NAJAF: Dozens of followers of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr sing rhymes of martyrdom as they carry the coffins of two of their slain comrades into the shrine of the revered Imam Ali in the Iraqi holy city, Najaf.
Every night, Sadr's fighters engage in pitched battles with the US military which has placed its tanks and soldiers just outside the city. But that is not where these men died.
These two coffins bear the bodies of senior sheikhs, Methen al-Khzoni and Satchit al-Mahawli, the second said to be a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. The way they were killed says a lot about the patterns and practice of the US occupation.
In the small town Hilla, an hour's drive south of Baghdad, blood stains a wall at the office of the Babylon Human Rights Organization. It was here that US soldiers raided a community meeting where they killed the two sheikhs and arrested two other important community leaders.
It was a meeting called for peace, members say. "All types of power was represented," says a member at the meeting, Sayyed Fadel al-Moosvi. "The political parties, and scientists, and religious men. They were trying to figure out what's happening around us. They were discussing everything that was happening in Hilla. They were studying what's happening in our country."
The main goal of the meeting was to find ways of dealing with US occupation without resorting to violence, members of the human rights group say. This was a regular topic of discussion at meetings of this organization, and this was known to US officials, they say.
A few months earlier, hawkish US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had visited the offices of the human rights organization to praise its efforts. Hazen al-Safi from the group used to be proud of a photograph showing him shaking hands with Wolfowitz. He feels differently now.
"We were peaceful," he tells IPS. "We just had pens and paper, but they came with a whole bunch of arms." Hazen says 15 US soldiers ordered everyone down on the ground and ran to the podium to arrest the speaker Sayyed Adnan Onaibi, head of Muqtada al-Sadr's office in Hilla.
They placed a black hood over his head and then turned towards the two sheikhs in a nearby hallway. "They shot them in the head," Hazem says. "They shot him them right where they were standing and you can see from the blood that they shot them from just one or two metres away."
The bullets that killed the two sheikhs were the only shots fired in the human rights group office. The only bullet holes in the hall are on the blood-splattered wall where the two were shot.
Meantime, Adnan Onaibi has disappeared into US custody. Troops at the local military base maintained by Poland told IPS they did not know anything about the raid. The headquarters of the occupation Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad said it will take them ten days to say where he has been taken.
Prison is nothing new to Adnan Onaibi, who was jailed for a year by Saddam Hussein for criticizing him at Friday prayers. "Adnan was hoping that America would liberate us from Saddam and he was happy at that time because he was tortured so much by the regime," Hazem says. "He was put in prison by Saddam because he was against the government."
The arrests and killings of Sadr leaders in Hilla comes at a time of intense fighting in Najaf. Twenty members of the Mehdi Army died in clashes on Monday night. They will not be the last, more people are coming up to fight all the time. Adem Zohr left his house in Mosul to fight the US forces in Najaf. He also left behind his wife and six-month old child.
"We believe in God," he says. "God creates us and God takes us back. So if we are protecting our religion we will be taken to the sacred place. So we can do anything. I will follow my orders. Whether it is bombing or killing. Anything."
But at the same time both sides are looking for a way out. Akil Abdul-Munaf Zwein has been negotiating with US military commanders on behalf of Muqtada Sadr. "The chiefs of all the area tribes are in these negotiations," he says. "One condition asked for by Muqtada al-Sadr is to remove the American troops from Najaf because it holds the sacred shrine of Imam Ali, peace be upon him."
In addition to a complete withdrawal from Najaf, Sadr's supporters demand that their leader not be arrested or killed by occupation troops. They further demand that his fate should be decided by a legitimate Iraqi government.
In exchange, Muqtada al-Sadr is willing to stop attacking foreign troops. It is now up to the Bush Administration to accept or reject the offer. -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service.