by Jay Deshmukh
For Naseer Junaid, holed up in the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, the strongest urge is to make a telephone call back home to his ailing 12-year-old daughter in Iraq's southern city of Basra.
But he has been unable to do so for the past 10 days.
Junaid,48, is one of the several hundred supporters of Moqtada Sadr who flocked to Najaf in the last two weeks since fighting flared between the radical Shiite Muslim cleric's militiamen and US-led Iraqi government forces.
Calling themselves “human shields,” they are willing to lay down their lives to protect the shrine if the US army dared approach.
“I am a human shield like all these others,” said Junaid, dressed in a traditional dishdasha, pointing at a group sitting in a shady corner of the shrine compound.
“We all came here just for one goal and that is to protect Imam Ali and if necessary our leader Moqtada Sadr. We promised ourselves we would sacrifice our lives if it comes to that.”
The shields — the elderly, young men and children — intend to form a large chain around the shrine if the forces tried to enter the holy site.
“We will take their bullets, but not allow any enemy near the shrine,” he said, not far from a toddler holding a poster of Sadr.
But after 10 days on the premises, with virtually no contact with the outside world, Junaid is craving to go back to his family in Basra.
The moment a journalist or photographer takes out his satellite phone, the shields gather around with just one request — to dial home.
“I have to call home as my daughter has been unwell for the past one week.”
After a bit of probing, Junaid comes out with the truth.
“Yes, if you ask me, I want to go back home. I feel trapped here as the fighting is not ending,” he said.
“We are with Moqtada, but this has to end now as I am the only man in my family and I need to be there with my wife and daughter.”
Dozens of his fellow sympathisers relax in the shrine compound with their friends, while others sip their evening tea in a corner.
“Please come and have a cup of tea with us,” said Fadil Mankhi, a 25-year-old waiter from Baghdad who journeyed to Najaf at the instigation of a Baghdad cleric during open-air prayers outside the main government compoudn last week.
“We definitely are ready to offer our lives for Imam Ali, but we are also missing our families,” said Mankhi, a father of four.
Taking out a telephone number scribbled on a piece of paper, Mankhi also begged to call his wife, parents and children in Baghdad.
“Please let me make a call as I have a small baby at home,” he pleaded, the fatigue heavy in his eyes.
In another corner, Sadr's spokesman in Baghdad's Shiite district of Kadhimiya, does his best to satisfy as many people as possible by offering out a borrowed satellite phone.
“What to do they need to talk to their families for?” Hazem Ala'Araji shrugged.
Mankhi, however, wants to go home.
“I am a true believer of Islam. I am ready to sacrifice my life for it, but a peaceful solution to this battle would be better so we can go home,” he said.
But his friend is suspicious.
“Do not talk much, these people write whatever they want and we are here for a purpose so let us finish it,” he interrupted.
Outside the shrine, it is a different picture.
Young, gun-totting Mehdi Army militiamen roam the streets calling themselves guards of the revered shrine, one of the holiest in the world for Shiites.
“I came just 10 days back and want to stay here until I see this crisis end, be it in peace or death,” said Ali Hassan, a student from the militia's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.