Najaf (BGN: An Najaf) is a city in Iraq about 160 km south of Baghdad. Its estimated population in 2008 is 900,600 people, though this has increased significantly since 2003 due to immigration from abroad, mainly for neighbouring Iran.. It is the capital of Najaf province. It is one of the holiest cities of Shia Islām and the center of Shia political power in Iraq.
Najaf is renowned as the site of the tomb of Alī ibn Abī Tālib (also known as "Imām Alī"), whom the Shia consider to be the righteous caliph and first imām. The city is now a great center of pilgrimage from throughout the Shi'a Islamic world. It is estimated that only Mecca and Medina receive more Muslim pilgrims.
The Imām Alī Mosque is housed in a grand structure with a gilded dome and many precious objects in the walls. Nearby is the Wādī as-Salām "Wadi of Peace", claimed to be the largest cemetery in the Muslim world (and possibly the largest in the entire world), containing the tombs of several prophets. Many of the devout from other lands aspire to be buried here, to be raised from the dead with Imām Alī on Judgement Day. Over the centuries, numerous hospices, schools, libraries and Sufi convents were built around the shrine to make the city the centre of Shīa learning and theology. Many of these were badly damaged during the rule of Saddam Hussein, with a highway being driven through the middle of the Wādī'u s-Salām.
Many great Shi'a scholars both old (such as Sayyid Mohsin Al-Hakim) and Sayyid Abul-Qassim Al-Khoei and contemporary (such as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and Alī al-Hussaynī as-Sīstānī) studied in Najaf. This city, along with Qom in Iran, is considered the centers of the Shi'a fiqh "school of faith".
The Najaf area was situated near the Sassanid city of Suristan and at the time of the Sassanids was a part of the Middle Bih-Kavad province of Persia. The city itself was reputedly founded in 791 by the Abbasid Caliph Harūn ar-Rashīd.
Ali ibn Abi Talib instructed that his burial place should remain a secret. He had many enemies, and he feared lest his body might be subjected to some indignity. According to legend, the dead body of Ali was placed on a camel which was driven from Kufa. The camel stopped a few miles west of Kufa, and here the dead body of Ali was buried secretly. No tomb was raised, and nobody knew of the burial place except a few trusted persons. It is narrated that more than a hundred years later, the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, went deer hunting outside Kufa, and the deer sought sanctuary at a place where the hounds would not pursue it. On inquiry as to why the place was a sanctuary, Harūn ar-Rashīd was told that it was the burial place of Ali. Harūn ar-Rashīd ordered a mausoleum to be built on the spot. In due course, the town of Najaf grew around the mausoleum.
Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Najaf experienced severe difficulties as the result of repeated raids by Arab desert tribes and acute water shortages caused by the lack of a reliable water supply. The number of inhabited houses in the city had plummeted from 3000 to just 30 by the start of the 16th century.
The city was besieged by the Wahhabis in the late 18th century. The water shortages were finally resolved in 1803 with the construction of the Hindiyya canal, following which the city's population rapidly doubled from 30,000 to 60,000. Even so, Najaf lost its religious primacy to the Iranian city of Qom in the 19th century and was not to regain it until the late 20th century.
The Ottomans were expelled in an uprising in 1915, following which the city fell under the rule of the British Empire. The sheikhs of Najaf rebelled in 1918, killing the British governor of the city by Sayed Mahdi Al-Awadi and cutting off grain supplies to the Anaza, a tribe allied with the British. In retaliation the British besieged the city and cut off its water supply. The rebellion was put down and the rule of the sheikhs was forcibly ended.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Najaf was a key target of the invading United States forces. The city was encircled during heavy fighting on March 26, 2003 and was captured on April 3, 2003 by 1st, 2nd, 3rd Battalions, 327th Infantry Regiment, units of the 101st Airborne Division.
On August 29, 2003 a car bomb exploded during prayers outside the Imām Alī Mosque just as weekly prayers were ending. More than 80 people were killed, including the influential cleric Ayatollah Sayyid Muħammad Bāqir al-Ħakīm, the Shīia leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Dozens of others were injured. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack - Saddam himself, in hiding at the time, denied any involvement in a taped message. On April 4, 2004, the Mahdi Army attacked the Spanish-Salvadoran-FLARNG base(FOB) in Najaf, part of a coordinated uprising across central and southern Iraq in an apparent attempt to seize control of the country ahead of the June 30, 2004 handover of power to a new Iraqi government. This uprising led to the 1st Armored Division's Task Force 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor (2-37 AR) attached to the 2 Armored Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) arriving in the city in the wake of the Spanish withdrawal. The situation aroused grave concerns among the Shia community of Iraq and Iran, as firefights took place within yards of the Kufa Mosque. Some mosques suffered superficial damage in the process, mostly due to Mahdi Army fighters mishandling explosives stored in the Kufa Mosque. Firefights between the Mahdi Army and Badr Organization took place in May as tensions rose over the Mahdi Army's occupation of the Imam Ali Shrine, looting of the mosques in their control, and illegal prisons and Sharia courts. The Najaf cemetery, the largest cemetery in the world, became a battle ground in May 2004 as M1A1 tanks from 2-37 AR fought Mahdi Army elements on the outskirts of the cemetery. The Mahdi Army stationed several three man rocket propelled grenade RPG teams in the cemetery, who lived in large tombs to avoid detection from U.S. helicopters and UAVs.
In August 2004, fighting broke out again between American troops of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 5th US Cavalry Regiment and 2nd Battalion, 7th US Cavalry Regiment, 15th Forward Support Battalion and Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The battle, which was mostly centered around Wādī' as-Salām Cemetery and the southwestern portion of the city, lasted three weeks and ended when senior Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Alī Al-Sīstānī negotiated an end to the fighting. The evening before Al-Sistani arrived in the city, two F-16's, flying out of Balad, dropped four two-thousand pound JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) on two hotels in close proximity to the Imam Ali Shrine. The success of this airstrike dealt a devastating blow to the insurgents holed up in the second holiest shrine in the Islamic faith.
In late January 2007, fighting flared up again in Najaf after Iraqi government and US/UK forces launched an offensive against the Jund al-Samaa ("Soldiers of Heaven") militia, the armed wing of a Shia apocalyptic cult. On January 28, a major battle was fought at Zarqa, a settlement near Najaf. There, the organization was supposedly de facto destroyed, with many hundreds of its members - including the identified leaders - being killed or captured. However, the information released by official Iraqi and US sources is contradictory and incomplete; there are indications that key information (such as the fate of the civilian population or the circumstances of Coalition involvement) is being withheld at present.
Nonwithstanding the claims that the group's fighting potential was destroyed, the city of Najaf was cordoned off in the following days; on February 2, what is being reported as intense fighting broke out inside the town perimeter.