Inside Najaf

A Sacramento peace activist reports from an Iraqi city under siege

Inside the perimeter: Mario Galvan, Pfc. Perez and Brian Buckley bond in Najaf.

Inside the perimeter: Mario Galvan, Pfc. Perez and Brian Buckley bond in Najaf.

Photo By Peter Lumsdaine

Days before U.S. forces resumed intense fighting in Najaf last week, Sacramento schoolteacher Mario Galvan described the situation on the ground to SN&R by telephone from the city that’s become one of the latest flashpoints of Iraqi insurgence. “Najaf is one of the holy cities in Southern Iraq,” explained the 57-year-old activist during his second week in Iraq as one of five American citizens calling themselves the Najaf Emergency Peace Team. “This is where [Muqtada] al-Sadr’s guys are holed up, and the U.S. Army is all around just trying to grind them down. They’re exerting gradual pressure from different sides of the city. Al-Sadr is threatening to issue a fatwa, to call for a general uprising against the U.S. if they come into Najaf.”

The young, radical cleric al-Sadr and his militia seized Najaf and the neighboring city of Kufa on April 4. Najaf’s moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has the largest following among Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims, has supported al-Sadr, and negotiations to end the crisis have stalled. The Najaf Emergency Peace Team went in with three goals: to witness the current situation and convey its observations to the world, to confront the U.S. military and to promote solidarity with the Iraqi people.

The peace team’s members—Galvan, Trish Schuh, Meg and Peter Lumsdaine, and Brian Buckley—hail from California, Virginia and New York. Representing a variety of peace, justice, religious and human-rights organizations, the group has received scant media coverage in the United States. “When we had a press conference the other day, it was just all Arab reporters, as far as we can tell. I think there was a Reuters person there and maybe one other,” said Galvan, who has sent out his own e-mails on a daily basis. “Friends write back and say there is nothing coming out in the states in the media over there about us, but we came out in 12 different stations here in the Arab world. So, we’re getting really good coverage among Arabs, but back home, nobody knows about us there.”

The group entered Iraq from Jordan, traveling by car to Karbala. It arrived during an attack on an American military convoy in downtown Karbala. “At first, we were nervous, and we ducked into the first hotel we saw, thinking that there might be some reaction against us as Americans, but there was none,” said Galvan. “Later, we went out and got something to eat, and nobody said a thing, and everyone was very polite to us. The next day, we were walking around through town. Nowhere where we have been has there been any gesture of anti-Americanism against us as citizens of the United States—I’m amazed.” He added, “We didn’t see any American soldiers on the street; they’re all holed up in their bases.”

After a day in Karbala, the group traveled south to Najaf, where it met with representatives of al-Sistani and al-Sadr. Regarding popular support for the radical al-Sadr, Galvan said, “I get mixed messages: A lot of people support him, and a lot of people don’t. We hear conflicting stories. It depends on who you talk to.” Al-Sistani “is very well respected,” said Galvan, noting that the ayatollah’s support for al-Sadr appears to be somewhat at arm’s length. “There’s no real love lost between the two.” The moderate ayatollah and radical cleric do share common ground in their mutual desire for a negotiated settlement to the current standoff, and both want coalition forces to stay out of Najaf and Kufa. They also want democratic elections this summer, whereas the Iraqi Governing Council doesn’t plan to hold elections before January.

The peace group turned down an offer of bodyguards from al-Sadr’s militia. “We didn’t want to have men with guns following us around—it would be an odd peace delegation,” said Galvan with a laugh. He explained how the group actually felt less threatened in the city because of the lack of American military presence: “We’re a lot safer here than in Baghdad or Fallujah. Where the Americans go, they are targets, and that’s where the fighting is. Because the Americans can’t come into town here, I think there’s less fighting.” Galvan said most explosions and gunfire were heard at night, and “the next day it almost goes back to normal; it’s kind of incredible.” The warfare he described was “high-tech against low-tech. The guys here don’t have the firepower to stand up against the U.S. military, so they’ve got to sneak around it. It’s kind of a guerrilla type of warfare going on here.”

Galvan says the group was well-received by the local people, and he described the danger level as “no more than for anyone else in town, due to the sporadic violence.” While the two women in the group wore headscarves and the more-traditional clothing typical of women visiting the holy city, Galvan says, he and the other men wore their regular Western clothing. “Actually, people here tell me I look like an Iraqi,” he added with a laugh. “I’m not sure if it’s my Mexican blood or what.”

After its first day in Najaf, the

delegation went to confront American soldiers at a local military base at edge of the city. Delegation member Meg Lumsdaine had called the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad the day before and notified it of the delegation’s intention of visiting the base. Despite the notification, guards fired a warning shot as the group approached the front gate of the base, located at a college near the city. The delegation continued its approach, carrying a white flag and a two-sided banner that read “Don’t be the new Saddam” in English on one side and “No U.S. Occupation” in Arabic on the other. Two Salvadoran soldiers met the group at the perimeter gate. Later, an American soldier came out to meet them. Only Meg was allowed inside the base. Galvan and others remained just inside the perimeter gate.

“We really only got to talk to one American soldier,” said Galvan. “It’s interesting that he was a Cuban from Florida. He’s not a U.S. citizen, but he’s serving in the military.”

Their exchange, he said, wasn’t at all hostile. “I don’t think he’s overjoyed being there. They’re getting shot at all the time,” said Galvan. “The soldier out there was telling us that they just can’t trust anybody. They say that little kids will throw grenades at them. I said, ‘Sounds like Vietnam, doesn’t it?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of what it feels like.’” During the activists’ talk with the soldier, a mortar attack began, and they took cover in a bunker until it passed.

On a second visit to the base, the delegation was able to speak with several American soldiers. Embedded Associated Press reporter Denis Gray also came out to the perimeter gate and talked with the group. “Here was the only U.S. reporter we had met in our entire trip, reporting on the situation in Najaf … from inside the barbed wire and defensive walls of the U.S. camp,” Galvan noted in a subsequent e-mail. “He had never walked freely down the streets of Najaf, as we did every day, and seen the people going about their daily routine. He had never gone to the Internet café to file a report, or stopped in at a neighborhood store for a bag of chips or some cookies. What kind of view did he have of Najaf? What can he tell the American people about what is really happening in Najaf?”

Gray later filed a brief report about the peace delegation on April 30. He quoted Galvan as saying, “The U.S. military can level this town in one day. I hope the U.S. has the sense to recognize what a firestorm they would unleash. I just have this intuition that the U.S. recognizes that this is a tinderbox.”

Perhaps Galvan’s intuition was correct: About the same time that Gray’s report was published, Marines announced they would pull back from the siege of Fallujah and allow an all-Iraqi force, commanded by an Iraqi general, to police the city. Iraqis celebrated the pullback as a victory, and political pundits in the United States called it a major shift in American military policy. It may mark the beginning of a gradual withdrawal from Iraqi cities and then from Iraq itself. When asked whether chaos would result if America were to withdraw, Galvan said, “I think there is chaos now. I think that definitely the country needs help getting back on its feet, but I think the U.S. has poisoned the atmosphere here. I think it would be much more likely to succeed if someone else came in, like maybe other Arab countries or possibly the United Nations or something like that.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Najaf remains a stalemate. Galvan told Gray, “I think the whole town would breathe a sigh of relief if everyone with guns would leave the city — both al-Sadr and the Americans.”

After about two weeks in Iraq, the delegation returned to Jordan. When asked about the impact of the trip to Iraq, Galvan said, “We had some impact in terms of showing another side of the American people to the people of Najaf.” As for the group’s impact in the United States, he said, “I doubt that we would have an impact. Our presence here is largely symbolic, unless, of course, people in the U.S. get tired of letting their government bully other countries around—that’s a long shot, I guess.”