NAJAF, Iraq -- Clerics and politicians speak in hushed tones about the names drawn up for assassination. Guards stand outside their compounds clutching assault rifles, and handguns rest on desks. No one can be trusted. All sides fear that dark times are coming to Najaf, the spiritual capital of Iraq's Shiites.
"The situation is mysterious," said Sheik Ali Najafi, the son and confidant of Grand Ayatollah Bashir Najafi, one of the four senior Shiite clerics in Iraq who guide the country's majority faith and counsel its politicians. Like elder statesmen, the four have found themselves ensnared in the conflict between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and an upstart young cleric, and son of a grand ayatollah himself: Muqtada al-Sadr.
The poisonous atmosphere of treachery and paranoia has consequences far beyond the alleyways of this ancient shrine city. Najaf may hold the key to Iraq's stability: If it descends into violence, the entire Shiite south will almost certainly follow suit. U.S. forces will be stretched, the chances of a drawdown diminished. The Shiite parties involved will likely look to Iran to broker an end to the crisis. And chances for a real Iraqi political process will be on hold.
And on Saturday night, the fears of a broader Shiite conflict loomed larger after al-Sadr threatened all-out war against the government if it did not call a halt to military operations against his followers in Baghdad and the southern port of Basra.
Like Basra, with its oil, whoever controls Najaf will play a major role in charting Iraq's future. It is here where Shiite politicians come for guidance from the grand ayatollahs. It is here where the populist al-Sadr first challenged Iraq's conservative religious establishment.
"Najaf is the kitchen, where major decisions are cooked," said Salah Obeidi, al-Sadr's official spokesman.
Obeidi works out of a barren room in a closed-down restaurant and hotel. Bodyguards sit in the lobby, decorated with a mural of al-Sadr and long-haired Shiite saints gazing austerely at Najaf's alleyways. Obeidi says he has been in crisis mode lately.
"We are afraid the situation from now till October won't be stable for the Sadrists," Obeidi said. "Najaf is very important."
The city's rewards are huge for al-Sadr and his competitors: lucrative revenues from the pilgrims who flock here and the chance to spread one's influence among the faithful.
Every year, millions of pilgrims come to Najaf to pray at the Imam Ali Mosque, the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, whose death inspired the founding of the Shiite faith. Believers from around Iraq bury their dead in Najaf's cemetery, named the Valley of Peace. Aspiring clerics flock to study in Najaf's revered hawza, a loose network of illustrious seminaries, rivaled only by Qom in Iran.
"Muqtada would covet the kind of Shiites Najaf holds," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite Islam at Tufts University. "Al-Sadr is popular politically, the grand ayatollahs religiously. There is a tense standoff between them. They both hold power and popularity, and that is what makes the situation so tense and volatile."
Najaf's merchant elite and clergy have long viewed al-Sadr as a rabble-rouser, able to mobilize the Shiite slums and rural masses for violence. No one in Najaf has forgotten April 2003, when Saddam Hussein fell and al-Sadr, the son of a famed and controversial grand ayatollah, emerged from house arrest to lay claim to his dead father's mantle. That month, Abdel Majid Khoei, the son of another late grand ayatollah, was murdered by a mob outside al-Sadr's home.
Then, in the summer of 2004, al-Sadr seized the Imam Ali shrine as part of his open revolt against the Americans. The ensuing battle battered the city's cemetery and neighborhoods. Even now, shattered buildings litter the landscape.
During that uprising, the country's pre-eminent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, intervened to save al-Sadr, offering the Mahdi Army safe passage from the Imam Ali shrine as a way of ending a monthlong confrontation with the U.S. Army. This time, the grand ayatollahs declined to shield the incendiary cleric.
Three days into the Basra campaign, Grand Ayatollah Najafi issued a fatwa that declared the Iraqi government as the only force in the country that had the right to bear arms.
His son, Sheik Ali Najafi, left little doubt that the clergy had backed the Iraqi army. "We see this as a positive what the government has done. The people want the government to control the streets and the law to be enforced. No other groups," he said, sitting in his study, furnished with cushions, a laptop and a clock bearing his father's portrait.
Their stance is a gamble. An influential cleric who is knowledgeable about talks between the al-Sadr movement and the grand ayatollahs described the situation in bleak terms: The government is weak, while al-Sadr aides now acknowledge privately that they have lost control of members who are receiving support from Tehran.
"There are groups in the Mahdi Army who are kidnapping, killing and stealing. They don't listen to Muqtada. They are openly operating with Iranian interests," he said.
The cleric begged that his name not be used because he feared assassination. Everywhere, he saw Iran's influence. "In the beginning, it was Arab countries playing a negative role. Now after al-Qaida has fallen, it is Iran. Iran wants to control Iraq, and change the Hawza from Najaf to Qom," he said, referring to Iran's premier religious learning center.
The Sadrists are also fearful. Like Obeidi, al-Sadr parliament member Haidar Fakhrildeen cautioned that the movement expected more killings.
Fakhrildeen spoke with deep mistrust of the Americans and his Shiite political rivals: "Assassinations will happen because of the elections."
The 6-foot-tall lawmaker also has to worry about Mahdi Army fighters co-opted by Tehran. "Iran interferes in everything," he said. "It was able to control a handful of fighters to use them to serve their interests."
In the meantime, life goes on in Najaf's ancient bazaar. Merchants cut black and brown fabric for clerics' capes. Families buy deep red pomegranate juice and ice cream for daughters in party dresses. But bazaar owners believe the calm might be fleeting. A bookseller, whose merchandise includes writings by Sistani and al-Sadr's father, frowned.
"The quiet will not continue. There will be disorder," he said confidentially between visits from customers who flipped through his books, with their pictures of the dour-faced clerics. He was sure the turbulence would pass: "After this unrest, there will be permanent stability."
Ned Parker, Raheem Salman and Saad Fakhrildeen write for the Los Angeles Times.