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Report from Iraq:  Police Force Being Formed to Protect Shi'ite Shrine in Najaf - 2003-09-22


The police in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf are training a special force to guard the major Shi'ite Muslim shrine in the city, in hopes of preventing a repetition of the devastating attack on August 29. That attack killed 80 people, including one of Iraq's leading Shi'ite clerics.

Najaf is one of the holiest places to Shi'ite Muslims. In the center of the city is the grand Ali Mosque. Its gleaming golden dome can be seen for many kilometers.

Tens of thousands of religious pilgrims visit Najaf annually, and thousands of students attend its religious schools.

But these days, a different type of training is going on in Najaf.

At a police training academy on the outskirts of the city, recruits for the new Ali Mosque police learn how to do their jobs. They are learning such skills as how to operate metal detectors and how to control unruly crowds, including how to use batons to drive back a mob. The project was long-planned, but its implementation was accelerated after the mosque bombing.

About 400 new officers, all volunteers, are expected to begin security duties within the walls of the Ali shrine complex this week, while regular Iraqi police continue to patrol outside.

Indeed, the new force is being trained by Iraqi policemen, with help from U.S. forces. The Iraqi police training supervisor, Lieutenant Abbas Fadhil, says the new force is meant to prevent any further attacks in Najaf, and he has a message for the terrorists.

"We are working hard to prevent this, and we want to tell those guys, whoever they are, this bad behavior makes our people stronger. I want to tell them they committed a mistake with this operation," he said.

Among the shrine police recruits is Jaffer Hadi Hussein, who says he left his job at a car wash to volunteer for the shrine police force. He says his training has gone well, and he is ready for his new duties. And he was asked how he felt about the American troops in Najaf.

He says the arrival of the Americans was good for Iraq, because they got rid of Saddam Hussein, and that led to economic sanctions being lifted. And while there is much debate among world leaders about how quickly new Iraqi leaders should take full control of the country, the new police recruit says he cannot imagine Iraqis taking control of all security issues for some time to come.

The events of August 29 continue to reverberate on the streets of Najaf. It was on that fateful Friday, just after midday prayers, that a car bomb went off near the mosque. It killed more than 80 people. Most prominent among them was Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim. He was one of the most senior Shi'ite clerics in Iraq, and his organization holds a seat on the country's governing council.

The mosque contains the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. Ali was buried there in the year 661, after his murder during a power struggle over the leadership of the Islamic community.

The city erupted in grief after the bombing. Angry mobs attacked Western journalists, who came to report on the blast. Armed Shi'ite militiamen took to the streets. Many people blamed the U.S. occupation forces for not providing enough security.

But U.S. commanders point out they were following Iraqi requests to keep their forces away from the holy site. The commander of the U.S. Marines in Najaf, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Woodbridge, says the Iraqi training program is designed to provide security for the mosque, while continuing to respect its leaders' desires.

"The principal objections for security presence in the shrine has been a continued desire not to have coalition forces in and around the shrine itself, and this force is really the answer to that dilemma," he said.

Colonel Woodbridge also says the new security force will be an important step toward handing all control in Najaf back to Iraqis.

"This is one of the biggest steps toward assisting the local authorities in Najaf to provide security for themselves, as a step toward the future of the eventuality that the coalition is not going to be required here anymore," he said.

The tension caused by the bombing has eased somewhat in Najaf. But western visitors are wise to keep a low profile. Barricades keep vehicles from getting close to the Ali Mosque.

U.S. patrols only go near the shrine, if Iraqi police call for help. And once the new Iraqi force is in place, officials hope even emergency visits will not be necessary.