Inside the besieged shrine, I watch as the Mahdi Army prepares for death

Using their kalashnikovs as pillows, the Mahdi Army lay in wait through the ancient alleys of Najaf last night, preparing for death.

On the rubble of buildings already destroyed through days of fighting, guerrillas of Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia sat mostly in silence cradling their weapons filling the ancient lanes with chants from the Koran.

After a tense week of incidents, the suspense surged to a new high after US Marine tanks and armoured vehicles made a dawn strike into the holy city, sealing off all main roads and setting a cordon around the Mahdi.

Heavy machinegun fire raked the skies as the Mahdi tried in vain to shoot down darting US helicopters firing rockets into buildings where nests of guerrilla fighters had dug in, preparing elaborate defences and rigging booby traps in the town’s ancient cemetery.

But although the American armour sealed off main roads, roundabouts and entrances to the east and south of Najaf, American troops did not move into the labyrinthine old city, at the heart of which stands the magnificent golden- domed shrine of Imam Ali, the third-holiest site in the world for Shia Muslims.

Inside the glittering shrine, commanders said the US Marine armour swept in from the western desert known as “the sea of Najaf” at 7am, simultaneously entering the city from the southern and eastern axes.

Sheikh Ahmed Shaibahni, a senior al-Mahdi Army commander, said: “I saw ten tanks myself. There were also some helicopter attacks on the cemetery.”

He later confirmed that US forces had stormed Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s house on the outskirts of town and captured it after a fight: “None of our people was killed. It does not matter. It is only a house, not a military base. And, of course, he (Hojatoleslam al-Sadr) was not there.”

Fighters clustered at the shrine ready to retreat into it if US forces attacked. There is palpable fear, although all protest their readiness to die.

Mahdi fighters are scattered in alcoves around the vast white marble tiled courtyard above which the clock sits frozen at 14 minutes past 6 o’clock.

At each explosion from outside, flocks of pigeons swoop down and wheel counter-clockwise around the courtyard speeding past the wounded, resting and praying.

Outside in the streets, shouts of “Tayaara! (aircraft)” go up whenever jets roar over the streets, which are an impromptu armoury, with ammunition and weapons hidden in water outlet pipes, shopping bags and cellars.

“The tanks will have to pass on top of us before they can go into the shrine,” said Mohammed al-Maliki, a 30-year-old former money changer, now nicknamed the Repenter by his fellow fighters.

“This is the final line. We are the front. We are the forward defences now. We are anxious to meet the Americans, we are ready.”

The shrine’s array of loudspeakers blared out inspiring messages to the guerrillas: “To all the Mujahidin, please stay in your places and defend the city of the Commander of the Faithful,” they trumpeted. “Stay in your places and defeat your enemies and you will be victorious. God is against the infidel”.