Iraqis Raid Insurgents Near Shiite Holy City

By Joshua Partlow and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 29, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 -- Iraqi soldiers, backed by U.S. helicopters, stormed an encampment of hundreds of insurgents hiding among date palm orchards in southern Iraq in an operation Sunday that set off fierce, day-long gun battles during the holiest week for the country's Shiite Muslims.

Iraqi security officials said the troops killed scores of insurgents while foiling a plot to annihilate the Shiite religious leadership in the revered city of Najaf. A U.S. helicopter crashed during the fighting, killing two soldiers.

The spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Najaf, Col. Ali Nomas Jerao, said that 250 suspected insurgents were killed in the fighting, which took place about eight miles northeast of Najaf, and that 40 people were detained. The U.S. military did not provide death tolls for Iraqi forces or insurgents.

Thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iraq and neighboring countries are traveling this week in drum-beating caravans to the southern city of Karbala, 50 miles north of Najaf, in commemoration of the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson in the 7th century. Iraqi authorities said they believed that the fighters, a diverse cadre of Sunni, Shiite, Afghan and other foreign gunmen, convened under cover of the pilgrims to set up a camp within striking distance of the Shiite religious leadership when attention was away from Najaf.

The fighters, who called themselves the Soldiers of the Sky, are driven by an apocalyptic vision of clearing the Earth of the depraved in preparation for the second coming of Muhammad al-Mahdi, a Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century, according to Ahmed Duaibel, a spokesman for the provincial government in Najaf. The governor of Najaf province, Assad Abu Gilel, said the group planned to attack pilgrims and shrines and to assassinate Shiite clerics at the peak of the religious holiday, called Ashura, which culminates Tuesday.

"Imam Mahdi is among you," a voice on a loudspeaker could be heard saying by a Washington Post special correspondent who spent the day at a checkpoint near the orchards. "Fight until martyrdom."

"Today's attack was designed to destroy all of Najaf, even the holy shrine of Imam Ali," said Duaibel, referring to one of the most revered Shiite shrines, near the offices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. If successful, such a provocative attack could surpass in significance the bombing at the Askariya shrine in Samarra last February that drastically escalated sectarian killing in Iraq.

The fighting began overnight when a police checkpoint near Najaf came under fire, leading the Iraqi police to the farms in the Zargaa area where the fighters had dug trenches and stockpiled weapons, said Lt. Rahim al-Fetlawi, a police officer in Najaf. The officers who responded found themselves outgunned by the estimated 350 to 400 insurgents entrenched there, said Col. Majid Rashid of the Iraqi army in Najaf.

Reinforcements from the Iraqi army's 8th Division arrived along with U.S. helicopters and ground troops. Iraqi security forces maintain primary control of Najaf province, and U.S. forces do not have an established, full-time presence there. U.S. military units based in Baghdad responded to Najaf when the fighting escalated.

"They saw that they needed some help and called in air support," a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity. "That's exactly what they're supposed to do."

During the operation, a U.S. military helicopter based in Baghdad crashed about 1:30 p.m., killing two soldiers, the military said. The military did not say whether the helicopter was shot down.

A Washington Post special correspondent at the scene saw the helicopter trailing smoke and circling before coming down in a field of sandy dirt. Maj. Beshari al-Ghazali of the Iraqi army said that the helicopter was shot down and that another U.S. helicopter took fire but did not crash. Iraqi officials said the insurgents were using shoulder-fired rockets, antiaircraft guns and Katyusha rockets.

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