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Posted by on Jan 29, 2007 in At TMV | 5 comments

Major Battle in Iraq: 250 ‘militiamen’ killed

The New York Times reports:

At least 250 militants were killed and an American helicopter was shot down in violent clashes near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday, Iraqi officials said.

For 15 hours, Iraqi forces backed by American helicopters and tanks battled hundreds of gunmen hiding in a date palm orchard near the village of Zarqaa, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, by a river and a large grain silo that is surrounded by orchards, the officials said.

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.
Col. Ali Numaas, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces in Najaf, and an Interior Ministry official said the number of dead could rise. They said that the fighting stopped just after 10 p.m. and that most of those killed were militants. An employee at a local morgue said at least two Iraqi policemen were among the dead.

In a statement, the United States military said bodies of the two soldiers aboard the helicopter were recovered. The crash, at least the third involving an American helicopter in Iraq over the past week, is under investigation.

Ed Morrissey notes that it is unclear whether the Iraqis were Sunnis or Shia. Initially people thought that it were Sunni ‘fighters’, but “Shi’ite clerics in the area claimed that the gunmen came from a Shi’ite splinter group started by Saddam Hussein to counter the popularity of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They called themselves the Mehwadiya in Saddam’s time and followed a cleric who had at one time followed Moqtada al-Sadr’s father-in-law, but later broke off relations with Sadr. The New York Times reports that the clerics are under pressure not to reveal the divisions within the Shi’ites, but those have been known ever since Moqtada al-Sadr started free-lancing with the Iranians and moved outside of Sistani’s control. What may be new is the notion that the various Shi’ite factions might go to war with each other, especially while the Sunnis remain a threat.”

Ed concludes:

The post-battle assessments should be interesting. Intelligence forces must be wondering why insurgents would attempt a straight-up fight against the Iraqis, and whether that indicates overconfidence or desperation.

The always knowledgable Juan Cole:

Iraqi authorities, claimed that the Iraqi army killed a lot of the militants (250) but only took 25 casualties itself. The Shiite governor of Najaf implied that the guerrillas were Sunni Arabs and had several foreign Sunni fundamentalist fighters (“Afghans”) among them. He said that they based themselves in an orchard recently purchased by Baathists. Other sources said that the militants were Shiites. I’d take the claim of numbers killed with a large grain of salt, though the Iraqi forces did have US close air support. I infer that the guerrillas shot down one US helicopter.

That’s one narrative. Here is another. The pan-Arab London daily al-Hayat reported that the militiamen were followers of Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. It says one of his followers asserted that the fighting erupted when American and Iraqi troops attempted to arrest al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. The latter tried last summer to take over the shrine of al-Husayn in Karbala. It may have been feared that he would take advantage of the chaos of the Muharram pilgrimage season to make a play for power in Najaf. Al-Hayat says that although As’ad Abu Kalil, governor of Najaf, said the attackers were Sunnis, the director of the information center in Najaf, Ahmad Abdul Husayn Du’aybil, contradicted him. The latter said, “At dawn, today [Sunday], violent clashes took place between security forces and an armed militia calling itself “the Army of Heaven,” which claims that the Imam Mahdi will [soon] appear.” He added, “The goal of this militia is the killing of clergymen and the grand ayatollahs.” The group follows Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, called al-Yamani, who is said by his followers to be in direct touch with the Hidden Imam or promised one. In the fighting 10 Iraqi security police were killed and 17 wounded. One official said that the death toll among the militants was not known.
Then there is yet a third narrative. Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that on Saturday night into Sunday morning, a Shiite millenarian militia calling itself “The Army of Heaven” (Jund al-Sama’) attempted to move south from the Zarqa orchards just north of Najaf to assassinate the four grand ayatollahs of Najaf– Ali Sistani, Bashir Najafi, Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad and Muhammad Said al-Hakim. The holy city of Najaf, where Ali is buried, is the seat of Shiite religious authority in Iraq. The militiamen, devotees of an obscure religious leader named Ahmad Hassaani, are said to have infiltrated the area from Hillah, Kut and Amara. The well-armed, black-clad militiamen were heard to call upon the Mahdi, the awaited Promised One of the Muslims, to return on that night.
It seems most likely that this was Shiite on Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram. But who knows? It is also possible that the orthodox Shiites in control of Najaf hate the heretic millenarians and the threat of the latter was exaggerated. Darned if I know. The reports of the Army of Heaven being so well armed make no sense if it was a ragtag millenarian band. But those reports could be exaggerations, too.

It seems most likely that the Mahdawiya is the sect of Sheikh Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi and that al-Basri was the founder of the sect. That would be a way of reconciling al-Zaman with al-Hayat.

Shiite on Shiite violence? Indeed, not impossible. I’ll go with Juan’s theory for now.

The Booman Tribune adds:

The Vietnamese have the Tet celebration. The Shi’ites of Iraq have Ashura. Ashura commemorates the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed. It occurs each year on the 10th day of Muharram, which happens to be this Monday.
Ashura celebrations have coincided with important events before, including during the Iranian Revolution, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Lebanese civil war, and the uprisings against Sadddam in the early nineties.

Be prepared for some eventful activities today and in the days that follow.

More on this at:
Flopping Aces
Jules Crittenden
Omar at Iraq the Model who reports that Operation Baghdad will start on February the 5th and that terrorists are fleeing from Iraq (Baghdad) to… Syria.

Borders, borders, borders.

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Confusing, isn’t it? This begs the question: Do the US really want to be sucked into such religious struggles, where its almost impossible to say who are the good and who the bad guys? Maybe it was a good idea to support mainstream Shia, but then it also has to be considered that the Us now has made some new enemies among the ‘army of heaven’ fanatics.

    Is it really in the US’ best interest to get involved in these sectarian infights? What’s in it for the US, isn’t this a lose/lose situation?

    You know my opinion: Get out as fast as you can. Let the sects resolve their differences on their own.

  • grognard

    I was suspicious of the 250 killed claim, that is a fairly major operation against a large group that should have had more official pronouncements on government forces clearing out strongholds prior to the attack. Najaf is a Shiite area, the Sunni insurgent claim is also hard to believe, it does make sense that some Shiites would claim Sunni involvement in order to cover up internal Shiite divisions. Don’t count out Iranian arms, I doubt the weapons were directly provided by Iran to a group that detests that country but it looks like they were able to get some sort of anti aircraft weapon to shoot down the copter. Iraq is awash in weaponry so getting your hand on something like this only requires money. Shiite groups are splintering, there have been clashes between Sadr and SCIRI, and no Shiite leader has the national stature to stop the internal disputes anymore.

  • Rudi

    Shiite on Shiite violence? Indeed, not impossible. I’ll go with Juan’s theory for now.
    The latest incidents, in Karbala and Najaf, have been in Shia strong holds, yet our spin is to blame Sunnis and the Iranians. Shias are fighting each other, now and for years, but we get stories that the Sunnis are attacking Najaf. Google Basra for Shia on Shia violence. Sadr’s arrest warrant was for the murder of another Shia cleric. Steven Vincent, a conservative pro-Iraq reporter, was murdered in Basra reporting on Shia militias before the MSM, both liberal and wingnut, even were aware of Basra.

  • The NYT reports details of the battle:
    “BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 —Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militia in a weekend battle near the holy city of Najaf and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday.
    They said American ground troops — and not just air support as reported Sunday — were mobilized to help the Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the militia, which calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven and had amassed hundreds of heavily armed fighters.”
    ““This group had more capabilities than the government,â€? said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf Province, at a news conference.”
    “Among the troubling questions raised is how hundreds of armed men were able to set up such an elaborate encampment, which Iraqi officials said included tunnels, trenches and a series of blockades, only 10 miles northeast of Najaf. After the fight was over, Iraqi officials said they discovered at least two antiaircraft weapons as well as 40 heavy machine guns.”
    “The Iraqis initially sent a battalion from their Eighth Army Division, along with police forces, but they were quickly overwhelmed, according to an Iraqi commander at the scene. The battalion began to retreat but was soon surrounded and pinned down, and had to call in American air support to keep the enemy from overrunning its position.”

    Well, contrary to the first reports, this doesn’t sound as if Iraqi forces fared well in combat. A batallion almost overrun? That’s between 500 and 1000 troops who were not able to hold their positions against insurgents attacking. That’s pathetic.

  • grognard

    Wow, that was interesting, looks like the local Iraqi units did absolutely no patrolling in their area. That means they are not willing to expose themselves to danger and the local militia elements can build up right under their noses. Needless to say this is probably happening elsewhere, in “peaceful� areas. This also explains why there was no official pronouncements about the operation, it was a nasty surprise not a planned attack.

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