Desert hospitality, honor, and the war outside the door

For two weeks now, Ahmed and Sameer al-Najafi have lived on the front lines of a deadly fight between the US military and a Shiite militia named the Mahdi Army.

They are not fighters, although they are clearly of fighting age. They are Iraqi civilians, protecting their house from looters in Najaf's Old City. They sit indoors, cook their shrinking supply of food, and judge from the sounds outside whether they will live another day.

Sameer laughs, as my interpreter, my driver, and I flinch when a mortar explodes nearby. "Today, the fighting is so easy, they're just kidding with us," he says. "On Sunday, the fighting was so heavy and so close, we said our shahada prayer [the Muslim prayer of the dying]."

On Monday, we were unexpected witnesses to a day in the life of the Najafi home - a large brick townhouse built around an open-air courtyard. We ducked into their doorway, and the fighting drew too close for us to leave. We saw a surprising resilience and spirit. Their moods shifted constantly: Sometimes, when bombs fell around them, they turned sober and cool-headed to decide the best way to survive. Other times they told jokes or recited poetry to lift their spirits and remind themselves that life is worth living.

Their politics shifted too, with every shift in the battle with every shift in the battle lines, telling volumes about the ambivalent feelings many Iraqis have for an American liberator they have come to see as an occupier.

But we also were privy to the Najafi family's cultural beliefs - their deep sense of honor and bravery, compassion and generosity - all of which were tested to the limits during our day with them.

Shelter from the storm

At 10 a.m., the Najafis are in their front guest room. Seated on the floor, a cushion at his elbow, neighbor Ahmed al-Ramahe rues the day he ever heard of the Mahdi Army or its 30-year-old radical Shiite leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. "They say they're fighting for freedom, but they're killing more people than Saddam Hussein," he says, and the other men nod. "They know it's impossible for them to win this war. And we're stuck in the middle. We get most of the casualties. The Mahdi Army are just shooting foolishly, destroying our houses."

As if on cue, a mortar falls nearby. "Like that," says Mr. Ramahe, and the men laugh.

Like many of the families in Najaf's old city, the Najafis and their friends own businesses that thrive on the constant flow of tourists and pilgrims coming to pay respects at the Shrine of Imam Ali, a mausoleum where the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law is buried. Their worst fear is the most likely military scenario: a protracted siege of the holy shrine.

"The shrine is sacred to us, but we've reached a point where even if the Americans destroy the shrine to get rid of Moqtada, we won't be upset," he says. "We'll rebuild it ourselves."

At noon, a nearby mosque announces over loudspeakers that peace talks have broken down between Sadr and the Iraqi government. Sadr's own uncle, Hussain al-Sadr, had urged him to leave the Shrine and disarm, but it's clear the nephew isn't interested. The mosque loudspeakers urge fighters to fight on, and gunfire breaks out. The men move from the guest room (situated where male visitors won't see the women of the house) deeper into the house.

"It's OK," says Ahmed, "there aren't any women in the house. We've sent them all away from Najaf to stay with relatives."

Backgammon and bombs

In the inner courtyard, some of the men start playing backgammon. Ahmed and Sameer start cleaning okra and picking stones out of rice, in preparation for the day's lunch. For the past two weeks, these men have taken up what used to be considered "women's work." They find it terribly boring and hot. "A house without women is a terrible thing," says Ahmed, who is not married.

Outside the fighting gets heavier. The men identify the weaponry and the location of the fighters by the sounds. The cracking sound is a Kalashnikov, two blocks north of here, used by Mahdi Army. The sound of a shower is the high-speed machine gun of a US Marine Bradley Fighting machine, two blocks to the south. The Najafi home is on the front line itself.

Gallows humor

Mr. Ramahe, the visiting neighbor, rushes back to his house, and another neighbor named Haider arrives. He's not interested in politics. Instead, he passes the time by telling grim jokes.

"There once was a husband and wife, and the wife was always mad, because she never knew where her husband was," he says. "Finally, one day, the husband died. The wife started laughing. People asked her why and she said, 'For the first time, I know where my husband is.'"

The smell of meaty stew, cooked rice, and vegetables begins to fill the courtyard. Outside, the sound of Mahdi Army rocket-propelled grenades whistle down the street, followed by the heavy machine gun of the American Bradley. We can hear the Mahdi Army fighters chanting to keep their spirits up, talking of the glories of martyrdom. A mortar blast stops Haider's jokes for a second, but he follows the stunned silence with another quip. "Let's eat lunch before we die," he says.

During lunch, the fighting goes into a lull, as the fighters take a break for afternoon prayers. But by 3 p.m., the battle resumes. Ibrahim, a tall, muscular neighbor, comes running into the courtyard with news. The Americans have just shot a civilian on the street corner. The men rush to the front door for a look.

"The man had just walked by the house and asked directions to the shrine," says Ibrahim. "Then when he got to the corner, the American Bradley opened fire."

Ahmed gets low, and sticks his head out the door. The wounded civilian isn't moving. "Khallas," he announces finally. "He's dead."

Turning in a 15-year-old spy

Back inside the courtyard, Ahmed and Sameer tell of their disappointment with the Americans. Originally, they greeted the Americans as liberators from Saddam Hussein, who repressed Iraq's Shiite majority. Now they see the Americans as occupiers. As moderate Shiites who follow the moderate Shiite Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, they originally condemned the Mahdi Army's hopeless fight against the powerful Americans - and the inevitable death and destruction it will bring - but now they sympathize with the Mahdi Army fighters.

Ahmed tells how he and Sameer discovered a 15-year old boy who had been acting as a spy for the Americans. He had been carrying a GPS (global positioning system) device in his sleeve, marking the positions of all the Mahdi Army units in the neighborhood. Ahmed and Sameer chased the boy down, and handed him over to the Mahdi Army, knowing they would probably torture and kill him.

"We wish the Mahdi Army would defeat the Americans, even though we are not for the Mahdi Army," says Sameer.

Haider, the comedian, shows another talent: poetry. In a melodious voice, he recites an Arabic poem about how difficult it is for a free man to put his trust in other people. "If you trust a friend, you might be betrayed. Nobody is true. One must stay strong until the last moment. If you become weak, it is better to die than to rely on the mercy of people."

It is a sobering poem for us. We are, after all, relying on the mercy of an Iraqi family on the front lines.

The militants arrive

At 5 p.m., it's clear that the American Bradley has dug into its position against the local Mahdi Army fighters, and it's firing at everything that moves. A motorcycle pulls up in front of the Najafi home, followed by another motorcycle, and a bicycle. The four men on these cycles take shelter in the entry of the Najafi home, and they turn out to be Mahdi Army fighters, looking for a battle to join.

But now a second American Bradley has sealed off traffic on the other end of the Najafis' street. The fighters are trapped, and the Najafis reluctantly provide them shelter. Culturally speaking, they have no alternative.

The fighters are surprised to see foreign journalists in the home and take a keen interest us. The Najafi brothers become increasingly tense. If they allow the Mahdi Army fighters to stay, their home may be turned into a base for local fighters. If they ask them to leave, they will be labeled as traitors. Instead, the Najafis turn to us.

"If you want to go stay at a hotel, I can lead you there myself," he says. His face is pained. He is ashamed at turning out a guest. He is too polite to tell us directly to leave, but he has no choice. The Mahdi fighters might take us hostage. Leaving now would leave him with just one problem, rather than two.

We pile into our car, put flak jackets against the door, and prepare to drive off. Revving the engine in anticipation of racing through the intersection, we drive slowly forward until we hear the Bradley machine-gun shower in the intersection in front of us. We slam on the brakes and reverse back to the house.

"That was a coincidence," says one of the Mahdi Army fighters, leaning on the window. "Our fighters opened fire on the Americans and the Americans responded. It won't happen again, inshallah" - God willing.

Our driver is not convinced. He turns off the engine. The fighters debate what to do next. They're eager to return to the shrine. One motorcyclist, carrying a bag of guns on the seat behind him, kick-starts his bike, and races across the intersection. No gunfire.

"You see?" says one of the remaining Mahdi Army fighters. "No problem."

The cyclist is next. He wheels up to the intersection, speeds up, and makes it through. No gunfire.

Now the Najafis have found a white T-shirt and tied it to a stick. Ahmed waves it from the street corner to warn the Americans not to fire. Sameer looks at us. We look at the Mahdi Army fighters. Finally, the two last two fighters climb on the motorbike and drive through the intersection. No gunfire.

Sameer walks over to us smiling. "Please come inside," he says, taking the our bags. Hospitality conundrum over, Shiite generosity returns in spades. "You are our dakheel, our guests," says Ahmed. "Even if we have to defend you, we will. It's our duty."

Cultural line crossed

That night, with American Bradleys and Abrams tanks prowling the Old City, the Najafis relax. It has been a brutal day. One civilian killed, just 50 feet from their home, another 11 injured, and uncounted Mahdi Army fighters killed as well, according to Al Arabiya television.

But most disturbing to these brothers and their assorted neighbors and friends is the fact that they were almost forced to turn away guests. It's a matter of desert honor, of pride, or in this case, shame, that an Iraqi always takes in a guest, "even if it's someone who killed your own brother," says Sameer. Today, he and Ahmed were presented with an impossible choice. Even though it all worked out well, they and their guests know that a line of trust has been crossed, and that trust can never be totally repaired.

Up on the roof, later that night where the Najafis generally sleep in the cool desert breeze, the stars glint and sparkle. "I wish every American could experience a day like this, to see what it's like to live in war," says Ahmed quietly, sadly.

Editor's note: As Scott, his driver, and his interpreter returned to Baghdad Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that fighting continued, even as an Iraqi delegation arrived in Najaf with a peace proposal aimed at ending the standoff. Aides to Moqtada al-Sadr said they welcomed the mission but not the proposal. "They are asking us to leave Najaf while we are the sons of Najaf," said Sheikh Ali Smeisim, an aide to Mr. Sadr.

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