Cooler heads prevail in Najaf
From Ryan Chilcote
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- The Army's 101st Airborne Division continued its mission Thursday to secure the Iraqi town of Najaf. A tip led the Bastogne Brigade's "No Slack" Battalion to a parking lot where the paramilitary group Fedayeen was said to have stashed weapons.
It was a striking example of the sensitivities U.S. soldiers face in Iraq.
It was an uneventful patrol. The search turned up nothing. The Shia Muslim population, that traditionally has not supported Saddam's rule, seemed curious and friendly, but didn't get too close.
For the past two days, the local population has cautiously welcomed U.S. troops, but also appeared hesitant to do anything that would put them out of favor with Saddam's supporters. One Najaf resident agreed to be interviewed as long as his face wasn't shown. The Iraqi government, he said, has satellite TV.
"Anybody could be an informer and punish us for talking to you, even my family," he said in Arabic. "My brother, my sister, my father."
The troops also keep their distance. "It's very uneasy out here," said Sgt. Rod Sutton. "Don't know who's who."
Sutton found himself far from his home in Indiana, on the corner of a street leading to the one of the holiest sites in the world for Shia Muslims, the highly sensitive Imam Ali Shrine, a landmark venerated as the burial site of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law.
When asked if it made him nervous being so close, Sutton replies, "Like tromping on someone's religion to some extent? I feel fortunate that I'm here because this is something that I would have never seen before. And now that I see it, I kind of understand some of the history behind it, so it makes me more appreciative of it.
"But to the same extent," he continued, "I don't want to be invasive with these people here. I don't want to trample on their holy ground. I want to respect that as much as I can."
Word came from the Grand Ayatollah Sustani, that he was willing to meet the American commander, but he asked first for U.S. soldiers to secure his compound, located halfway down the road.
The troops started toward the compound to comply with his request, but no one explained that to the people gathered in the streets. The once friendly crowd became alarmed, apparently believing the soldiers wanted to approach the shrine, and chaos ensued. Earlier warm greetings were replaced by angry shouts and gestures as hundreds of people attempted to block the soldiers' way.
Clerics appeared with a message from the Grand Ayatollah, but their message was drowned out. "They afraid," one told the soldiers. "You are Christians. They don't want to let you inside the holy Imam Ali."
The colonel instructed his men to stay calm. "They've got to understand that he wants us here," he said, referring to the Grand Ayatollah. "Smile, relax," he urged his troops.
His soldiers got on bended knee, their weapons pointed toward the ground. They did everything soldiers could do to appear less hostile.
Some in the crowd responded in kind, sitting down, making it clear they too had no hostile intentions. The potential for confrontation remained. But the commander made a decision.
"Turn around," he ordered his men. "Just turn around and go."
The soldiers returned to their compound to await cooler heads.