Among the Believers

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Tucked deep in a tangled warren of dusty alleyways, the golden dome of the Imam Ali shrine gleams in the afternoon sun. Its shining twin minarets reflect light on the ornately painted tiles that cover every surface not faced with gold. But the Old City ringing the glorious shrine, where millions of Shi'ite faithful come on pilgrimage, has been battered by three weeks of savage battle into a blasted warscape of empty, broken buildings. With the dramatic intervention last week of the Shi'ites' most revered leader, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, 74, the domed shrine was saved and the siege of the holy city of Najaf brought to a quiet close. Calling on thousands of faithful followers, Sistani made a momentous arrival from London, where he had been undergoing heart treatment, setting the stage for a face-to-face showdown with Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious junior cleric leading the uprising that had subjected the city to 21 days of relentless bombardment by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Hours later, al-Sadr accepted a deal that would empty the shrine of his fighters, and in return U.S. forces would withdraw from the city, turning over responsibility for keeping the peace to Iraqi police. But uncertainty lingered over how long the truce would last. The upstart cleric, whose Mahdi Army was allowed to withdraw intact, has reneged on agreements before, and this latest tactical retreat, after hundreds of his men had been killed, left him and his surviving militiamen free to fight another day. The interim Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had repeatedly vowed to crush al-Sadr's illegal army but quickly acceded to a plan that would spare the shrine from assault. Al-Sadr, said Minister of State Qassim Dawoud, is now "as free as any Iraqi citizen to do whatever he would like in Iraq." But there's surely more trouble ahead. Having spent time inside the shrine, I saw firsthand the degree to which al-Sadr's supporters are devoted, armed and determined to fight the U.S. and the Iraqi government it brought to power. Here's how it looked from inside the siege:

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TO GET TO THE IMAM ALI SHRINE, WE HAD to walk through the battlefield. Snipers' bullets buzzed past our heads and lodged in the wall, sending a fine dust of pulverized plaster over us as I, my interpreter Hussam and three Mahdi fighters on the street tumbled into an open storefront to escape the barrage. The militiamen stood between us and the door to shield us from the unrelenting fire. They were young, polite and dedicated to their cause. As they saw it, they were protecting their holiest site from infidel Americans. But the Mahdi fighters were perfectly willing to safeguard me.

Throughout that harrowing trip through the lines, the sharp bang-bang of small-arms fire and the colossal booms from U.S. armored vehicles seemed to surround us completely. As we rounded a corner and sheltered in the lee of a building waiting for the exchange to die down, a teenage boy scuttled over to sell us ice cream. "I'm supporting the Mahdi Army," he said and grinned. "They like ice cream, and I have a lot of customers." Nearby, Iraqi civilians were discussing the battle. A man asked, "Are the Americans here just to see how Iraqis are dying?" Another, Muhammed Jasim, said he would prefer if al-Sadr fought the U.S. somewhere other than at the shrine. "If you attack the Americans," he said, "they will attack you."

The Mahdi Army is clearly a potent fighting force. Though dismissed as ragtag irregulars by the Americans, its militiamen have learned to employ a set of rudimentary but effective tactics against the vastly superior strength of the U.S. forces. At one of the main intersections that leads to the holy compound, we spotted a wire snaking from inside a building through loose sand to a pile of debris. Nestled inside was an unexploded shell, ready to be triggered against a U.S. tank or humvee. Across the street, at the mouth of an adjoining alley, was a similar setup. The plan was to blow up enemy vehicles before they got near the shrine and pick off the survivors with snipers.

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