A straight black ribbon cuts through barren land on the edge of town like some sort of surrealist vision: a literal highway to nowhere.
The two-mile runway, still bearing skid marks from landing jets, is the only remnant of a former Iraqi air force base. For Najaf officials, it’s the key to the next stage of evolution for this long-suffering city of faith.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, pilgrims flocked to Najaf’s shrines, some of the holiest in Shiite Islam, and the city’s religious leadership emerged from seclusion to dominate the Iraqi political experiment. Iraq’s oppressed Shiite majority had come alive, and Najaf was its heart.
Now, plans to turn the old asphalt runway into Imam Ali International Airport could cement Najaf’s position as the second capital of Iraq -- and the hub of an emerging Shiite super-region that could alter the dynamics of the Middle East.
“Religious tourism could be bigger than oil,” said Riyadh Bahr Uloum, a member of the Najaf provincial council.
The airport, which hasn’t broken ground yet, would draw Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bahr Uloum said, predicting $500 million a year in business. That would make tourism to Najaf and its sister shrine city of Karbala one of Iraq’s top sources of foreign currency.
Najaf’s influential religious elite, meanwhile, commands enormous sway over the national government, and its reach could grow after parliamentary elections next week. Thriving religious academies are training a new generation of clerics, expected to influence Shiite political thought for decades and, in some cases, to take up prominent roles in future Iraqi governments.
In a speech this week, President Bush spotlighted Najaf as a place where Iraqis are “gaining a personal stake in a peaceful future.”
But Najaf is also a hotbed of Shiite power struggles. Bubbling tensions among armed political factions have turned the holy city into a center for intrigue, turf wars and reprisals. A burst of violence over the summer has shaken the city and dimmed the sense of optimism.
“If problems happen in Najaf, it will influence the rest of the Shiite world,” said Akil Khaqani, head of the Najaf office for the Shiite Waqf, the government agency that oversees Shiite religious affairs.
Najaf’s newfound primacy comes after decades of deliberate neglect. It languished under Hussein; infrastructure crumbled, and the city’s seminaries suffered a lost generation due to low enrollment.
But after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, previously low-key religious festivals became raucous mass expressions of Shiite pride.
For Warid Jawad Jeshamy, that meant a tidal wave of Iranian pilgrims flocking to the sacred shrine of Imam Ali and overwhelming Jeshamy’s small Golden Dome Hotel. They slept shoulder to shoulder in packed rooms and on mats laid out in the lobby -- anything for the first chance in a generation to worship at one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites.
“They didn’t care about food. They didn’t care about anything. They just wanted a place to lie down and to be near the shrine,” he said. “There were millions of dollars flowing through the streets.”
Hussein’s ouster meant far more than economics for Najaf. Overnight, its twisting Old City alleyways became conduits for mighty political and social forces.
“It’s the capital of the Shiites. It’s the second capital of Iraq,” Jeshamy said.
Over the summer, when he was lobbying for support for a new constitution, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari made the obligatory trip to Najaf to seek the approval of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful figure in the religious elite, or marjaiyah.
“The will of Najaf means the will of the majority of the people,” said Faris Merza, owner of an Old City perfume store. “When the word comes from Najaf, ‘No,’ that means ‘No.’ ”
Najaf’s ascent holds larger religious and geopolitical implications. The Iranian city of Qom has long been the center for Shiite learning, under the favor of Iran’s Islamic government. Now, Najaf is positioning itself as the new capital of global Shiism -- instantly becoming the new front for a centuries-old struggle along Islam’s primary fault line.
The U.S. and the largely Sunni Muslim neighboring governments tolerated and aided Hussein for years to keep him as a vital bulwark against Iran’s Shiite regime. His U.S.engineered fall creates the modern Middle East’s first Shiite Arab power, with Najaf as one of its spiritual cores.
The scene around the vast courtyard complex surrounding the Imam Ali shrine seems tranquil enough. Flocks of black-clad women mingle with the shrine’s signature gray-flecked pigeons -- all seeking patches of shade along the edges of the ornate structure.
Iranian pilgrims have been scarce for the last year, but a steady flow of Iraqi visitors still lines up to worship at the tomb of Ali ibn Abu Talib -- held by Shiites to be the designated heir to the prophet Muhammad. The belief that Ali was cheated out of leadership of the young Muslim community fuels a deep Shiite sense of historical injustice.
Like Mecca or Vatican City, Najaf exudes religious devotion from its ancient stones. Robed religious scholars of all ages, many wearing the black turban denoting lineage to Muhammad, dot the crowd -- some ethereal and untouchable, others garrulously greeting shopkeepers, citizens and fellow men of the cloth.
From all directions, the shrine’s golden onion-shaped dome gleams like a beacon, even when the surrounding neighborhood suffers a blackout.
These images exist alongside clear signs of the periodic violence that has coincided with Najaf’s post-Hussein resurgence, and the intra-Shiite ripples that still threaten to rend the city from within.
The shrine’s delicately inlaid outer wall bears shrapnel scars from a monthlong siege by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in the summer of 2004 to expel members of populist Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia, which staged a pair of violent uprisings last year.
The building also bears scars from the August 2003 car bombing that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, scion of a powerful Shiite religious family and founder of one of the top Hussein-era opposition groups, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
Within walking distance is the site where another prominent Shiite opposition leader was shot and stabbed to death in April 2003, just after the fall of Baghdad. Cleric Abdel Majid Khoei had returned to Iraq under U.S. military escort one week earlier. He was assaulted by a mob while leaving the shrine.
Neither Hakim’s nor Khoei’s slayings have been solved.
Just yards from the shrine stands a crumbling two-story building, surrounded by rubble and hung with portraits of Sadr, as well as his father and uncle, prominent religious leaders killed by Hussein’s forces.
In August, hundreds of people attacked a group of Sadr supporters rallying for the reopening of his office, closed since the previous summer’s siege. Four Sadr backers died, and the office was set on fire.
Now, a simple black banner hangs on the building, with an equally simple, and blunt, message: “We condemn the cowardly terrorist attack on the office of the martyr Sadr, and we promise to send the violators to hell.”
More than a year after the end of his Najaf uprising, Sadr remains a polarizing and potentially destabilizing force. Much of the merchant class hasn’t forgiven him for crippling the city’s tourist trade, which is still recovering from last year’s siege.
Residents speak of Sadr and his followers as unwelcome outsiders in contrast to the true “Ahl al Najaf,” the longtime residents.
“They’re the reason for the recession. Najaf will never forget that,” said a local store owner, asking that his name not be published. He warned of the strong possibility of “civil war from inside the city between Ahl al Najaf and the strangers.”
Sadr backers blamed the August attack on the Badr Brigade, a rival, Iranian-trained militia allied with SCIRI. Badr loyalists fill the ranks of the Najaf police and provincial government.
In the wake of the assault, houses were bombed, and several families fled the city amid rumors of a “revenge list.” Months later, hard feelings linger on Najaf’s dusty streets.
“People act spontaneously out of instinct and emotion. You can’t control all of them,” said Baha Araji, a Sadr-affiliated member of the transitional National Assembly. “I personally, if I knew who burned the [Sadr office], I would kill them.”
Both factions now publicly, if obliquely, acknowledge that each side made mistakes and emphasize a commitment to unity. But the issues of contention remain, along with the threat that Badr and Sadr loyalists will continue their cold war in Najaf and throughout Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland.
“The situation is still very critical,” said Sheik Abu Mohammed Baghdadi, a senior aide to Sistani, the grand ayatollah.
Greeting visitors to his modest Najaf home with tea and Tang, the burly bearded sheik predicted further disturbances between the factions, and warned of a “hidden third hand” stoking the tensions -- shorthand for insurgent provocateurs.
“Najaf has spiritual power not only for Shiites but for many Muslims,” he said.
The ongoing Badr-Sadr turf battles could threaten Najaf’s ascension as the Shiites’ crowning jewel, Baghdadi said. It could also ultimately weaken the larger Shiite resurgence prompted by Hussein’s fall.
But the saving grace for Najaf may lie in the sheer moral weight and steadying influence of Sistani and his fellow marjaiyah.
“The signals lead us to be pessimistic,” Baghdadi said, “but the presence of wise people can absorb all these things.”
Times staff writer Saif Rasheed and special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen contributed to this report.