Prayers and gunfire from Sadr's men in black

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The Independent Online

There was a burst of gunfire and bullets hit the wall of a green-domed mosque in the town of Kufa, smashing into the masonry just in front of our car. The firing, probably from a heavy machine-gun, came from the other side of a bridge over the river Euphrates. They may have been the last shots fired in anger by the 1,400 Spanish soldiers in Iraq before they began to withdraw.

There was a burst of gunfire and bullets hit the wall of a green-domed mosque in the town of Kufa, smashing into the masonry just in front of our car. The firing, probably from a heavy machine-gun, came from the other side of a bridge over the river Euphrates. They may have been the last shots fired in anger by the 1,400 Spanish soldiers in Iraq before they began to withdraw.

When the shooting started we were driving beside the white wall of the Muslim bin Akeel mosque out of Kufa to the holy city of Najaf a few miles away. We heard shots and then the staccato rattle of machine-guns. We swerved off the road to take cover behind the mosque.

Above us black-clad gunmen of the Army of the Mehdi raced along the high wall of the mosque to return the fire. An officer, waving a pistol, seemed to be shouting orders to them.

Panic spread through nearby pilgrims, who had been marching in their thousands to Najaf to mourn on the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohamed. When they heard the first shots the marchers broke ranks and started running down the road.

In theory there was a two-day truce in Kufa and Najaf yesterday, declared by Muqtada Sadr, the radical cleric and leader of the Army of the Mehdi whose gunmen control both cities. He said the ceasefire was to protect pilgrims at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.Apart from the fighting at the bridge the day was calm. This was fortunate because Najaf was thronged with pilgrims, wholly vulnerable to shellfire. Most looked very poor and many were camped in the forecourt of the shrine of Imam Ali. They were entertained by a troop of men engaged in a ritual dance, striking at their backs with symbolic metal flails, to the beat of an enormous drum and the chanting of prayers.

Later the Army of the Mehdi claimed it had captured a Humvee - a US-made four-wheel drive vehicle - from the Spaniards and said they were going to bring it into town. We had encountered the Army of the Mehdi guarding the road to Kufa. It was not a pleasant experience. I was wearing a red-and-white check keffiyeh (Arab head dress) to avoid drawing attention to myselfas a foreigner on the road south from Baghdad. There have been frequent attacks on the US army and individual foreigners on the highway.

The gunmen from the Mehdi Army did not like my head dress. They examined minutely and with great suspicion my camera, satellite phone and my mobile phone. They wondered if we were spies for the 2,500 US troops maintaining a loose siege of Najaf. Three gunmen, their chests covered in bandoleers and carrying machine guns, clambered into the car. Another car, full of gunmen, led us through the streets of Kufa to the Imam Ali mosque.

Once there the mood of the gunmen slowly became less aggressive. They all looked very poor young men. About half said they came from Sadr City, the enormous Shia slum in east Baghdad. They examined a copy of The New Yorker magazine they found in the car, one of them harrumphing "haram - forbidden" at a cartoon of a woman with a low blouse.

Cigarettes were produced and one man said: "We Iraqis don't want war but the Americans want our oil and the Israelis want to rule the Middle East. As for you we just want to know that you are who you say you are. Don't worry." My belongings were gradually returned - all except the satellite phone. More senior officials working for Sadr decided to escort us to Najaf. In the courtyard of a house we were addressed by Sadr's spokesman, an unsmiling sheikh in grey robes called Qais al-Khazali. "I think the Americans understand about Iraq's holy places," said the sheikh. "I don't think they are so stupid as to attack us."

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