U.S. forces view their work to rebuild Najaf, a sacred city for Shiite Muslims, like no other in Iraq.

Because of the religious significance of the city, the Americans believe success here can boost their credibility among Iraqis throughout the majority Shiite nation.

This week could be the military's first test, as an expected 2 million Shiites head to Najaf and the holy city of Karbala for an annual religious pilgrimage that Saddam Hussein had repressed for decades.

"I can't help feel that Iraqis will look to upon us in a special way if we help a city that represents something like Mecca or Jerusalem," said Maj. James M. Bozeman, a civil affairs officer with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Laid out along the banks of the Euphrates River, this city of 900,000 is the last resting place of Imam Ali, son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and revered by Shiites as his successor. A center of scientific, literary and theological studies, the world's 120 million Shiites regard it as their third-holiest site, behind Mecca and Medina.

The war did not severely damage the infrastructure of Najaf but left the city in disarray. Some two weeks after the 82nd put down resistance by Saddam's die-hard supporters, an air of insecurity still hangs over the community.

Iraqis are wondering who is in charge and who can deal with looters, criminals and everyday urban problems. Tribal chiefs, powerful clerics and lower-ranking members of Saddam's regime have been coming forward, some aggressively, to stake a claim to future leadership.

"What fills the void? We are trying to figure out who all these players are," said Maj. Jason Chung, an intelligence officer.

The Americans have been working with a town council formed at meetings of local sheiks who chose a former police colonel, Abu Haider, as mayor.

"We're keeping an eye on them to make sure nobody had a lot of power and bullied the others with it," Bozeman said.

Perhaps more influential than the council are Shiite religious leaders who are rapidly building up their own power base, providing welfare assistance to communities and appointing followers to do their bidding.

Some like Sheik Abbas al-Rabia'i, a 42-year-old cleric, are hard-liners who distrust the Americans and say Western democratic values are unsuitable for Iraq.

Others favor cooperation with the coalition. One of these, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, was slain April 10, along with a pro-Saddam cleric, in a melee a few hours before a meeting to promote reconciliation.

Rehabilitation work, meanwhile, is in its infancy.

The U.S. military in the Najaf area is equipped to do little more than assess problems, recommend future action and take stop gap measures to solve the most urgent problems such as restoring electric power and improving the water supply.

Bozeman said military teams specializing in health care, food, transport and economic development would be moving in. But the military hopes international humanitarian and non-governmental organizations will tackle most of the reconstruction.

A preliminary survey team from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which came through Najaf last week, said such groups would begin moving into southern Iraq within the next 30-45 days.

The assessment teams said the major effort will be to overhaul an infrastructure eroded by more than two decades of rule by Saddam, who ensured that Shiite areas got few resources. Saddam is Sunni Muslim and Sunnis dominated his regime.

"I haven't seen anything in this country that couldn't be fixed in a month to better than prewar levels," said Lt. Col. Paul Wright, a construction engineer in civilian life.

Water plants, he said, are operating at about 50-percent capacity due to a lack of mainline electric power. The power shortage also afflicts hospitals and businesses.

Some schools were bombed by U.S. aircraft because they harbored Iraqi security forces. But looters did far greater damage than the war to the city's education system: They took everything from doors to chalk.

"What shall we do?" Hetheabad Hassan, an education official, repeatedly asked during a tour of damaged schools with U.S. civil affairs officers.

"It's your decision," the U.S. officers answered, hoping that by treading carefully they could avoid accusations of interference.