Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his fellow religious scholars are the best-known leaders in this sacred Shiite Muslim city. But beneath the radar, three men actually control it.
Only one is a candidate in today’s election. But what Gov. Adnan Zurfi, Police Chief Ghalib Jazaari and Emergency Forces Director Abdel Aal Kufi have in common are reputations for unpredictable behavior and accusations of abuse of power.
Open hostility, particularly between the two security chiefs, seems likely to come to a head with the outcome of local provincial council elections.
Gregarious, media-hungry Jazaari openly roots for the defeat of Zurfi in the provincial balloting that is taking place alongside the national parliamentary vote. The two have clashed openly, most bitterly over Zurfi’s decision to create the Emergency Forces, led not by Jazaari but by Kufi, the former head of the governor’s security detail.
Jazaari said that if Zurfi didn’t return as governor, he looked forward to personally forcing Kufi’s resignation.
“We shouldn’t have the leadership split. We should be a united front,” Jazaari said. “I’m patient because I know the elections are coming and [Zurfi] will not stay.”
Local security forces have taken up positions throughout Najaf, shutting down most traffic and prompting stores to close their doors. The blue-uniformed police and green-camouflaged emergency force seemed to be working side by side. But at the command level, the relationship remained deeply strained.
Kufi, a trim chain-smoker who showed up for an interview wearing a bulletproof vest with a pistol tucked into the top, complained that Jazaari wouldn’t cooperate with him.
His comparatively small 1,600-member emergency force, he said, carries an oversize workload. “There are 10,000 police officers,” Kufi said. “Where are they all?”
Zurfi, in the midst of an election campaign, downplayed the obvious tension between what were essentially rival warlords in his city.
“They are working together very closely,” Zurfi told The Times after a recent campaign stop at the local teachers’ association. “But some people, for the elections, want to cause trouble and give our city a bad name.”
The 38-year-old governor was unknown in this clannish town before being appointed to his post in May amid growing clashes between U.S. forces and radical cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia. The thin-bearded, bull-necked Zurfi spent years in exile in Chicago and Detroit before returning with U.S. forces in the push to oust Saddam Hussein.
In his second week on the job, in an exchange witnessed by a Times reporter, Zurfi pleaded with U.S. commanders to attack Al Mahdi fighters holed up in the city’s sacred shrine of Imam Ali.
“I don’t care about the shrine,” Zurfi said. “I only care about the lives of the people. [The shrine] is just brick and wood.”
Jazaari, 57, was a career army officer but fled after Hussein’s troops crushed a 1991 Shiite uprising in southern Iraq. He has built a reputation for unpredictable statements and actions. In August, during the U.S. siege of the shrine, Jazaari’s officers rounded up journalists at gunpoint for a mandatory news conference.
Kufi, 33, spent time in exile in Iran. Rumors swirl that he is illiterate and that his troops control the gasoline black market in a city chronically short of fuel.
Kufi laughed off the allegations but acknowledged that his troops had taken control of most of Najaf’s gas stations.
“If I withdraw my forces from the gas stations, the policemen would loot them,” he said. “The police here aren’t afraid of anything but me. I’m the only one who can stop them.”
Indeed, Kufi is openly contemptuous of Jazaari’s police force. He pointed out that his Emergency Forces division was created from scratch in August, after local police were routed by Sadr’s fighters.
“All the police stations fell. Kufa [Najaf’s neighboring holy city] was in the hands of the militias,” he said. “I’m the one who liberated Kufa.”
Nevertheless, it’s an article of faith among many Najafis that Kufi and the governor have together cornered the fuel market.
“I believe Gov. Zurfi is one of the biggest thieves, and Abdel Aal is one of his guys,” said Jaafar Saadik, a 22-year-old cabdriver in line for gas.
Najaf’s fuel woes exceed even those of Baghdad, which is suffering its own months-long gasoline crisis.
In a telling scene last week, former Minister of Oil Ibrahim Bahr Uloum held a meeting with reporters in a darkened room because there was no electricity and no gas for the generator.
Unlike in Baghdad, there are no young boys on the streets selling bottomless plastic bottles that can be used as funnels for black market gasoline. Residents say that’s because gas can be bought only from Kufi’s soldiers or houses owned by his allies.
The perception of high-level corruption is particularly troublesome for Zurfi, who is running for a spot on the Najaf Provincial Council. The 41-member panel will choose the new governor from its ranks.
Zurfi is expected to at least secure a seat. But local frustration with Najaf’s decrepit electrical and water infrastructure undermine his chances to return as governor.
“Should I elect a thief? What did he provide for Najaf province?” said Salim Ismail, a 45-year-old merchant. “We walk over lakes of water and live in the dark. We use donkey carts in the age of technology.”
The governor remains optimistic, saying he has no serious competition.
“Najafis prefer that I stay to continue my work,” he said. “People tell me they feel safe when they see me. I have a responsibility.”
Even a defeat for Zurfi won’t necessarily bring an end to the tension among officials.
Despite a reputation for eccentricity, Jazaari, the police chief, is fairly popular and regarded by many as a man of integrity. And even some Najafis who call Kufi a thug say they want him to stay on the job.
Laith Sharba, a Najaf cardiovascular specialist, said Kufi is the perfect man to rein in criminals and protect Najaf from insurgents.
“An intelligent person cannot deal with these donkeys,” Sharba said.
“He understands them.”
Times staff writer Monte Morin and special correspondents Raheem Salman and Saad Fakhrildeen contributed to this report.