With Shopping, Holy Sites, Najaf Offers Respite From Iraq's Violence : Parallels When you think of Iraq, you may picture a desert battlefield. But life is not like that everywhere. The southern Shiite heartland of Najaf is full of religious pilgrims and bustling business.

With Shopping, Holy Sites, Najaf Offers Respite From Iraq's Violence

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The U.S. war in Iraq is officially over, but that country is far from stable. ISIS militants control large areas, and the U.S. has been launching airstrikes against the group. So those are the kinds of images that usually come to mind when you think of Iraq. But there are pockets of that country where life is far more calm, and people are just going about their lives. That's the case in Iraq's Shiite heartland in the southern part of the country, the city of Najaf, home to thriving businesses and religious landmarks. NPR's Alice Fordham is our guide.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Welcome to the holy city of Najaf, and to its brand-new and rather holy shopping mall. Under banners with Muslim prayers, kids rampage through an adventure playground and ride mini-helicopters while conservative women in long black robes browse for cute outfits to wear when they are home with family.

MOHAMMED BADERI: You know, this is our mother homeland. It's our homeland over here. This city is deserve this kind of business.

FORDHAM: Meet one of four main investors, Mohammed Baderi. He spent 24 years in the United States, but he never forgot his home city. Najaf is beloved as one of Shiite Islam's holiest places, the burial place of their revered Imam Ali. But Baderi felt Najafis needed opportunities as well as blessings.

BADERI: So first of all, we need to look for the new jobs to improve their income.

FORDHAM: Now he reckons the city mall employs 300 or 400 people. Recently, Najaf's been spared the worst of Iraq's violence far to the north. And with a little ingenuity and resilience, there's business to be done. At a more traditional market around the shrine of Imam Ali, the streets popping with color, lurid paintings of Shiite martyrs, rainbow prayer beads. Soon more than a million Shiite pilgrims from around the world are expected to arrive here for an annual ceremony. At a cozy hotel around the corner with a fountain plashing next to white leather couches, I meet the owner, Hassan Abu Sebbah, who explains the secrets of success in a shrine city.

HASSAN ABU SEBBAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Religion and state, he says. A businessman should be a diplomat with good relationships with the politicians and with the clerics. The organization that runs the shrine is rich and powerful. Just outside the hotel is proof - concrete proof - of their ambitions. Construction of a vast extension to the existing goldehn shrine is well underway. There are other projects, too. The council built a conference center with an auditorium full of red velvet seats and planted trees along the roads. Honestly, though, driving around Najaf, it looks like it's got a little way to go. There's cracked pavement, piles of garbage, people living in shacks with their sheep. I meet one civil engineer, Kadhim Abid Mensee, who wearily explains that the pilgrims actually put a lot of pressure on the rickety infrastructure.

KADHIM ABID MENSEE: (Through translator) The people coming need services. The people are going to affect the infrastructure, garbage. Now I have 1.3 million residents, plus 1.5 million more people coming.

FORDHAM: He doesn't talk about the shrine or mall, but wistfully of a day when Najaf can invest in an American-style garbage collection system and some new bridges.

MUNIR RAMAHI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Still, the new projects do cheer the business community. Munir Ramahi runs a tourism company. Compared with the rest of Iraq, Najaf is doing OK, he says. And things might get better.

RAMAHI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Perhaps one day we'll be giving tours of the ruins of Babylon, which are nearby, he says. Not today or tomorrow, but one day. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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