A portrait of an angry Moqtada al-Sadr greeted visitors to the Imam Ali Mosque in the holy city of Najaf. The militant Shiite cleric and hundreds of armed followers were effectively holding the gold-domed shrine--and the city around it--hostage last week. U.S. forces didn't dare get too close for fear of damaging one of Iraq's most sacred sites. The area inside the American cordon, nearly a mile across, was a virtual no man's land. One of the few Western journalists to venture there was photographer Laurent Van der Stockt, on assignment for NEWSWEEK. He filed this report:
Most of the inhabitants have fled. The few remaining civilians take to the streets when the shelling pauses, sometimes for two or three hours at a stretch, although snipers make the open areas unsafe. Some people here are friendly; others curse me as a Westerner. Occasionally they get into screaming arguments about me.
My driver/fixer and I came to no man's land on Sunday. We left the Coalition sector of Najaf in a hurry after the city's chief of police ordered us out of town--for our safety, he explained. We were forced to abandon our car part of the way in, and we traveled the rest of the way by donkey cart and on foot. At night we sleep at a shuttered hotel that caters to pilgrims in ordinary times. The owner and his staff have fled. You can't buy food here; the souk has been destroyed, and every cafe is closed. We survive on a stash of canned goods and whatever else we can scrounge. At least the place still has running water.
Townspeople make their way to the mosque at all hours, night and day, for prayers and companionship. They generally seem calm and comfortable, even when the shelling outside is heavy. At night, festoons of colored lights cast a carnival glow on the men who stand and chat in the mosque's vast courtyard. During the day--between gun battles, anyway--the place almost resembles a big cookout, when huge stew pots are set up in the rubble outside the south gate beneath a canopy of fallen electrical lines, and plates of rice with tomato sauce are served to all comers.
Off to one side of the shrine, a small room has been turned into a makeshift field hospital with four beds and two mattresses on the floor. A couple of poorly equipped doctors and a few nurses treat the wounded; about 10 injured fighters and two or three dead are brought in every day. Others can't get here from the front lines.
At times the insurgents act as if the siege is practically a street party. One afternoon I met a dozen or so guerrillas a few blocks from the shrine, racing east through the deserted neighborhood toward the U.S. line. The group's leader, just out of his teens and built like a wrestler, was running barefoot, apparently not bothered by the shrapnel that covered the pavement. He said his name was Ali; he and his men had traveled from the far northern city of Mosul to join al-Sadr's revolt. They were going to attack an American armored vehicle. Almost within sight of their target, they were greeted by other pro-Sadr fighters from Nasiriya and Karbala. The youngest of the group, spotting a poster of al-Sadr on a nearby wall, asked me to photograph him with it. At that, the whole bunch broke into a wild dance, bouncing and chanting: "Moqtada! Moqtada!" Then mortars began hammering the area, and I left for safer ground. I haven't seen Ali since.
Al-Sadr's men stand watch in shattered windows and alleyways all around the Old City. On a corner near the city's Wadi al-Salaam cemetery, often said to be the world's biggest graveyard, I saw three men crouched beside a wooden donkey cart outfitted with a crude rocket launcher. Another fighter waited nearby in the shadow of a hotel that caters to Shiite pilgrims. He said he had traveled down from Sadr City to join the fight against the Americans. He could just as well have stayed home; an anti-U.S. uprising was raging there as well. Some townspeople complain to me about the damage al-Sadr has done to their city--but they're careful not to say it too loudly.
Last weekend Van der Stockt remained in the battleground. Moderate Shiite leaders don't expect the siege to turn out happily. Over and over, al-Sadr has broken his peace deals and resumed his armed struggle for a place at the center of Iraq's political future. "Moqtada's followers will be like a bomb in our midst," says Sheik Fateh Kashef al-Ghitta, a Shiite cleric who nevertheless took an active role in negotiations aimed at ending the siege. "Moqtada will be a hero even if he is captured or killed. And that is a problem." Late last week the people of Najaf were still praying for the safe return of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who was in London recovering from heart surgery. Al-Sadr was offering to hand over nominal control of the shrine to him, as the Shiite's highest-ranking cleric. But the militant leader wanted his men to remain there--supposedly to protect it. From the looks of the shrine, and from Van der Stockt's eyewitness account, they haven't done a very good job so far.