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.
"The people we were fighting were highly capable, well trained and very good at street fighting," said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, a spokesman for the police in neighboring Babil province.
The prospect of insurgents lying in wait to attack Shiites illustrated the crisis between rival religious groups in Iraq, where extremists remain intent on undermining the religious and political order. The attack was the first large-scale battle since Iraqi forces assumed security control of the province last month and one of the deadliest Iraqi-led operations of the war. In August 2004, the U.S. military waged a three-week battle in Najaf against Shiite militiamen loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Iraqi officials said the insurgent leader on Sunday was Ahmed Hassan al-Yamani, a Shiite from Diwaniyah province in southern Iraq.
"This is an impostor Shiite," said Sheik Ali al-Najafi, the son of Bashir al-Najafi, one of the four leading Shiite religious figures in Najaf. "He is aiming at dismembering the Shiites in Iraq" and assassinating Shiite religious leaders, he said, "but God has failed him."
"These are very critical days now, because of the ceremonies of Ashura, and of course there are expectations that terrorist groups and criminals will launch attacks against the pilgrims who are trying to reach the city of Karbala," said Haithem Hasani, a media adviser for Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political faction.
An Iraqi police official said he believed that some of the seasoned fighters in the date palm grove came from Fallujah and Ramadi, embattled towns in the western province of Anbar that are strongholds of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
U.S. military officials said the operation was ongoing in Najaf, and the clatter of gunfire and drone of aircraft were heard Sunday night.
The violence continued Sunday elsewhere in Iraq. In Baghdad, mortar shells crashed down on a girls' high school, killing at least five students and wounding 13 other people, including two female teachers, according to Brig. Gen. Saad Sultan of the Interior Ministry.
Gunmen attacked a police station in the al-Wahada district of Mosul, and five of the attackers were killed in the ensuing fighting, according to Maj. Gen. Wathiq al-Hamdani, police chief of Nineveh province.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of three U.S. service members Saturday, a Marine in Anbar province and two soldiers in the Baghdad area.
Also Sunday, the Associated Press reported that two car bombs exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing 11 people and wounding 34, according to a police official.
The AP also reported that the mayor of Baqubah and 1,500 police officers in Diyala province had been fired in an effort to end violence in that region northeast of Baghdad, according to the provincial police.
In the ongoing war crimes trial for the destruction of Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, deposed president Saddam Hussein's cousin said in court Sunday that he had given orders to destroy the villages in the 1980s, the AP reported.
Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as "Chemical Ali" because he is accused of using chemical weapons during the Anfal campaign, a systematic killing of Kurds, said, "I am the one who gave orders to the army to demolish villages," the AP reported. Ali is one of six defendants facing war crimes charges.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Naseer Mehdawi and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.