Published on Thursday, August 12, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
World's Shiites Warn That US Is Treading on Sensitive Ground
by Henry Chu and Teresa Watanabe
BAGHDAD — With its twin minarets and glinting gold dome, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf has been a beacon for the Muslim faithful for more than a thousand years. But with fighting raging around the Iraqi shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam is reprising a different historical role: rallying point against foreign forces.
In 1920, rebels intent on kicking out British troops occupying the region gathered at the mosque and readied for revolt. Among their leaders was Sayyid Mohammed Sadr — the scion of a prominent Shiite family and a future prime minister.
Eighty-four years later, cleric Muqtada Sadr, one of Sadr's descendants, wants the U.S. military out. All eyes are once again trained on the shrine, where a final showdown between Muqtada Sadr's militia and American troops may yet take place.
"Keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred," Sadr said Wednesday to his armed followers, many of whom are holed up in the shrine. "I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice."
With U.S. military officials saying they have received permission from Najaf's governor to strike the mosque if necessary, religious and political leaders from Iran to Los Angeles are voicing grave warnings that an American assault on the shrine could be catastrophic to the U.S. image in Iraq and the Muslim world.
"The United States is slaughtering the people of one of the holiest Islamic cities, and the Muslim world and the Iraqi nation will not stand by," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of neighboring Iran, said in an address on Iranian state television.
Three major American Muslim organizations also issued statements Wednesday calling for negotiations to end the conflict.
"Illegal under the Geneva Conventions, any fighting or destruction to the mosque would result in incalculable damage to the image and interests of the United States and would be widely condemned across the world," the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council said.
U.S. authorities, while repeatedly declaring that Sadr has made the mosque a legitimate military target, also have pledged to proceed with caution. "We have always respected that as a holy site," one senior U.S. military official said this week, on condition his name not be used.
Believed to have been erected in the 8th century and rebuilt at various times, the Imam Ali shrine is the heart of Najaf, each year attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The mosque sits in Najaf's Old City amid a dusty, raucous maze of shops and alleys.
Shiites revere the shrine as the burial place of Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and in their eyes, his legitimate successor. Ali, who was assassinated in 661 in the nearby town of Kufa, was said to have been buried in secret so his enemies could not desecrate his tomb, but the spot was discovered decades later and a shrine was built over it.
Religious tourism has been Najaf's lifeblood for centuries, and the mosque is a repository of riches: Precious gifts from sultans and potentates are housed there, and offering boxes are stuffed with currency from all over the world.
Abutting the mosque is a cemetery known as the Valley of Peace. One of the world's biggest graveyards, it is a treeless expanse dotted with gravestones and mausoleums containing the remains of millions who wanted to be interred close to Ali.
Though some Muslims are critical of Sadr for courting a military attack on the shrine, others say they are disturbed by news reports showing U.S. soldiers stepping on graves and destroying the photos of loved ones laid on top of the crypts.
Shiites "worldwide are shocked and outraged over what is going on in Najaf," said Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a prominent Shiite leader in Southern California. "They consider it an assault on the sanctity of Islam and in particular Shia Islam. Any attack on that city will destroy America's future in Iraq completely. It will completely discredit America and make it the new tyrant in the eyes of Shias worldwide."
Several Shiite Muslims likened any attack on the mosque to bombing the Vatican, and predicted that it would spark retaliatory attacks on U.S. facilities in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Lebanon and other nations with significant Shiite populations. Parvez Shah of the Universal Muslim Assn. of America called for Iraqi forces to replace U.S. troops in Najaf to defuse growing tensions.
Although the governor of Najaf, Adnan Zurfi, reportedly gave U.S. troops permission to fire on the mosque if necessary, Al-Qazwini said that few Shiites regard his word as authoritative. They say he was chosen for the post by U.S. officials, not elected, only recently returning to Iraq after a decade in the Detroit area.
Early today, the Iraqi government issued a statement on behalf of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi assuring Iraqis "that the holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could possibly harm its sacredness." Allawi "is holding the armed elements inside the shrine responsible for any harm or damage that may occur."
In the eyes of most Shiites, Al-Qazwini said, only a leader with the standing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani could issue permission to attack at the mosque. Sistani, who is based in Najaf, is in London, reportedly for medical treatment.
Over the last century, the mosque and nearby cemetery have been marred by numerous incidents of violence.
In the 1920s, the shrine was a center of unrest during the revolt against British rule, used by Sayyid Mohammed Sadr, the leader of a secret Shiite society, to rally thousands of fighters.
The insurrection failed, ending with heavy losses on both sides. After the fighting, Winston Churchill, then Britain's colonial secretary, said he was astonished at how the British had "succeeded in such a short time in alienating the whole country."
In the 1980s, men who wanted to avoid service in the Iran-Iraq war hid in some of the graveyard's underground crypts. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President Saddam Hussein had part of the cemetery bulldozed following a failed Shiite uprising.
The bloodshed continued last year. In April, a young cleric was stabbed to death near the mosque's entrance — a slaying in which Muqtada Sadr is implicated, Iraqi officials say. Four months later, a car bomb killed nearly 100 people.
And this spring, there was widespread anger when outer parts of the shrine were damaged, apparently by mortar fire, in fighting between U.S. troops and Sadr's forces. The U.S. denied that it was responsible and suggested that Al Mahdi militiamen may have inflicted the damage to provoke outrage.
Now U.S. officials say Sadr's fighters are using the graveyard as a weapons storehouse. The fierce combat of the last week, some of it hand-to-hand, broke hundreds of tombstones in half. U.S. military officials said militants had punched openings in crypts to use as sniper holes and stashed weapons in coffins.
Although the cemetery is considered less sacred than the mosque, many Shiites are dismayed by the militarization of the final resting place.
"Imagine turning this Valley of Peace into a valley of destruction," Al-Qazwini said. "People are offended. They believe anyone taken to that cemetery will enjoy peace and tranquillity. They can't stand seeing Apaches and other military aircraft bombing the area and disturbing the graves.
"It's very outrageous and sad."
Special correspondent Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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