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Cemetery Fight Haunts Some U.S. Troops

"Looking for clearance for Reaper," a junior cavalry officer chirped late Tuesday afternoon. A patrol had spotted a sniper, but his perch was close enough to the shrine of Ali that permission to fire could come only from a senior officer, who after several minutes gave it from a base 15 miles away. An Apache helicopter, using two Hellfire missiles, destroyed the building where the sniper was hiding.

Holahan said 19 insurgents were killed in a separate strike by a Predator drone equipped with a Hellfire missile. The noon sky over the city of 600,000 was darkened by billowing smoke from a hotel set alight by U.S. fire several hundred yards behind the shrine.

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Avoiding damage to the shrine -- and the outcry that surely would follow from the world's Muslims -- is a U.S. objective so well known that the gold-domed mosque has become a refuge and staging ground for the guerrillas, U.S. officers said.

"There's nothing good that can come of it," said an Army operations officer, laying out the possible outcome of any strike on the mosque. "We win, we lose. We lose, we lose."

The cemetery was deemed less sacrosanct, however. Marines first followed militia fighters into it on Thursday morning after being ambushed while moving to reinforce the main Iraqi police station in Najaf, which had come under siege by several hundred militiamen.

The battle for the graveyard went on for 36 hours. In the end, the Marines counted four of their own dead and more than 300 militiamen. But veterans of the battle said the lopsided casualty count -- disputed by Sadr's officials -- did no justice to the weirdness of fighting on a sweeping landscape that venerates death.

"You're on top of the vehicle, you can see forever, but all you're looking at is tombs," said Gentry, of the Army regiment's Bravo Company.

"It was like New Orleans meets Baghdad," said one Army officer.

The jumble of tombs, mausoleums and catacombs also made it treacherous ground to fight on. Militia fighters hid underground and overhead, soldiers and Marines recalled. "Most of the time," Guzman said, "it was like jungle warfare, only without the jungle."

Soldiers said the insurgents showed signs that they had been training during a cease-fire that had kept violence here to a minimum since early June. U.S. units accustomed to the disorganized, hit-and-run strikes of insurgents in Baghdad and elsewhere were impressed to see the black-clad fighters of the Mahdi Army moving in coordinated units of five: typically three armed with rifles, which they fired to provide cover for the launch of rocket-propelled grenades, the weapon that has been most damaging to U.S. forces in Iraq.

Additional evidence of training: flash suppressors on rifles, simple Starlight-brand night-vision scopes and the evacuation of wounded. Weapons were secreted throughout the cemetery.

"These people are a trained militia," said 1st Lt. Ronald C. Krepps of the 1st Cavalry, who added that one mausoleum contained photos of Mahdi fighters performing battle drills.

"More professional," said Miyamasu, the 5th Regiment battalion commander whose troops provided Najaf reinforcement. "I don't mean to give them too much, but they're good. These guys really make us work to kill them, but in the end, they're dead."


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