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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

An Elite Iraqi Unit Waits, With Sadr in Its Sights

The U.S.-trained troops, modeled on the Army's Special Forces, are an early success story.

August 19, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — If the time ever comes to oust Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr from the gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque, Lt. Hassan will be riding the first wave of the assault.

A bald, 34-year-old Iraqi living at a barren U.S. military camp north of Najaf, Hassan is part of an elite, U.S.-trained military unit -- modeled on the Army's Special Forces -- that arrived here a week ago to help put an Iraqi face on efforts to quash Sadr's militia.

Hassan is also a Shiite Muslim. As he's trained in 115-degree heat and blistering sandstorms for a mission that may never occur, Hassan -- who didn't want his full name used -- has been grappling with whether he can participate in an attack on a mosque that his religion considers one of its holiest places.

Ultimately, he decided his first duty was as a soldier.

"Sadr has stolen the mosque, and we must take it back," the lieutenant said. "I respect the mosque. I don't want to damage it. But if somebody shoots at me, I will shoot at them, even if they fire from behind the wall of the mosque. If they order me to go into the mosque, there's no question I will go."

As the conflict with Sadr's Al Mahdi militia has grown, one question has been whether Iraqi forces were up to the task. In recent days, hundreds of Iraqi army and national guard troops have been pouring into the Najaf area from all over the country.

Facing his biggest challenge, Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has gambled that the nation would accept an attack on the mosque as long as Iraqi forces led it.

But the reputation and performance of Iraq's fledgling forces have been spotty at best.

Hundreds refused to fight with the U.S. in Fallouja in April. In Najaf last week, efforts by Marines and the Iraqi national guard to conduct joint raids had to be canceled when guard troops failed to show up.

It's no wonder the Iraqi government is pinning its hopes on Hassan's unit, formerly called the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and now known as the Iraqi Commando Unit.

The unit is described as a rare success story in the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq's security forces. When other Iraqi troops fled Fallouja, the Commando Unit stayed and fought, even when one of its leaders was killed.

Trained by about three dozen Special Forces advisors, it has completed dozens of raids and covert missions, specializing in mosques, prisons and other sensitive sites where foreigners stand out.

"These guys are battle-tested," said one U.S. military advisor, who did not want to be identified. "They're not training anymore. They are actually doing the tricks. If anybody can do this, these guys can."

The unit was cobbled together eight months ago using the best soldiers from various private militias, particularly the Kurdish peshmerga, and Iraqi security forces.

After screening for physical fitness, mental aptitude and past ties to the Baathist Party or Saddam Hussein, the troops were based at a U.S. camp in Baghdad and now travel around the country as needed.

Many of the unit's leaders are ethnic Kurds who cut their teeth fighting Hussein and Ansar al Islam, a terrorist group in northern Iraq.

"That's the reason they're so good," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. "After all the things they went through under Saddam, they take this stuff personally."

Farhad Haji Omar, a commander with the unit, served most of his life in the peshmerga, living in the mountains of northern Iraq. Since joining the commando unit, he's able to see his family only about five days a month, but he said he was proud of the work he was doing.

"We are sacrificing ourselves so the next generation will not have to suffer like we did," Omar said.

The heavy Kurdish makeup of the force has stirred controversy and ignited ethnic tensions. In Fallouja, Sunni Muslim residents bristled last spring when Kurds arrived to restore calm.

U.S. officials insist that the force is now ethnically and religiously diverse, with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Faced with their toughest assignment yet, officers of the unit, which totals about 450, expressed confidence that they could take on Sadr's militia, which they dismissed as "a gang." Iraqis have played a role in devising a possible attack on the mosque, they said, though they declined to be specific.

"If they can't solve this problem in the political way, we'll solve it in a military way," said Capt. Masood Salih, 24.

Since arriving in the desert camp, the unit has been training and drilling daily in urban warfare tactics, using tents as stand-ins for city buildings and practicing how to quickly launch -- and halt -- an aggressive raid.

Last week, the unit conducted a dress rehearsal of sorts when it raided a small mosque in Kufa where Sadr militants had been storing weapons.

Several dozen Iraqi commandos stormed the Saleh Mosque in a small fleet of white Land Rover Defenders. A subsequent gun battle killed 12 militants and led to the capture of another 12. There were no other casualties.

Waiting about a block away was a U.S. Marine unit prepared to offer help if the Iraqis needed it. Capt. Samuel Carrasco with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, has provided such backup to Iraqi national guard units several times.

"And they usually need it," Carrasco said. But during the mosque raid, the Marines held their positions.

"They didn't need our help," Carrasco said. "That's the first time I've seen that happen."

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