Sunday, January 28, 2007

US forces kill several hundred fighters, US helicopter felled

By Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi, Times Staff Writers
9:40 PM PST, January 28, 2007

BAGHDAD -- "Iraqi" and American forces killed several hundred gunmen Sunday, fighting a daylong battle in which a U.S. helicopter crashed, killing two U.S. troops, Iraqi security officials said.The fighting in the holy city of Najaf on the eve of the Shiite holiday of Ashura came as a mortar attack killed five teenage girls at a school in Baghdad and the daily nationwide civilian death toll again climbed past 100.

Iraqi security officials offered conflicting accounts of the identity and motives of the heavily armed fighters in Najaf, describing them as Shiite militia.

The cause of the helicopter crash in Najaf was unclear, but U.S. and Iraqi officials said it was felled by fire from the ground, and witnesses said they saw it shot out of the sky. It was the third helicopter to go down in eight days. Three additional U.S. troops were reported killed Sunday.

Sunday's fighting in Najaf and elsewhere was extraordinary, even by Iraq's bloody standards, highlighting the challenge faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces, which are fighting a complex patchwork of elusive enemies, including Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents. The deaths in Najaf would comprise the highest daily casualty toll inflicted by U.S. and Iraqi forces since U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. Iraqi security forces took authority over Najaf's security about a month ago. But witnesses and security officials said Sunday that Iraqi forces were being beaten by the enigmatic but well-organized fighters until U.S. forces and air support arrived.

Shaky footage recorded by mobile telephone, broadcast on Iraqi television, showed Iraqi soldiers hunkered behind a berm as intense gunfire erupted and smoke rose in the distance.
Ali Nomas, an Iraqi security official in Najaf, said the fighters belonged to a group calling itself Heaven's Army — one among several messianic cults that have appeared among Shiites, who believe in the imminent return of Imam Mahdi, the last in the line of Shiite saints who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago. Nomas said the information came from interviews with at least 10 detained fighters.

"Everyday someone claims he's the Mahdi," he said. Nomas said the leader of the hitherto unknown Heaven's Army had told followers that he was a missing son of the Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Ali's remains are entombed in Najaf. "They believe that the Mahdi has called them to fight in Najaf," he said, adding that fighters had converged on Najaf from other predominantly Shiite cities in Iraq. Nomas lamented that Iraq's death and destruction had convinced some Shiites that the end of days was coming.

"There's nothing bizarre left in Iraq anymore," he said in a telephone interview. "We've seen the most incredible things."

Although they disagreed on the attackers' identity, Iraqi officials and witnesses offered similar accounts of events on the battlefield. Most of the fighting took place in farmland outside the city, which also is home to the most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Security forces cordoned off the ancient, labyrinthine city to prevent attacks on pilgrims, clergy and holy sites, the governor said.

Two U.S. soldiers and a Marine were killed in three separate attacks around Iraq on Saturday, the U.S. military said Sunday. The deaths brought the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to 3,080, according to

Killers in Baghdad targeted both Sunnis and Shiites. In a Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad, mortar rounds hit a girl's secondary school, killing five students and wounding 21 others. In another western neighborhood, explosives hidden in a wooden cart killed four and injured 18, while an Industry Ministry advisor and his daughter were shot to death in a nearby area. In a Shiite neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, a bomb exploded on a bus, killing one and injuring five others. Two other bombings killed seven and injured 35 people in Shiite neighborhoods. Gunmen elsewhere in the capital killed a bank clerk in a car lot near her house. At least 54 bodies were found in various Baghdad neighborhoods, including a woman kidnapped two days ago, her family said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad sacked 1,500 policemen, charging them with absenteeism and fleeing fighting. They also dismissed Baqubah Mayor Khalid Sanjary for having alleged ties to Sunni Arab rebels. The province is riddled with Al Qaeda cell members as well as militiamen affiliated with Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.,0,4626909.story?coll=la-home-headlines
Times staff writers and special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Hillah, Najaf and Kirkuk contributed to this report.

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