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Najaf police: a thin blue line between foes

US troops encircled the Shrine of Ali Sunday as fighting resumed. The standoff leaves Iraqi police with few allies.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 2004


With the fighting here moving into the 12th day, Iraqi police in Najaf find themselves caught in the cross hairs of a deadly insurgency.

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The war has become very personal. Last month, gunmen presumed to be with the Mahdi Army kidnapped the 80-year-old father, elderly uncle, and nephew of the police chief, Ghalib al-Jezari, and demanded that the chief quit his job. The chief refused, and the kidnappers promptly dropped the decapitated body of the nephew in front of the chief's house. (The father has since been released, after a heart attack).

In Najaf, the thin blue line has never been blurrier.

Attacked by the Mahdi Army for cooperating with the Americans, suspected by the Americans of having insurgent sympathies, lionized by the Iraqi government for holding the line against insurgents, and criticized by journalists for abusing human rights and press freedoms, the Najaf police have a siege complex that mirrors the Mahdi Army. It's yet another sign of how difficult it is for the 55-day-old Iraqi interim government to establish its authority in a far-flung country where most of the territory is outside Baghdad's control.

Sunday, fighting resumed as talks to end the Shiite uprising led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared to have stalled over how to surrender control of the Imam Ali shrine.

Last Thursday afternoon, Mahdi Army fighters fired three mortars at the Najaf police headquarters, striking a room full of police officers. Eight were killed, 26 were injured. It was the single deadliest incident since the violence began in April, in which 12 police have been kidnapped and 20 others killed.

Armed struggle between the Mahdi Army and the police was perhaps inevitable. The latest standoff in Najaf began just after midnight on Aug. 12, when Mahdi Army fighters attacked and nearly overran the police station, a crucial symbol of government control. Police insist they are merely an instrument for maintaining law and order, but increasingly they find themselves involved in a complex political battle as the government tries to assert its legitimacy and authority in the Shiite majority south. It's a situation that makes every policeman a marked man.

"They kill officers just to take their money, their weapons, their uniforms, their IDs, it has nothing to do with religion," says Lt. Col. Najah Yassim, acting deputy police chief of Najaf. "We don't like to fight, but if all doors are shut in front of us, and if we are trying to help and they keep fighting, nobody will continue to perform in this situation. It is a fact that we are just trying to make the city safer for all people."

To be sure, the police in Najaf appear at times not to realize that they are living under the rule of law.

In the days before the shrine standoff began, Najaf Police Chief al-Jezari told journalists to leave Najaf "for their own safety," and said those remaining in Najaf would be arrested.

A few days later, the police chief arrived at the Najaf Sea Hotel, where most of the news media reside, and threatened to kill all journalists inside if they didn't leave. (Most remained, and more arrived.)