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Shiite power struggle simmers in Najaf

In Iraq's Shiite heartland, tensions remain high between Moqtada al Sadr and Iraq's ruling party SCIRI.

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On a recent Friday night here families thronged the brightly lit shops to buy clothing, jewelry, and religious trinkets on streets absent of foreign troops.

It was a scene of startling normalcy for Iraq where few people venture out after dark for fear of insurgent attacks, coalition firefights, or plain criminality. But while nightlife has returned to this southern city largely free of insurgent bombs, the civil strife between Shiites is brewing just below the surface.

The political fight for the control of the country's Shiite holiest city turned Najaf into a battlefield last summer when forces loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr engaged in fierce firefights with US forces. And in August, skirmishes involving Mr. Sadr's supporters turned Najaf's streets violent again, this time clashing with the militia of the ruling Shiite religious party the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Today, in the shadow of the city's gold dome and tile porticoes of the Imam Ali shrine that makes Najaf Shiite Islam's capital, a barely restrained tension between SCIRI and Sadr supporters continues.

At the national level, the two leading Shiite groups have joined a political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, last week to run in the Dec. 15 elections. But in the streets here, that unity appears lacking.

"For the Najaf people [Sadr] is an unwanted person. All steps taken by this man are not for the best, not for the good of all Najaf people," says Sayyid Ali, a gold merchant in the city's main market who wouldn't give his full name.

But down different alley in the large market is another jewelry shop. This one is decorated with posters of Sadr. "All the police and all the government are supported by [SCIRI]," says Hussein Rasool al-Akash, whose brother was one of four Sadr followers killed in the August clashes with Sadr forces and demonstrators who opposed him and his followers presence in Najaf.

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