'Everyone is terrified'

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 18.08.04

Najaf, Aug. 17 (Reuters): When Saddam Hussein ruled Najaf with an iron fist, Samir Ghalib stayed home during troubled times.

Now snipers, mortars and tanks are keeping him and many others home as radical Shia militants battle nervous US soldiers along dusty alleyways surrounding their houses. A body lies in the street, covered in a dirty blanket, but it would be too risky to remove it and Ghalib knows it. “A sniper killed him yesterday at two ’clock. He was crossing the street. I don’t think he was a militant fighter, just an ordinary Iraqi,” Ghalib, 24, an unemployed vegetable trader, said.

He wears a flak jacket a journalist gave him that looks odd over his traditional Iraqi flowing robe. The old city of Najaf has turned into a no-man’s-land ahead of an expected US-led offensive on militiamen loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Ghalib and many others living in densely populated streets with cement houses and old wooden doors have become acutely sensitive to the sound of explosions and spend much of their day studying the movement of snipers.

“There is an American tank down that street and troops who shoot at anything that moves, like that man laying dead,” said his neighbour, Hani Hassan, 40, a father of two. “Fifteen mortars landed on our street yesterday. Everyone is terrified. I sent my wife and two daughters to my mother’s house far from here. I can’t call them,” he said, his eyes moist with tears.

Residents of the neighbourhood say they don’t really care who is winning an urban war of attrition that has shattered truces and left them wondering whether this holy city can be spared further destruction and bloodshed.

“We tried to go see our families but we could not make it past roads held by the Americans and the militants who fire at everyone,” said Hassan. The men complained that in some ways Iraq has not changed for the Shia majority. “Najaf is Shia. In Saddam’s time, his al-Quds army and Baathists used to hurt the people. Now the Mehdi Army and the Americans have turned it into a war zone,” Hassan said.