The Mood in Najaf, Shiite Stronghold

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Iraq's Shiite Muslims are outraged by Wednesday's attack on one of their holiest shrines, north of Baghdad. Robert Siegel talks with NPR's Anne Garrels, who assesses the mood in Najaf, the seat of the Shiite clerical establishment.


NPR's Anne Garrels was in the Shiite holy city of Najaf as news spread of the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra yesterday. Najaf is the seat of the Shiite clerical establishment and home of its foremost religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Anne, what was the response in Najaf to the bombing of the shrine?

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Well, first of all, Robert, as you say, I mean, I don't think one can emphasize enough that this city revolves around Shiism. In addition to being Sistani's headquarters, it's also home to two important Shiite shrines, and much of the city's business revolves around religious tourism and Shiite education. And immediately thousands from Najaf and surrounding areas flocked to the street outside Sistani's office waiting for guidance. And, amazingly, they weren't happy with what they heard.

I mean, though Sistani's words are usually considered law, there was immediate and unprecedented frustration with his continued calls for restraint. For Shiites I spoke to, the attack on the shrine was simply the last straw. To a man, they said the Arabic version, basically, of enough, already. We're being taken for fools.

You know, usually when you do these kinds of interviews someone will interrupt with a voice of reason saying hey, we don't want civil war, you know, we're patient. Those voices are stunningly silent right now. And, you know, every street and every house, especially in Najaf, has pictures of Shiite martyrs from the 9th century. Now houses, every house I went to, has pictures of the desecrated shrine. Internet cafes were jammed with people trying to download and print images of the bombed dome.

SIEGEL: I want you to give us some context here, and for the enough, already mood that was so evident. There have been attacks and bombings of Shiite mosques, of Shiite individuals, attacks inside mosques over the past several years. Why is this the breaking point that it's turning out to be?

GARRELS: Well, what people in Najaf said, the Sunnis, assuming it was Sunnis who had, who bombed the shrine, have hit at the heart of the Shiites. The Shia believe their messiah vanished from the site of the shrine in Samarra and will one day reemerge to usher in Judgment Day. So this is an incredibly important place. And the bombing, they said again and again, is a direct attack on their faith.

SIEGEL: But did you get the impression that regardless of the political situation today in Iraq, a bombing at the shrine in Samarra would've had this effect, or is it the ignition of an explosion all of whose ingredients are ready to go?

GARRELS: It's hard to know, but certainly, I mean, commando units immediately demanded they be allowed to go to Samarra. Ordinary groups who normally would preach reason were saying they want to arm, they want to go to Samarra. And it's been a big problem for officials. There were meetings across the south today with officials trying to deal with these demands that they be allowed to march to Samarra. And Prime Minister Jaafari had to intervene. He's a Shiite. And he's asked people not to go there now because of the potential for large-scale clashes.

SIEGEL: How are ordinary Iraqis reacting to all this? Is everybody saying, I want to march off to Samarra and protect the shrine? Is anybody suggesting it's time to ratchet it down and avoid all-out sectarian conflict?

GARRELS: I have to say it's about as tense here in Iraq as I've ever seen it. I mean, people are really afraid that this could be the moment of no return, that there really, this could lead to a civil war. And, you know, there's already been increased identification with one's own sect over the past three years.

After all, the Shiites, long oppressed, though a majority, finally swept into power for the first time, and they're flexing their political muscle and getting the plum jobs. The Sunni Arabs, once rulers, are angry. In the security vacuum and chaos people are increasingly turning to their tribes and their families to protect themselves, and sectarian violence has driven many people to have to move from one area to another area where their religious group predominates. And Samarra is a good point. The place where the shrine was bombed. This is a predominantly Sunni area. Most of the Shiites have fled from there. And when I asked these Shiites from Samarra, what about your Sunni neighbors? And what's their attitude? And they shrug their shoulders and say, you know they're really nice people, they're our friends. But they can't do anything to protect us in this madness.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ann Garrels talking to us from Baghdad. Anne, thank you.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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