wanted to help two colleagues, freelance photographer Thorne Anderson and Salon.com correspondent Phillip Robertson, get out of the shrine after they had spent a harrowing three days at the epicenter of this armed showdown. [Editor's note: In the original version, Anderson's and Robertson's names were both misspelled, and Robertson was misidentified as a freelance reporter.]
Between us and the shrine were two US military checkpoints, countless snipers, and hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters who had already committed themselves to die for their cause.
For a brief period on Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that a peaceful resolution might be achieved. Representatives of the National Conference assembled in Baghdad read a letter from Mr. Sadr saying that he had agreed to the government's conditions, namely to put down their weapons, leave the shrine, and become a mainstream political movement. But hours later, fighting erupted here again. And the Iraqi government announced that there would be no more peace negotiations. Ominously, the Iraqi minister of defense announced that the final assault would begin within hours.
At his press conference, Minister of State Qasim Daud made it clear that there would be no new peace talks, and in fact, added more conditions for Mr. Sadr to meet. As journalists, we usually scribble our notes and file our stories and then head to lunch. But this time it was personal. We had friends inside, who were asking us via satellite phone for help. We decided to attempt a rescue mission. We alerted the Iraqi government, the US military, and the Mahdi Army and ask them not to fire on us; we were planning to go to the shrine.
"You realize that what you are doing is risky," said a US Army major, whose last name was Robertson. "That shrine might not be around much longer." We assured him that we did, and made our way back to the hotel to set up our convoy.
Organizing journalists is like herding cats. We are trained to question authority, and we proceeded to spend one another, making sure the plan was sound (it wasn't) and that there would be guarantees of our safety (there weren't any.) But a half-hour after our decided time of departure, the Monitor's driver Adnan revved up his car. We had formed a convoy of about 18 cars full of journalists, most of them Arab, a few of them British, and a tiny minority of Americans.
Somehow our car took the lead. There were no other contenders. We pulled a white rag out of the trunk and crawled along at 5 m.p.h., toward the first US Army checkpoint. The streets were vacant, the buildings and shops pocked full of shell holes. The streets were covered with shattered glass and fragments of heavy machine gun and mortar rounds. Five of us, packed into the car, said silent prayers.
This was an area where cars had been struck by sniper fire in the past, usually assumed to be from Mahdi Army fighters. The silence was unsettling. It allowed for too much thinking, too much doubt.
Five minutes later, we reached the first US Army checkpoint. They had not been informed we were coming. This was precisely what we had feared. A specialist named Milner from north of Dallas called his sergeant, who called up command.
We were cleared to pass.
We made one last attempt to call the Mahdi Army inside the shrine, and proceeded forward. On the horizon we could see the gold dome of the shrine.
If anyone was going to turn back, now was the time. Eighteen cars suddenly dwindled to eight.
We moved past one more US checkpoint, and then into a no man's land. To our right was the old cemetery, site of what US officials have called the heaviest hand-to-hand fighting US forces have seen since Vietnam. Ahead of us, we could see Mahdi Army fighters moving around into firing position. We waved our white flag and proceeded slowly.
As we approached the first Mahdi Army check point, I glanced at my watch. 3 p.m. A Mahdi militiaman approached our car (did I mention that we were up front?) and asked who we were. Yes, he had heard from the Mahdi Army command that some journalists were coming. His conversation was stopped by a sudden mortar blast, just 50 feet away, in the intersection.
We abandoned our cars; we needed to present a smaller target.
This was a warning shot, we assumed from the Mahdi Army, but the fighter insisted it was from the Americans. He welcomed us, and proceeded to direct us to the shrine.