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Militants Depart from Najaf

Radical Shia cleric orders his followers to leave holy city after confrontation with Coalition is defused.
By Wisam al-Jaff

Najaf's main traffic circle is choked with vehicles full of men chanting "Muqtada, Muqtada" and "Our blood to protect you" and "Long live Sadr".

As some of the men depart, others wait to form convoys. While they wait, some passengers perform the celebratory “dubka” dance in the style of the southern Iraqi tribes.

All of them are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, who were summoned to Najaf from across southern Iraq to defend the radical preacher in a showdown with Coalition military forces.

But on June 17, with the confrontation temporarily defused, Muqtada called on his followers to return to their homes, and most seem happy to do just that.

"I left my studies in medicine at Basra university to come to Najaf," said Naim Ahmed, 19.

Like other followers, Ahmed felt an obligation to protect Sadr that transcended his academic work.

"I must protect Muqtada because he is the last of the Sadr family," said Ahmed. "If he is killed, we won't have any scholars like him to respect."

Muqtada's father, Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who presided over a Shia religious revival in the Nineties, was gunned down in 1999, reportedly by agents of the regime.

The young preacher distinguishes himself from other Shia clerics by his hostile stance against the Coalition. He has declared transitional governments to be illegitimate, and has called for armed resistance against foreign troops.

"We are now leaving to do what we need to do to stay alive and take care of our families," said Jaber Hillal, 40, who owns a Baghdad plastics factory and came to Najaf with his three younger brothers.

"We obeyed the clerics when they ordered us to put ourselves in front of the tanks. We've done it before. Now I am happy to return. I miss my wife and children," he said.

"When I phoned my family... my wife was crying and begged me to come back, because they believed I would be killed in Najaf after they saw the news and pictures on TV," said Hillal’s brother Ismail, a 37-year old mechanic.

But some supporters like Hashem al-Kaabi, 65, from the east Baghdad slum of Madinat al-Sadr – Sadr City – said they have nothing to go back to.

"My wife died five years ago,” he said. “I wanted to go to her. I hoped to see her in Paradise if I was killed here. But I'm still alive."

Kaabi saw his journey to Najaf as an attempt to achieve redemption, "I am in poor health. Maybe I will die in my bed. I wanted to end my life well," he said.

Wisam al-Jaff is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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