"HEADING for Najaf", in the argot of Tehran, means going to die. Those who know the Iraqi city, which has dominated the headlines for weeks, would agree. For this is a city built on and around death. Its chief attraction is the tomb of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, who was assassinated near by in Kufa 1,400 years ago. Najaf also has the world's largest graveyard with some 1.8 million tombs.
For the world's 150 million Muslim Shias, Najaf is the ideal burial place. Proximity to Ali is supposed to improve chances of avoiding Gehenna, the abode of the fallen, according to the Koran. Believers spend a lifetime's savings to have their corpses transported to Najaf for burial close to Ali's mausoleum. Five generations of my family are buried there thanks to a tradition that began in the 17th century.
Death is at the centre of life here. Tens of thousands of grave-diggers, undertakers, masters of funeral ceremonies, tomb watchers, givers of prayers for the dead, intercessors, Koran reciters, mediums for communication with the departed, and so on make up the bulk of the workforce.
While Najaf's chief import is corpses, its major export is mullahs. The city hosts the most eminent of Shia seminaries which, at the height of its theological boom in the 1950s, boasted 124 madrassahs with 40,000 trainee mullahs. All the grand ayatollahs of the past 150 years either studied or taught there.
For all that, the Western media's description of Najaf as a "holy city" is wide of the mark. In Islam no city can be holy because holiness is the exclusive attribute of Allah. Instead, Najaf's title is al-Ashraf, the Noble One.
The claim that Ali's mausoleum is one of the ancient sites of Islam is equally bizarre, as is the assertion that any damage to it could provoke an explosion of the Muslim street. Ali's first mausoleum, built by the Safavid shahs in the 17th century was destroyed by the Ottomans a few decades later. It was rebuilt by the Zand dynasty in the 18th century but was razed to the ground by a Wahhabi army from the Arabian Peninsula in 1802. The place remained a heap of ruins for two decades. During that time some mullahs spread a rumour that angels had taken Ali's mortal remains from Najaf for reburial at Balkh, in Afghanistan, 2,500 kilometres to the east. The Afghans built a new city around the supposed tomb of Ali, calling it Mazar-e Sherif, the Noble Tomb. The present mausoleum in Najaf was built by the Qajars, who gave it a golden dome, in the 1840s.
It is thus not "holiness" that makes Najaf important in the struggle for power in Iraq. Rather, the city is important for three very worldly reasons.
The first is that with the collapse of the central state in Baghdad, Najaf has become the centre of authority for the Shia community, who comprise the majority of Iraq's population. Whoever controls Najaf and its seminary would enjoy the moral legitimacy which, in the absence of free elections, the interim government cannot claim.
Najaf is also big business. For centuries wealthy Shias have left part of their fortune to the foundation that runs Ali's mausoleum. That foundation owns large tracts of farmland and property in both Iran and Iraq, hostels for pilgrims, and the freehold of hundreds of shops in two dozen cities.
The mausoleum's treasury of gold, jewellery and precious carpets is believed to be worth more than $1 billion. Since the liberation of Iraq, Najaf has attracted an estimated 7.5 million pilgrims. Once peace is fully restored, this could quickly rise to ten million a year, making Najaf the biggest tourist destination in the Arab world, even greater than Mecca. Many new pilgrim hotels are planned or being built. Since all devout Shia would be obliged to pay a 20 per cent flat tax, known as sahm-i-Imam (the Imam's cut), Ali's foundation could become immensely richer in a short time.
Saddam Hussein's Government had seized control of the foundation's assets. Under Iraq's new Constitution, however, the foundation would regain its lost place, thus becoming the nation's biggest business enterprise after the national oil company. Some Iraqis fear that Najaf could become a state within the State, a Vatican-style religious, political and economic powerhouse.