TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv, welcome again to the broadcast. We've been getting conflicting reports all day today about the situation in Najaf and exactly who who's in control of the shrine in that area. Can you bring us up to date?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah, it's been a very murky day. Here's the latest as we know it here. Many members of al-Sadr's Mahdi army militia are still inside the Imamally shrine in Najaf at this hour.
Many of them are still holed up there, although perhaps between fifty to eighty members have left the shrine, according to local authorities. The shrine is still in the control of the Mahdi army, despite their promises to eventually hand over the keys to the facility to a respected Shia Ayatollah, Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq.
The U.S. military just of a short while ago late in the evening here has suspended its offensive operations to give a chance for a peaceful resolution hoping that Sadr's lieutenants will follow through with these pledges to vacate the shrine and to hand over these keys.
TERENCE SMITH: What would be the significance of that if it does indeed happen as described? What would be the practical effect?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, the shrine is commonly referred to as one of the holiest places in the world for... in Shiite Islam. It is where the Imam Ali was buried in the seventh century. But the true significance is that it's a key sort of center of Shiite power. It is a place where millions of Shiite pilgrims come to visit and one of the things they do is they make very large donations when they're there. And who controls the shrine effectively means who controls the money.
And after oil, the Shrine of the Imam Ali may be one of Iraq's largest sources of foreign income. And so there's been a lot of worry in Shiite religious circles about letting Muqtada al-Sadr have control of the place. And, in fact, now that his militia is there, tourism has dropped off. But if things were to return to normal but his people were allowed to be in charge of the shrine that would provide him with an enormous source of money.
There's a feeling among many quarters of the Shiite community that control should rest with a collection of the Shiite religious leaders in Najaf, primarily with Ayatollah Sistani, who is the most influential and most powerful Shiite cleric. He, in fact, has been able to at least in the months since U.S. forces have come here use some of that money for his own purposes or at least to direct it toward charities and other organizations that he and others control.
In the old days, a lot of that money was just taken in by Saddam Hussein's government. And all this gets to a related issue, and that is the anger that people in Najaf feel toward Muqtada al-Sadr because in these months since Saddam's government had been toppled, legions of pilgrims have come from other parts of the Shiite world, particularly Iran. And Najaf had really seen a renaissance.
Hotels had been built, restaurants had opened, new shops opened. One of the success stories of Iraq, if you will. It was just a boom there. And all of that has now been on hold. In fact, it's awe dormant, shops are shuttered, hotels are closed.
And the people of Najaf who were making money off these pilgrims wanted to get back to the way it was and want the official authorities now to be taking charge of that shrine.
TERENCE SMITH: You say that some of the Mahdi army are still in the shrine. Is there any information about the whereabouts of Muqtada al-Sadr himself?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: That's the big question. Nobody seems to know. There's some who believe that he might have slipped out over the past few days. That the reason he didn't meet with the delegation from the national conference in Baghdad that went down a few days ago to see him was that he wasn't there and he's moved to someplace else safer. Now, the question also is what about his followers? All of these guys who are in the shrine.
As long as so long as they are in the shrine they have some degree of immunity because the interim government here and the U.S. military don't want to essentially bombard the shrine. But once they leave and they near those surrounding neighborhoods, it's a real question. If they choose to sort of fight with the Americans and the Iraqi security forces, we could see some fairly intense combat going on there.
And presumably one of the main issues that will come up in any sort of negotiated settlement if we get to that point will be the fate of all of those people in the shrine. The government has said that it would offer those people safe passage, but to date no real sort of modalities have been worked out.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there any evidence that the Mahdi army is willing to meet another of the essential conditions laid down by the Iraqi interim government, which was that the militia should disarm?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, all the evidence that at least we've seen thus far is no. Muqtada al-Sadr issued a letter late yesterday night in which he said he would not dissolve the Mahdi army, that it was a volunteer religious army, that he had no right to dissolve it. And if he doesn't do that, that certainly violates one of the key conditions from the government for a peaceful resolution to this.
And if that group stays together or his followers try to leave the shrine area with weapons, it would seem pretty clear that they would be engaged by security forces. Already U.S. Marines and Iraqi police have set up additional checkpoints around the older corridor of Najaf where the shrine is located in an effort to apprehend any militia men.
They don't want these people to simply go back to ground allowing them perhaps in a month or two or whenever to reconstitute and to form a threat like this again.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, what's the... what's been the role of the prime minister, Allawi, has, in fact, he been calling the shots?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: He's not really doing hour-by-hour tactical moves on the ground, but from a strategic sense, what we hear from Americans, civilian and military officials, is that Allawi and his cabinet really are setting the policy and dictating when to go in with military force and when to hold back and allow time for negotiations.
Now, he had intended to fly down there today hoping perhaps to make some sort of victory lap through that shrine. That trip was scrubbed late this afternoon when initial reports proved wrong. His interior ministry came out with this very bold and eager and premature statement that the police had gone into the shrine and taken control of it without a shot.
Embarrassingly for the government, that proved to be wrong after the U.S. military and even the local police there said they don't control that area. So Allawi had to scrub that trip.
He's still in Baghdad and he and his advisors are now trying to plot the next move here and waiting for the next move from Muqtada al-Sadr as to whether he will follow through with vacating that shrine, handing over the keys and that key step of disbanding the militia.
TERENCE SMITH: We'll have to stay tuned. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you very much.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you, Terry.