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Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf


WHERE IS AL-NAJAF?

Al-Najaf lies 165 kilometers south of Baghdad in Iraq's central plains on the western bank of the Euphrates River. It is the capital of the Al-Najaf governorate. It was founded in the Western calendar's 791. Before becoming a battleground in 2004 for U.S.-led forces and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, it was home to an estimated 900,000 people. Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa are Iraq's main Shi'a holy cities.

WHY IS AL-NAJAF REGARDED AS A HOLY CITY?

It is the site of the tomb of Ali, the first imam of the Shi'a.

It is also the locale of the Wadi-us-Salaam, or Valley of Peace, the world's largest Islamic cemetery and one of the largest cemeteries overall. Thousands of prominent Shi'a Muslim figures are buried there.

For 1,000 years it has been a destination for Shi'a pilgrims, second in importance only to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, holy destinations revered by all Muslims. Many Shi'a also make special pilgrimages in order to lay their dead there.

The ancient prophet Abraham -- recognized alike by Muslims, Christians, and Jews -- is said to have visited the place. There's a legend that one of Noah's sons refused to enter the Ark and took refuge instead on a mountain top there. The mountain is said to have crumbled and the son to have drowned in the flood.

For two centuries before Saddam Hussein's rule, Al-Najaf was also an Islamic center for scientific and theological studies.

WHO WAS IMAM ALI?

He was Ali Ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law to the Prophet Muhammad. When Muhammad died in the Western calendar's 632, a schism developed in Islam. Islamic scholars named Muhammad's friend and follower Abu Bakr as his successor. But others insisted that Muhammad, himself, had said in a sermon that the successor should be Imam Ali. Imam Ali did become the fourth caliph of Islam. A militant sect assassinated him after a brief reign.

Today's 150 million Shi'a are the followers of Imam Ali. Worldwide, Shi'a make up a relatively small minority of Muslim believers, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. But in Iran and Iraq, Shi'a Muslims are in the majority.

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE ALI IBN ABI TALIB SHRINE?

First of all, its symbolism. It stands as Imam Ali's tomb. It is a beautiful structure with a large central dome constructed of 7,777 gold panels. The dome tops an ornate square structure with two minarets. It is of shining gold color on the outside and inlaid with blue, white, gold, and red-rust mosaic within. Despite vandalism, invasion, and thefts over the years, it is a repository of many treasures left there as offerings by pilgrims over the years.

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".
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