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

New Approach Calms Karbala

In the holy Shia city, non-confrontational police tactics and local clerics’ pleas appeared to soften confrontation with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militiamen.
By Imad al-Sharei

The central square of Karbala was filled with pilgrims from all across the Shia world, aiming to perform their devotions before the twin shrines of the seventh century imams Hussein and Abbas.


But this particular day – August 5 - was unusual because the other holy city of Najaf, just 160 kilometres away, was a battleground between joint Coalition-Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army loyal to Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.


When Sadr’s followers rose up in April, fighting swiftly spread to Karbala as the Mahdi Army took to the streets and seized buildings belonging to the police and the US-sponsored Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, ICDC.


This time, locals said, a number of factors slowed the insurrection: the swift deployment of the ICDC, the intercession of senior clergy, and cordial relations between Sadrists and the police.


"The main reason why there is security in the city is the police and the National Guard, who deployed once they heard about the Najaf events and did not let Muqtada's followers control the city," said Abu Munaf al-Jurani, 55, a businessman.


The Mahdi Army took to the streets of a number of majority-Shia towns and neighbourhoods in the days following an August 2 firefight between United States Marines and militiamen outside Sadr’s' Najaf home.


But in Karbala, the Sadrists showed their outrage with a peaceful demonstration in al-Haramain square, located between the two holy shrines.


"The Mahdi Army paraded in al-Haramain square before sunset prayers.… to show local residents and the world that Mahdi Army is on hand and that it has the capacity to confront [its enemies] and act freely in the city," said Sheikh Husam al-Mifriji, 28, a religious student in the city.


Religious scholars also say the Sadrists received requests from the public, and from clerics such as Ayatollah Mohammed Hadi al-Mudarrisi, not to cause any trouble.


"The Mahdi Army responded to a request by the marjaya, or senior clergy... and also the people asked them to leave the city because of the destruction caused during the [April and May] incidents," said Sheikh Hassan al-Furati, head of Mudarrisi's office.


The police, going on their rounds and politely asking visitors to respect a midnight curfew, said the neutrality they displayed in April had also contributed to the Sadrist decision not to rise up.


"The Sadr followers did not confront us because we did not confront them during the earlier events but left the city to their control," said officer Muhammad Ryadh Yusif, 27.


"Today, they regard us not as enemies but as peacemakers, and I do not think that they will do anything against the city," he said.


Imad al-Sharei is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Nigeria: Working Together for Change
How a collaborative approach is boosting human rights advocacy and defending social justice.
Rwanda: How Trade in Banned Alcohol Wrecks Lives
Monitoring Malawi's Elections
Tourism in Kazakstan: Bad Service, Inflated Prices
Experts say that the government is failing to develop what could be a rich and profitable sector.
Ukraine Prepares for Elections
Defending Media Freedom