Our journey to the shrine of Imam Ali was a harrowing trip that would take me and photographer Thorne Anderson through the American cordon around Najaf, crossing a stretch of burned out no-man's land and then navigating the al Mahdi Army lines. It took roughly two and a half hours to go from the southeastern edge of the city, which forced us to cross open ground where snipers fired down on us from their perches in shattered buildings.
On Monday morning, a day before our walk into the old city of Najaf, we had gone to see Abu Mohammed, a commander in the al Mahdi Army. He was to be our connection with the underground network of Iraqis who knew how to navigate the American cordon around Najaf. Abu Mohammed explained that we would have to wait for a lull in the fighting if we wanted to cross the lines. The commander also said we might have to wait a long time before we got our chance. Young Mahdi Army fighters with wild eyes stopped by the office to show us their captured weapons. In the late afternoon, an old sheikh visited Abu Mohammed's office and said to us that he had just come from the shrine in Najaf. The sheikh described how he had walked through the American front lines without a problem, but if we wanted to go, we had to leave immediately. Abu Mohammed gave us an al Mahdi man named Talib to take with us.
We followed the sheikh's advice that afternoon and made it all the way to the southern boundary of Najaf before being turned back by a firefight. Talib said he would take us to a hotel and come for us in the morning, and we agreed to try again, not sure if he would show up.
Into the Medina
Talib arrived at eight the next morning. In a taxi with one of his friends. We retraced the route of the day before, moving to the southern border of the city. When we reached the place where we had been scared off by the firefight, we heard the sounds of sustained gunfire and explosions. Talib explained that we would have to walk from there. We gathered our gear and entered into the city. At each corner we asked locals for a way to the medina that would keep us at maximum distance from U.S. forces. We quickly found a place where civilians were crossing the American lines. Small groups of women, old men and children were walking through a 300-foot gap between a Bradley tank and a Humvee lined up on Medina street. Anyone crossing would have to pass through the line of fire of both vehicles. Thorne pulled out a white cloth and we raised our hands and then stepped out into the empty street. Our translator Yasser, Talib, myself and Thorne, all walking slowly, had just crossed the first ring of the US cordon on the southern edge of the city.
A block inside the cordon, there was no traffic, the no man's land between the front lines was ruled by a horrible silence broken by sudden explosions. It was deserted except for a few Iraqi men hiding in doorways who offered refuge and tea. We started to see signs of fighting, blown out windows and burned buildings, but this was just the edge of the battlefield; it would get much worse as we went deeper into the city. We walked another block and saw three teenagers near the charred remains of a car who asked us where we were going. We explained that we wanted to go to the shrine of Imam Ali. "We are going to the shrine,” one said. “You can follow us." The boy who wanted to show us the way was not older than fourteen. As we went deeper into the city, Talib decided to return to Kufa and left us with the kids as guides.
We turned the corner, following the kids and found ourselves completely behind al Mahdi lines. The fighters hidden in the windows of a bombed out building recognized our guides and waved to us. Then the shooting started and we ran for cover. We heard the bullets coming in close. Around the corner we hit an open space where the old city joins the new city. I crossed first, with Thorne close behind me, and just as I made it to the opposite curb, the sniper fired again. I found a pillar to hide behind but Thorne was caught in the middle of the street and he curled up in the shadow of a piece of concrete. The bullets made cracking sounds when they hit the wall. After a pause in the firing a group of Mahdi fighters in a nearby alley told us to come closer and take cover with them. From that street corner, it was a five minute walk to Moqtada Sadr's office and the center of Najaf. Half a dozen Mahdi Army fighters walked with us. Long rows of armed young men we passed held their weapons in the air and sang victory songs. They stayed out of the street to avoid U.S. snipers, but they were relaxed and never trained their rifles on us. A few minutes before we reached our destination, the boys disappeared back into the alleys of the city.