- City Of Defiance
By Donald Macintyre
17 August 2004
came from across Iraq, marching in solidarity with Shia brothers. Civilians
they bear no arms, for the moment anyway who are willing
die on the steps of the Imam Ali shrine. Thehuman shields have arrived
Hundreds have come
to what is one of the most holy Shia sites on solidarity marches in
recent days. Many more have made their way in smaller groups from nearby
towns and neighbourhoods. More than 2,000 have now pledged their allegiance
to the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr and are based in the compound at the
Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani,
a Sadr spokesman, said the presence of the civilians was intended to
deter American forces. By simply turning up, they have maximised the
loss of human life that could result from any attempt to storm the holy
sites, a course already fraught with danger because of the outrage that
serious physical damage to the shrine would provoke across Iraq and
well beyond. The human shield supporters also appear ready to take up
arms left by insurgents killed or wounded in the fighting.
yesterday as insurgents used their extensive local knowledge of the
huge Wadi al-Salam cemetery, a section of which remains within the area
under the control of Sadr's Mehdi Army's to play what one US officer
called a "cat and mouse game" with US forces.
the shrine in alleyways and on rooftops with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled
grenades sporadically fired at US troops in the cemetery.
The fighting, which
has killed at least two US soldiers since the collapse of peace talks
on Saturday, overshadowed and divided the Iraqi National Conference
yesterday on the second day of its Baghdad session to elect a new interim
A delegation from
the conference was to arrive here in hope of persuading Sadr to disband
his Mehdi Army and turn it into a political party. Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani,
a Sadr spokesman, warned that the issue of disarming the militia could
only be solved by "negotiations and not a unilateral decision".
His response came
as Najaf police followed up earlier threats by arresting one journalist,
Ahmed al-Saleh, who is working with al-Arabiya TV network and firing
warning shots at the Sea of Najaf hotel, where nearly all foreign and
Arab journalists are staying. Their strategy appeared to be a continued
harassment campaign against journalists.
A police lieutenant
arrived at the hotel at 6.30pm in a convoy of two Toyota Land Cruisers
from the local police station. He demanded to know the whereabouts of
correspondents from al-Arabiya and the Reuters and AP news agencies.
As journalists protested,
the lieutenant said above the hubbub: "We are going to open fire
on this hotel. We are going to smash it up. I will kill you all. You
did this all to yourselves." In a threat that did not immediately
appear to have been carried out, he said four snipers would be positioned
on the roof of the police station to fire at any journalists who left
His visit was the
fourth by police in just over 24 hours and followed a threat earlier
in the day by the chief of Najaf police, Ghaleb al-Jazaari, that he
would arrest the correspondent from al-Arabiya. But the police chief,
who on Sunday ordered all journalists to leave Najaf, added that reporters
were free to stay at the hotel at their own risk. "We are not responsible
[for you]" he added."
out as a hotel employee angrily remonstrated with the policemen saying
"Are you Iraqis? You are police but you have no right to do this."
The police then drove off, stopping 300 metres down the road and fired
warning shots in the direction of the hotel.
Later, Mr al-Jazaari
sounded a more conciliatory note when he summoned reporters and promised
them: "You are not under any kind of threat. We respect your job."
He said the order to leave the city was "still technically valid"'
but that he had told the Ministry of the Interior that it was not "practical
to have a city without any media''. He said that the original order
had been issued because the ministry were perturbed that media organisations
were giving succour to Sadr's militia.
Meanwhile, the conflict
reignited in the main Baghdad battleground of Sadr City where insurgents
attacked an American tank, setting it on fire. The crew were rescued
and evacuated with minor wounds, according to a spokesman for the US
1st Cavalry Division. While witnesses were reported as saying the tank
was hit by a Mehdi Army rocket-propelled grenade, US forces said the
insurgents had planted a roadside bomb.
The proposal for
a delegation to Najaf was put forward by a distant relative and
opponent of Sadr, the Baghdad cleric Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, who
told the conference "There are inviolable conditions in civilised
countries, particularly that there is no place for armed militias.
But Falah Hassan
Shanshal of the Shia Political Council, a grouping of Shia politicians,
said the proposal was all "smoke and mirrors".