Saddam tightens his grip on Iraq's Shias: Allied planes have done little to prevent Baghdad reining in its rebellious south and, in the north, UN aid lifelines are proving inadequate

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IN THE Shia pilgrimage centre of Najaf, just south of the 32nd parallel, the allied no-fly zone has not visibly slowed the tightening grip of the Iraqi authorities on every aspect of daily life in the town.

It was a mistake even to talk of the intifada, the uprising, in Najaf. 'You mean by that the page of perfidy and treachery,' said Sayyid Musa Umran, the deputy imam of the mosque of Ali. But then, it was impossible to expect any other answer. One could not move around without one minder from the Information Ministry in Baghdad and another from the local governorate.

The mosque is the holiest site in Shia Islam, after Mecca. Ali was the cousin of the Prophet Mohamed, who married his daughter Fatima. By tradition, the Shia community has appointed its own religious leaders. Now, all the imams are government employees, and their salaries are paid by the Ministry of 'Awqaf' (Religious Endowments).

The authorities have done their utmost to cover the traces of the rebellion in the last days of the Gulf war, in March 1991, and the subsequent repression by Republican Guard units who had been spared direct confrontation with the US forces. The shrine of Ali has been completely restored. The main gateway, destroyed by shellfire, looks as new. Ornate turqoise and blue tiles have replaced ones damaged during the revolt.

Inside the mosque, the majority of faithful were women, many of them young, their innocent laughing faces poking out beneath their all-enveloping black cloaks. Every few minutes, pall-bearers would bring in a coffin to place by the shrine, a long-standing tradition.

The authorities were taking no chances. Young men with searching eyes and Kalashnikovs watched strangers entering the precincts. On the road to Karbala, the Republican Guards with their tanks were camped just outside town. Strangers were met by a wall of silence. Shia dissidents outside Iraq say that over the past two months the situation has deteriorated. Military attacks have stopped; but the security police have been more actively hunting down elements of dissent.

The authorities have also intervened in another area, although clerics in Najaf would not admit it. For the Shia community suffered a second setback after the suppression of its uprising: the death in September, at the age of 94, of the Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul Qassem al-Khoei. The search began for a new spiritual leader for the Shia community, not only in Iraq but in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Clerics and local government officials insist that his replacement has been appointed: Imam Muhammad Sadik al- Sadar, head of the Hawza religious academy in Najaf. One cleric said he had been chosen after soliciting the views by letter of the community; another said he was chosen by God after seven days.

But the Shias have their own ways. The Sunni religious establishment is suborned to the government. A Shia spiritual leader is necessarily independent. He must not only be eligible as a man of upstanding principle and deep learning, he must also command mass support. This takes time to emerge. Many Iraqi Shias outside Iraq say Imam Sadik is unacceptable because he is a government appointee. They argue that the death of al-Khoei has left a vacuum and weakened the religious establishment.

The government is said to have put pressure on theological schools to influence the choice of a successor, insisting on an Iraqi Arab, rather than an Iranian, or someone from Pakistan.

In nearby Karbala, outside the no-fly zone imposed by the allies at the end of August, the reconstruction is slower. All the houses between the shrines to Ali's two sons, Hassan and Hussein, have been bulldozed. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the uprising. But workmen inside the shrines are nearing the end of their task to re-gild the plasterwork. No expense has been spared. The dome has bee re-covered with 10kg of gold leaf. The surrounding area is paved in bright marble flagstones.

But the authorities have no intention of sweeping the uprising under the carpet. In one room of the mosque a chamber of horrors has been preserved. Three leather nooses hanging from the light fittings were said to have been used for executing Baath party officials. The killing of the officials was probably the rebels' greatest mistake. For the retribution it brought about was as inevitable as it was brutal.

The museum also reminds people of the brief period of chaos and destruction in those bloody weeks. Many Iraqis, Shias included, took fright that the revolt was seeking secession for the south. The Shias make up about 55 per cent of the 18 million population. But whereas the Kurds were never regarded as part of the Iraqi national mythology, the Shias are. Hence the greater effort by the authorities to bring them to heel.

By the same token, most Shias feel part of the Iraqi nation state. The greatest proof of Arabness and Iraqi nationalism taking precedence over confessional identity occurred during the Iran-Iraq war. Few Iraqi Shias, who were the overwhelming majority of cannon fodder, deserted to their Persian co-religionists. Some Shias have enjoyed prominent positions in government. The Prime Minister, Muhammad Hamza al-Zubaidi, is one.

The most the Shias are said to want is to maintain a united Iraq (the oil, after all, is in the north) in which the majority rules. But the Shias have never ruled Iraq. And as the government pulls harder on the levers of power, and the allied planes fly impotently in the skies above, that prospect recedes further.