Najaf Has the Mayor Nobody Knows

Times Staff Writer

Nobody seems to remember the new mayor’s name. Not in the spice-tinged bazaars of this old stone city, and not in the crowded streets around its revered mosque.

Many have an idea that he was an important army figure when Saddam Hussein was in power. They have a notion that he’s not local. Maybe he’s all right, they say, but what’s his name again?

“I think there’s some communication between him and the Americans,” ventured a hotel worker named Khalid Kazam.

In fact, it is the Americans who guided Abdul Munem into his improbable role -- and he is something of an awkward fit. In a city sacred to Shiite Muslims, he is a rival Sunni. In a region where men often tap their chests and announce, “Son of Najaf,” he is a native of Basra who moved to town a mere 20 years ago. Among people who fear and loathe Baath uniforms, Munem is a former colonel in Hussein’s army.


He is unpopular with the spiritual leaders who dominate social and civil affairs in Najaf. He isn’t well known at street level. But he was in the right place at the right time. A member of an underground organization called the National Unity Party, he was subverting Hussein just as the United States attacked Iraq.

That was enough to propel Munem into a network of local political stars that, with U.S. money and guns, has gained temporary control of cities and provinces throughout Iraq. Many of the overnight leaders were plucked from the old governments, or from prominent civilian jobs.

Of course, none of the men was elected, and they are vulnerable to the tastes of the United States. Some of the mayors and councils have offices inside rings of razor wire and U.S. soldiers -- or even attached to a Marine base.

Munem apparently came to U.S. attention when the United States and National Unity joined military forces during the march to Baghdad, although the details are unclear.


The mayor says he led a well-timed revolt against the Baath Party regime within Najaf and met the U.S. troops on the battlefield.

“We were planning our uprising from the inside,” Munem said. “The Americans flew over in helicopters and saw that we were armed and sent a convoy to meet us.”

Ever since, Munem has been ensconced. He said the people elected him, but when pressed, he acknowledged that he was hired on the consensus of an unnamed group of “educated people, well-known people.”

“He was supported by the elders,” said Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, a Marine commander who calls himself “the military mayor” of Najaf.

Downtown, around the massive shrine to Imam Ali, the mayor is a figure of some scorn.

“He is not elected,” said Mohammed Rodha Salami, a spokesman for the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

“It’s obvious to all of us here that he was put in by the Americans. He’s pretending to represent the popular will.”

Munem hasn’t fought since he lost a foot in the 1980s war with Iran -- a conflict that was bitterly resented by many of Iraq’s southern Shiites, who regard Iranians as their brethren.


The injury “gave me the chance for secret political work,” Munem said. “I was able to move around using my military uniform.”

These days, the mayor is easy to spot -- he’s just about the only man in Najaf sporting a Western suit and tie.

He works far from the city center, in a bright, sterile office in a remote medical college taken over by the Marines.

Najaf’s former mayor disappeared as U.S. troops bore down on the city, and Munem doesn’t have much to say about the old regime. “We’re starting fresh,” he said.

These days, the college parking lot is cluttered with armed men. There are Marines, local policemen hired back from the old regime, and Free Iraqi Forces fighters such as Bakir Hamawandi. An Iraqi American smog technician from San Diego, Hamawandi heeded an appeal from the U.S. Department of Defense and said he won’t go home to his wife “until I see these people free.”

This week, the shining corridor to Munem’s office was crammed full of burly policemen wielding Kalashnikovs. There were guns and money for the new police force.

In a side room, an aide handed out salaries.

There were engineers, lawyers and Marines. Men spread maps over walls, examined guns and chattered loudly in English and Arabic.


Every day there is a crisis -- the mayor is struggling to get the utilities running, to tame lawlessness and to calm public despair as widespread unemployment drags on. The police chief accepted a bribe and had to be fired. The populace is getting restless.

The fledgling administration is unperturbed.

“It’s a sign of democracy,” said Deputy Mayor Hussein Ali Elasal, “when people come and say they’re dissatisfied.”