Eleven-year-old Hadeel scrunched down in the back seat of the car as her family drove through the shooting. She hugged her brother Zaied, 8. The baby, Muntadher, just 18 months, was in the arms of their mother.
"We were so scared. We just hid our heads and drove fast," recalled the young girl, bright-eyed and talkative from underneath the black abaya, a long, loose-fitting robe worn even at her age by many Shiite Muslim girls.
Hadeel and her family joined the surreptitious traffic of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in Najaf this week, seeking shelter with relatives and friends in other towns and cities. They live crowded into their hosts' homes or in cheap hotel rooms, watching smoke rise over their neighborhoods in Najaf on the television news, waiting until the shooting stops and it is no longer dangerous to go home.
"At least we are safe here," said the fourth-grader, sitting on a mat on the floor of her aunt's home in Baghdad.
The refugees from Najaf are the latest current of desperate travelers seeking to avoid the violence in Iraq. Some families flee the gunfire in Baghdad by going to the relatively quiet Kurdish areas in the north. Christians flee the bombings of their churches by traveling to Syria in cars overloaded with their goods. Other Iraqi families wait in Amman, the capital of neighboring Jordan, to see if their home country will become peaceful.
It is often a discreet flight. Travelers frequently do not wish to risk robbery or problems at checkpoints by carrying more than their clothes. They slip out through battle lines in Najaf in twos and threes, instead of in large groups. They arrive quietly in the homes that make up their culture's extended insurance system -- brothers, cousins and even friends who would not think of refusing to invite them to stay.
"This is my sister's home. Now there are 11 of us, sleeping in two rooms," said Mohammad Jawad Abbas, 41, Hadeel's father. "It is uncomfortable for her."
The sister, eavesdropping from the separate room for women, raised a protest from around the doorway: "You must stay. My house is your house."
Abbas, a taxi driver in Najaf, became increasingly worried for his family's safety as the situation there deteriorated in recent weeks. He said he lived about a mile from the shrine of Imam Ali, the focus of the conflict between Iraqi and U.S. troops and Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia force, the Mahdi Army. Electricity and water were becoming sporadic. Food and fuel were scarce; he often had to sit for an entire day in a gas station line to refill his taxi.
"There were snipers on the roofs. It became very difficult to walk down the street," Abbas said. "We were surrounded by armies: the Mahdi army, the American army, the Iraqi army. Because of all the bombing, Najaf is in very bad shape."
Hadeel told of a playmate who picked up what she thought was a pretty pen. It was an explosive, and it mangled her hand. Abbas said a pregnant neighbor was sleeping on her roof, a common practice during the hot summer, when shrapnel from a bomb ripped through her belly. She was in critical condition, he said.
"I didn't know how to get out. No gas. No cars running. No one will even take you to the hospital if you are wounded," he said. Finally, a brother-in-law who lives on the safer outskirts of Najaf took Abbas's wife and children on a perilous journey in his car. Abbas followed a day later, walking through the battle lines, hugging the sides of back alleys in fear of snipers.
"There is no future in Iraq," Abbas said. "This is worse than it was even in the war."
A U.S. military spokesman said there had been no mass exodus from Najaf, although the Americans had used loudspeakers to urge residents to leave the area near the Imam Ali shrine. But residents there said the military did not realize how many had already slipped away.
"I would say, from the old city of Najaf, 70 to 90 percent of the people have left," said Farris Taliq Qani, 40, who brought his wife and three children out of Najaf this week. Qani works in Baghdad -- he is the manager of a small hotel -- and his family is now staying with his mother in Baghdad.
They threaded through the serpentine alleys to reach a main bus station, and paid to hire a car for the rest of the trip.
"I feel sad. I love my old neighborhood and the people there," he said. "God knows when we will be able to go back."
"When the Americans first came, we were happy to see them. We had been so mistreated by the old regime," Qani said of Iraq's Shiites, who make up a majority of the population but historically have been persecuted. "But after these rounds of fighting, the Americans shoot indiscriminately, and the people have turned around. We are no longer happy to see the Americans."
Shiites in Najaf and elsewhere in the south have largely dismissed Sadr as an upstart, and the bulk of the Shiite population is thought to follow older, more moderate clerics. But Qani said he viewed Sadr as "an honest nationalist who did not want to push things this far. All he did was criticize the government and the American occupation."
"This Mahdi Army has been able to stand in the face of the biggest and strongest power in the world," Qani said. "People who really believe in this fight are ready to defend it with their lives. In the beginning, few people supported him. Now he has more than 90 percent of the people."