Demolition of Old City in Najaf?
I got two interesting messages about Najaf today. The first was from Dr. Kamil Mahdi, who has lectured in economics at Exeter University in the UK and is an Iraqi expatriate and former political exile:
From: Kamil Mahdi
Did you realise they are demolishing the old city of Najaf, just like that?! This is an act of unbelievable vandalism and ignorance, and it is in the style of Saddam.
We all know the arguments about increasing visitor numbers etc, but this is not the time nor the way. There has been no investigation of alternatives nor are there any mechanisms for consultation of the population at large, let alone any structures of democratic decision-making. There appears to be money from Kuwait for an extensive development, and one can legitimately ask why the Kuwaitis are being so generous with this project at this very time, when they continue to demand a pound of Iraqi flesh in UN compensation and in Saddam’s debts.
The destruction of Najaf which is now under way is drastic and irreversible. Read the statement by Hussain Al-Shami, the Shi’i waqf [Pious Endowments] head. Clearly, the whole thing was a mere idea two weeks ago, and already demolition has begun.
People should at least discuss the rights and wrongs of such decisions. There is no such discussion. Is this the so-called democracy all these people have died and are dying for? If this is carried out without an open and meaningful public consultation that takes place in a rational atmosphere and in total transparency, it will be nothing short of a criminal assault on Iraq’s heritage and on its history. All over the civilised world, historic cities are protected, preserved and developed in ways that retain the character and identity of the city and the integrity of its physical and social fabric.
We should ask the ministers of this Interim Government, many of whom have travelled or lived outside Iraq for decades. Have they not seen how the rest of the world tries to protect its heritage, and succeeds? Have they not seen services provided in old cities and extended to old houses, and have they not seen historic cities regenerated with modern amenities? Other countries cherish their historic cities for their great cultural roles and also for the high economic value of their tourism. Such cities are a repository of the nation’s memory and are symbols of the shared experiences of the people of the land. Even after wars, people try to rebuild them with painstaking attention to historic detail. With all the manifestations of civil conflict we witness in Iraq today, we Iraqis should be the first to realise the importance of national symbols that bring us together. The old city of Najaf is not the cause of the conflict that took place there. On the contrary, destroying it will encourage more extemism among the young who will lose cultural reference points.
Major “redevelopment” must not be allowed to go ahead Saddam-style. The action appears to be motivated by security concerns and by highly questionable financial considerations. Economically, it is not in the interest of the people of Najaf to destroy the old city. All of the old city can be attractive to visitors, not just the holy shrine, and there is plenty of space for commercial and industrial development elsewhere in Najaf. Rushed “development” of the kind being undertaken is frequently accompanied by greed and financial corruption. It will benefit big contractors and absentee landowners, and the losers are usually the people who live in the city and those who value it, that is all of us Iraqis.
Where are those ministers who have allegedly been selected for their professionalism? It is not acceptable to allow this to go ahead under the pretext that there is a need to expand the shrine. The timing suggests that this is a dishonest pretext. In any case, most visitors will want to be close to the tomb itself, so the crowd will always be at the centre. Expanding the outer perimeter would not necessarily solve any problem. Besides, the expansion means that the space will only be used in a few major religious occasions each year, instead of being used all the year round if the old city is developed. What is needed are measures that might include regualtion of visits, and that are based upon careful study, long-term planning and gradual implementation. There has to be a clear rationale for any action, and development must be to the highest professional standards with plans that must be publicised beforehand and that must be open to the scrutiny of other professionals, with the involvement of UNESCO, ISESCO, ALESCO and all those who are concerned with world heritage and with Islamic culture.
We Iraqis are engaged in a terrible internecine conflict. Outsiders have divided us and are increasingly waging their campaigns through Iraqis. In these circumstances, we can at least unite to defend our heritage? We cannot pretend that the destruction of Najaf is being done by the local Najaf administration alone, without outside interference.
Sayyid Sistani and the other ulema must speak up against this vandalism. We all condemned Saddam for destroying the centre of Karbala. How can we keep quite about the same being one to Najaf? The people who are destroying the old city of Najaf are destroying the livelihoods of thousands of families in the area, and future generations will never forgive this barbarism.
. . . there is no time to lose. It is the responsibility of those of us outside Iraq to expose what is happening and to demand an immediate halt to the demolition. What is needed is help to the people of Najaf who have suffered so much, not wholesale destruction.
Dr Kamil Mahdi
Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
Exeter EX4 4ND
Fax: (44 1392) 264035
Secretary of IAIS tel.: -44-(0)1392-264036
Visit the IAIS website at
Then a European correspondent who is in contact with Najafis sent me the following:
H. called from Najaf today.
Europeans don´t get the al Arabiya info on whats going on. There´s not much of a thorough description of the overall destruction, the kharaba [destruction] loss, the job loss, the water situation and the US “social welfare benevolence” system in Iraq delivering bread, flour, oil, kerosene…. whatever.
Al Arabiya have problems themselves describing the mess. They´re not allowed into
the Najaf city core, the mosque area.
There are three shields. Three thousand Hawza [Seminary] guards serve and attend to downtown, the City of Nejef. The Hawza guys are local people respected and fairly cooperative to anyone.
But Al Arabiya crew (nor any crew) are allowed to pass the middle shield of Iraqi National Guardsmen, who are not locals, maybe Kurds, maybe Baghdadis. Whatever, they don´t respect locals, being rude and violent.
As outer shield the Americans, controlling their middle men. There won´t be
much of info ecology around that place, would there?
Once the Sadrists left, the Americans tried to enter the city. Just as had happened roughly a year ago, during the invasion, they got driven out by civilian crowds, stoning them, hurling whatever they could find onto the “infidels”. They quickly left the city to the Hawza boys
Did you ever imagine . . . the big entrance door to the mosque is blocked. Bricks are laid covering all of it. The Ali mosque has been looted. Valuable
gems, golden things disappeared.
After the sadrists left, some weeks after, I don´t know, robbers broke inside and ripped the place. Hawza had the door all bricked over. People are devastated by the
heresy – the theft.
The Najaf mosqe quarter is like a big cross with the mosque in the centre. The 4 beams in this cross form a covered bazaars system. Two parallell beams are totally destroyed by American air pounding, possibly blowing up Sadrist munition caches too, making things worse.
Bulldozers work their way through the antique bricks, the black ash layers, mud and dirt, having months and months ahead of work just for disposal. How long then the rebuilding?
Finally, I would like to underline, there is not a shred . . . to confirm this info.
Just H´s words to his exiled Najafi friend for now living in my house.