Shia Rebels Cultivate the Media

Eager to let the world see their point of view, the Mahdists grant press credentials.

Shia Rebels Cultivate the Media

Eager to let the world see their point of view, the Mahdists grant press credentials.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

To enter Najaf as a journalist means running a gauntlet of suspicious gunmen, including not only the rebellious Mahdi Army militiamen, but also police and local officials.

Even as the police have tried to get journalists to leave the city, the Mahdi Army's political leaders apparently have a policy of encouraging them to stay.

In the centre of Najaf, Mahdi Army patrols stopped us on August 15 to check our credentials, ensure that we were not carrying arms, and confirm that our cameras and recorders were what we claimed them to be.

The patrol directed us to the representative office of their leader, young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

That office directed us on to an informal religious tribunal, a so-called "Sharia court" run by the movement.

Here, in a small room in an alley just across from Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine, we were supposed to receive the press credentials that would allow us to move about the city.

We would also be able to get permission to use a Thuraya satellite telephone.

With Najaf's landlines down, the satellite telephone was one of the few means of communicating, but Mahdi Army fighters believe that spies can use them to give away their position to Coalition troops.

Judge Hisham Abu Ragheef asked us about IWPR, its funders, and the number of stories it has written about his movement.

"Do you hold any positions against the Sadrists?" he asked.

We answered that we try to work impartially, and convey information as accurately as possible.

Satisfied with our answer, he issued a signed document granting us permission to move around the city for a week.

The street outside was filled with Mahdi Army fighters, as well as dozens of journalists and photographers taking advantage of the respite to move around.

Despite our paper, we ran into trouble when one fighter took exception to us shooting photos from a rooftop into a neighbouring house full of mortars and rocket launchers.

Outside were police cars marked "Najaf Police Directorate" that clearly were being used by the Mahdi Army.

The militiaman saw us from the street and ran up the roof, shouting, "I want this camera – you are photographing forbidden places."

Luckily a guard from the local court saw us and intervened to get us out of trouble.

Our difficulties with the Mahdi Army, however, were mild compared to what our colleagues faced from the police.

According to Jafar al-Nasrawi, a correspondent for the al-Arabiya satellite channel, police showed up at the Bahr al-Najaf hotel, where many journalists are staying, to expel them from the city.

A statement hanging on the gate told journalists that the police could not guarantee their safety, and that they could become a target for Iraqi interim government and Coalition forces if they did not depart by 8.00 pm local time.

The Reuters news agency later reported that a police lieutenant came to the Bahr al-Najaf and threatened to kill journalists if they left the hotel. "I will put four snipers on the roof to shoot anyone who leaves," he said.

When we asked about this at Sadr's Office of the Martyr, we were told that if we ran into trouble at the Bahr al-Najaf, then we could use one of their rooms that had been set aside as a press centre.

The government was "trying to black out what is happening in Najaf", said Sadr spokesman Ali Smeisim. "We opened rooms which are ready for the journalists to convey the truth inside the holy shrine."

Dhiya Rasan and Muhammad Fawzi are IWPR trainees.

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