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Revisited

Video: Iraq’s Najaf, the holy rebel city

It is nicknamed the "Shiite Vatican City." Throughout the year, the city of Najaf in southern Iraq attracts millions of pilgrims who come to pay their respects at the tomb of Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. The Iraqi holy city is also famous for being the starting point of the insurgency against the US-led invasion in 2004. Our reporter returned to Najaf, whose militias are now at war against the Islamic State group.

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Some 1,300 years ago, it was just an embankment in Iraq. An unmarked grave discovered by chance by a caliph during a hunting party in an oasis... The grave of the first imam of the Shiites, Imam Ali, was found. Today, one of the largest cities in Iraq is built around his tomb: Najaf, population one million. Each year, millions of pilgrims from around the world flock to the old town, around the Imam Ali shrine, a gold-plated mosque.

Yet for a long time, Najaf was forgotten, abandoned. Iraq's former dictator, Saddam Hussein, banned pilgrimages there, on top of murdering thousands of Shiites, including more than 9,000 religious leaders. When his regime fell, Najaf took up arms. This is where the insurgency against the US forces began.

In 2004, tens of thousands of Shiite fighters led by the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr set up their stronghold in the Imam Ali shrine. The Americans surrounded the city and the battle of Najaf made history.

An expanding city

After weeks of bombings, a truce was negotiated. The rebels, exhausted by the fighting, escaped the blockade and formed the Mahdi Army, a Shiite armed group which became the US army’s worst nightmare.

Twelve years later, what strikes a visitor arriving in Najaf are the cranes and building sites that dot the expanding city. The crowds of visitors are remarkable. Millions of Shiite pilgrims come from around the world to pray at the tomb of their first imam. For those accustomed to the rest of Iraq, the virtual absence of checkpoints is also a welcome surprise. Here, the war seems far away.

But it is at the city cemetery that reality catches up. With five million Shiites buried on the land, it is the largest Muslim cemetery in the world. And the fresh graves of fighters line up as far as the eye can see. They were killed by their new enemy, the Islamic State group. In 2014, an imam from Najaf, Ali Sistani, issued a fatwa calling on Shiites to form militias and fight the Sunni jihadists. Tens of thousands of Najaf men answered his call.

This is the story of a city with two faces, holy and rebel. Twelve years after one of the bloodiest episodes in its history, it is gradually rising from the ashes.
 

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