Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Competing Interests in Holy City

Residents of Najaf worry that a radical religious faction is seeking control of their city and its great shrines.
By Usama Hashem

Pass beneath the blue-tiled archway and through the tall gold-plated doors of the great shrine in the city of Najaf. Then walk through a high-walled courtyard, and you will come upon the holiest site in Shia Islam – the tomb of the Imam Ali.


A cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali converted to Islam as a boy and eventually became its Caliph or leader. Murdered in the mosque at Kufa in Iraq nearly 1,500 years ago, Ali is still revered by Shias as the Prophet's only true successor.


A wooden monument draped with green fabrics now marks the spot in Najaf where Ali's body lies – accompanied, so tradition has it, by the remains of Adam and Noah.


Around the monument, the ground is waist-deep in banknotes – Iraqi dinars, Iranian riyals, US dollars and other currencies, too - which pilgrims from across the Shia world push through an ornamented grille surrounding the tomb.


That money is the outward and visible symbol of the devotion this building inspires among the Shia faithful – as well as the power it confers upon those who control it.


Hillal Zwain, head of personnel affairs inside the shrine, says he receives donations of gold, silver, watches, carpets, and even blocks of marble from pilgrims. "I could not give you an estimation of its amount," he said.


Right now, say shrine officials, the cash is going nowhere.


Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, the country's most senior Shia scholar, has decreed that the money will not be used until a legitimate Iraqi government is in place. Then the donations will be used to repair Muslim holy sites across the land.


But as the shrine's coffers swell, so, apparently, does the desirability of gaining a foothold within its hallowed walls.


Many people in Najaf believe that it was this money that sparked a confrontation in late January between the mosque's custodians and followers of Muqtada Sadr, a junior cleric whose father vied with Sistani for influence before being assassinated in 1999.


The younger Sadr's organisation has only a fraction of the popular support and financial resources of Sistani's group, which has amassed a fortune of its own through the Shia tradition of donations.


Najaf resident Ismail Awaraq, 63, believes the young cleric’s followers, the “Sadrists”, want to take over the shrine of the Imam Ali. "The shrine is full of money; everybody knows that," he said.


Everyone knows the shrine is off limits to troops of the United States-led coalition, and is beyond the jurisdiction of the Iraqi police. Its security and other affairs are handled by a group of custodians who answer only to Sistani, who – along with his occasional ally, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq – maintains an office inside the shrine.


Whether or not it was the shrine’s finances that actually caused the dispute remains uncertain. But the tomb of Ali is undeniably the most prestigious location anywhere in the world for a Shia political faction – prompting those left outside to strive for a foothold within.


Until the January dispute, Sadr's followers – regarded as forming one of Iraq's more radical factions – had been prevented from establishing a formal presence at the shrine, but they were banging on the door.


The focal point of the dispute was the “ursi”, or chamber of the shrine's custodians, which has been closed since April last year following the brutal murder of two senior Shia clerics that is said to have taken place within its walls.


Occurring just after the fall of Saddam, the unsolved murders still cast a shadow over the holy city, as well as over the intentions of Sadr and his followers.


On April 10, 2003, a mob set upon and murdered the shrine's head custodian under the Saddam regime, Haydar Rafii, and Shia scholar Sayyid Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, the son of Sistani's mentor, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abu Qassim al-Khoei.


While accounts of the infamous murders vary, the most common version on the streets of Najaf is that Sadrists killed Rafii to seize the key to the shrine. The story also goes that Khoei was stabbed when he tried to intervene, and was then dragged to Sadr's nearby residence where he was finished off.


Some versions place the attack within the ursi itself.


That chamber is now sealed off, but some of the mosque's security personnel claim the room still contains a carpet stained with the blood of the murdered men.


Muqtada Sadr has denied that his followers carried out the attack, claiming instead to have tried to prevent Khoei's murder.


Whatever the truth, the two deaths have shaped local perceptions of the Sadrists' current intentions.


Many citizens of Najaf accuse the young cleric – whose power base lies in Sadr City, the mainly Shia slums of Baghdad named after his father – of trying to take control of their holy city.


The most recent trouble, say shrine security men, began around January 20, when Sadrists posted a banner on the ursi door, proclaiming it the seat of a new court for religious affairs.


But the head of the shrine's security committee, Abd al-Hamid al-Hilu, told IWPR that he challenged the Sadrists by reminding them it is forbidden to hang any kind of banner or portrait inside the shrine.


The Sadrists said they were operating on Muqtada's orders.


Sadr called off his followers after Hilu sought mediation from the son of a respected ayatollah who died several years ago.


But a few days later, when the mediator departed for Saudi Arabia on the Hajj, or religious pilgrimage, the Sadrists seized control of another room in the shrine.


They dubbed it the "Committee for Encouraging Good and Forbidding Evil" – a phrase used in the Muslim world to denote the so-called religious police empowered to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law.


On January 27, worshippers suddenly found themselves barred from the shrine for 19 hours, although no one will admit to ordering the measure.


Whoever was responsible for the temporary closure, one thing remains clear: after being allowed to open a small office in a corner of the shrine, the Sadrists have gained the foothold they long sought.


The change has not gone unnoticed in Najaf, where some people see in it an ominous sign for the future.


"Muqtada wants power, he wants to control the [shrine]," said Sadiq Asadi, 22, who runs a textile store in one of the streets surrounding the tomb. Asadi said disapprovingly that the followers of Sadr "are not from Najaf but from Sadr City in Baghdad, and they know nothing of religion."


Usama Hashem Redha is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.


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