NAJAF, Iraq, Jan. 29 -- A few hundred yards from the cemetery where Marines engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat five months ago, Marine Col. Anthony Haslam slid out of his armored Humvee and was immediately surrounded by friendly men and happy children.
"This is a success story," Haslam said about Najaf.
Bricks are piled in preparation for the reconstruction of buildings damaged during the combat in Najaf last August. The Marines have spent $21 million to repair the ancient city.
(Photos Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
Najaf is a place where Americans appear welcome and the people eager to vote Sunday -- all in a city that had seemed on the verge of unraveling the U.S. effort in Iraq. Last August, four days after Haslam's Marines took responsibility for the city's security, they were at war with the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Moqtada Sadr, a young cleric who sought to inflame Shiite Muslims against Americans.
Now Sadr follows the orders of his senior religious leaders and officially, if reluctantly, has tolerated the election. His followers quickly disowned an explosive shell that landed on a polling site here Friday. And they vowed that the Mahdi Army would protect polling places, if asked.
At Friday prayers, Shiite clerics told the men kneeling before them on vast carpets that they and their wives must vote. Sadr Al-deen Kubbanchi, a bearded preacher who wore the black turban and white robes symbolizing a man prepared to die for God, addressed the crowd with phrases that could have been borrowed from a speech by President Bush.
"This election is a battle between freedom and tyranny, between independence and occupation, between peace and terrorism," he said in his sermon. "If we fail, it means Saddam Hussein is still running the country."
Elsewhere in Iraq, fear and suspicion are expected to keep many people away from the polls. But in Najaf's empty streets, closed by a pre-election curfew Saturday, Shiite pilgrims trudging toward the gold-domed Shrine of Imam Ali were unanimous in their intent to vote.
"It's very important that the people decide their own government and ruler," said Ibrahim Hassan, 19, a book of recitations in his hand. "And if I die voting, I will be a martyr."
Sunni opponents of the election have repeatedly attacked Shiites and taunted them with shrill insults in videos shown on the Internet. Najaf, the spiritual center of the Shiite world and the burial place of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, is seen as a likely target for bombs. The police chief, Maj. Ghalib Jazaeri, warned Saturday night that women might try to hide explosive belts under their black robes and stage suicide attacks.
Najaf has a grim history of bombings, including a powerful car bomb in December that killed at least 50 people. Najaf officials have flooded the area with 15,000 police officers and soldiers and have locked down the city with curfews and driving restrictions. "We've got a tight grip on the place," said Abdilal Kufi, the head of elections security.
People huddled in their homes Saturday night, as the dark streets were given to police, who charged to and fro at shadows, nervously firing warning shots.
Protection by police is a novel concept for Najaf's residents. Saddam Hussein dealt ruthlessly with the Shiites here, and many knew the authorities mainly as thugs and torturers. Still not entirely trustful of their countrymen, some here said they welcomed the presence of Americans to help keep security in this election and the two local elections that are supposed to follow it.
"We have no problem with the Americans," said Ahmad Ali, 30, lingering outside the shrine. "They haven't tried to violate our traditions by going in the shrine. And they have given money to compensate for buildings destroyed by the fighting and built schools. Till now, they have done a good job."
Haslam, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, credits a splurge of money spent by the Marines for goodwill in Najaf. The Brooklyn-born commander rattles off a lengthy list of schools built, computers bought, clinics repaired, shops reconstructed with the enthusiasm of a mayor running for reelection.