Staring down on the crowds of Najaf are portraits of men killed during 35 years of Baath Party rule. They were clergy, their families and followers who were assassinated or executed, often tortured first. Along the street’s colonnade are leaflets celebrating the community’s new freedoms. Signs announce the anniversary of the death of Shiite Islam’s most revered saint, and rickety stands offer the beads and prayer stones of ritual long discouraged. On banners and posters are the demands of the resurgent community. Elections, some insist. Others urge loyalty to the clergy or call on the young to join the muammimeen, or turbaned ones.
Through the landscape walked Heidar Moammar, a gaunt, 25-year-old cleric in a white turban.
“What was forbidden is beloved,” he said, smiling as he glanced at the signs of the city’s reawakening.
Across a thousand-year history as a seat of Shiite Islam, Najaf has weathered pillaging by puritanical tribes from the desert, the tyranny of Sunni Muslim rulers in Baghdad and the ascent of rival seminaries in Iraq and Iran. But in the wake of the fall of former president Saddam Hussein, a rebirth is underway in a city that, by virtue of its religious stature, looks to Baghdad as its equal. Long-dormant Shiite seminaries are proliferating, hotels are being built to cope with tens of thousands of pilgrims, and the bazaars of Najaf are boasting of profits that have doubled, even tripled, despite growing frustration with a lack of basic services.
More than just a city’s renaissance, Najaf’s revival is a story of shifting fortunes and unintended consequences in the tumult of postwar Iraq. The U.S. invasion dismantled one system, the construction of another is lagging, and a vacuum of leadership has ensued. With renewed confidence, the clergy have begun fashioning their headquarters into the spiritual capital of the country, and their leaders as the guardians of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Few endorse Iran’s Islamic government and perhaps even fewer support the U.S. goal of a secular state. But in between are vigorous debates — over law and religion, Islam and state — that could resonate throughout the Shiite world, where Iran and its revolution have long held sway as the unchallenged model.
Moammar — a religious student by age 13, a prisoner in Hussein’s jails by 16 — sees himself as a soldier in that struggle.
As the call to Friday’s prayers floated along the Prophet’s Street, he walked toward the shrine of Imam Ali, the gold-domed resting place that gives Najaf its sanctity. The melancholy call clashed with the city’s vibrant sounds. Iranian pilgrims chattered in Persian. Television blared footage of a Shiite ceremony from Iran and the training of a Shiite militia. Vendors hawked cassettes of ritual chants of grief, near piles of yellow brick for construction. Along one wall, scrawled in red, was a slogan that declared, “Saddam is a criminal.”
“This is the freedom that is available to the Shiites,” Moammar said. “In the time of the tyrant Saddam, no one could let even a prayer fall from his tongue.”
He glanced at leaflets announcing the opening of new religious centers — Imam Mahdi, Imam Ali, Imam Sadiq. “Space is very limited,” one said. An advertisement offered courses to memorize the Koran. The prize: a trip to the Iranian shrine of Mashhad.
And, in the tone that tolerates little compromise, politics were in the air. A poster pictured Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his fist raised. “Absolutely no to Israel, absolutely no to America,” it said. In another, Mohammed Bakir Hakim, killed with dozens of others in a car bomb in August in Najaf, looked out with a halo around his head. “Our submission is out of the question,” it read.
“The future of Najaf depends on the future of Iraq,” Moammar said as he walked the street. He thought for a moment, then insisted the opposite was true as well. “Najaf is the only guarantee for the Shiites and for Iraqis.”