Leaving Najaf, One Step at a Time

U.S. troops inspect the site of an attack on a U.S. military convoy near Najaf on Wednesday. Iraqi forces have largely assumed responsibility for security in the area.
U.S. troops inspect the site of an attack on a U.S. military convoy near Najaf on Wednesday. Iraqi forces have largely assumed responsibility for security in the area. "We are now just oversight and support," Lt. Col. Jim Oliver said. (By Ali Abu Shish -- Reuters)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 3, 2005

NAJAF, Iraq -- To find the U.S. troops responsible for security in this southern Iraqi city, leave Najaf, head for the desert and drive for 40 minutes. The troops are out there at an isolated base, while Iraqi policemen and soldiers patrol the city.

Najaf is touted by the U.S. military here as a potential model for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq: Get the American soldiers off the streets and pull them back to bases outside the cities until things are quiet enough for them to leave for good.

"We only go down there if they call us. And that doesn't happen very often," said Sgt. 1st Class Paul Bedford of Smithville, Miss. "Usually, we just stay out of their way," said Bedford, who runs reconnaissance patrols from the desert base, Camp Duke.

But Najaf, a city of 500,000 about 90 miles south of Baghdad, runs according to its own rhythms and so may not be a good model. It has been deceptively quiet and calm for long stretches punctuated by sudden violence, and has not experienced the chronic Sunni Muslim-based insurgency and random attacks that have terrorized Baghdad and central and western Iraq.

Moqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite Muslim cleric, wields considerable power here and commands a loyal following and a strong militia. On Thursday, he lambasted President Bush's plan for Iraq as "an insult to international opinion."

In an unusual public appearance, Sadr said Bush's refusal to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal was an affront to Iraqi parties meeting in Cairo that had issued a statement demanding a scheduled pullout. A fixed timetable would lead to "stability in Iraq and all the countries of the region," Sadr said.

Despite the criticism, the members of the Mississippi National Guard unit at Camp Duke said that the Najaf operation was a successful one that could be duplicated elsewhere, noting that they had been in the area for 11 months without a fatality.

"I do think this serves as a model," said Lt. Col. Jim Oliver, 46, of Brandon, Miss., commander of the guard unit, the First Battalion of the 198th Armor Regiment, based at Amory, Miss. "We have had two elections and three or four major religious events, and they have all been safe and successful," he said Thursday.

"Could this function without U.S. presence at all? Yes," Oliver said. "We could pull out all of our troops from Najaf. But I would rather hedge my bets and keep some presence here."

Najaf, which sprawls among date palm trees along the Euphrates River, is one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. The city hosts more than a million pilgrims every year, the most pious trudging by foot to reach the dazzling Imam Ali shrine in the city center.

In August 2004, U.S. troops fought a fierce battle with Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, among the vast tombs of the cemetery beside the gold-domed shrine. The battle, which threatened to spread to the rest of the country, ended in a truce.

At least 50 people were killed in December 2004 when a huge car bomb exploded several hundred yards from the shrine.

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