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.

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.

Ahead of us, the streets of the Old City were full of hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters, their Kalashnikovs and RPGs held aloft, stamping their feet, and chanting their devotion to Sadr. "We sacrifice our lives to you, Sayed," they said, using the honorific term for those who claim their descendance from the prophet Muhammad.

Into the Shrine of Ali

Inside the shrine itself, there were no weapons to be seen, but there were hundreds of Mahdi Army supporters, some of them familiar faces from a demonstration one week ago in Baghdad. They were voluntary human shields, the youngest perhaps 8 years old, the oldest 70. Together, they marched around and chanted, turning an impromptu press photo op into a punk rock mosh pit.

We were led around to the north side of the shrine and into an air-conditioned office, where Sadr's spokesmen, Sheikh Ali Smeisim, gave a press conference. Smeisim's statement was a complete reversal of what we had been told. He said that Sadr had accepted all of the conditions of the National Conference delegation, although he was unable to meet the delegation in person, because of concerns for his safety.

"Now the ball is in their court," Smeisim said. "We are waiting for the National Conference to send another delegation to us, and then everything will be solved peacefully."

Moments later, another senior Sadr aide, Ahmed al Sheibani told reporters that the Mahdi Army rejected the government's new list of demands announced Thursday. "It is very clear we reject them."

Outside the shrine walls, there was a different "conversation" entirely. Outgoing mortars and incoming artillery shells indicated that, even with journalists inside, the war would continue. Each of us found ourselves surrounded by Sadr supporters, all seeking to convey their message. Some alleged that the Americans had used chemical weapons on them and promised to bring the evidence. They showed us shell fragments but those could be from any shell casing, conventional or otherwise. One Sadr supporter chastised our interpreter, Alah, for failing to hide her hair under her scarf.

We made our way to the shrine's combat hospital, where fighters are brought for treatment. They begged us to take away a man with severe head wounds, who appeared to be dying. We promised to send an ambulance, but say we cannot take the man out ourselves. That would compromise our neutrality. The hospital staff are disappointed. Our interpreter Alah breaks down in tears.

The mood inside is ebullient, and the demonstrators seem determined to keep up the spirits of the unarmed fighters resting inside. We take pictures, interview people, and question whether our appointed departure time, 4:30 p.m., will be soon enough. Will the Americans be patient? Will the Mahdi Army?

A tall man in a white dishdasha grabs me by the shoulders. "We hated Saddam, why? Because Saddam Hussein didn't give freedom," says the man, who gives his name only as Mohammad. "Now [Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi and the Americans are like Saddam. They describe us as uneducated, but I am an engineer, he is a doctor, he is businessman. We want peace, not war, but if they want to kill our leader, Sayid Moqtada al-Sadr, we will either die, or gain victory."

This is a man who believes that he will survive, I think to myself. Otherwise, he would have nothing to hide, not even his name. I couldn't help but thinking back to what an American officer had said about the shrine. Would this engineer be alive tomorrow? Or that 8-year-old girl holding her father's hand? Or that 60-year-old woman walking aross the marble floor?

Time to go

It was 4:25 p.m. and we're getting antsy. It was almost time to go. The CNN reporter was in the middle of a live feed to Atlanta. Her colleagues tell us they would leave as soon as they were done. At 4:30 p.m., we left (the CNN reporter bringing up the rear), fighters and supporters shaking our hands.

One man stopped me. "You newspapers no good," he said. "Yesterday we bombed eight Humvees and killed 11 soldiers, but there was nothing announced on TV." Through my interpreter I vow to report what I had seen.

Five minutes later, we were back at the cars.

To our right, black smoke billowed out of a marketplace in the Old City. The thunder of shells, incoming and outgoing, reminded us that our window of peace was closing fast.

We drove back to the checkpoint. A pack of dogs to drifted past, sniffing the rubble for food. Our colleagues are free.

But moments after we arrive back at the hotel, Prime Minister Allawi issues a "final call" for rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to disarm his fighters and leave the mosque, and "engage in political work and consider the interests of the homeland," Allawi told a news conference.

By sundown, the fight for the shrine could begin in earnest. For all of us, the journalists and the fighters of both sides, we may have seen a turning point.

But toward what?

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