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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 23:58 GMT 00:58 UK
Najaf's battle of faith
The BBC's Kylie Morris has been reporting from the Iraqi city of Najaf, where Medhi Army fighters have been involved in a three-week military confrontation with US and government fighters. She sent this report hours before a deal was reached to end the fighting.

Iraqi Shia Muslim militiamen
Shia militia have been defying US-led forces for three weeks
I have never known an orange to smell so sweet. We had just walked into our fairly grim hotel in Najaf, when the bag of fruit from Baghdad arrived and suddenly this orange appeared and everything was right with the world.

Spliced open on the plate, it was heavenly.

After a week in this place of so much bombardment, grief, fear and beauty your senses are sharper.

Walking back in the door of the hotel can feel like the warmest of homecomings.

Having a lukewarm shower in a dingy bathroom feels spectacular, and a borrowed DVD copy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is hilarious.

We had begun the day of the orange with a visit to the hospital.

There we had watched a tearful mother pull back the sheet covering her 13-year-old son, to reveal the stump of the leg he had lost when he was caught between two mortars. He had also been blinded.

His brother was killed. As she cried, he woke, and began keening for her, and we left the room tearful.

All these bombs we had been watching and running from ourselves, but this was the real outcome.

Road to Najaf

The story of Najaf revolves around a place of delicate beauty - the shrine of Imam Ali - sacred to all Muslims but revered by those who follow the Shia tradition.

Our challenge was to reach it. We would drive as far as we could into the old city and then set out on foot, holding up our hands at every intersection, passing American tanks, listening for snipers, but fearing the clumsy targeting of mortars most.

Click below for Digital Globe satellite image of Najaf

For four days we were driven back - the fighting was just too heavy.

But finally we made it. After curling through the alleyways of the old city, the shrine glimmered like a golden-domed dream.

Its cool tiled courtyard and tall walls brought us instant relief. Inside the scene resembled an orientalist painting: louche young men reclining on carpets, waking to wash and pray inside.

But the image was wrecked by the sound of firing from American tanks, the reply of mortars, and sniper fire at the door.

Of course, many of the young men were also fighters.

They had been forced to leave their guns outside, but they had brought their rhetoric in: their chants of victory or death, their opposition to the Americans and the Allawi government, and their support for Moqtada Sadr.

As soon as the cameras came on they began shuffling and stamping with songs and waving aloft pictures of their favourite rebel cleric.

I felt strange there. I had to wear an abaya, the Iraqi hejab - with a scarf covering my head, and black shroud covering my body.

I have worked enough in the Islamic world to become used to that part, but this time I was wearing a flak jacket over the top which meant that I looked like some adult storm trooper.

Sanctuary

In addition, some guardians of the shrine had decided my wrists were too exposed, so a colleague had found some more black fabric and tied it tightly around my arms - so I was trussed like a turkey.

The shrine offered such sanctuary that it was difficult to leave.

On the second occasion that we went in, we couldn't.

US sniper in Najaf
US troops in Najaf have been joined by government forces

A sniper had taken up position hundreds of metres down the street and was firing at anyone who entered or left the main doors of the mosque.

We stood for 20 minutes debating what to do, but in the end we had no choice - we ran.

The Mehdi army were not the only people testing their faith.

Dinner conversation between journalists revolved around updates of injuries, people marooned in strangers' houses and caught by the fire, and legends of those who had yet again called on what seemed like supernatural powers to craft an extraordinary story.

And there were hushed discussions of the "news gods" - the mystical forces which decide whether you are rewarded for risk, whether your trip across the front line goes well or not, whether your feature becomes a front page splash, whether your editor notices, whether you find someone to interview who speaks English and whether your mum sees your TV report or not.

The "news gods" are fickle. They can raise you up or they can darken your skies without warning. But they have memory - three great stories that fall apart promise another even better one that does not.

They can send you home to a loved one at a critical moment.

They can even arrange that un-winnable interview if you have honoured them enough.

My "news gods" seemed to be sending me back to Baghdad, which is probably wise.

I hope that the guardians of the people of Najaf keep them safe as well.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 August, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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