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Shrine Spared, Troops Hailed

Thousands cheer a U.S. convoy after a colonel pays respects to Najaf's top cleric near a mosque revered by Shiites.

April 03, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — They've destroyed the local Baath Party headquarters. They're gathering up crate after crate of captured weapons. Now, U.S. forces in this central Iraqi city revered by the world's Shiite Muslims have secured the gold-domed Ali mosque, still pristine and whole after three days of furious combat.

Residents here seemed to sense Wednesday that something fundamental had shifted in their lives and that a grave threat to their religious heritage had fallen away.

Thousands poured into the streets, cheering a Humvee convoy carrying a U.S. colonel who had just completed a delicate duet with the city's leading Shiite imam.

Offering religious chants and salutes, 2,000 to 3,000 people -- mostly older men and young boys -- greeted Lt. Col. Chris Hughes and his troops in a scene he likened to the liberation of Paris during World War II.

Though soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division have yet to fully seize Najaf, the city was secure enough Wednesday for the division commander, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, to plow through the southern districts in an armored convoy -- his third visit in as many days.

Iraqi paramilitary fighters who had harassed nearby U.S. supply lines last week were holed up in the city center and being pounded by Apache gunships and A-10 Warthogs as the general visited American positions.

U.S. forces are seeking to seal off the city of 500,000 to prevent the Iraqi forces from escaping.

"I think it's fair to say they're on the run," Petraeus said, dressed in a two-star helmet, flak vest and chemical protection suit. "They're either dead or on the run."

As meaningful as the military progress in Najaf was the response from its people.

Residents had been wary of the Americans, mindful that an uprising against Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim regime in 1991 had been brutally repressed after expected U.S. support did not materialize.

But Wednesday, they pointed out minefields to U.S. soldiers, commanders said.

"We've made progress every day for the last three or four days," Petraeus said. "We've gone from no civilians outside their homes to thousands of civilians on the streets."

Najaf is one of the holiest cities for Shiite Muslims. It is home to the tomb and shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. American commanders said that before U.S. forces secured the Ali mosque, they were fired at from the structure by Iraqi forces but did not return fire.

Through an elaborate series of intermediaries, Hughes was able to pay his respects Wednesday outside the mosque to the city's senior cleric, Said Ali Sistani.

The U.S. incursion in effect freed Sistani from more than 15 years of house arrest imposed by Hussein's regime, Hughes said.

The colonel said he assured Sistani that the Americans did not intend to harm Shiites or their religious sites. Sistani was overwhelmed by his abrupt change of circumstance, Hughes said.

"He's kind of in shock as to really how to handle the responsibility of everybody looking up to him, asking him advice," Hughes said.

Speaking at a battalion headquarters in the city, Hughes seemed to consider the experience in Najaf a primer of sorts for the much larger struggle ahead in the capital, 100 miles north.

Valuable Lessons

"This is a great scenario for us, to work out lessons before we get to Baghdad," he said. "All the lessons we're learning in ... Najaf are going to be golden nuggets of value when we get to Baghdad."

Underscoring the significance of Wednesday's events in the city, Petraeus later conferred just south of Najaf with the commander of all U.S. Army forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, who arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter.

The paramilitary forces in Najaf were still robust enough Wednesday to pepper a Humvee convoy carrying Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the division's 1st Brigade, with small-arms fire.

But minutes later, Petraeus chatted with Hodges at an intersection as they watched Apache and Kiowa Warrior gunships attack the source of the fire.

Earlier in the day, commanders said, an Air Force fighter plane dropped a 2,000-pound precision-guided bomb on the ruling Baath Party headquarters, destroying the building but leaving a nearby hospital unscathed.

"Right on the money, sir," Capt. Mike Sabatini of the 1st Brigade told Petraeus in a briefing area where map pins showed U.S. positions in blue and the paramilitary fighters' in red. "It did not touch the hospital."

Commanders also said, without elaboration, that they had decided to abandon a planned attempt to destroy a huge statue of Hussein in the center of town.

U.S. civil affairs officers said the humanitarian situation in Najaf was good. Though electricity was largely out, most people had water service and had stockpiled food, they said.

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