Families gather in the festive streets after dark during the holy month of Ramadan, munching sweets after a day of fasting. Iraqi soldiers -- who recently assumed control over Najaf from U.S. forces -- doff their helmets to chat with residents. And throngs of worshipers in this spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, where large religious demonstrations were proscribed under President Saddam Hussein, stroll hand-in-hand under strands of colored lights to pray at the Imam Ali shrine, one of their sect's most sacred sites.
Such scenes are impossible to imagine in many other parts of Iraq, where daily violence forces many people to venture out in public only when they have to.
Since sweeping to power 8 1/2 months ago in the first elections since Hussein's fall, Iraq's long-persecuted Shiite majority has proved all but unstoppable in its quest to remake the country its way. Few places have profited from the ascendancy as much as Najaf, a city of 500,000 awash in reconstruction projects and only intermittently plagued by insurgent attacks. When the country votes again Saturday, this time on whether to approve a draft constitution mostly written by Shiite leaders, Najafis are expected to endorse it overwhelmingly.
"This is my city, my father's city and his father's city, and the golden age will come after the referendum, when we vote yes," said Abbas Moadal, the provincial police chief whose biography parallels his people's difficult rise to power. He helped lead a Shiite uprising that was crushed by Hussein in 1991, then left Iraq as a penniless refugee in 1993. After 12 years of running a dollar store in Detroit, he returned two months ago.
"In Iraq, we are the majority," he said, "and we are finally taking our rights."
But just how Shiites will or should exercise their power is an open question in a community that some members say is more divided than ever, even as it strengthens its grip on the country. Rivalries between Shiite militias vying for influence recently boiled over into bloodshed for the first time. Competing visions of the political future in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq have deepened rifts among the parties that share control of the government.
In August, one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians came to Najaf to commemorate the death of his brother, a revered cleric killed in a car bombing two years earlier. In a speech to thousands of followers, Abdul Aziz Hakim made an incendiary proposal: that nine Shiite-majority provinces band together to form a semi-autonomous region encompassing half of the country's population.
"We must not miss this chance," said Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party backed by Iran that forms part of Iraq's governing coalition. He said he envisaged "one federal state in central and southern Iraq, an area of shared bonds and one social fabric."
The proposal, which Hakim's aides said was intended to unite Shiites, wreaked havoc on sensitive negotiations among Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions trying to hammer out a draft constitution five days before a deadline. The plan was denounced by Sunni Arab leaders, who called it a step toward the dissolution of Iraq. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite whose Dawa party is a governing partner of Hakim's Supreme Council, called it a "bad idea," and the popular Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, a fervent advocate of a unified Iraq, condemned it. Negotiations stalled, and parliament missed the deadline for approving a constitution by two weeks.
Hakim's speech also escalated a long-simmering feud between the Supreme Council and Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, which twice battled U.S. forces in Najaf and other parts of the south last year. Originating in a broader struggle for millions of Shiite hearts and minds, the split illustrated the two groups' divergent views of federalism, or the devolution of power to regional governments.
Hakim and the Supreme Council continue to push for a separate Shiite-majority state, arguing that Iraq's national leadership has a long history of mistreating Shiites. "Shiites suffered and were insulted by the central government for many years, and this is a form of protection," said Anwar Shimirti, a top Supreme Council official in Najaf.
Sadr's more populist following, drawn mostly from Shiite slums in Iraq's largest cities, contends that such a proposal undermines national unity. Sahib Amiri, who heads a branch of Sadr's organization, said that even though his movement could benefit from the formation of a federal state, it rejected the notion on principle.
"It would serve us well, because we have the majority of followers and could dominate it," he said. "But it would divide Iraq along sectarian lines, and to us this very idea is unacceptable."
In late August, Sadr's Najaf office was set ablaze and four of his supporters killed when a demonstration against him turned violent. Sadr aides initially blamed the Badr Organization, the Supreme Council's militia, and the Mahdi Army attacked Badr offices across southern Iraq. Sadr called off his troops at the urging of Jafari and the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sadr declared that the Supreme Council was not responsible for the attack on his office, but bitterness among his followers remains.
"We know who did this. We saw Badr leaders among the crowd, and we have not forgotten. Sayyid Moqtada did not want to incite strife among the Shiites," said Mohan Abdul-Hussein, 27, a fighter with the Mahdi Army, referring to Sadr with an honorific connoting descent from the prophet Muhammad. "We are patient for now, but if something like this ever happens again, we will not stop, no matter what."
In interviews, representatives of the Shiites' four most revered religious leaders blamed the fighting on "outsiders" -- as they describe insurgents -- and said the clerics would keep the militias in line.
Among Shiites, an ayatollah considered to be a marja -- a religious authority to be emulated by his followers -- "plays the role of a father of everyone in this dispute," said Ali Bashir, the son of the third-ranking cleric. "And while we cannot choose between a son and a son, we will ensure there will be no more fighting.
"The marja wants only unity among Shiites in southern Iraq," he added. "What form that takes is up to the people to decide."
U.S. officials have said they fear that a southern Shiite state would be closely tied to neighboring Iran, a Shiite-majority country that American diplomats have called the most significant long-term threat to Iraq's interests. They are also concerned such a state could be dominated by clerics rather than secular politicians.
Interviews with about a dozen people here this week suggested a relatively even split between supporters and opponents of federalism. Most said they intended to vote in favor of the constitution Saturday. Nearly 20,000 Iraqi troops will be in the streets during the voting, with U.S. troops standing by at bases outside the city.
Asked about U.S. concerns, Hussein Hajar, a high school teacher who said he supported the idea of federalism, replied: "Why should we not choose how we live, how we educate people, how we elect our leaders the way that fits us, even if it is not what they want? Why should we not govern ourselves."
‘We can cool it down’
While many people mentioned the tension between the militias, most expressed optimism that the division could be overcome.
"Three years ago we were in ruins. One year ago we were fighting in the streets. Even this summer we had terrorist attacks. Look at the people, out shopping and eating and not in fear," said Majid Safar Ali, 50, who sells black fabric for abayas , or women's traditional robes, at a stall in Najaf's bazaar. "Even if the violence and other problems started again 100 more times, we can cool it down. We did it before."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad Sarhan contributed to this report.