THE coffin contains the body of the latest young fighter killed on the front lines of the war with Islamic State (IS). But few worshippers at Najaf’s Imam Ali mosque pay it heed. On one side women weep and wail at the shrine of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad who became Islam’s fourth caliph, and whose murder can be seen as the beginning of the divide between Sunni and Shia. On the other a group of pilgrims from Iran sits in quiet prayer. The sermon booming from the loudspeakers is discussing marriage, not war. The ground around the building is packed with families and scattered with the leftovers from picnics.
Last summer the residents of Najaf, in Iraq’s Shia heartland, were in mortal fear of IS. Its fighters had swarmed out of their redoubts in Syria and north-west Iraq to take control of much of the Sunni part of the country. They were little more than a dozen kilometres from taking Baghdad and also threatened Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. In June IS declared the re-establishment of the caliphate—the single state held to rule over all Muslims. But unlike the caliphate of Ali, this would be one which had highly exclusive definitions of what a Muslim is: Shias need not apply, and a lot of Sunnis would not make the grade, either.
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