FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq -- As the U.S. military edged closer to the shrine of Imam Ali and the rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr vowed "martyrdom or victory," the Iraqi forces that are expected to decide the matter trained in the desert wastes outside Najaf.
They practiced marksmanship by firing AK-47s at targets of Osama bin Laden and Barney, the purple dinosaur. They scampered in a crouch and rolled to the prone firing position on the command of an American adviser. They darted through the dusty lanes between their khaki tents as if they were the narrow alleys of Najaf city.
Before followers of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr took refuge inside the Imam Ali shrine, Shiite Muslim pilgrims flocked to the mosque where Ali is buried.
(2003 Photo Hasan Sarbakhshian -- AP)
_____Live From Najaf_____
Transcript: The Post's Karl Vick discussed peace negotiations between Moqtada Sadr and the Iraqi interim government.
_____Who Is Sadr?_____
Q & A: More on the firebrand Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has been fighting U.S. and Iraqi troops.
As a dazzling orange sunset faded to black, several of them paused in the cool of the evening to talk about whether they could carry out the mission for which they were being trained, if it involved assaulting the holiest site in the country.
"I don't have an answer for you right now," said Mohammad Hassan, 30, a Shiite rifleman from Amarah.
"This is my problem," said Tofik Kasim, 23, whose home is near Basra. "I can fight anybody anywhere, but because this is a holy place, this is my problem.
"I have never been in Imam Ali's shrine. This would be the first time. And I go in fighting?"
With every hour, the question is growing more urgent.
If Sadr chooses to move his militia out of the mosque and embrace Iraq's fragile political process, the commando force training outside Najaf could return to its Baghdad base. The commandos could resume preparations to become a professional army on the American model, chasing wanted men (75 captured so far, their commander said) and building the foundation of an Iraqi force that could take over when the American-led forces leave.
But if the confrontation builds to the military climax ominously foreshadowed by senior Iraqi officials on Thursday, a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive is expected to go forward, perhaps within days.
And the supremely delicate business of entering the sacred, gold-domed shrine will fall to these men wearing American camouflage and carrying knockoff Kalashnikovs.
"Breaking into the shrine and controlling it will be by the Iraqi National Guards and there will be no American intervention in this regard," Defense Minister Hazim Shalan declared to reporters Wednesday. "The only American intervention will be aerial protection and also securing some of the roads which lead to the shrine.
"As for entering the shrine," the minister repeated, "it will be 100 percent Iraqis. Our sons of the National Guards are well-trained for the breaking-in operation and it will be easy within hours."
Their commander agreed. The commando team performed well in a raid on a smaller mosque being used as a militia base outside Najaf a week ago, in what served as a kind of practice run for the far larger, more heavily defended shrine.
"Training-wise, we're ready," said Lt. Col. Yarab Hashimi, who was a pilot in the Iraqi armed forces until he escaped the country in 1993.