Into the Heart of Najaf

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Prayer: Fighters gather for evening prayer inside the Imam Ali shrine

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Minutes after we arrived at the shrine on Tuesday morning a fighter took us across the street to the shrine. We walked in without being searched. In an office below the north wall, we met Seed Hosam al Husseini, a Mehdi Army official who, along with his superior, Sheikh Ahmed Sheibani, would be our host and protector. The militiamen never threatened us, and while the population in the mosque went as high as several thousand in the evenings, none of the men carried weapons inside its walls.

The Hospital

Outside there were a explosions and deafening bursts of machine gun fire. Much of the fighting was taking place in the cemetery. From an office in the north wall of the Shia shrine we listened to several simultaneous battles taking place, and when they paused there was the sound of sniper rifles echoing off the blue and white tiles of the inner walls.

Our first stop was the makeshift trauma hospital near the south gate. Inside the hospital, Dr. Walid Jasim, a volunteer from Baghdad, tended wounded fighters with horrifying injuries. While Thorne and I were standing in the hospital, a group of Mahdi Army carried in a stretcher with what was left of a man. The man was missing his arm and a leg above the knee, and the fighters had saved a piece of the arm and put it in a cigarette carton next to him. A friend of the dead man screamed at the doctor to take the pulse, and Dr. Jasim did it to calm him down. He had turned away from the corpse moments before, and simply said, "Shaheed," which means martyr and had gone back to tending a living patient. The fighter then lost his control and started screaming and we had to turn away.

Blood covered the marble floor and streaked the walls of the makeshift hospital. We saw fighters run down Rasul street to attack U.S. positions. Minutes later, injured men were wheeled through the gates of the shrine on blood-soaked carts. Casualties were brought in every few minutes.

A Funeral

When a fighter was killed in battle, soldiers wrapped the body in white sheets and placed it in a box on the white marble tiles of the shine. Men lined up behind the box and prayed over it. They bowed their heads and prayed in a careful row. As many as a hundred fighters would join in this ritual, and then carry the coffin around the tomb of Imam Ali, chanting the name of God. We witnessed twenty of these funerals over the course of three days. It was a relentless and terrible sequence, the explosions and incoming rounds, the men rushed to the hospital through the gates of the shrine, the dead carried in a final circuit around the tomb on the shoulders of their friends.

Fighters in the Alleys

Thursday we woke up to the familiar sounds of fighting in the cemetery and mortar attacks, which destroyed our hopes for an easy exit. Thorne and I walked out into the alleys and talked to militiamen in their positions. To get to the alleys across from the shrine, we had to dash across the open plaza where we could be seen by U.S. snipers. We ran this route to get food and drinks on Rasul street more than once.

After we crossed to the west side of Rasul, we found four fighters waiting in the alley with their weapons. One fighter brought cold water for us to drink. After we introduced ourselves, Haider, the 23 year old cell leader told his story. “I was a history student, but now I have this,” he said, holding up a Kalashnikov. His family lived in the city south of Medina street. He hadn’t been able to see them in more than a week, and he wasn’t sure he would ever again.

Another one of the fighters was a strange and thin man wearing a white tasseled scarf around his head. His eyebrows were missing and his name was Karrar. he had been in the cemetery, a place of brutal and sustained fighting and I asked him to describe what it was like, “The Americans are using every kind of weapon in the battle. Aircraft, artillery, rockets, so when you leave the cemetery you feel that it is a miracle.” Karrar told Thorne that the route to the cemetery was a sniper’s alley, that there was no safe way in. During the past few days significant number of Al Mahdi fighters had fought and died there, and were now buried close to where they were killed.

The Convoy

On Thursday morning we started to think about ways we could get out of the medina and through the American lines without retracing our steps through the sniper field. It was a tough problem. Dr. Walid Jasim, the infirmary doctor said we could leave with the wounded in the ambulance. I liked this approach, but it turned out to be unnecessary; our colleagues were in the middle of organizing a convoy to breach the siege. Some friends of ours in Baghdad had put together a dual-purpose trip: Other reporters would get their Najaf datelines, and Thorne and I would get a ride out if we needed one.

What I thought was a brief lull in the fighting in the early afternoon was actually our colleagues coming in for a press conference. Thorne and I agreed to leave the shrine an hour later with the convoy, saying hurried goodbyes to men we had met over the past three days. Hundreds of fighters were at the gate as we left. They all knew us.

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