Major enemy operation thwarted near Najaf, 250 killed

AP:

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces killed about 250 militants in a daylong battle near Najaf aimed at preventing attacks on religious pilgrims during major Shiite rituals, Iraqi authorities said.

Iraqi officials said a U.S. helicopter crashed during the battle, which began early Sunday when Iraqi forces attacked militants about 12 miles northeast of Najaf. The U.S. military confirmed the report, and that the two crew members were killed.

Col. Ali Nomas, spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Najaf, said more than 250 corpses had been found at the scene. Army Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi also spoke of 250 dead but said an exact number would be released Monday.

He said 10 gunmen had been captured, including one Sudanese.

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The enemy planned to attack pilgrims observing a Shia ritual. It is very unusual for the enemy to mass forces in Iraq. It suggest a sense of desperation on their part because the danger to them is exactly what happened the massed force was destroyed. It is just another indication of the weakness of the enemy in Iraq.

That their mission was discovered and thwarted suggest that the US and Iraqi forces are getting better intelligence on their activities. The captured Sudanese is a hint that the enemy forces were al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is desperate to incite a Shia purge of Sunnis in the vain hope that it will draw Sunni Arabs to their rescue. It is a cynical and foolish strategy, but they have had some success with it in Baghdad.

Reuters adds some details to the story. Apparently the battle continued after night fall in Iraq.

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The governor of Najaf province said Iraqi troops fought a day-long battle with up to 200 Sunni gunmen, including foreign fighters, holed up in orchards on the northern outskirts of the city, seat of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite clerics.

Governor Asaad Abu Gilel told Reuters the authorities had uncovered a plot to kill some of the clerics on Monday, to coincide with the climax of Ashura.

"There is a conspiracy to kill the clergy on the 10th day of Muharram," Najaf governor Abu Gilel said, referring to the day of the Muslim calendar on Monday.

A Reuters reporter about 1.5 km (1 mile) from the fighting said he heard intense gunfire and saw U.S. helicopters rocket groves sheltering militants. He saw smoke trailing from one helicopter before it came down in the midst of the fighting.

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Reuters said that most of the fighters were Sunnis, but some were Shia associated with a cleric called Ahmed Hassani. If so it is an interesting tangle of alliances of people who would normally have different agendas.

The BBC report on the battle says it was near a neighborhood called Zarga. Evidently the enemy were discovered during a sweep by Iraqi forces. Three Iraqis soldiers were killed and 21 were injured. Two Americans were killed when their helicopter went down. The casualty figures have not been confirmed.

Update: CNN is now reporting that the estimated size of the enemy force discovered and thwarted near Najaf was 400-600. This would make it by far the largest attempt to mass forces by the enemy in Iraq. The fighting continued into early Monday morning in Iraq and the estimated enemy death toll is now 250 to 300. Nine Iraqis and two Americans have been killed.

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Jraiwi said the Iraqis were tipped off that insurgents were gathering near the town of Zarqa, about six miles (10 km) north of Najaf.

He said they moved south among convoys of Shiite pilgrims headed to Najaf to observe Ashura.

He said captured fighters told Iraqi authorities they planned to attack senior clerics and the Imam Ali Shrine at the heart of the city.

Insurgents used small arms, mortars and rockets against Iraqi soldiers and police backed by U.S. troops and aircraft, according to Jraiwi.

A U.S. military helicopter went down during the battle Sunday afternoon, killing two soldiers aboard, the U.S. command in Baghdad said. (Watch mobile phone video of smoke after a U.S. helicopter reportedly was shot down Video)

The military said the cause of the crash is still under investigation, but Iraqi officials said the chopper was shot down by insurgents.

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The battle began about 5:30 a.m. Sunday (9:30 p.m. Saturday ET). Iraqi police and troops dispatched to go after the insurgents were overwhelmed by the size of the insurgent force, which held well-fortified positions, an interior ministry official said.

The Iraqi forces withdrew after six police were killed and 19 others were wounded, including four Iraqi soldiers and Najaf's police chief, the official said. The Iraqi commanders then called for U.S. military support, the official said.

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The size of the attack and the target of the failed attack suggest some real desperation on the part of the enemy. It is interesting that a tip led to their discovery. I have written several posts on the significance of the tip line to the defeat of the enemy in Iraq and in this case it was crucial.

The Independent says the group belong to an "apocalyptic Islamic cult."

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... The US forces used tanks and F-16 fighter bombers. An Iraqi military source said the dead wore headbands declaring them to be "Soldiers of Heaven". The Najaf governor Asaad Abu Gilel said the authorities had discovered a conspiracy to kill some of the senior clergy.

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H'mmm. Have these guys been talking to Ahmadinejad?

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