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U.S. Launches Offensive Against Militia in Najaf

American and Iraqi troops surround the Old City and Ali shrine in a bid to isolate Muqtada Sadr's forces. One U.S. soldier is killed.

August 13, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — Several thousand U.S. and Iraqi troops launched an assault Thursday on forces loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, encircling Najaf's Old City and Imam Ali Mosque compound, and later raiding Sadr's empty house a few miles to the east.

Firefights erupted in the holy city's massive cemetery and in several neighborhoods outside the Old City as the military forces moved forward in a risky operation designed to surround and isolate Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia. Iraqi officials in Baghdad said about 25 people were killed in the fighting, including at least one U.S. soldier.

U.S. military leaders have expressed concern about possible repercussions if the shrine is damaged. Sadr and about 1,000 fighters loyal to him are believed to be holed up in the compound, but the fighting Thursday remained relatively clear of the mosque.

In one battle, however, U.S. helicopters fired rockets and machine guns at a truck about 500 yards from the mosque, killing four Al Mahdi fighters in it. The attack sparked a large blaze that burned for nearly an hour, sending a plume of black smoke billowing over the mosque's gold dome.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Soldier's name -- On two occasions in August, articles in the A section included incorrect spellings for the name of a U.S. Army officer serving in Iraq. He is Maj. Douglas Ollivant, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

Spokesmen for Sadr said he had been wounded while visiting fighters this morning in Najaf. Heider Turufi said Sadr had moderate injuries, one in the chest and two in the legs.

Other spokesmen also said the injuries were not life-threatening.

In Baghdad, top officers of the Iraqi interim government harshly criticized Sadr for using the shrine as a refuge and presented video footage of the cleric's supporters firing mortar rounds from the compound.

"They are violating the sanctity of the holy shrine," Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said at a news conference. "We are going to get them out of this holy shrine in the manner they deserve. They were firing mortars from inside the holy shrine."

But Iraqi officials also indicated that foreign troops would not be allowed to fight in the shrine. "It is the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army who are going to liberate these places," Interior Minister Falah Nakib said.

Marine Maj. David Holahan, a battalion commander in Najaf, said that any decision to enter the mosque compound would be made by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The U.S.-led offensive began early Thursday when Army units positioned themselves along the north and, for the first time, the south of the Old City and the mosque.

Under a crescent moon, tanks and Humvees rumbled through the cemetery north of the Old City and took up positions among the tombs and mausoleums. Soldiers call the graveyard the "city of the dead" because it resembles a densely packed village, with alleys and maze-like corridors.

By 8 a.m., Al Mahdi fighters had begun firing mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades at the forward U.S. positions. Soldiers dismounted to search for the source of the attacks, climbing over crypts and silently signaling to one another.

Shortly after the U.S. troops returned to their vehicles, the insurgents attacked again, and two soldiers were sprayed with shrapnel from mortar rounds. One soldier, a gunner atop a Humvee, was hit in the face. Both were quickly evacuated and were expected to recover.

U.S. helicopter gunships rushed to the scene, swooping low over the graveyard and spraying militia targets with machine-gun and rocket fire.

In midafternoon, fierce fighting broke out near Sadr's home after U.S. and Iraqi troops arrived to investigate reports that the militia was holding five Iraqi police officers hostage in a maternity hospital half a block away. The forces came under fire from apartment buildings and a school, and at least one U.S. officer was killed. The troops called for help and two Maverick missiles were fired into the school, destroying it.

During the fighting, a fuel tanker exploded as U.S. forces fired on militia members hiding behind the vehicle.

About 10 Sadr loyalists who had taken up positions in the maternity hospital fled as U.S. and Iraqi troops entered, witnesses said. "We begged them not to come into the hospital because we were afraid the Americans would shoot at us," said one hospital staffer, who would not give his name. There was no confirmation that Iraqi officers had been held there.

During the battle, six hospital employees and three patients huddled in a corner of the three-story concrete building. About two hours after the school was blown up, one of the patients gave birth, doctors said.

Doctors emerged from the hospital to help a civilian hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, but the man was already dead.

Down the street, scores of Iraqi police entered Sadr's home, and later were joined by U.S. intelligence officers.

Iraqi forces, meanwhile, fought Sadr's militia after the insurgents bombarded the main police station with more than 25 mortar rounds. U.S. radar showed that the rounds were launched from the mosque courtyard.

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