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Associated Press
Najaf, Iraq – With the wounds still fresh from Shiite battles outside shrines in Karbala, Iraqi security forces aren’t taking any chances as worshippers fill another holy city.
They have asked for a U.S. military show of force that seeks to prevent growing Shiite rivalries from again turning a pilgrimage into a battle zone.
The American presence is designed as a backup role in case of violence in Najaf, with tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to gather Wednesday for the culmination of rites to mark the 7th century death of Ali, the first spiritual leader of the Shiite branch of Islam. But even the request for U.S. help shows the level of concern about rising feuds across the Shiite heartland.
The tensions threatened to spin out of control last month after at least 52 people were killed during a pilgrimage in the holy city of Karbala. This time, Iraqi authorities took far-reaching precautions against a potentially devastating repeat in Najaf – home to pre-eminent Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the site of one of the shrines most revered by the Islamic sect.
For U.S. forces, meanwhile, the duty in Najaf serves as another glimpse of what the Pentagon hopes someday to achieve around Iraq: turning over all frontline security duties to Iraqis and providing training and emergency help. No such arrangement was made for Karbala.
“If anything erupts here, the Americans can call on any forces they need,” said Maj. Gen. Othman Ali Farhood al-Ghanimy, the Iraqi army commander who was personally asked by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make sure nothing goes wrong during the commemorations for Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
The U.S. military has set up a temporary command on its former base outside Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, offering reconnaissance equipment, attack helicopters and a quick-reaction force on standby.
Inside a concrete building, U.S. soldiers monitored strategic maps and grainy street scenes beamed in by satellite while munching on cookies in a room with Quranic verses decorating the walls. On one day, the only activity detected were shots near a checkpoint that turned out to be celebratory gunfire from a wedding.
Iraqis took over security for the entire province last year. But similar transitions across Iraq have been slower than expected because of the insurgency’s resilience and shortfalls in training Iraqi security forces.
Najaf – with a nearly all-Shiite population – was the the site of one of the first car bombings as the Sunni-led insurgency got under way: a blast outside the Imam Ali mosque that killed at least 95 people on Aug. 29, 2003.
The following year, Najaf also was the scene of fierce fighting between U.S. troops and militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In recent years, the city has been largely spared the sectarian violence that has left Baghdad and other cities scarred from bombings and divided by 10-foot-high concrete walls surrounding neighborhoods.
But there’s a new nervousness after flare-ups of Shiite-on-Shiite violence and an intensified threat of attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq during the holy month of Ramadan, which ends in mid-October.
Authorities in Najaf have imposed a driving ban and placed three security rings with new checkpoints around the city.
Security will be tightest at the entrances to the sparkling gold-domed Imam Ali mosque – with explosives detectors and women brought in to perform female searches to prevent bombers from hiding explosives under black Islamic robes, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Buses transport pilgrims into the city so they can leave their cars on the outskirts. Snipers look down from rooftops – part of an estimated 20,000-member Iraqi security force.
Al-Maliki has a strong interest in preventing another outbreak of violence since rivalries between Shiite factions threaten to undermine his Shiite-led government despite recent progress against Sunni insurgents in the Baghdad area.
The tensions boiled over in late August when clashes between rival militia fighters during a pilgrimage in Karbala killed some 52 people.
The U.S. military faces a dilemma as it must decide whether to intervene in an internal political struggle that largely pits followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr against the main Shiite party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
For now, Col. Michael X. Garrett, commander of the Fort Richardson, Alaska-based 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, is choosing the sidelines. He’s trying to keep his troops out of sight in Najaf and placed himself in the back row during a recent provincial security meeting as his Iraqi counterpart barked orders to his forces.
“This is where I should sit – back here,” Garrett said. “If he needs something he’ll look at me or he’ll say something later,” Garrett said, referring to Gen. Othman, as the Iraqi commander is known.
The three days of commemorations began Monday, the anniversary of the fatal stabbing of Imam Ali as he was praying. He died two days later and pilgrims flock to the city to remember his death.
“I do not rule out the possibility of violence in the coming days in Najaf despite the tight security measures,” said Ahmed al-Yassiri, a 42-year-old grocery store owner who traveled to the holy city from Baghdad. “The terrorists have many means, plans and experience to penetrate the security measures and hit the pilgrims.”
Associated Press writer Abdul-Hussein al-Obeidi contributed to this report.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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