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Najaf may hold key to Iraq's stability

Amid uncertainty, fear grips spiritual capital for Shi'ites

Iraqis mourned slain Riyad al-Nuri, director of the Sadr movement's office in Najaf, during his funeral earlier this month. Gunmen killed Nuri, top aide to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iraqis mourned slain Riyad al-Nuri, director of the Sadr movement's office in Najaf, during his funeral earlier this month. Gunmen killed Nuri, top aide to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. (qassem zein/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ned Parker and Raheem Salman
Los Angeles Times / April 21, 2008

NAJAF, Iraq - Clerics and politicians speak in hushed tones about the names drawn up for assassination. Guards stand outside their compounds clutching assault rifles, and handguns rest on desks. No one can be trusted. All sides fear that dark times are coming to Najaf, the spiritual capital of Iraq's Shi'ites.

"The situation is mysterious," said Sheik Ali Najafi, the son and confidant of Grand Ayatollah Bashir Najafi, one of the four senior Shi'ite clerics in Iraq, who guide the country's majority faith and counsel its politicians. Like elder statesmen, the four have found themselves ensnared in the conflict between the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government and an upstart young cleric, and son of a grand ayatollah himself: Moqtada al-Sadr.

The poisonous atmosphere of treachery and paranoia has consequences far beyond the alleyways of this ancient shrine city. Najaf may hold the key to Iraq's stability: If it descends into violence, the entire Shi'ite south will almost certainly follow suit. US forces will be stretched, the chances of a drawdown diminished. The Shi'ite parties involved will probably look to Iran to broker an end to the crisis. And chances for a real Iraqi political process will be on hold.

And on Saturday night, the fears of a broader Shi'ite conflict loomed larger after Sadr threatened all-out war against the government if it did not call a halt to military operations against his followers in Baghdad and the southern port of Basra.

Like Basra, with its oil, whoever controls Najaf will play a major role in charting Iraq's future. It is here where Shi'ite politicians come for guidance from the grand ayatollahs. It is here where the populist Sadr first challenged Iraq's conservative religious establishment.

"Najaf is the kitchen, where major decisions are cooked," said Salah Obeidi, Sadr's official spokesman.

Obeidi works out of a barren room in a closed-down restaurant and hotel. Bodyguards sit in the lobby, decorated with a mural of al-Sadr and long-haired Shi'ite saints gazing austerely at Najaf's alleyways. Obeidi confesses he has been in crisis mode lately.

"We are afraid the situation from now till October won't be stable for the Sadrists," Obeidi said. "Najaf is very important."

The city's rewards are huge for Sadr and his competitors: lucrative revenues from the pilgrims who flock here, and the chance to spread one's influence among the faithful.

Every year, millions of pilgrims come to Najaf to pray at the Imam Ali Mosque, the tomb of the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, whose death inspired the founding of the Shi'ite faith. Believers from around Iraq bury their dead in Najaf's cemetery, named the Valley of Peace. Aspiring clerics flock to study in Najaf's revered hawza, a loose network of illustrious seminaries, rivaled only by Qom in Iran.

"Moqtada would covet the kind of Shi'ites Najaf holds," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shi'ite Islam at Tufts University. "Sadr is popular politically, the grand ayatollahs religiously. There is a tense standoff between them. They both hold power and popularity, and that is what makes the situation so tense and volatile."

Najaf's merchant elite and clergy have long viewed Sadr as a rabble-rouser, able to mobilize the Shi'ite slums and rural masses for violence. No one in Najaf has forgotten April 2003, when Saddam Hussein fell and Sadr, the son of a famed and controversial grand ayatollah, emerged from house arrest to lay claim to his dead father's mantle. That month, Abdel Majid Khoei, the son of another late grand ayatollah, was murdered by a mob outside Sadr's home.

Then, in the summer of 2004, Sadr seized the Imam Ali shrine as part of his open revolt against the Americans. The ensuing battle battered the city's cemetery and neighborhoods. Even now, shattered buildings litter the landscape. During that uprising, the country's preeminent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, intervened to save Sadr, offering the Mahdi Army safe passage from the Imam Ali shrine as a way of ending a monthlong confrontation with US forces. This time, the grand ayatollahs declined to shield the incendiary cleric.

Three days into the Basra campaign, Grand Ayatollah Najafi issued a fatwa that declared the Iraqi government as the only force in the country that had the right to bear arms.

His son, Sheik Ali Najafi, left little doubt that the clergy had backed the Iraqi army. "We see this as a positive what the government has done. The people want the government to control the streets and the law to be enforced. No other groups," he said.

Their stance is a gamble. An influential cleric who is knowledgeable about talks between the Sadr movement and the grand ayatollahs described the situation in bleak terms: The government is weak, while Sadr aides now acknowledge privately that they have lost control of members who are receiving support from Tehran.

"There are groups in the Mahdi Army who are kidnapping, killing, and stealing. They don't listen to Moqtada. They are openly operating with Iranian interests," he said.

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