Friday, December 22, 2006

Najaf, Part I

On Wednesday I traveled to Najaf to attend the PIC (Provinicial Iraqi Control) Ceremony, marking the transfer of authority for all security issues in the province from Coalition forces to the Najaf Provincial Council. Najaf is the third Iraqi province to assume responsbility for its security, and our goal is to transfer the remaining half-dozen provinces with less than two attacks per day to local Iraqi control in the next few months. Hopefully (fingers crossed), we will be able to transfer the responsibility for security to all of Iraq's 18 provinces by Fall of 2007.

For those who don't know, Najaf is the most important city in Shi'a Islam, third in holiness only to Mecca and Medina. The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf is the resting place of Imam Ali, the son-in-law and nephew of the Prophet Muhammed, who Shi'a believe was the Prophet's rightful successor. Surrounding the gilded mosque is the Wadi as Salam "Wadi of Peace", the largest cemetary in the Muslim world. Shi'a believe that anyone buried near Imam Ali will be guaranteed resurrection on Judgment Day. Najaf was also traditionally Shiism's center of learning until the religious establishment there was crushed by Saddam Hussein.

In other words, Najaf is a very important city to Iraq's history and cultural identity.

So, in no particular order, my notes from my trip to Najaf:

- Flying over Baghdad, a number of traffic jams were visible on the Eastern shore of the Tigris, suggesting people are still going to work despite the horrible violence plaguing the city. Minarets were visible through a layer of black smoke that had covered the city (either from a refinery or from a car bomb that went off at 0705 in the Karada District).

Early morning traffic alongside the Tigris.

- This is my first trip south of Baghdad. The neighborhoods in the southern end of the city are spread out and lack paved roads. In fact, the outlying areas to Baghdad’s south are drabber than those to the north, comprised of more muddy fields.
Eventually the landscape became greener, with agricultural fields in between palm groves. Some fields were bisected by small irrigation canals, tall reeds sprouting up in the water.

- A morning mist covers the fields, but I can see a lot of people outside already at 0837. Small boys are herding sheep and leading cows, men are walking through the fields. There are also a lot of women out: some in colorful outfits tending herds, some in black abayas walking by the side of a canal; some carrying bundles of wheat or reeds on their backs. We pass over one group of children jumping up and down, waving to us.

- Rural towns appear out of nowhere in the middle of vast palm groves, one with a three story watchtower, and clotheslines hanging in between palm trees. Eventually, the landscape completely transforms itself into desert. The desert floor is dotted with large geometric patterns, sometimes consisting of berms that appear about 3-4 feet high with small gaps in between mounds. Because they are in roughly football filed sized rectangles, I guess that they were defensive fighting positions during the war rather than graves or natural formations. In addition to some natural depressions and small rock formations, there are larger mounds of sand with tire tracks nearby in the sand. These definitely were man-made, either company assembly areas for our tanks or theirs.

- Through the haze to the West, I can make out the Golden Dome of the Imam Ali Mosque in the distance just before we land. Unfortunately, it is too far for a good photo, and I'm unable to make out the details of the surrounding cemetary.

- In Najaf, we load into “Vivas,” a South African equivalent of the Humvee used by Aegis in Iraq. It is a 5-6km drive from the Iraqi Army post we landed at and the soccer stadium where the ceremony is held. Although Najaf is a potential economic gold mine because of the tourism industry catering to all the Shi'a pilgrims visiting the Shrine of the Imam Ali, we drive through a poorer district. Low, one story houses sit 20-30 feet off the road, with piles of trash filling the muddy interval. Men, in dress ranging from full-length dishasas to Western track suits, are walking by the side of the road, watching us as we pass.

- Once we reach the soccer stadium, we are escorted onto the field with the rest of the media. Facing the main bleachers, the reviewing stand is in the center, and about 100 tribal sheiks sitting in the section to the right. Various units of the Iraqi Army and Police occupy alternating sections of the bleachers.

Iraqi troops waiting for the ceremony to begin. The guys in the bright yellow hats on the right are Najaf's Fire Department, or the NFD.

The tribal sheikhs of Najaf.

- A speaker sings a slow, mournful tune about Abbas (a Shi'a martyr at the Battle of Karbala), and then recites a poem about Ashurra, Muhammad, Najaf, and the willingness to sacrifice for Haidar. (Haidar means "Lion" in Arabic, and is a common nickname for the Imam Ali). The soldiers and Iraqi police occupying the stands throughout the stadium chant in response.
One army unit begins singing, jumping up and down, and waving their flags. Five other units respond by singing their own chants and dancing. The sound of women ulating fills the stadium. The original unit ups the spirit competition a notch by coming down out of the bleachers and dancing in circles on the track. The atmosphere in the stadium is exhilirating, although I imagine that if I ever were about to be executed in Iran, this is how my final moments would be passed.

"Celebration time, come on!" Iraqi Army troops chant and dance to celebrate the transfer of authority.

- I have learned a valuable trick in Iraq: to truly understand what is going on at any given time, all I have to do is to stand next to an attractive female Western reporter, in this case either Jenny from AFP or Claudia from Reuters. Each is surrounded by several English-speaking Iraqi males offering to translate and explain the ceremony for them. (Later in the day, as we are waiting for our convoy back to the helicopter pad, Iraqi soldiers approach asking to have their pictures taken with them).

- On the opposite end of the field, soldiers are holding 4’x6’ posters. One portrays the key figures of Iraqi Shi’ism: The Prophet Muhammed (with face obscured by a ray of light), the Imam Ali, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr (yes, that Sadr’s father, assassinated in 1998 by Saddam), and Ayatollah Muhammad al-Hakim (the founder of SCIRI, assassinated by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber in September 2003). There are also posters of President Talibani and Prime Minister Maliki, which I’m told is the first time portraits of Iraqi political leaders have been displayed in Najaf since Saddam was deposed. Saddam forcibly plastered his visage on every wall and billboard in Najaf, so the habit understandably fell out of favor.

On the left, the poster bearing images of the Prophet, Imam Ali, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and the murdered clerics Muhamammed al-Sadr and Muhammed al-Hakim. On the right are the posters of President Talabani and Prime Minister Maliki, the first such depictions of them in Najaf. For any jihadists/Islamofascists reading this blog, please note that the Prophet's face is depicted as a ray of light, so this post shouldn't be used as a justification to kill me.

- The main party arrives and the national anthem is played. Although I have no idea what the lyrics are, I actually like the Iraqi anthem, which is a catchy, up-tempo martial tune. Sort of like the Marseilles, but with a better rhythm section. Later in the day, in a heartwarming moment, an Iraqi reporter’s cell phone goes off during General Brooks’ remarks. His ring tone is the Iraqi national anthem.

- National Security Advisor Muwaffak al-Rubaie gives the keynote address, followed by the Provincial Governor and the Chair of the Provincial Council. My rough notes from their remarks is as follows . . . okay, never mind, nothing they said was that remarkable, except maybe for the Governor’s observation that the “terrorists can not distinguish between a Shi’a, a Sunni, or a Christian . . . (I thought I heard him say “or a Jew,” but this had to be my imagination) . . . between the old or the young.” This is an important point to be made by a Shi’a politician.

- Okay, two more quotes from Governor Khalil:
“We will not discriminate by race, but rather judge people by their work.” (Not a particularly original formulation to American ears, but refreshing to hear in Iraq).
“We say NO for dictatorship, NO for terrorists, NO for takfiris [Sunni extremists justify killing all Shi’a by declaring them takfir, or apostates], NO for sectarianism! We say YES for unity, YES for freedom, YES for democracy!

National Security Advisor Muwaffak al-Rubaie delivers the keynote address.

- I’m interviewed by three Iraqi news networks. So if anybody happened to be taping Al-Arabiya Wednesday night and caught a clip with me, please make a copy and send it to Marya. Thanks.

- After the speeches, General Brooks and Governor Khalil come out of the stands to sign the Memorandum of Understanding transferring security responsibility to the Provincial Government. They are immediately surrounded by Iraqi media, reporters and cameramen, at least three deep trying to capture the signing. The master of ceremonies SCREAMS into the microphone with an enthusiasm that would put Bruce Buffer to shame.

Part II tomorrow: "Why I Love an Iraqi Military Parade, and Why PETA Doesn't"