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The Conflict in Iraq

Najaf Battle Resumes After Lull

Two American soldiers are killed as U.S. forces try to squeeze Sadr's militia. Local police order journalists to leave the city or face arrest.

August 16, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — A day after peace talks collapsed, U.S. troops and the militia led by Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr resumed fighting Sunday, leaving two American soldiers dead and a wall near the sacred Imam Ali shrine damaged.

Fighting in the vast cemetery and in the Old City picked up roughly where it had left off when a cease-fire was declared Friday. U.S. troops moved to tighten a cordon they had set up last week to rein in Sadr's militia.

"The Iraqi government has asked us to squeeze them," said Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Najaf.

One pro-Sadr protester was reportedly killed outside the shrine by an explosion Sunday afternoon that broke a hole in a wall about 30 yards from the shrine, witnesses said. Sadr supporters blamed the attack on American tanks firing from the cemetery. Military officials said it was unlikely that they could have caused the damage.

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.

Civilians in Najaf braced for renewed fighting. Mortar fire and explosions resounded through the day and night.

The Najaf police chief ordered all journalists to leave the city, saying authorities could not guarantee their safety. When some refused to leave, police officers threatened to arrest them.

At a camp just north of Najaf, U.S. military planners met with their Iraqi counterparts, including a general in the new army, to discuss ways to give Iraqi security forces a more prominent role in future operations.

"I was impressed by the questions they were asking," said Lt. Col. John Mayer, commander of Marine ground troops in Najaf. "They are absolutely up to the job." Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told U.S. officials Saturday night that he wanted Iraqi forces to lead, particularly on sensitive missions, such as attempting to remove Sadr's militia from the shrine.

U.S. officials are waiting for as many as 3,500 Iraqi troops to join them in Najaf, which could take a week or more. "I think they're sending the entire army," said Army Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

As a result, U.S. officials delayed a major offensive they had planned for Saturday night.

Bringing in Iraqi troops was the latest in a series of shifts on the standoff. Initially, the U.S. said it was taking orders from Najaf's governor. Last week, military officials said the U.S. was taking operational control of all security forces in Najaf. Now the U.S. says it will provide support and backup to Iraqi forces.

"Everything we are doing, we are doing with the Iraqis," said Army Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry, during a visit to Najaf on Sunday. "It makes perfect sense, particularly in this situation."

The standoff with Sadr is shaping up to be a litmus test for Allawi's new government. Violence has spread from Najaf to other southern Iraqi cities, and the issue was a key point of contention at a political conference Sunday in Baghdad to elect an interim national assembly.

Putting Iraqis at the forefront of the conflict may address some political sensitivities, but military leaders worry the delay will allow Sadr's militia to regroup. "It's less efficient this way," said Army Maj. Douglas Ollivant, operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

The delays have also frustrated the troops. In addition to trying to avoid damage to the Imam Ali mosque, soldiers have watched as several missions were scrapped over the last week because of political sensitivities and to allow for peace talks.

"It's hard not to have the capability to fire back," said Maj. Robert Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

The deaths of two soldiers Sunday cast a pall over the base, where soldiers had just begun to relax a little after being told that they would begin playing a support role for the Iraqis. Then two Humvees came racing through the camp to deliver the injured men to the medic's tent.

"Hang in there, man!" one medic shouted as they rushed an unconscious soldier into the camp hospital. A second soldier, who had died at the cemetery, was covered with a blanket.

Within minutes, a rescue helicopter landed in the sand to evacuate the wounded soldier to Baghdad. But the chopper departed five minutes later without a patient upon receiving word that he too had died.

Identities of the soldiers were withheld pending notification of family members.

In the chow hall Sunday evening, the usual raucous atmosphere was noticeably quieter.

"These are not our first battlefield casualties," Pizzitola said. "We're soldiers. We'll continue to do our job until the mission is complete."

In Baghdad on Sunday, another soldier was killed by a roadside bomb. The deaths brought the number of U.S. troops killed to eight over the last 10 days in Najaf and 932 in Iraq since the invasion last year. Meanwhile, the Dutch Defense Ministry said one of its troops was killed by a gunman late Saturday in the city of Rumaythah.

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