- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — The gravediggers have nearly finished plot No. 195 in a special section of the ancient cemetery that is now devoted to those who died as part of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army.

“The martyr Kalem Jawad Bahri died in Babylon on May 17, 2004,” reads one tombstone.

Despite a truce between Sheik al-Sadr’s militiamen and coalition forces that was announced nearly two weeks ago, the football-field-sized space allotted for those who have died in the sheik’s nationwide uprising against the U.S.-led occupation is filling up fast.

“We saw some American tanks violating [our] borders,” said Amir Hassan al-Heili, a 29-year-old religion student and al-Sadr militiaman holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on a Najaf street corner. “We have the authorization to attack them.”

A recent agreement to disband Iraqi militias excludes most of the armed groups in the Shi’ite south, which sprang up after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government last year.

In the immediate, postwar vacuum, they quickly seized weapons and buildings and built up their power and followings.

After two months of fighting that began when coalition forces shut down Sheik al-Sadr’s newspaper for printing violent, anti-American diatribes, coalition officials say peace is near.

“Muqtada militia fighters have virtually disappeared from the streets, including in the old city of Najaf,” Dan Senor, spokesman for U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer, said during a press conference last weekend.

Still, self-described al-Sadr loyalists continue to bear arms and vow to fight U.S. forces.

Ali Abbas Muhammad, a 17-year-old from Karbala, walked gingerly through Najaf’s Valley of Peace cemetery — the ancient burial grounds where American tanks crushed the al-Sadr militiamen and damaged countless graves during several weeks of fighting.

“We’ve decided not to leave Najaf,” Mr. Muhammad said, an AK-47 rifle hanging from his shoulder.

“We’ve decided to stay and to either die for the sake of the holy shrines or be victorious.”

With U.S. forces largely keeping their distance from the center of the city where the Imam Ali shrine is located, the Najaf area has calmed.

Despite the hundreds of young men who had died fighting the Americans, al-Sadr spokesman Hosam al-Hosseini said Mahdi’s Army had scored a great victory over America.

“We consider it a victory because the Americans entered Fallujah after three weeks,” he said. “Here it’s six weeks and the U.S. still has not occupied Najaf.”

Mr. al-Hosseini’s mobile phone rang. An American convoy had been attacked near Baghdad. The 34-year-old, wearing the black turban denoting him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, chain-smoked and excitedly took notes. His 35-year-old colleague, Sheik Ahmad Shabani listed the uprising’s other accomplishments.

“The Americans came here and negotiated with us,” he said during a chat in an air-conditioned lounge inside the Imam Ali shrine, a major holy site where the early Muslim cleric is entombed.

“We forced the Americans to change the government and change the Cabinet.” Back outside in the blistering midday heat, the fighters of Mahdi’s Army continued to roam the streets, hungering for martyrdom.

Mr. al-Heili, the religion student with a grenade launcher, said his mother wouldn’t shed any tears if he is killed by American soldiers. “When I die, my mother will give out chocolates at my funeral.”

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