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Iraqi Holy City Left Broken by Urban Warfare

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 27, 2004; Page A01

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 26 -- Lt. Col. Jim Rainey describes the battle here as "tackle football in the hallway, with no roof on the hallway." It's an apt analogy for urban warfare in sometimes extremely close quarters.

But after 21 days of merciless battering by U.S. weapons, parts of Najaf have very nearly no hallway at all. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, negotiated a cease-fire Thursday, but not before parts of Najaf had been devastated.


A 7th Cavalry Regiment soldier stands ready near the remains of Najaf's main road around the holy shrine of Imam Ali. (Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)

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Pinpoint fire and tight restrictions on munitions ensure that the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine remained all but unscathed. But the core of the city around it, a destination of longing for millions of Shiite Muslims, is so mauled that American commanders debate which famously ruined wartime cityscape Najaf now resembles most.

"It's like Stalingrad," a senior 5th Cavalry officer said.

"Sarajevo," Rainey maintained.

"Beirut," a Marine commander said.

"Not Dresden," an Army field officer said while standing watch at a panorama of blackened, half-destroyed buildings a few dozen yards north of the glittering shrine. "Not enough fire."

The damage to Najaf is the consequence of an urban setting for battle, a woefully overmatched enemy and an American military doctrine that unites terrifying firepower with almost zero tolerance for casualties in its own ranks.

"If we take fire from it, we destroy the whole building," an Army commander said Thursday, after he ordered junior officers in his headquarters to do just that, once they received clearance, against a structure the Mahdi Army militia, the enemy here, was using as a firebase.

The staff had a broad assortment of weapons available at the other end of their radio handsets: the Marines' 155mm howitzers just behind the headquarters, Apache helicopter gunships on alert or swooping menacingly over the battlefield and a fighter-bomber on station at 10,000 feet.

At one point this week, soldiers from a 1st Cavalry Division battalion led by M1-A1 Abrams tanks and heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles watched in bemused wonder as their opponent sent a donkey with a rocket-propelled grenade strapped to its side onto the field of battle. The remote triggering device was a string running toward the building corner from which the animal had emerged.

"We actually had reports of 'engage and destroy the donkey,' " said Maj. Tim Karcher of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. The animal appears to have died as another enemy casualty.

The 7th Cav, once led by Gen. George Custer at Little Big Horn, has fared better in Najaf. Since arriving from north of Baghdad and setting up a cordon around a large section of the city south of the shrine, the unit's 2nd Battalion has fought almost nonstop for two weeks without losing a single soldier.

Perhaps the closest call came this week, when a grenade exploded in a basement room where Sgt. Varitogi Taetulli was wrestling an insurgent. The fight was a miniature version of the larger battle: Taetulli, from American Samoa, weighs 230 pounds. The militiaman weighed perhaps half as much.


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