The battle for Najaf

A first-hand account by the only Western reporter in Najaf as major fighting broke out late last week.

Last week, staff writer Scott Baldauf, an Iraqi interpreter, and freelance photographer Kael Alford traveled from Baghdad to the central Iraqi city of Najaf intending to write about growing tension between the Iraqi government and the Shiite militia (Mahdi Army) of Moqtada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric. When they arrived fighting was already underway, and has continued for three days now. One American military spokesman called it the heaviest fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein. To their surprise, they were the only Western journalists in the holy Shiite city.

What follows is Scott Baldauf's journal of events in Najaf from Thursday morning until Friday afternoon.

Thursday, 10 a.m.

The city is largely abandoned when we arrive. Ad hoc barriers - a street light post, lines of rocks, trashcans - have been left in the road, directing us away from the center of the old city and from the police station, the two places we intend to visit first. On the horizon, we can see plumes of smoke. In our chests we can feel the thud and percussion of heavy weaponry. Our minds race in two opposite directions: safety on one hand, and journalistic curiosity on the other. Curiosity wins.

In a residential neighborhood in the center of Najaf, a man waves our car down and tells us we can't drive any farther. There is fighting just 200 meters ahead of us. He points at a group of shacks where fighters for the Mahdi Army are shooting at everything that moves. He invites us inside his house until it's safe to move.

The man's name is Amad Kamal. He and his four friends in the room with us are Shiite Muslims, and say they have no interest in the fighting. The fighting began around 12:30 a.m. Thursday, they say, starting with small-weapons fire, and then turned heavy around 4 a.m. The rest of the information we will have to gather on our own.

Overhead, we hear and see American helicopters, jet fighters, and unmanned drones crossing the sky. Hundreds of yards away, we can hear American mechanized patrols - Humvees and Bradley fighting machines and armored personnel carriers from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which had just arrived in Najaf about 10 days before, on July 31.

The fighting is close by, too close. Marine helicopters swoop low over this residential neighborhood repeatedly and fire heavy machine guns and even rockets into Mahdi Army positions.

By satellite phone, we get details from the US military. A US Marine spokeswoman says the fighting began at 1 a.m., when Mahdi Army fighters attacked the main police station. The police called for Iraqi Army support, and by 3 a.m., the US Marines were called in as well. The Marines' press release later says that the Marines did not fire a shot until later in the day, and the Iraqi forces were able to repel the Mahdi Army on their own. But residents say they could hear the difference in the kind of weapons used, much heavier and more powerful than the sort of Kalashnikovs that most Iraqi police or Iraqi Army soldiers carry.

While we stay put, the battle lines keep changing around us. At one point, a team of Mahdi Army fighters drives into our neighborhood, sets up a mortar, fires two rounds, and then puts the mortar tube back into the car, all in just under a minute. We take cover in the event that US Marines respond with precision radar that traces mortar and artillery trajectories back to their source. The Marine response, thankfully, never comes.

Inside their homes, residents do their best to get on with their lives. One man shows us pictures of his car, a Volvo, destroyed in the fighting on Monday, when a convoy of six US Marine Humvees ventured into a neighborhood close to the home of Moqtada al-Sadr and came under militia fire. The man had lent the car to a cousin, who was using it as a taxi. Now it is a charred shell.

Mahdi Army members consider Monday's US Marine firefight a provocation, the start of this week's battle. But for this man, it's just a senseless personal loss.

"I myself welcomed the Americans when they threw out Saddam," says Mr. Kamal, an auto mechanic who is now unemployed. "I took pictures of myself with US soldiers and brought my own horse to them if it could be of service. But now I realize what is happening here in Iraq is because of the Americans."

While Kamal, a Shiite, like most people in Najaf, blames the Americans for the fighting in Najaf and for the lack of jobs, he also reserves blame for the Mahdi Army and for Moqtada al-Sadr. "There are not really that many people who support al-Sadr," he says. "People are tired. We might support the uprising mentally, but we are tired." He points to his four friends. One is a college graduate with a degree in Arabic literature; another studied physics. He and his buddy are trained mechanics. All are jobless. "People are bombing the electrical power stations," says Kamal, "but the government won't even hire us as guards to protect it."

The trickle of news is frustratingly slow. One man says that Al Jazeera had reported the downing of an American helicopter near the main cemetery, where the Mahdi Army has made its main fighting base. But with Mahdi Army fighters trigger-happy and tired, and US helicopters firing onto Mahdi Army positions in residential areas, we'll have to sit tight.

Kamal stands up and announces that we will be guests at his house across the street for lunch. We thankfully agree, and then watch him walk into the courtyard, grab a chicken and head across the street to his home, a chicken in one hand and a very large knife in the other.

Thursday, 1 p.m. Afternoon prayers

Outside, the fighting has stopped, as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. We take advantage of the quiet to move out, driving to find affected civilians, Iraqi police, US soldiers, Shiite militiamen anyone at all who might give us a sense of how fierce the fighting has been. We vow to return to Kamal's house, so that the squawking chicken won't have died in vain.

At the main hospital, Al Hakeem, cars are bringing in civilian casualties, most of them injuries from shrapnel and gunshots. A few are taken directly to the morgue. A man at the gate escorts us inside, announcing that a mortar shell landed very near the hospital itself, just 45 minutes ago. In the courtyard, a man is being wheeled by on a gurney, bleeding profusely. Another man, an Iraqi police officer with a pistol still strapped to his belt, walks past us with a bandage on his left shoulder. He glares at us and turns around to shout insults at us. Colleagues hold him back and lead him away.

But we are stopped before we can see the full extent of the civilian casualties. Abu Zayed, head of hospital security, says that he has been ordered to expel all journalists from hospital grounds. Relatives of the wounded are so upset, they are likely to attack journalists, who they believe are either Americans or are supportive of the Americans. "I cannot protect you from the people inside," says Mr. Zayed, the security chief.

Before we leave, we ask if he has any count of casualties: how many dead, how many injured, how many wounded by shrapnel or gunshot or explosion. He refuses. "Please leave now," he says. "Maybe in an hour, you can come back."

We drive around the corner and down a long empty street. This is a bad sign, and within minutes we hear the crack of sniper fire. We quickly turn right into a residential neighborhood and make our way to a second hospital, Al Zahra. Armed men stand in front of the hospital. They are Mahdi Army. We send our Iraqi interpreter out to negotiate with them, to allay their suspicions, to assure them that we are journalists and not spies.

The Mahdi militiamen agree to talk with us. Wrapping checkered scarves around their faces, they pose with weapons and blame the fighting on the Americans.

Abu Mohammad, a thin 20-something carrying a heavy machine gun with a circular ammunition clip, says he participated in the fighting when Americans moved in on the cemetery in the early hours of the morning. He says that helicopter gunships fired rockets that hit the minarets of the Shrine of Ali. He doesn't know if the two-month truce has been officially ended, but he intends to fight against the Americans until the very end.

An older man, who calls himself Mohammad, says he was injured in fighting four days ago, when the Americans attacked the office of Mr. Sadr in Najaf. But despite being shot in the thigh, and hit by shrapnel in the upper arm and back, he says he will fight, "God willing, until my last breath."

Thursday, 3 p.m.

Via satellite phone from the house of Amad Kamal, we send photos to our editors and feed information to staff writer Dan Murphy in Baghdad, who's writing a story for the Monitor about the day's events. Then, we sit down to a meal of roast chicken with rice and bread. A neighbor suggests that we stay at his house, now unoccupied, for the night. We climb to the roof, where the family usually sleeps in the cool desert air, but rush back down stairs when we take fire from snipers nearby. "We have another house, maybe better you stay there," says the neighbor, with a smile.

Thursday, 6 p.m.

The fighting stops, and the streets fill with civilians in cars and on foot. Markets open briefly. We make our way to the home of Abu Wissam, owner of a trucking company. Like Kamal, Mr. Wissam has no fondness for the Mahdi Army. He prefers the higher Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who preaches cooperation with the new Iraqi government and the Americans. "If you are going to start a resistance with the Americans, you should at least be logical enough to know if you are going to win or not," says Wissam.

Later that night, he serves us a huge seven-course meal of chicken and bread and fruit in the parlor. And we sleep up on the roof, awakened periodically by the sound of shelling miles away in the Old City - near the sacrosanct Shrine of Ali, and the cemetery, where the Mahdi Army is based. That is where we will go in the morning.

Friday, 7 a.m.

A black plume of smoke has appeared in the direction of the cemetery. It's an old covered marketplace near the Mahdi Army positions at the massive Najaf cemetery. We drive toward the Old City, and the thud of shelling grows closer with every city block.

The Old City is perfect for street fighting: narrow alleys, densely clustered concrete homes, plenty of nooks to provide cover from American helicopters or passing armored vehicles. But despite the danger, residents are out in the streets watching the fighting. When American jets flow low over the Shrine of Ali and fire rockets into the surrounding market areas, the locals run to the street corners to see the explosions. We drive as close to the shrine as we can, park the car, and cover the rest of the ground by foot.

Down a tiny alley, we meet small squads of Mahdi Army fighters. Abu Mohammad Bakr, a skinny Islamic studies student with Coke-bottle glasses, and his friends came from the nearby town of Karbala. They brought their own weapons - mostly Kalashnikovs, but a few RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) as well - and have been receiving food and water from local residents. But the water is running out. City officials turned off the water to the Old City on Wednesday, residents say. Some local residents are fleeing the neighborhood with their possessions in sacks, running across larger streets, and waving white flags to keep the snipers from shooting them.

Just outside the gold-domed shrine itself, along Rasool Street, there are hundreds of fighters sitting on the ground in front of shuttered shops that normally would be the busiest in the city. They look exhausted, and surprised to see foreigners. Some eat food they have bought from local shops, others munch on bread and hard-boiled eggs handed out by Mahdi Army supporters. We carry a letter from Mahdi army officials in Baghdad which gives us permission to visit the shrine but specifically forbids our taking pictures of these fighters. And when Kael raises her camera to shoot two gunmen racing across the courtyard, a Mahdi militia man puts his hands over her lens.

The shrine to Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib has received some damage during the previous night's bombing. (Ali is considered the founder of Shiism. He was the cousin and the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. The shrine is one of the holiest sites for Shiites.)

Mahdi Army fighters - who now control the shrine and have a few gunmen posted inside the shrine complex - point to the gold-leaf dome and one golden minaret, where tiles have been damaged by flying shrapnel. Damage to the shrine is the one thing that could unify Shiites against the Americans, we have been warned by people who don't like the Mahdi Army. The courtyard of the shrine itself is littered with chunks of shrapnel, and Mahdi Army fighters show a piece of the bomb that they say dropped into the shrine complex.

The scene sort of reminds me of what I learned about the standoff at the Alamo in grade school in Texas. The men - outnumbered and outgunned - are determined. They are being urged to adopt a religious fervor and fight to the end. A cleric on a loudspeaker tells the fighters to keep fighting. "God bless you. You are righteous citizens. You are the ones who stand up in the face of the evil forces. Don't give up. May God give you the strength to win victory against your enemy. God is Great, God is Great, God is Great."

In the Shrine's main office, under posters of Mahdi Army founder Moqtada al-Sadr, the head cleric, Sheikh Mushtaq al-Khaffarji says that his men will fight until the end and will never agree to give up their weapons, or to stop defending the holy sites of Najaf. But he also says that the truce can be restored, and that he has met with intermediaries sent by the Americans.

"So far we have not even talked yet, but they just suggest that we negotiate and start a new truce," says the cleric. "We are ready to talk peace, but they don't want a truce. We can stop fighting if the Americans stop fighting, but right now, we're defending, not attacking."

Friday 12 p.m.

Back on Rasool Street, bookshop owner Mohammad Hassan buys some groceries from one of the few shops that has remained open. He knows it's dangerous to stay, but he says he doesn't have any choice. His family is too big - with an elderly mother, two brothers and their wives, a sister, and seven children - to move safely out of the combat zone.

"Anybody who can get out is leaving," he says, in English, as Mahdi Army fighters line up at the shop. "But I have no chance to move."

Nearby, a well-dressed Iraqi man is being led away by three gunmen. He might be an informant. He might be a hostage. Mahdi Army fighters are running out of money. Locals say they are turning into thieves.

In Baghdad, US military spokesmen claim to have killed 300 fighters over the past two days of fighting. We've seen hundreds more still in action, and there are possibly thousands left in the shrine area and the cemetery. Getting rid of them all, finishing them off, and restoring full government control, as the Governor of Najaf is now calling for this week, could result in bloody street fighting, with hundreds of civilian casualties.

Already in the Old City, shrapnel and bullets from helicopter gunships have torn holes in concrete walls. Civilians show us holes in their walls, and the bullets and shrapnel fragments they have found on the floor. Some of their relatives are now being rushed to hospital. Others have treated themselves. One man is bleeding through his dishdasha. An improperly applied bandage is not stopping the blood. He ignores our offer to take him to a hospital. He must check on his mother, whose house is nearby.

Friday, 1 p.m.

At Al Hakeem hospital, a wounded Iraqi woman is being delicately removed from the back seat of a private car-turned ambulance by relatives. Doctors examine her injuries and say they can do nothing for her. The only place left to go is the city's best hospital, which has been taken over as a coalition military base, off limits to civilians. The relatives start beating their chests and wailing. There is not enough time to make it there.

There are conflicting numbers of casualties: Official hospital records say 11 have died as of Friday. A doctor, Ehsan Al Kuzaze, says the number is closer to 50 dead, and 20 injured. The numbers are certain to rise, he says, as the fighting eases, and as civilians are able to take their wounded to hospital.

As Dr. Kuzaze escorts a photographer back into the hospital to see more wounded, leaving an armed policeman to protect us in the lobby, another family walks out to the parking lot sobbing and slapping their foreheads in grief.

Friday, 2 p.m.

Our Iraqi interpreter is growing increasingly concerned for our safety. He tells us it's time to get going. And he reminds us that it's dangerous to wait much longer because there is one Sunni city on the road back to Baghdad that's notorious for kidnapping foreigners. We need to be past there by nightfall.

From Najaf, the road directly back to Baghdad is blocked. We take an alternate route through the central Iraqi city of Kufa, another Sadr bastion. There, an Iraqi police checkpoint that had been manned just the day before is abandoned. At the Kufa mosque - where Moqtada al-Sadr's speech that day will call on Muslims to fight against the Americans, "our enemies" - there are only Mahdi Army fighters, within full sight of the main road. It will be another 25 miles before we see another checkpoint manned by Iraqi police or US military.

Friday 4 p.m.

A US marine at a checkpoint stops our vehicle for a chat. "Do any of you speak English?" he asks. We tell him we're heading back to Baghdad. He asks our interpreter and driver what they do, and lets us go. Behind us, a traffic jam has developed for nearly a half mile, and two lanes of highway fatten up into eight lanes of impatient traffic.

A half hour later we reach our hotel in Baghdad. We learn that since Thursday, fighting has also broken out in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, as well as in Basra, Nasiriyah, Amara, and other Shiite cities and towns. The Mahdi Army fighters say the uprising is just beginning.

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