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

Human Shields Answer Clerics' Calls

Volunteers from Baghdad and southern Iraq answer call from clerics besieged in Najaf.
By Wisam al-Jaff

Just outside central Najaf, at the 1920 Square, a traffic roundabout named after the revolt against the British occupation, fighters in the Mahdi Army stood directing hundreds of unarmed civilians.


"Do not allow anyone to carry a weapon or fire a bullet. You are unarmed, and they will destroy you if you give them an excuse by shooting," a fighter told one of his colleagues, as they tied the militia's green headband on the volunteers on August 14.


These volunteers had come to the besieged city from across Iraq the day before, answering a call made by clerics loyal to Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in demonstrations across Baghdad and southern Iraq.


But unlike other Sadrist volunteers who came to Najaf to fight, these came to act as unarmed human shields.


After arriving at the shrine of the Imam Ali, the centrepiece of the city and the cornerstone of the Sadrist defence, they were ordered to the outskirts of Najaf and the frontlines between the Mahdi Army and Coalition troops.


"We came from [the southern Iraqi town of] Nasiriya as a sacrifice to the senior clergy and the shrine of Imam Ali, and we will not allow anyone to defile this pure place even if we are killed," said Haydar Khalil, 38.


Clearly exhausted from their journey, the volunteers wiped sweat from their faces or held pieces of cardboard over their heads to protect them from a fierce sun.


Kadhem Hussein, 40, from the northeast Baghdad slum neighbourhood of Sadr City, angrily pointed to one of his friends, clearly ill.


"Look at that man, who insists to come to Najaf and sacrifice his life. He is sick with typhoid because of the water in Sadr City," said Hussein. "Why not die an honest death, instead of dying in bed?"


Before the shrine itself, an elderly woman embraced her young son, who had come as one of the volunteers.


"I can't ask him to leave Najaf and Muqtada because it would be a sin in front of God. If all men are killed I will be a commando and lead the women in fighting, even though I am 62-years-old," she said.


Her son, smiling, showed off a belt, rigged with explosives, that he was wearing.


He had come to Najaf and made the decision to be a suicide bomber during Muqtada al-Sadr's first uprising in April.


"I am a grenade ready to blow up, if anyone comes close to the holy shrine," he declared.


"Have you not heard the expression, 'Love sometimes kills?'" he said. "I love Muqtada and his family, unto death."


Wisam al-Jaff is an IWPR trainee.