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January 29, 2007

250 "Militants" Killed In Najaf

NYT link, but maybe worth clicking on.

At least 250 militants were killed and an American helicopter was shot down in violent clashes near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday, Iraqi officials said.

For 15 hours, Iraqi forces backed by American helicopters and tanks battled hundreds of gunmen hiding in a date palm orchard near the village of Zarqaa, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, by a river and a large grain silo that is surrounded by orchards, the officials said.

It appeared to be one of the deadliest battles in Iraq since the American-led invasion four years ago, and was the first major fight for Iraqi forces in Najaf Province since they took over control of security there from the Americans in December.

That handover was trumpeted by the Iraqi government at the time as a sign of its progress in regaining more control of Iraqi territory.

The American military confirmed that the helicopter crashed around 1:30 p.m., and said that two soldiers aboard died in the crash. But American military officials said they could not confirm the total number of dead in the battle.

Col. Ali Numaas, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces in Najaf, and an Interior Ministry official said the number of dead could rise. They said that the fighting stopped just after 10 p.m. and that most of those killed were militants. An employee at a local morgue said at least two Iraqi policemen were among the dead.

In a statement, the United States military said bodies of the two soldiers aboard the helicopter were recovered. The crash, at least the third involving an American helicopter in Iraq over the past week, is under investigation.

The precise affiliation of the militants was unclear.

Asad Abu Ghalal, the governor of Najaf Province, said the fighters in the orchard were Iraqi and foreign, some wearing the brown, white and maroon regalia of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. He said they had come to assassinate Shiite clerics and attack religious convoys that were gathering in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest cities, and other southern cities for Ashura, a Shiite holiday that starts Monday night.

At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Ghalal said the fighters called themselves the Soldiers of Heaven, and seemed to be part of a wider Sunni effort to disrupt Ashura, which marks the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.

The holiday attracts hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims to Karbala, where Hussein is believed to have been killed, and for days, the roads of southern Iraq have been filled with convoys of pilgrims beating drums and preparing for the day’s rituals, which include self-flagellation. In past years, Ashura has been a magnet for violent attacks from Sunnis, with at least 180 people killed on the holiday three years ago.

But two senior Shiite clerics said the gunmen were part of a Shiite splinter group that Saddam Hussein helped build in the 1990s to compete with followers of the venerated Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They said the group, calling itself the Mehwadiya, was loyal to Ahmad bin al-Hassan al-Basri, an Iraqi cleric who had a falling out with Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr — father-in-law of the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr — in Hawza, a revered Shiite seminary in Najaf.

The clerics spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they had been ordered not to discuss Shiite divisions.

Iraqi officials said the group of 100 to 600 fighters was discovered in the orchard Saturday night, leading to a midnight meeting of local authorities who hatched an attack plan.

“We agreed to carry out an operation to take them by surprise,” said Mr. Ghalal, the Najaf governor.

At dawn, the governor said, the area was surrounded and the offensive began. He said the militants had antiaircraft rockets and long-range sniper rifles, and, according to a soldier involved in the fighting, Iraqi security forces encountered heavy resistance. Commanders called for reinforcements and a brigade of soldiers from nearby Babil Province joined the fight.

Eventually, Iraqi officials said, they called on the United States military for help. American tanks and helicopter gunships arrived, and gun battles continued into the night. By 10:30 p.m., the gunfire had died down and Iraqi troops began searching the area for bodies.

250 here, 600 there. Pretty soon that adds up to real money, doesn't it?


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posted by Ace at 11:28 AM

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