Iraqis were in the lead in Najaf battle

Buried in the NY Times article on the battle is an interesting aspect of how the battle came about.


It appeared to be one of the deadliest battles in Iraq since the American-led invasion four years ago, and was the first major fight for Iraqi forces in Najaf Province since they took over control of security there from the Americans in December.

That handover was trumpeted by the Iraqi government at the time as a sign of its progress in regaining more control of Iraqi territory.


Asad Abu Ghalal, the governor of Najaf Province, said the fighters in the orchard were Iraqi and foreign, some wearing the brown, white and maroon regalia of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. He said they had come to assassinate Shiite clerics and attack religious convoys that were gathering in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest cities, and other southern cities for Ashura, a Shiite holiday that starts Monday night.


But two senior Shiite clerics said the gunmen were part of a Shiite splinter group that Saddam Hussein helped build in the 1990s to compete with followers of the venerated Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They said the group, calling itself the Mehwadiya, was loyal to Ahmad bin al-Hassan al-Basri, an Iraqi cleric who had a falling out with Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr — father-in-law of the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr — in Hawza, a revered Shiite seminary in Najaf.


Iraqi officials said the group of 100 to 600 fighters was discovered in the orchard Saturday night, leading to a midnight meeting of local authorities who hatched an attack plan.

“We agreed to carry out an operation to take them by surprise,” said Mr. Ghalal, the Najaf governor.

At dawn, the governor said, the area was surrounded and the offensive began. He said the militants had antiaircraft rockets and long-range sniper rifles, and, according to a soldier involved in the fighting, Iraqi security forces encountered heavy resistance. Commanders called for reinforcements and a brigade of soldiers from nearby Babil Province joined the fight.

Eventually, Iraqi officials said, they called on the United States military for help. American tanks and helicopter gunships arrived, and gun battles continued into the night. By 10:30 p.m., the gunfire had died down and Iraqi troops began searching the area for bodies.

The Bottom line is the Iraqi security forces did their job. They discovered the threat, planned and executed the attack and when they realized how big the enemy force was they got assistance from another Iraqi unit and later from the US. This was what they were trained to do and they did it. It is a very encouraging sign of maturity for the units involved.

The Washington Post has a more coherent picture of events and puts the enemy death toll at 350.

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 police officials said that 350 insurgents were killed in the battle, which continued until early Monday morning in an area eight miles northeast of Najaf. Six members of the Iraqi forces were killed and 40 others injured, according to Col. Ali Nomas Jerao, spokesman of the Iraqi security forces in Najaf, while two U.S. troops died when their helicopter crashed during the clash.

As morning broke, ambulances moved into the area to collect the corpses.


... 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 Najaf-based Shiite religious leadership when attention was turned elsewhere. 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.


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."

The Iraqis said the leader of the group was a Shia. The larger picture here is the performance of the Iraqi defense forces showing themselves "fit for purpose" as the Brits would say. They uncovered the threat and acted responsible to destroy it and called in the US air support at the appropriate time. This should be a huge boost to Iraqi morale. It is also contra to the pessimism that pervades many in Washington which is about the only place we are losing this war.


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