Tuesday, June 1, 2004

KARBALA, Iraq — The humble restaurant on Mokhayem Street reopened for business during the weekend with a menu of roasted chicken and kabobs and gave its owners and 37 employees a temporary sigh of relief.

“So far, we have managed to only restore the men’s section,” said Abdul Hossein Abdul Faleh, the Duras al-Najaf restaurant’s bookkeeper. “God willing, we’ll repair the family section, too.”

The restaurant — whose name means “jewel of Najaf” — and many of the surrounding hotels it served were all but destroyed during weeks of fighting between coalition forces and the Mahdi’s Army militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The fighting frightened away the Iraqi and foreign religious pilgrims who, since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, had flooded into this city of more than 500,000. Karbala and Najaf, an hour away, have three of Shi’ite Islam’s most holy sites.

“Things were very good here a few months ago,” said Ayatollah Hadi al-Modaressi, Karbala’s leading cleric. “The streets were filled with tourists and pilgrims. The city was being reborn.”

Oppressed under Saddam, the residents of the shrine cities welcomed last year’s U.S. invasion and were mostly untouched during the war. Neighboring Iran’s majority Shi’ites began streaming in and spending cash on hotels, food and packaged tours. Construction began on new hotels.

Before the recent fighting, the Duras al-Najaf served up to 1,000 customers and generated up to $2,000 per day. Pilgrims stopped by for lunch. Nearby hotels ordered food in bulk ferried over by enthusiastic waiters. Karbala merchants in the dining room chatted on their new mobile phones.

The city attracted 5 million pilgrims during the two top Shi’ite holidays this year, said Asfuq al-Saud, governor of Karbala. Up to a half-million visited on ordinary days, including up to 200,000 from abroad, he said. The city created a tourism and pilgrimage promotion commission employing 25 persons as well as a 50-member police force to help pilgrims.

Sheik al-Sadr’s uprising, which began in April, changed all that. U.S.-led forces moved into the city intent on disbanding Mahdi’s Army and bringing Sheik al-Sadr to justice in the killing of a pro-U.S. cleric last year.

Once coalition forces entered the city, the restaurant and all the other businesses closed.

“The tanks came in and started firing,” Mr. Faleh said.

He said U.S. aircraft dropped a bomb on a neighboring building possibly used by militiamen for staging attacks. The restaurant caught fire, half of it burning down before the flames were doused.

Within a few weeks, fighting had consumed the city, leaving hundreds dead and much of the area around the city’s most important shrine in ruins.

The city’s elders and clerical establishment intervened, demanding that the fighting be stopped. Under a peace deal all but imposed on the Americans and the al-Sadr followers about 10 days ago, Sheik al-Sadr’s men would leave the city and stop fighting Americans and U.S. forces would stay out of Karbala’s sacred city center.

With calm mostly restored, the staff and management of Duras al-Najaf surveyed the damage. At first, some were despondent and hopeless.

Not only was the restaurant a wreck, but many of the hotels to which they catered had been turned into bombed-out shells. The owner of one nearby hotel, now little more than a heap of rubble, suffered a heart attack when he saw his smoldering building.

The restaurant appealed to the Coalition Provisional Authority and the governor’s office for help, but was referred in both cases to a human rights group, whose doors were shuttered, Mr. Faleh said.

Karbala’s leaders have stepped up efforts to revive the economy. Mr. al-Saud, the governor, said his staff and the coalition officials had spent the past few days discussing how to proceed on reconstruction. Ayatollah al-Modaressi said he had sent word to Iranians that it is safe to visit Karbala again.

Faced with the prospect of losing their livelihoods, the restaurant’s staff and management came to a decision: They would work night and day without pay to fix up the restaurant. After seven days working 18 hours a day, they managed to open for business. On Saturday, a trickle of customers — mostly locals — came in for lunch.

Nearby, a gaggle of laborers could be heard shoveling at the site of a badly damaged hotel, hurrying to repair it in hopes that the faded economic boom will resume.

“Life was just starting to get a little easier,” said Mohammad Shaker, a waiter at the restaurant. “For once, we thought maybe our time has arrived.”

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