With the fighting here moving into the 12th day, Iraqi police in Najaf find themselves caught in the cross hairs of a deadly insurgency.
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.)
It's strong-arm techniques like this - more characteristic of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party than of Thomas Jefferson's democratic republic - that have led to some negative coverage, particularly in the Arab news media. And the police compound the problem by daily driving past the media's hotel, their guns aimed at the hotel, with a loudspeaker blaring in Arabic, "Stop telling lies about Najaf. Report the truth."
"It is all the fault of the media that we are being attacked, especially Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya," says Lt. Col. Najah Yassim, acting deputy chief of police in Najaf. "They are saying that the police are cooperating with the Americans and the Iraqi National Guard and attacking the Mahdi Army, and so the Mahdi Army attacks us."
It probably doesn't help matters that the Iraqi government itself announced on Friday, falsely it turns out, that Iraqi police raided the Shrine of Ali and arrested hundreds of Mr. Sadr's supporters inside.
The day after, Mahdi Army spokesmen gave interviews inside the shrine itself, indicating that they were still negotiating a handover of the keys to the shrine to representatives of Iraq's top Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. For Najaf police, it was just another bit of unwanted attention.
But some of the Najaf police department's woes seem self-inflicted. After the Aug. 19 mortar attack, a half dozen police vehicles arrived in front of the Najaf Sea Hotel. The hotel was mainly empty - most of the press corps was at the Shrine of Ali for a press conference with the Mahdi Army - but police officers insisted the remaining press corps go to the hospital to see wounded police officers from the mortar attack. Ironically, most of the press had earlier been forbidden by this same police department from visiting the hospital or from seeing civilian war casualties.
On a recent afternoon, Lt. Col. Yassim took a reporter on a tour of the police station, showing pools of dried blood where injured or dead soldiers were pulled out of the mortar-blasted headquarters. He said the insurgents aimed their mortars at the air conditioning unit, and then fired two more rounds into the room.
"They were like my brothers," Yassim said about the dead policemen killed in the attack. "This attack really affected me." The attack affected his family as well, he added. They are urging him to quit his job. "We are ready to sacrifice ourselves to make our country safer."
Outside the police station, veteran police officer, Karim Khalil, says he has been with the Najaf police since the time of Saddam Hussein. "Everything is worse [than before]," he says. "More criminals, no electricity, no water, and now the Mahdi Army is shooting at us."
At a checkpoint guarding the approach to the police station, Alim Mohammad Kadhim stands guard with a Kalashnikov. He has been a policeman just for one month; before this, he was an unskilled laborer at a construction site. "I am sure that if they caught me, they would mutilate me. If we captured someone from Mahdi Army, we would respect him and welcome him," he says. "But this is our job."
A car approaches the checkpoint, and he flicks off the safety on his Kalashnikov. It's not another Mahdi Army assault. It's another police officer, carrying kebabs and bread from a nearby restaurant. "No problem, it's just lunch," he smiles, and greets the police officer in the Iraqi fashion, with kisses on his cheek.