An uneasy peace reigns. Now Iraqis count the cost

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The Independent Online

At about 10am, when the evacuation of fighters was due, Falah Kamel arrived at the Imam Ali shrine clutching the hand of his wide-eyed sister Benin, 7. In the courtyard of the mosque, its 10-century-old golden dome glinting in the morning sun, the 21-year-old said: "Normally we come twice a week. Of course for the past three weeks we have been too frightened."

At about 10am, when the evacuation of fighters was due, Falah Kamel arrived at the Imam Ali shrine clutching the hand of his wide-eyed sister Benin, 7. In the courtyard of the mosque, its 10-century-old golden dome glinting in the morning sun, the 21-year-old said: "Normally we come twice a week. Of course for the past three weeks we have been too frightened."

Was he glad the fighting seemed over? "I am very happy and we have to thank God," he replied.

Their presence ­ especially that of Benin, perhaps the first child of a civilian Najaf resident to visit the shrine yesterday ­ underlined that after three weeks as an insurgent field headquarters it had returned to its historic role as the holiest place of devotion in Iraq. It was liberated finally, not by Iyad Allawi's government, but by the exercise of authority by the country's most venerated cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, over his unruly junior Muqtada Sadr.

Three hours earlier it had seemed as if all this might be an illusion. As the stream of Shia marchers was winding towards the mosque, chants of " Allahu Akbar" resounded through Revolution of 1920 Square. Then, just off Medan Square, we were obliged to take cover when the still heavily armed Mehdi insurgents lining the alleyway to the mosque suddenly opened fire on what they regarded as the provocative presence of a police vehicle, its lights flashing. The police fired back, sending hundreds of the marchers running. Twenty minutes later a badly wounded man was brought into the mosque compound.

But by last night, the peace, however uneasy, had held. True, the Army of Mehdi in many cases seemed to have melted rather than marched away, most no doubt retaining weapons for what a Sadr aide, Ahmed al-Shabani, described as personal protection. True too, even as the deadline ran out, a group of Sadr supporters, numbering no more than 150 in number, paraded in the mosque courtyard, chanting their support for Sadr.

But the majority who came to the mosque yesterday were Shia believers such as the primary teacher Khadim Adnan, 50, who had not been here since Saddam Hussein's fall. He had answered a call from the Ayatollah Sistani. "I think I took part in bringing peace," the teacher said.

There was no celebration in the city, however. For the past three weeks the route to the shrine had been impassable for civilians and now they were seeing for the first time the effects of sniper fire, mortars, and shelling on the shops, offices and pilgrim hotels that line it. If a clause in the Sistani peace formula providing for compensation is to be implemented, it will cost many millions of dollars. And when the Toyota Landcruisers packed with police brandishing AK-47s toured Najaf to demonstrate their control of the city, their loudspeakers blared warnings not to wander in the old city because of unexploded bombs.

The structures can be rebuilt; the still uncounted scores of civilian dead cannot be brought back to life. "This is a disaster, a real disaster," said Dr Mundhi al-Adhari, as he arrived in the old city to seek the dead and wounded the ambulances had not been able to pick up.

By last night bodies were at the heart of the post-battle propaganda war. The police eagerly showed us the day's most gruesome find, in a Sharia courtroom allegedly used by the Sadr forces: 16 bodies, one of a freshly dead woman, but the rest mostly blackened, grotesquely bloated males. One had no head.

The police said they were victims of Mehdi torture; the Sadr people said they were mainly fighters they had neither the time nor the means to bury. The fact is no one can say for certain whose bodies they were; perhaps they were innocent civilians.

It fell to Najaf's exhausted ambulancemen to do the dirtiest job of all. Allowed by the men of Charlie company, 1st Battalion Fourth Marines, through the wreckage of central Najaf, they picked up five corpses of Mehdi Army soldiers killed by US forces three days ago. One ambulancemen retched as he carried one of the bodies of the men. It had laid on wasteland in 48C heat.

For the men of Charlie Company, the end was as much of a relief as it was for Najaf's civilians. They showed no regrets whatever that the battle had not ended with a bloody storming of the mosque, but Lance Corporal Joshua Cash admitted that while Iraqis forces had been intended as the front line, a US storming had been a "worst-case scenario". Giving a glimpse of indecision far up the chain of command, he said: "There were a couple of times we loaded up our vehicles, then it was 'never mind' and we all got out again," he said. "Has Najaf been in the news much?" asked one Marine.

Elsewhere, violence continued. In Fallujah an American bomb killed four.

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