NAJAF, Iraq—American-backed Iraqi troops fought their way closer to the Imam Ali shrine on Tuesday after thunderous early morning U.S. air strikes on rebel positions violently shook the sanctuary and filled its courtyard with smoke.
A Knight Ridder reporter who spent the night in the shrine watched shrapnel shoot over the walls of the compound as U.S. military aircraft buzzed overhead, pounding safe houses of militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in a barrage of bombings that lasted until dawn.
Few in the shrine could sleep through the ominous rumble of American AC-130 Specter gunships, capable of firing 1,800 bullets per minute. When the bombs fell closer than ever, hundreds rose to march and chant in the courtyard, saying they hoped their voices boosted the morale of the Mahdi Army.
At 4 a.m., about eight militiamen who had been resting in the shrine between battles rose, took a bow before a cheering crowd and dashed out into the darkness.
Injured fighters and civilians trickled into the makeshift emergency room at the shrine, where volunteer doctors from the port city of Basra dug shrapnel out of legs, bandaged severely bleeding heads and put tiny cups of water to the parched lips of their patients.
Dr. Qusay Lefta, bleary-eyed and bloodstained, said he treats about 20 people a day injured in the clashes. At least three had died in the past six days, he said. As Lefta spoke, a group of men wearing the green headbands of the Mahdi Army ran inside the clinic with a young rebel whose leg was shredded by bullets from what they described as a U.S. helicopter gunship.
Two bandaged fighters shoved cookies in their mouths and gulped water after being treated for head wounds. They were perched on a rooftop aiming for an American sniper position when an artillery tank spotted them, said Dergham Kadhim, 22, and Ali Hussein, 31, both of the nearby town of Hilla. The tank fired on them, but they scrambled away and received only minor injuries.
As the fighting continued, both sides issued mixed messages on how to resolve the conflict. The Iraqi government said the door was still open for al-Sadr to disband his militia and vacate the shrine, though Tuesday's increased military action made that improbable.
Top al-Sadr aides insisted the elusive cleric was still in Najaf leading the Mahdi Army and said, "Despite all that's happening, we are ready to negotiate now to put an end to the suffering."
So far, the shrine has suffered only slight battle damage. A chunk of turquoise mosaic tile was missing from one of the entrances, and a few bullets had pierced the landmark golden dome. Still, any damage to the site is considered a sacrilege by the millions of Shiites for whom Imam Ali's tomb is a place of pilgrimage. A full-scale battle inside the compound would inflame Iraq's Shiite majority and risk a wider uprising for Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government.
The most intense fighting came after midnight and early Tuesday morning, when the Mahdi Army answered U.S. strikes with a volley of mortar fire that appeared to come from just a few feet outside the shrine compound. Blast waves shook the ground like an earthquake, while the pungent scent of gunpowder hung in the air. A thick fog of smoke drifted through the compound, causing a brief panic among Iraqis, who feared they'd been gassed.
In hints that al-Sadr, who's made no public appearances in more than a week, is losing control of his men, the two rebels from Hilla said they would continue fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces no matter what the cleric ordered. Several other militiamen inside and outside the shrine said the same.
"We won't leave, even if we all die here," Hussein said.
"America and its supporters won't remove even one brick from the shrine," added Hussein Halawi, 33, also from Hilla. "And if Iraqi soldiers come inside, we'll slaughter them."
Many of the 500 or so al-Sadr supporters in the shrine prayed through the night, crying out for Imam Ali to stop the bombardment. A middle-aged cook who gave her name only as Saleema cleaned out her ear with a matchstick as explosions from rockets cracked the glass in the women's washroom before dawn.
Her ears wouldn't stop ringing, her body hurt from sleeping on the hard floors of the shrine and she'd seen enough broken young Shiite men carried through the gates.
"Do you think these lives cost nothing for their families? Don't you know they are handsome, smart young men their families are proud of?" Saleema asked desperately. "And what about the poor American boys out there? Don't they also have mothers who want them home?"
It was impossible for a reporter to reach American or Iraqi troops on the ground for comment. Snipers seemed to line the alleys around the shrine and, after spending the night with the Mahdi Army, a reporter who sought out Americans could be killed by rebels as a suspected spy.
Records at Najaf's main hospital showed two Iraqis killed and 18 wounded in the overnight clashes. Assistant physician Nasser Jabar said the casualties are probably much higher, but it's too dangerous for paramedics to reach the front lines.
"Even if we get calls and the Americans and Iraqis know we're coming, they still shoot at us," Jabar said. "No one can come from the Old City and we can't evacuate the wounded because of a deliberate targeting of our ambulances."
After leaving the shrine Tuesday before noon, a Knight Ridder reporter and two Iraqi journalists encountered street-by-street gun battles and Mahdi Army mortar fire. A Najaf resident and his young son led the journalists through the heart of Mahdi territory, where gunmen peered from windows and rebels patched up injured comrades in dusty hideouts.
The path to safety ran through maze-like alleyways and up craggy terrain, where plumes of smoke rose from explosions behind nearby hills. Bombed-out homes and vehicles littered the route. At one stench-filled turn near a station for washing the dead, flies hovered above dozens of sets of bloodied clothes.
A lone car meandered through the alleyways, braking at every intersection to prevent an attack from the sand-colored American armored vehicles that dotted the outskirts of Mahdi Army land. The driver of the red sedan, an Iraqi who spent 22 years in Belgium before returning home to Najaf, agreed to take the journalists to their hotel.
Already in the car were two Iraqi women in their 30s, on a risky drive to check on relatives after the overnight bombings. One of them, a green-eyed beauty named Leila Jaboori, said she was amazed to see Iraqi troops pushing toward the Old City in armored convoys.
Jaboori said three weeks of failed negotiations between al-Sadr and the Iraqi government had dashed her hopes of a peaceful solution to the stand-off. Watching the Iraqi troops, she said she's bracing for an apocalyptic showdown in the sacred city.
"It's a calamity beyond all calamities," she said. "Every day I tell myself it'll end and we can be happy. But it won't end and we won't be happy. Nobody can be happy when he sees his brothers killing one another."
(Special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NAJAF
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040824 Najaf old city