End of the siege: the smoke clears in Najaf

What the peace agreement means for Sadr, Sistani, Iraq - and the US.

This article was originally posted 08/27/2004.

It's morning in Najaf again, and all around the Old City center, there are the signs of destruction that a three-week-long rebellion has brought.

The ground is littered with shattered glass, chips of concrete, splinters, and spent 50-caliber shell casings. An old woman walks through these streets, weeping as if she is alone. "It was like heaven here before, now see what has happened," she wails, striking her chest with her hands.

But this woman is not alone. She is just one of tens of thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the Old City Friday morning, called by their Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to become a human wave of protest to end the 22-day battle and siege of the Shrine of Imam Ali.

There were some supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr in this crowd, but they were not the majority. When Mr. Sadr's supporters tried to strike up a chant in favor of the militant Shiite cleric and his Mahdi Army militia, most of the crowd remained silent, almost reproachful.

The Battle of Najaf may finally be over - with a peaceful withdrawal of both US forces and the Mahdi Army, brokered by Ayatollah Sistani on Thursday night. But peace came at a terrible cost, with hundreds of civilians and fighters dead in the street fighting and bombardments; on Thursday, more than 101 were killed and 500 wounded in the adjoining cities of Najaf and Kufa alone.

So while there is relief in Najaf today that the fighting is finally over, there is still the sober realization that it will take a long time for these battle scars to heal. And in the coming days, as Najaf citizens return to their broken, bullet-ridden homes, and as shopkeepers sweep up the detritus of their livelihoods, there will be plenty of blame to go around, both for the Americans and for Sadr.

"We oppose very much what they did, both sides," says Sayid Salam al-Kharsan, a Shiite cleric, and one of thousands of Shiites who accompanied Sistani in a car caravan from the city of Basra. "This is a holy place, and it is a good thing that they called religious people to find a solution."

Winners and losers

Seeing past the destruction, there seem to be some clear winners from this siege, and this peace settlement. Ayatollah Sistani emerges once again as the most popular and powerful Shiite cleric, capable of bringing both the militant cleric Sadr and the Iraqi government to an agreement that appeared nearly impossible. Sadr also emerges ahead, since he has only bowed to a higher religious authority and not to the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi government emerges about even, lacking a clear knockout victory that diminishes Sadr's ability to fight again, but also avoiding a bloody final assault of the shrine that could have alienated the country's Shiite majority.

Militarily, the Americans emerge victorious, having pushed Sadr back to within a few hundred meters of the outside wall of the shrine. Politically, however, the siege has been disastrous. Shiite opinion toward the Americans, even among moderates of the Sistani camp, is almost universally negative, reminding Iraqis that their country remains a morass of failing infrastructure and poor security.

Inside the shrine, the faithful line up to remove their shoes, wash their hands and enter the inner sanctum of Shiite Islam's third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. Others survey the slight damage to the shrine's structure, and look in begrudging awe at the young fighters who held off the American military for so long.

"The Mahdi Army protected our holy place from the Americans, this was their duty," says a young demonstrator from Nasiriyah, who gives his name as Murad. "Unless Americans leave Iraq, there will never be peace."

Hassan Ali Karim, a Mahdi Army fighter, accuses the Americans of using "forbidden weapons" such as poison gas, adding, "fortunately, God saved us." But even so, he says he is willing to leave the shrine if Sadr orders him to do so. And at 9 a.m., a loudspeaker at the shrine announces that Sadr had called on Mahdi Army fighters to put down their weapons, and leave the Old City. By 10 a.m., Mr. Karim and hundreds of other Mahdi Army fighters began taking off their weapons, loading them into wooden wheelbarrows and push carts and trekking out of the Old City, at least for now.

Along the narrow streets of the Old City, one could see families streaming back to their homes, carrying food and valuables in burlap bags, returning to homes that had been bunkers just a few hours before. Some return to find their homes destroyed. One family returns to find their roof collapsed by a bomb, and the only sign of their relatives was the unmistakable stench of death coming from inside.

Elsewhere, life returns to a kind of normalcy. On a street corner, just 10 feet from a stack of tank-shells wired together as a booby trap, a man squats and sells cigarettes to the passing pilgrims, who eventually number into the tens of thousands. Within a few minutes, he leaves with a smile. He has sold out.

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