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'I have not killed but, God willing, I soon will'

Julius Strauss

May 22, 2003 - A hundred yards to the north stretched the Wadi al-Salam, the Valley of Peace, the largest Shia cemetery in the world. Less than a mile to the west lay an American base, manned by the 1st Armoured Division, probably the most dangerous posting in Iraq.

At the intersection just below, a dozen young fighters crouched behind a high stone wall. Just before noon, the fighting began in earnest.

It was ushered in by a burst of sustained rifle fire and an answering salvo from an American heavy machine-gun. One of the fighters knelt and fired.

A mortar round fell among the ancient tombstones a few hundred yards away throwing up a small cloud of dust.

In the large, dusty market of Najaf, people began to panic.

By now men, women and children were running for cover. But for 20-year-old Taha, an English-speaking student of engineering, the fighting was music to his ears.

Dressed in a long, grey shirt with a black headscarf covering everything except his eyes, he was panting from the exertion of the battle.

"We have blown up an American tank," he said triumphantly, as a pall of smoke began to spiral into the sky.

"I have been fighting for a month now against the American infidels. They are murderers and have given us nothing. So far I have not killed but, God willing, I soon will."

Another former student, Hussein, 26, came running over to join him.

"We have damaged five American vehicles," he said. "Do not believe what the Americans tell you. They kill two or three of our men and say they have killed 30."

Some of the claims the Mahdi army made yesterday were certainly exaggerated. One man said he had killed 32 Americans and destroyed several tanks. One "tank" turned out to be a petrol station.

Local sources said three civilians were killed and six injured, but that was impossible to verify as the hospital lay in no man's land. There was no credible word on American casualties.

But whatever the statistics, there is no disguising the fact that hundreds of angry young Shias - some poor and ill-educated, others from relatively well-off families - are flocking to the Mahdi army.

A 28-year-old waiter called Mohan was leading one group of rag-tag fighters into battle.

"I am so happy to fight," he said. "For me, bullets smell like flowers and I dance and sing as I kill Americans.

"I have wanted to fight the Americans since the beginning. The Americans and the Jews are stealing the fortune of Iraq. But they can never destroy Islam.

"My friend Ali became a martyr 15 days ago. He blew himself up in Kufa. He gave his life for the cause and he will go to paradise."

As Mohan spoke, there was a lull in the battle and other Mahdi army fighters came over to talk. They shot in the air, showing off to their foreign guests.

Hussein, 22, was injured last week in an attack on an American armoured column. He showed the small wounds in his head and shoulder where shrapnel had embedded itself.

He said: "Before the uprising I lived in Sadr City and ran a small builder's merchant. But I closed it two months ago and came here with my two brothers to fight.

"When the Americans have left I will return and open the shop again."

Hussan, a 23-year-old builder, said: "All this fighting and death has become part of our everyday life. The shooting barely stops.

"I am no fan of Moqtada al-Sadr but it is the Americans who are causing our suffering. Every day they kill innocent people. They should just leave our country. They promised democracy and freedom but all they have delivered is torture and abuse."

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