BAGHDAD, Iraq - With its twin minarets and glinting gold dome, the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf has been a beacon for the Muslim faithful for more than 1,200 years. But with fighting now raging around the Iraqi shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam has reprised another historical role: rallying point against foreign forces.
In 1920, rebels intent on kicking out the British troops who occupied the region gathered at the mosque and readied for revolt. Among their leaders was Mohammed al-Sadr - the scion of a prominent Shiite family and a future prime minister.
Eighty-four years later, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of his descendants, wants the U.S. military out. And all eyes are once again trained on the shrine.
Imam Ali shrine
Believed to have been erected in the eighth century and rebuilt at various times, the Imam Ali shrine is the heart of Najaf, attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year, who stream through its four imposing gates. The mosque sits amid a dusty, raucous warren of shops and alleys.
Shiites revere the shrine as the burial place of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, father of their branch of Islam and one of the earliest Muslim caliphs, who was assassinated in A.D. 661 in the nearby town of Kufa. Ali was said to have been buried in secret so that his enemies could not desecrate his tomb, but the spot was found decades later and a shrine built over it.
Abutting the mosque is a vast cemetery known as the Valley of Peace. One of the world's biggest graveyards, over a mile wide in places, it is a treeless expanse dotted with grave stones and mausoleums containing the remains of millions of Muslims who sought to be interred close to Ali.
Damage and anger
While some Muslims are critical of al-Sadr for courting a military attack on the shrine, others say they are disturbed by news coverage showing U.S. soldiers stepping on Muslim graves and destroying the crumpled photos of loved ones laid atop the crypts.
In the early 1990s, the shrine was badly damaged in fighting between Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards and Shiite rebels during their brief uprising after the Persian Gulf war.
In April 2003, a young cleric was stabbed to death near the mosque's entrance - a killing in which al-Sadr has been implicated. Four months after that, a car bomb by the shrine killed almost 100 people.
This spring, there was widespread anger when outer parts of the shrine were damaged, apparently by mortar fire, in fighting between U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to al-Sadr. The United States denied that it was responsible and suggested that al-Sadr's Mahdi Army might have caused the damage to provoke anti-American feeling.
Several Shiite Muslims likened any attack on the Imam Ali shrine to bombing the Vatican, and predicted that it would spark retaliatory attacks on U.S. facilities in other nations with significant Shiite populations.
U.S. authorities, while repeatedly declaring that al-Sadr has made the mosque a legitimate military target, have pledged to proceed with caution.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.