Today U.S. British and some Iraqi soldiers surround the Imam Ali Shrine in the old city of Najaf. M-1 Abrams tanks point their fearsome 120mm cannon at the golden domed building. Gunships circle overhead. Inside a number of Shi'ite fighters stare back behind sandbagged walls, finding Allah in the cool comfort of a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Black smoke from burning buildings clouds the sky. The followers of Moqtada al-Sadr take comfort from the blessed walls around them.

The Shrine of Imam Ali is one of the holiest shrines in all Islam, perhaps holiest among Shi'ites. It is revered among Sunni, for Ali is often regarded as one of the earliest caliphs, the leaders who took control of Islam after Muhammad’s death and began a military conquest that took Turkey, the Transcaucauses, the Balkans, North Africa, parts of India, and southern Spain. The faith was spred by the sword. While Muslims still live in most of those areas, Islam today is in no position to conquer anyone. Islamic states feature governments are generally incompetent or corrupt when they are not brutal. Tiny Israel forced its way into the region, and defeated Islamic states that once enjoyed a great name. Today it is American and British troops who occupy Muslim lands. Granted they deposed a horrid leader in Saddam Hussein, but they are not Iraqis, but secular Westerners. Infidels.

Many Muslims look back toward those days as the glory days. Today is not good. Western ideologies like socialism have been tried (Egypt, Syria, Libya, former Soviet republics). Democracies have proven corrupt (Syria, Algeria) and unable to uplift the populace. Civil war is the rule. To many the past is where they must go, to seek again the purity of faith and purpose that will return the days when they were great and Westerners came to their doors to seek terms.

The Imam Ali Shrine bears particular significance. Ali claimed the caliphate as the true descendent of his father-in-law Muhammad. Ali spoke for the ascetic Bedouin soldiers, who had fought hard for Islam, but received little under Uthman. Ali became their spokesman. This led to a civil struggle where Uthman was besieged at Medina, and slain by a descendent of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Ali was then named caliph.

Uthman’s supporters did not sit idle. The enlisted the support of one of Muhammad's widows, Aisha, but were defeated in battle near Basra. But Muawiyah would not let Uthmann’s death lie, and vowed revenge. His forces fought Ali at the battle of Siffin. They did not do well, and sought arbitration. The mere act of accepting arbitration led one of Ali's most fanatical allies, the Kharajites to abandon his side, for they believed that arbitration placed man's law over that of God.

That enraged Ali, and when his appeal for their return was refused, he massacred many. The death of so many pious Muslims led to more desertions from Ali’s side. He was forced to withdraw to Kufah.

The open battle inside Islam led to a conference of Islamic leaders. They decided the best course was to reject both Ali and Muawiyah. They chose abd'Allah to replace them, but could not enforce their will. While they struggled, a Kharajite murdered Ali in the new Mosque of Sufah, in 661. Ali’s son Hasan renounced the caliphate, but soon died,. Many Shia believe that Muawiyah poisoned Hassan, though there is no proof.

The murder of Ali led many of his followers to band together again, and from them comes the Shi’ism. Muawiyah was declared caliph. Unlike Hasan, Ali's son Husayn refused to swear fealty. Nineteen years after Ali’s murder Husayn and his followers were massacred at Kerbala, an event Shi'ites still remember today through self-mortification.

The golden dome of Najaf houses the tomb of Ali himself, fourth Caliph. The cemeteries currently under attack and occupied by tanks occupy a route Muslims believe was walked by Abraham himself, along with his son Isaac. They say that Abraham himself predicted the construction of the Mosque, and that while he was there the earthquakes were calmed. The name itself descends from Noah. It means dried river and comes from the river created when God smote the moutain Noah waited upon, watching rather than boarding the Ark. This is not merely a tomb, but a place of pilgramage and beauty for all Muslims, and particularly the Shi'ites. They claim it is possible to feel Ali's presence whenever they are in the shrine.

This is why the forces of Moqtada Sadr occupy it today. The tradition of sanctuary is well honored in the world today. By taking refuge in the mosque they may seek sanctuary.

But only if they forsake the gun. They may not hide out there while the heat is on, emerge to fight, then duck back inside. They may not fire from inside the Mosque, store weapons there, or use it as a base. The Geneva conventions are quite specific on this. Religious buildings are to be protected. Using them as a fighting position and base strips away that protected status. The US and its allies now enjoy the legal right to simply level the place. No doubt many of the besiegers would like to do just that and go home.

Moqtada Sadr knew this when he sent his troops inside. He is Iran’s man in southern Iraq. The theocratic government of Iran has grown increasingly unpopular as reality has exposed the mullahs inability to provide for their people, and the oppressive nature of their regime. Iran is running from fundamentalism as fast as possible. The mullahs would like nothing more than to provoke another crisis with the US they can use to rally the faithful behind them. All the better that someone else should do the fighting and dying. All the better that it should be in Iraq.

They also hate America with a passion second only to bin-Laden. Ali may be a controversial figure in Islam, but he was a caliph, and revered by all Muslims. Desecrating his grave will strike at the heart of all Muslims, and will make many enemies.

Of course Sadr and his Mahdi army are unlikely to die just to make Iran’s mullahs happy. But martyrdom enjoys great respect within the Shi’ite tradition. Kerballah is remembered by shi’ite men who run through the streets beating themselves, drawing their own blood in sympathy with Husayn. Ali and his descendents are known as Imams in the Shi’ite tradition. The particular sect common to Iran and southern Iraq is known as 12er Shi’ism, because they revere 12 Imams. The 12th Imam was named al-Mahdi. He disappeared in Samarra. 12ers say he did not die, but entered into a state of "occultation’ and will emerge at the proper time. Moqtada Sadr did not name his militia the "Mahdi Army’' by sheer chance. His father was murdered. It seems likely that he shares the fanatics taste for martyrdom. Perhaps he sees a bit of Husayn in himself. If his death inflames the Islamic world against America, he may regard death a fine bargain.

The men in the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles outside know all this. Soldiers are not stupid. The average field grade officer (Major and up) has at least one advanced degree, often in such related disciplines as political science, history or economics. Why do you think they hesistate, and try to put a half-trained Iraqi force up front?

They also know that the most careful assault on the Shrine will damage it. The more firepower they use, the greater the damage. Conventional military doctrine calls for using a lot of firepower. Using troops and light weapons might prevent major damage, but giving up their firepower superiority means accepting higher casualties. Their troops will die in greater numbers, and they are the people who will have to write letters to grieving widows and parents.They will have to comfort the wounded and maimed they call friends. They might be lost for nothing. Will the Islamic world be significantly less inflamed by a badly damaged mosque as opposed to a hole in the ground? And what if Sadr himself demolishes the place, like the Branch Davidians did to their compound in Waco, Texas? Will the Islamic world believe American denials? Do they believe anything we say these days?

This is the sort of dilemma occupation duty often places a country in to. The Islamic world will not understand the legal right of the US to damage, much less destroy their shrine. They see their own fighters as so weak, the US so powerful an oppressor that many will see Sadr’s use of the Shrine as nothing more than a slight leveling of totally unbalanced scales. Perhaps the return of Ali Sistani from the hospital will provide for an alternative. Certainly he enjoys a stature Sadr can only aspire too. He may be able to force a solution. Or delay the day of reckoning. That’s what happened last time Sadr’s people accepted a cease fire. They used that time to restock and rearm.

But Sistani cannot abolish the Mahdi Army or turn Sadr over to Iraqi authorities. He does not have that power. The men who fought and their families will remember their fallen, and their anger will not dim. Sistani is old and frail. Sooner or later the forces of Moqtada Sadr will re-enter the golden shrine.

It will be déjà vu all over again.

Update: By the summer of the 2007 the mosque has been all but destroyed, not at the hand of U.S. soldiers, but due to two bombings by Sunni extremists, probably inspired by al Quaeda. The bombings were quite successful, as they touched off a sectarian civil war