KUFA, Iraq, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- Fighters lounged on sidewalks along a main street in Kufa, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs automatic rifles leaned up against the metal doors of a shopping district closed up tight.
There were no Iraq police or U.S. troops in sight.
Two men ran out in the road in front of the mosque, rifles at the ready, illustrating the continued volatility of the situation in the city next to Najaf, where a stand-off continued late Friday between Mahdi Army fighters and Iraqi police allied with U.S. forces.
Fighting in the two cities, about 160 km south of Baghdad has raged for more than two weeks between Mahdi Army forces loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada Sadr and U.S. troops. Sadr is wanted by U.S.-backed Iraqi authorities in connection with the suspected slaying of a rival cleric.
Even though they have a roof over their heads at the open-air courtyard of the Imam Zaid shrine in southern Iraq, families displaced by the fighting just want to go home.
At least 10,000 families have been displaced by fighting, according to estimates from families staying at nearby religious sites and the International Committee for the Red Cross. The number could be as high as 50,000.
"I'm not happy with Sadr," said Nidal Hassan, 40, as she sat on a straw mat with female relatives, the gathering completely open to all of the other estimated 350 people who have come to the shrine for shelter in the last two weeks. "We feel like everyone is a terrorist against us -- the Shiite Muslims -- now. We want to avoid war."
Hassan's house was destroyed by fighting in Kufa, sending five of her family members to the hospital and forcing her and the other four members to flee, she said. The house was caught in the crossfire between Iraqi fighters and U.S. troops, Hassan said.
The ICRC has delivered 700 food parcels, 140 buckets for water and 140 jerry cans for fuel to Imam Zaid shrine and Rasheed al-Hijeri shrine nearby, said Ahmed al-Rawi, a Red Cross spokesman. On three consecutive days it also supplied 40,000 liters of fresh water. Deliveries which are expected to continue.
The ICRC hires local trucks with no markings on them and volunteers don't wear any Red Cross insignia for security reasons, al-Rawi said. The Red Cross office in Iraq was bombed last fall, forcing staff to evacuate, for the most part. Its current operation in Iraq is in an unmarked office known to only a few people.
"We want to deliver assistance to people who are suffering," al-Rawi said. "We don't need any publicity."
Zaidan Tarkhan Alwan, 75, said he lives several blocks away from the zone where most of the fighting is going on around the Imam Ali shrine in central Najaf, but he decided to take his family out of the city when they heard the bombs dropped by U.S. jets. Alwan said the shrine is safe.
As his wife held a child in her arms, Alwan complained about the lack of privacy, however, among the large number of families who have taken refuge. Some have tried to put up blankets strung across open doorways, but the many children running around don't respect the separated areas, he said.
"We just want peace," Alwan said. "We don't belong to either side in the fighting."
Even worse, people who are sick cannot easily get medical care, now that they are away from their homes, said Razak Mousa Abed, 50, as his wife slept nearby on a thin mattress laid on the cement floor.
"My wife needs medicine, but I can't get it for her," Abed said. "We came here by bus, so it's very hard for us to leave."
Another woman pointed out an ugly sore on her swollen foot, saying she hurt herself when she left her house 10 days ago.
"Airplanes were dropping bombs, so I was scared," said Nawal Juwad, 30. "I have six children. I have to protect them."
Kathi Khadoyer Abbas Kufa, 35, said she is also worried that the violence will mean that appointed government officials in Baghdad will decide not to hold elections, which are expected in January. U.N. officials this spring said it would take eight months to prepare for a nationwide election.
"If they (the government) say we should vote, I will vote, but I don't believe it will happen," Kufa said.