Najaf Fighting Throws National Conference Into Chaos

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Fighting in the holy Shiite city of Najaf resumed on Sunday after failed efforts to reach a cease-fire. The outbreak in fighting came as a national conference opened in Baghdad that was meant to be a landmark in the country’s movement toward democracy. We go to Iraq to get a report. [includes rush transcript]

U.S. tanks and troops rolled back into the center of Najaf and battled with Shiite militants Sunday, reigniting violence in the holy city just as delegates in Baghdad opened a conference meant to be a landmark in the country’s movement toward democracy.

Knight Ridder is reporting that more than 100 Iraqi national guardsman and a battalion of Iraqi soldiers have resigned their posts from the U.S- backed forces because they refused to carry out attacks against fellow Iraqis.

The outbreak in fighting comes as over 1,000 Iraqis met in Baghdad for a national conference assembled to form a 100-person commission that is to organize elections in January and hold veto powers over decrees passed by the interim government.

The weekend conference was largely thrown into chaos by the continued fighting in Najaf. Al Jazeera reports 100 Shiite delegates resigned to protest the US military actions in Najaf. In addition representatives from two of the most high profile Iraqi groups were not present: backers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr nor the influential Sunni Muslim Clerics Association.

  • Hannah Allam, Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder.
  • Luke Harding, journalist covering Najaf for the London Guardian.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Baghdad, to Hannah Allam, who is the Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Hannah.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So can you describe what is happening right now at this meeting in Baghdad, and its connection to what’s going on in Najaf?

HANNAH ALLAM: Well, we have a reporter there. He has been there since yesterday. It’s supposed to be a three-day conference, and the latest that we have heard is that a delegation of the representatives there at the conference have asked Moqtada al Sadr to pull out his Mehti army from Najaf, and they have also decided to send a delegation from the national conference to Najaf.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk — go ahead.

HANNAH ALLAM: Well, and then, you know, yesterday there was a lot of news of several delegates walking out saying there’s going to be no conference as long as there are airstrikes and bombs in Najaf. Today, I know of only one delegate who has walked out. He was sort of making good on an ultimatum he issued yesterday saying if the U.S. forces don’t pull out of Najaf within 24 hour he was going to walk out, and I understand he still has representatives there, but he left.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Luke Harding, a journalist covering Najaf for The London Guardian. There was an edict issued yesterday that all journalists except for the embedded reporters, embedded with U.S. troops, had to leave Najaf. Did you leave in that wave?

LUKE HARDING: I’m afraid I didn’t because I had only just flown in. He had been in Najaf before. Reports that I had had from colleagues who had been straggling back to Baghdad today say that the big problem for them is actually not the Mehti army but the Iraqi police who have been apparently firing at them, who fired a couple of shots at the hotel where journalists were staying yesterday, and have been using really kind of brutal tactics, which some people have compared with the behavior of the old regime of Saddam Hussein. So, one wonders why the new interim government of Iyad Allawi wants to kick the journalists out. The suspicion obviously is that they don’t want any embarrassing or unwelcome publicity when and if the U.S. military together with the Iraqi forces launches a sort of all out assault on the city.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet they’re allowing embedded reporters with the U.S. troops.

LUKE HARDING: Well, obviously, embedded reporters, you know, paint a different picture of what’s going on. I’m going to have to say, I have been down to Najaf and I have sat in Moqtada al Sadr’s office, and the Mehti army and Moqtada al Sadr’s people have been unfailingly friendly and polite to western and to foreign reporters. I mean, unlike in Fallujah, where really it’s become impossibly dangerous for us to work and report, in Najaf, the Mehti army are very hospitable. I think really, over the last week or ten days or so, they have [inaudible] the batter a kind of P.R. battle, if you like. And I think this is of some concern to the provisional government here in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Luke Harding a journalist covering Najaf for The London Guardian. Now, do you have a reporter who remained in Najaf or not, in The London Guardian?

LUKE HARDING: My colleague, Rory McCarthy was there last week. He was in the Imam Ali shrine. He talked to the fighters there. He saw several dead fighters who hadn’t been, kind of, buried, and really, you know, it’s very hard to report there, because what you have to do is you have to — you have to cross the line, so you have to go from the American line, if you like, with your flak jacket on in the searing 45 degree heat. With your arms in the air, you have to walk towards the Mehti army, who are initially very suspicious and then kind of walk on foot through the small, dusty alleyways of Najaf to talk to them and then walk out again. And obviously this a dangerous exercise, which can only get I think more dangerous in the kind of difficult and treacherous days ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: We have talked a lot about the mosque in Najaf, that is so holy to Shia around the world. The cemetery as well, estimates of between 2 million and 5 million Shia Muslims are buried there. Can you talk about that area?

LUKE HARDING: Well, it’s a beautiful area. It overlooks what’s called the Sea of Najaf which is this sort of shimmering area of desert, running towards the border with Saudi Arabia, but it’s also a very dangerous area where there have been running battles between the Mehti army and U.S. forces. I spoke to someone who was there a few days ago who was in the cemetery who said there were all sorts of bodies of Mehti army fighters which simply haven’t been buried. It’s been too dangerous for the gravediggers to go in and bury them. So, the cemetery is absolutely the front line and it’s a place that you venture at your own peril, really.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sistani, the Shiite leader from Najaf, who had not left there in six years, but now with a health condition has gone to London. The significance of that?

LUKE HARDING: Well, he is, of course, he is the kind of great absent protagonist in all of this, if you like. Most people I’ve talked to in Najaf, actually they support the Sistani view, which is this sort of pragmatic approach calling on both sides to lay down their weapons and respect the holiness of the shrine in Najaf, but Sistani is not there at this kind of crucial moment. He’s a very hard man to get to, especially if you are a foreigner. I have tried to meet him before unsuccessfully. Other people have tried as well. Really, you know, his kind of motivating voice at the moment is not being heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that deliberate? On his part or any other part? I mean, is —

LUKE HARDING: Well, I mean, he does have a genuine heart complaint and he has just had a kind of heart surgery in London, so one can’t be too suspicious. He is not a young man. He is a man of senior years with a genuine health problem, but you’re right, it is sort of a strange coincidence that he chose this moment to go off to London. It’s a sensible move. Who wants to be in a full scale battle if you can be somewhere else?

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah Allam, you’re in Baghdad with Knight Ridder. Knight Ridder is one of the only newspapers who is reporting that more than 100 Iraqi National Guardsman and a battalion of Iraqi soldiers have resigned their posts from the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in Najaf, because they’re refusing to carry out attacks on fellow Iraqis. Who did you or your reporters speak to?

HANNAH ALLAM: I’m sorry, what was the last part?

AMY GOODMAN: Who did you speak to? Who did your reporters speak to, and what has happened? What are these soldiers saying?

HANNAH ALLAM: Sure. I reported that part, and I spoke with high-level officials in the Iraqi Defense Ministry, guys that I have known for a long time, many months now. One who has been a trusted source for more than a year, even before he was involved in the Ministry of Defense. All of these guys fought with the former regime. They were decorated veterans in Saddam’s military. They apparently were judged not to have blood on their hands by the new government because they were kept in place, and welcomed into the Defense Ministry. So, these are guys obviously the U.S. administration and the Iraqi government trusts. When trying to verify what they told me with the U.S. military, I just couldn’t do it. The Iraqi government had no comments on it. We tried to go out to the recruiting station, and the National Guard headquarters and talk to people. As soon as we asked the question of how many people had quit rather than fight in Najaf, American advisers who were overseeing the Iraqi military forces at these stations said, “I’m sorry, that’s classified. they cannot answer that.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Hannah Allam, speaking to us from Baghdad, the bureau chief for Knight Ridder, and Luke Harding, the journalist covering Najaf for he London Guardian, also speaking to us today from Baghdad.

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