Inside the shrine

A first-hand account of military clashes in Najaf, Iraq.
Monday, August 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Editor’s note: During the most recent uprising in Najaf, Iraq, photojournalist Thorne Anderson, who received a master’s degree from the MU School of Journalism in 1997, spent three days inside the Imam Ali shrine at the epicenter of clashes between American soldiers and militiamen loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Anderson, who was on assignment for Time magazine with journalist Phillip Robertson, shared this account of the siege, which ended last week, in an e-mail to friends and colleagues.

The Imam Ali shrine contains the tomb of the father of Shiite Islam. It is also the physical center, where religious authority is interpreted and filtered out to Shiite mosques and madrassas all over the world. The shrine and the old city of Najaf are to Shiites what the Vatican is to Catholics.

My first night in the shrine, I moved through the courtyard fielding invitations to eat from the men circled in groups around large plates of rice with a bit of lentils. We talked, ate, slept and bathed with them. We were also under siege with them.

But it was, in some ways, one of the more peaceful experiences I’ve had in Iraq. Apart from the thundering explosions, the horrific injuries, the intermittent rain of shrapnel and the anticipation of a chaotic invasion, it was a peaceful place full of brotherly warmth.

Imagine the intensity of the experience for those who felt they had a religious imperative to defend the shrine and the old city. Contrary to the misinformation of the Iraqi government, the shrine was not being used for fighting. Fighters came in to rest or pray but left their weapons outside.

Occasionally, armed men would enter to carry wounded fighters into the makeshift triage center set up in an office inside the shrine, but even those men were quickly ushered out once the wounded had been delivered.

The shrine served as a refuge, but it was not an entirely safe place. Mortars and artillery were aimed close to the outer walls and there was always the chance that a mortar would fall in the courtyard where hundreds of unarmed people were eating, sleeping or praying. Occasional showers of shrapnel flew into the courtyard from close strikes, and American snipers periodically fired at the gates. No one had yet been killed inside the shrine, but the number of wounded that gathered inside for recovery grew each day.

Despite the chaos, the ordinary activities inside the shrine continued. Noncombatant pilgrims ritualistically circled the tomb, prayed, read the Quran and gathered in groups for religious study. The shrine staff washed the marble floor in the courtyard, polished the gold-leaf tiles and mirrored mosaics and tended to the trash bins and washrooms.

And the dead were paraded, more and more each day, through the front gates. They were covered in white shrouds for funerals at the tomb of Imam Ali.

Phillip and I ventured outside the walls of the shrine each day, increasing our range a little each time but always confining ourselves to the narrow alleyways behind the front lines. I began to meet more and more interesting people — the surgeon from the Kindi Hospital in Baghdad who had volunteered to work under fire in the makeshift triage center; the 8-year-old girl with the beautiful crooked-toothed smile who accompanied her injured brother into the shrine and was staying there with her whole family while he recuperated; the ammo-belt-wearing soldier just outside the gates who took up his assault rifle each night and patrolled the outer walls in his wheelchair; the man who made rounds through the old city streets with his 10-year-old son, carrying a large blue thermos with cold water for the fighters — his older three sons were all on the front lines.

I wanted to learn more about these people, but we just didn’t have the time. I felt like we were just touching the surface of this story; the time we spent there was just enough to prepare us for a deeper understanding. In many ways, I wish I could have stayed.

But I was under deadline pressure to transmit the pictures I had to Time magazine, and I didn’t have the equipment I needed to file. Phillip’s computer power cord had failed him, and he was down to nursing the last few precious minutes of battery time.

While getting into the shrine was difficult, as the battle intensified it became increasingly difficult and dangerous to get out. The shrine is tucked into Najaf’s old city, a warren of narrow alleyways where Mahdi militia fighters had dug in. Occasionally, a seriously wounded fighter would be evacuated out of the old city by a very brave ambulance driver.

We had been given permission to go out on one of those evacuations, which could only proceed if the driver felt it was sufficiently safe. But with the Iraqi government threatening an assault “within hours” and a call from the mosque’s loudspeakers for all Mahdi fighters to assume advanced fighting positions, our hopes for a medical evacuation faded.

That left us with an ugly decision. We could stay in the relative safety of the shrine and miss our filing deadlines, or we could venture out through an escalating battle which, in addition to crossing the Mahdi militia and American front lines, would involve navigating about half a mile of urban sniper territory.

My friend Kael Alford, a photojournalist who has a master’s degree from the MU School of Journalism, was in Najaf, in a hotel on the other side of the city, behind the American lines. I was in sporadic contact with her by satellite phone, and she knew I was feeling the pressure of filing my pictures. But my exit options were grim. Partly for that reason, Kael spearheaded a convoy of reluctant journalists into the shrine.

Kael and a few colleagues notified the governor of Najaf and the American military commanders and arranged for something of an unofficial cease-fire. She sent word through other channels to the Mahdi militia. Still, most of the other journalists were reluctant to leave the safety of their hotel. So Kael and photographer Rita Leistner got in the lead car with their Iraqi driver and Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor, stuck a white flag out the window and drove toward the shrine at 5 mph.

The other journalists, I can imagine, were shamed by the sight of these two women leading the way in, and by the time Kael and Rita reached the first American line, there were 16 cars in the convoy. They drove on a wide avenue into the barren no man’s land where the snipers operate from the shells of destroyed buildings on the old city’s outer edge. By this time, half of the convoy had turned back, but there were still seven cars when they arrived.

They got out of their vehicles and walked with their hands in the air to the Mahdi militia front line. The fighters, who had been alerted by their intelligence network that the journalists were coming, ushered the platoon of helmeted, flak-jacketed reporters through the old city into the shrine, where a press conference was hastily organized for their benefit. All the journalists who came were rewarded with the best datelines in Iraq. Rita and Kael got pictures.

When the al-Sadr representatives had made their statements, Phillip and I fell in with the journalist group. After passing through a gauntlet of pilgrims and fighters kissing us goodbye, we were taken back through the fighting lines to the safety of the hotel.

What Kael and Rita did was impressive. They crossed two front lines during an active siege, in part so Phillip and I could file our stories on deadline. They were smart and cautious in the way they organized the convoy, made prior contact with the warring parties and made the journey in slow, careful stages.

As Phillip put it when Kael and Rita led the journalists into the shrine, “Those women got some cheekbones.”

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