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.”
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.
Borders, borders, borders.