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Mahdi Army Prepares for Fight

The militiamen expect a US assault on the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa.
By Wisam al-Jaff

Outside Kufa’s main mosque, militiamen wearing green headbands of the Mahdi Army wait alongside trucks ready to carry them to the outskirts of the city, where men with binoculars watch expectantly for a US invasion.


Several kilometres away, at Najaf’s shrine to Imam Ali, pamphlets on the walls beg the Mahdi fighters not to resist should the Americans come.


As confrontation between the Coalition and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr looms, citizens of Najaf express anger at the Shia leader who many claim is using their city as a shield against US forces.


Sadr has moved back and forth between Iraq’s twin cities of Najaf and Kufa since April 4, when his followers staged an uprising to protest the arrest of an aide and closure of their al-Hawza newspaper.


Senior clerics have warned the Coalition should not enter the holy cities, even to carry out its intention to kill or arrest Sadr for the murder of fellow cleric Abd al-Majid al-Khoei in April 2003.


At the same time, they also have called on Sadr not to give the Coalition any pretext for an attack.


"The security of Najaf is your responsibility. Don't give a reason to let blood be spilled," said the statement, signed by the "Committee of Najaf Scholars".


"We call on you to use peaceful methods, and not to use force and violence for any reason. If you refuse that, go out of Najaf because there are no humans and buildings can be hurt," the statement said.


"We say this because we believe that you will not succeed,” they said, explaining that Sadr’s force and the Americans are not equal in strength.


Sadr's main support bases lie in the slums of Baghdad and elsewhere outside Najaf, while Najaf itself is largely loyal to senior clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Sayydi Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.


Many citizens are angry that they are caught between the two sides.


"Because [Sadr] will be taken to the courts to be asked about the murder of al-Khoei, he is using this [stand-off] protect himself," said teacher Mohammed Taqi.


"They don't feel any responsibility," said kiosk owner Musa Salem. "It's not natural."


Meanwhile, residents of the two cities are preparing for a wave of rioting, as after the collapse of the old regime, or for a siege like the one in Fallujah.


"The coming days will be violent," said General Ali al-Yasiri, head of the Najaf police. "I expect that Najaf will witness dangerous events and riots."


"I've emptied my store of goods and transfer them to a safe place, for fear of those weak, hate-filled people who might exploit a bad security situation," said Kasem al-Musawi, one of many merchants who has temporarily closed down.


Homemaker Um Milad, meanwhile, says she took her baby daughter to a farm five km away.


Milad is far from Mahdi Army positions, but she fears that "the American forces will besiege Najaf as they besieged Fallujah, so that food runs out and we have nothing to eat".


Haj Resan Muhammad, who owns a farm outside of town, prepared tents on his land to shelter refugees after he heard that US aircraft had dropped leaflets calling on Najafis not to cooperate with Muqtada.


"We are Arabs with tribal values, and in addition our religious guidelines encourage us to help our displaced brothers," Muhammad said.


Sadr's followers, meanwhile, say they expect the battle to come, and that they are eager for it.


"We are ready to fight the occupiers and not allow them to step into the sacred homeland of Najaf," said Abu Sadek, a black-clothed Mahdi Army fighter digging a trench outside the city. "We will not live if they enter."


A comrade, wiping the sweat from his brow as he digs, shouts angrily, "Najaf is our destiny."


Wisam al-Jaff is an IWPR trainee.