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    Middle East
     Feb 2, 2007
Pilgrims massacred in the 'battle' of Najaf
By Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily

NAJAF, Iraq - Iraqi government statements over the killing of hundreds of Shi'ites in an attack on Sunday stand exposed by independent investigations carried out by Inter Press Service (IPS).

Conflicting reports had arisen on how and why a huge battle broke out around the small village of Zarqa, just a few kilometers northeast of the Shi'ite holy city Najaf, which is 90km south of Baghdad.

One thing certain is that when the smoke cleared, more than 200

people lay dead after more than half a day of fighting on Sunday. A US helicopter was shot down, killing two soldiers. Twenty-five members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed.

"We were going to conduct the usual ceremonies that we conduct every year when we were attacked by Iraqi soldiers," Jabbar al-Hatami, a leader of the al-Hatami Shi'ite Arab tribe told IPS.

"We thought it was one of the usual mistakes of the Iraqi army killing civilians, so we advanced to explain to the soldiers that they killed five of us for no reason. But we were surprised by more gunfire from the soldiers."

The confrontation took place on the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura, which commemorates Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and the most revered of Shi'ite saints. Emotions run high at this time, and self-flagellation in public is the norm.

Many southern Shi'ite Arabs do not follow Iranian-born cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They believe the religious leadership should be kept in the hands of Arab clerics. Hatami and al-Khazaali are two major tribes that do not follow Sistani. Tribal members from both believe the attack was launched by the central government of Baghdad to stifle growing Shi'ite-Sunni unity in the area.

"Our convoy was close to the Hatami convoy on the way to Najaf when we heard the massive shooting, and so we ran to help them because our tribe and theirs are bound with a strong alliance," a 45-year-old man who asked to be referred to as Ahmed told IPS.

Ahmed, a member of the Khazaali tribe, said, "Our two tribes have a strong belief that Iranians are provoking sectarian war in Iraq, which is against the belief of all Muslims, and so we announced an alliance with Sunni brothers against any sectarian violence in the country. That did not make our Iranian-dominated government happy."

The fighting took place on the Diwaniya-Najaf road and spread into nearby date-palm plantations after pilgrims sought refuge there.

"American helicopters participated in the slaughter," Jassim Abbas, a farmer from the area, told IPS. "They were soon there to kill those pilgrims without hesitation, but they were never there for helping Iraqis in anything they need. We just watched them getting killed group by group while trapped in those plantations."

Much of the killing was done by US and British warplanes, witnesses said.

Local authorities, including the office of Najaf Governor Asaad Abu Khalil, who is a member of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had claimed before the killings that a group of primarily foreign Sunni fighters with links to al-Qaeda had planned to disrupt the Ashura festival by attacking Shi'ite pilgrims and senior ayatollahs in Najaf. The city is the principal seat of religious learning for Shi'ites in Iraq.

Officials claimed that Iraqi security forces had obtained intelligence information from two detained men that had led the Iraqi Scorpion commando squad to prepare for an attack. The intelligence claimed obviously had little impact on how events unfolded.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani announced to reporters at 9am on Sunday that Najaf was being attacked by al-Qaeda. Immediately after this announcement, the Ministry of National Security (MNS) announced that the dead were members of the Shi'ite splinter extremist group Jund al-Sama (Army of Heaven) who were out to kill senior ayatollahs in Najaf, including Sistani.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muaffaq al-Rubaii said just 15 minutes after the MNS announcement that hundreds of Arab fighters had been killed, and that many had been arrested. Rubaii claimed there were Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians and Afghans.

But Khalil's office backed away from its initial claims after the dead turned out to be local Shi'ite Iraqis. Iraqi security officials continue to contradict their own statements. Most officials now say the dead were Shi'ite extremists supported by foreign powers.
The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has a pattern of announcing it is fighting terrorists, like its backers in Washington. Many Iraqis in the south now accuse Baghdad of calling them terrorists simply because they refuse to collaborate with the Iranian-dominated government.

Ali al-Fadhily is IPS Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is IPS's specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.

(Inter Press Service)

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