BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Imam Ali Shrine (search) compound in Najaf — an Islamic art landmark ornamented with elegant calligraphy and religious patterns — reputedly holds priceless ancient manuscripts and houses the silver-covered tomb of the Shiite saint Ali. While Iraqi forces might easily overpower the Shiite insurgents hiding inside, any raid there carries considerable risk.
A botched job that damages the shrine could enrage Iraqis and Muslims worldwide, fuel resentment of the occupation and interim government and possibly strengthen local support for rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), to whom the insurgent militia is loyal.
The shrine — named after Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (search), the cousin and son-in-law of Islam's prophet Muhammad — is one of the most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims. For centuries, the world's 120 million Shiites have revered it as a place of pilgrimage.
The resplendent golden dome stands in the center of the square-shaped compound. Inside, ceramic tiles are inlaid with ornate patterns. Quranic verses and poems are inscribed around the shrine. The compound also houses treasures, including gold, jewels and ancient manuscripts.
On Thursday, the government asked al-Sadr to immediately disarm his militia and pull out of the shrine. One minister threatened a massive onslaught by Iraqi forces.
Government officials have said they've exhausted all peaceful means to end the standoff with the Mahdi Army, arguing that destroying the militia would be a lesson to other rebels.
During previous fighting, the Americas have painstakingly tried to avoid harming the compound. It has, however, suffered minor damage on occasion, often with each of the fighting parties blaming the other. Some Shiites are appalled that the violence has even brought a foreign, non-Muslim army within sight of their revered shrine.
In an apparent attempt to assuage such concern, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has said only Iraqi forces would enter the shrine in an attack. The Americans would only provide air support and help secure roads leading to the shrine.
But that could offer its own problems.
An Iraqi force, less experienced than the Americans, might be more likely to damage the compound. At the same time, it could be psychologically difficult for an Iraqi soldier to fire at a holy site that is as special to him as it is to other Shiites and Muslims. Some Iraqi police in Najaf say they wouldn't like to find themselves in such a position.
And even with an Iraqi force, Iraqis and Muslims would still view the operation as an American offensive, one expert cautioned.
"If this military operation happens it will cause hatred in the Muslim world toward the United States of an explosive height," said Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq at the University of Michigan. It would also "completely undermine the legitimacy of the caretaker government," he said.
Further complicating matters, Iraqi and U.S. military officials have said they fear the militants may have rigged the compound with explosives. Some U.S. officials fear the militia would detonate the explosives if the compound is raided and then blame the Americans for the damage. Other officials, though, say they can't confirm that the shrine is rigged, and several Mahdi Army militiamen have denied the accusation.
Some residents are angry al-Sadr's followers have taken shelter in and around the compound. Al-Sadr's aides sleep and conduct business in some of the compound's many rooms.
Outside, Mahdi Army (search) militiamen roam the streets while brandishing Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They take up positions in a maze of small alleys around the compound.
The labyrinth of narrow streets could pose another problem if the shrine is raided. Residents say Mahdi Army fighters know the area well and can use the alleys to flee if Iraqi forces go in, squashing the government's hopes to crush the militia.
Cole said he was skeptical an offensive would finish off the militia anyway.
"In the aftermath of this operation, the Mahdi militia won't be destroyed because it springs from the slum Shiite communities," he said. "If the shrine is taken, that's a relatively minor setback to the movement."
The shrine was badly damaged in fighting between Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards and Shiite rebels during their brief uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.
Last August, a car bomb exploded outside the mosque during Friday prayers, killing at least 95 people, including the Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.