Pilgrims massacred in the 'battle' of
Najaf By Dahr Jamail and Ali
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).
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.
thing certain is that when the smoke cleared, more
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.
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 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.
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."
fighting took place on the Diwaniya-Najaf road and
spread into nearby date-palm plantations after
pilgrims sought refuge there.
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
Much of the killing
was done by US and British warplanes, witnesses
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
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