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Najaf Residents Feel Caught in Middle - 2004-08-25

The standoff in the Iraqi city of Najaf has dragged on for three weeks. Militants loyal to a radical Shia cleric have faced off against American troops and now Iraqi soldiers have joined in the battle. Najaf is like a ghost town, with shops closed and usually bustling streets nearly empty. Many residents of the central Old City have left to escape the fighting in their neighborhood. Those who have stayed are pleading for an end to the violence.

Outside his house in Najaf's Old City, Rahman Rumiah sifts through a huge pile of charred rubble and burnt carpets. This is what remains of his worldly possessions. His home nearly burned down amid the chaos that has engulfed Najaf.

He takes several visitors inside the building, and the acrid smell of ash and smoke makes them wrinkle their noses. The walls are blackened, and the glass in the rear windows has shattered. The remaining shards have melted in the heat of the blaze.

At the height of the fighting, the Rumiah family fled to the nearby city of Diwaniyah. They returned Monday to find they had lost nearly everything they own.

Mr. Rumiah says everything is gone, including their prized TV and new refrigerator. He says, but it is a good thing we were not here when it happened. We would have been killed if we had stayed.

Although there is no obvious impact hole, Mr. Rumiah believes the house was hit by a mortar. He cannot say who fired it, if indeed that is what caused the blaze.

He says, the Americans are positioned in front of the house, and the Mahdi Army behind us. We are caught in the middle.

That is a common feeling in the Old City. U.S. troops and militia fighters known as the Mahdi Army have been battling each other for nearly three weeks, and the Old City has seen the worst of the fighting. The Americans fire tank rounds and artillery, and their attack helicopters and airplanes pummel targets in the Old City. The Mahdi Army use rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, and mortars, which often go off target, with disastrous results.

Mr. Rumiah's sister-in-law, Turkia Rajih, says families are hiding in their homes, terrified.

She says, we are just poor people. We have nothing to do with either the Mahdi Army or the Americans.

Outside, the streets of the Old City are nearly deserted. The neighborhood has not had electricity for weeks. A few cars pick their way through the narrow alleyways that would normally be crowded with pilgrims heading to the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. It is just about 500 meters from the Rumiah home.

One of Mr. Rumiah's neighbors compares the shrine to the Kabbah in Mecca, as a site for pilgrimage.

He says, the holy shrine should be protected from bullets and mortar shells.

Fighting around the shrine is one of the reasons that the crisis in Najaf has enraged many Shias not just in Iraq but around the world. The site is holy to Sunni Muslims too, and some Iraqi Sunni leaders have called for solidarity with the people of Najaf.

During Saddam Hussein's regime, it was hard for Shias to go on pilgrimage to Najaf and other holy cities.

Today, the pilgrims have again stopped coming, and it is generally considered too dangerous to try to enter the shrine. Residents of other parts of Najaf consider it too dangerous even to enter the Old City, a fact that becomes clear when a car full of visitors stops to ask for directions.

When a passenger asks for the best route to the Old City through the maze of roadblocks, a bystander says, why would you want to go there? It's very dangerous. You should not go. He only relents when the visitors say they want to check on their relatives who live there.

Once inside in the Old City, residents say most of their neighbors have already left.

A man says, everyone has evacuated. They have gone to Diwaniyah.

So Najaf has become a ghost town. Even outside the Old City, the shops are closed and life appears to have ground to a halt. Residents of other neighborhoods say the fighting has made it hard for them to get to work or buy food.

But that looks set to change, now that Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called on his followers around the country to march to Najaf in a bid to stop the bloodshed that has gone on for nearly three weeks.

On Wednesday, just hours after the call went out, some people in Baghdad were already preparing to leave.

And so the ayatollah's call may inject life into a city that has been strangled by violence.