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08-09-04, 08:12 AM
New NCOs stay sharp at corporals course <br />
Submitted by: I Marine Expeditionary Force <br />
Story Identification #: 20048811922 <br />
Story by Lance Cpl. Guibord <br />
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Camp Fallujah, Iraq (Aug. 5, 2004) -- Off...

08-09-04, 08:13 AM
Marines help beef up the line for Iraqi Border Police
Submitted by: 1st Marine Division
Story Identification #: 20048945037
Story by Sgt. Jose L. Garcia

CAMP AL ASAD, Iraq (Aug. 6, 2004) -- Border security between Iraq and Syria is strengthening due in part to an initiative spearheaded by Marines from Regimental Combat Team 7.

Thirty-two new border posts are being built for the Iraqi Border Police in along the Iraqi-Syrian border. The $12 million project will aid in stemming the region's smuggling trade that fuels terrorism in Iraq.

The posts are replacing ones that existed before the war last year. Border guards fled their posts after the regime fell and the buildings were ransacked and destroyed.

"There was a security problem with the borders," explained Navy Lt. James N. Vandenberg, a 43-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., who is a Navy Seabee and an urban planner for the Civil Engineer Corps. "There were insurgents coming in through the borders, so the solution or help was to design and construct border forts."

The project began in the early spring and is expected to be complete by September. The funds used to pay for the project come from money seized during the war last year. It was actually U.S. currency found and seized by U.S. forces.

"We are using that money to benefit the Iraqis unlike Saddam Hussein," said Maj. Sidney G. Zeller, 39, from Farrar, Iowa and RCT-7's Iraqi Border Police director. "We are trying to train, organize, and equip the border police."

The posts are contracted from local Iraqi construction crews and the final design incorporates a raised standard of living along with the practical function as serving as a security post.

"We used different civilian contractors which in return gave jobs to the Iraqi people," Zeller said. "The Al Anbar region is the poorest, so we wanted to put them to work. We hired five different contractors and spread the employment throughout the region."

The forts span Iraq's western border, covering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the south.

"By putting these forts up, the IBP will be much more effective and they will have full-time patrols," said Capt. Sean W. Pascoli, a 36-year-old from Wheeling, W.V. serving as commander for Weapons Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. "The importance is to be in control of who comes in and out of the border. Border Police are at the tip of the spear."

According to Pascoli, the border police have been shot at more than Marines since patrolling the borders.

"These guys have it just as bad as we do," Pascoli said. "They live in wooden shacks in 137-degree weather."

The hard structured buildings will include small open squad bays, kitchen, showers, lounges and a guard post on each corner. The forts will house 40-50 border policemen.

"You can see the difference in the troops," said 1st Lt. Khalid Hamoud Hamed, 28, from Al Qaim and a platoon commander for 3rd Iraqi Border Police Battalion. "Their morale is higher and they will do a better job. We are happy with the help we've received from the Marines. Hopefully we will catch more smuggling and stop the border crossing."

Hamed said he would fill up all the empty space he has now by hiring more border police.

"Pretty much the wheel is just going to keep turning and we are grateful for all the help," said Hamed.

The total estimated cost of the program is roughly $12,865,360.

The border police also received a total of 98 Ford and Mitsubishi trucks with radios in them for long-range communication.

"With us coming over here we are able to give them a better chance, a bigger doorway to have a better democratic government and make their lives a better place," Pascoli said.


Iraqi construction builders help build 32 new border posts for the Iraqi Border Police in western Al Anbar Province. The intent is to improve border security, living conditions for the IBP and help ease the unemployment crisis in the western area of the country.
(USMC photo by Sgt. Jose L. Garcia) Photo by: Sgt. Jose L. Garcia



08-09-04, 08:14 AM
Iraq Cleric Vows Fight to Death Vs. U.S.

By ABDUL HUSSEIN AL-OBEIDI, Associated Press Writer

NAJAF, Iraq - A radical cleric whose loyalists battled U.S. troops for the fifth straight day vowed Monday to fight to the death, and a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb northeast of the capital, killing six people and wounding the deputy governor who was the intended target, officials said.

Explosions and gunfire were heard throughout Najaf and U.S. helicopters hovered overhead as U.S. forces tried to drive Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen from a vast cemetery they have repeatedly used as a base. A U.S. tank rolled within 400 yards of Najaf's holiest site, the Imam Ali Shrine, also held by militiamen.

A Najaf hospital spokesman said three were killed, including two policemen, and 19 wounded. The U.S. military says hundreds of militants have been killed in the violence in recent days; the militiamen put the number far lower.

Al-Sadr vowed to keep up the battle.

"I will continue fighting," al-Sadr told reporters. "I will remain in Najaf city until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."

Iraq (news - web sites)'s defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, accused neighboring Iran of helping arm the Shiite militiamen.

"There are Iranian-made weapons that have been found in the hands of criminals in Najaf who received these weapons from across the Iranian border," Shaalan said in an interview with the Arab-language television network al-Arabiya.

Iran has previously denied interfering in Iraq, though it has acknowledged that fighters might be crossing its long border into Iraq illegally.

Government officials have said many of those involved in the Najaf violence were criminals and implied they were not true followers of the popular Shiite firebrand. But al-Sadr said the militants were his followers and described them as volunteers fighting for an honorable cause.

"These are honest attacks against the occupation," he said, referring to the U.S. troop presence in the country. "They ... are coming to resist the occupation, to liberate our country."

"Resistance will continue and increase day by day," he said. "Our demand is for the American occupation to get out of Iraq. We want an independent, democratic, free country."

Al-Sadr's words were a challenge to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who visited the war-shattered city Sunday under heavy security and called on the Shiite militants to stop fighting.

"We think that those armed should leave the holy sites and the (Imam Ali Shrine compound) as well as leave their weapons and abide by the law," he said.

Much of the fighting has centered on the vast cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine. U.S. forces using helicopter gunships launched a renewed offensive Sunday to drive militants out of the cemetery after claiming two days earlier to have secured the area in some of the fiercest fighting.

On Monday, a U.S. tank approached within about 400 yards of the shrine compound, the closest the military has come to it in the fighting.

"We cannot conduct negotiations under shelling," al-Sadr said. "The Americans are shelling the most holy place here in Najaf and they want me to negotiate? This is ridiculous."

Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad kidnapped a senior Iraqi policeman, Brig. Raed Mohammed Khudair, who is responsible for all police patrols in eastern Baghdad, said Col. Adnan Abdel Rahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

In a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera television, militants demanded the government release all Mahdi Army prisoners in exchange for Khudair, whom they snatched Sunday.

Iraq's Interior Ministry clamped a curfew Monday on Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad where U.S. troops and al-Sadr militiamen have also been fighting. The curfew, imposed for "security reasons," will run from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., the ministry announced.

In the southern city of Basra, masked al-Sadr followers patrolled some main streets Monday and set up checkpoints. No Iraqi police or British troops could be seen, witnesses said.

The Mahdi Army threatened Monday to take over local government buildings in Basra if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf, and also said they would target oil pipelines and ports in southern Iraq.

Also Monday, the military reported that a U.S. Marine was killed in action Sunday in the western province of Anbar. Anbar is a Sunni Muslim-dominated area of anti-U.S. resistance that includes Fallujah, Ramadi and Qaim on the Syrian border.

The death brought to at least 927 the number of American servicemembers who have died in Iraq.

The Shiite violence began Thursday in Najaf after the collapse of a series of truces that ended a two-month uprising in early June. A deadline for militants to withdraw from Najaf, the center of the worst violence, expired Saturday.

The car bombing in Balad Ruz, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, targeted the home of Diyala province's deputy governor, Aqil Hamid al-Adili, who was in stable condition and was being treated at a U.S.-led coalition medical facility, military spokesman Maj. Neal O'Brien said.

Six Iraqi policemen were killed and at least 17 people wounded, including police and passers-by, Police Brig. Daoud Mahmoud said.

A white station wagon laden with explosives blew up outside al-Adili's home, shattering windows and blowing the doors off their hinges. Al-Adili's 9-year-old son was lightly injured, Mahmoud said.

Guerrillas waging a yearlong insurgency in Iraq have repeatedly used car bombs to attack top officials of the interim government, Iraqi security forces and American troops.

Meanwhile, Iran confirmed Monday that Faridoun Jihani, the Iranian consul to the Iraqi city of Karbala, had been kidnapped, and said he was in good health.

"Iran will do its best to secure the release of the kidnapped Iranian diplomat," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi as saying.

Jihani's kidnappers, in a video released Saturday, accused Iran of meddling in Iraq's affairs. Scores of other foreigners have been kidnapped as leverage to force foreign troops and businesses from the country.

In an video posted on the Internet, militants beheaded a hostage identified only as a Bulgarian. Two Bulgarian truck drivers were kidnapped June 29, and the beheaded body of one of the drivers was found in mid July and a tape was released showing his death.

A second decapitated body was found late last month, prompting fears that the other Bulgarian had been killed, but there was no video of his slaying released at the time.



08-09-04, 08:15 AM
Christian Science Monitor <br />
August 9, 2004 <br />
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The Real Combat In Iraq <br />
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Last Friday, as John Kerry was making a promise to withdraw most US forces from Iraq within a year, the 11th Marine...

08-09-04, 08:15 AM
A Marine Commander's Eye-View of Iraq <br />
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========================= <br />
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Greetings from Camp Abu Ghurayb. This is my third letter to you as we progress into the second month of our deployment to Iraq in...

08-09-04, 08:17 AM
Militant Cleric Avoids Arrest
Iraqi forces raid Sadr's Najaf home but come up empty-handed. Fighting in the holy city between his followers and U.S. troops subsides.

By Henry Chu and Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraqi security forces mounted an unsuccessful raid Saturday to seize rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr, the Shiite Muslim leader blamed by the United States for a surge in violence in this holy city that has claimed scores, perhaps hundreds, of lives.

In their first such move against Sadr, members of the Iraqi National Guard and police tried to arrest him at his home in Najaf near the Imam Ali shrine, the base from which he had urged followers to rise up and eject U.S. forces. But the militant leader was not at home.

Fighting eased Saturday after two days of battles between his supporters and U.S. troops.

Even as Iraqi forces made their move against Sadr, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said at a news conference in Baghdad that the government had received "positive messages" from the cleric and concluded that, in effect, he was not to blame for the violence.

"These are bandits and gangs trying to hide behind Muqtada Sadr," Allawi said of the insurgents. "We don't think those are his people. There is no statement from him committing himself to them…. That's why I say it's not him."

Allawi also unveiled a long-awaited amnesty program — albeit much more limited in scope than expected — for those linked to Iraq's bloody 15-month-old insurgency.

And in a move that some called an attack on press freedom, Allawi announced a monthlong shutdown of Al Jazeera news channel's operations in Iraq, alleging that it fomented hatred and glorified insurgents.

In Najaf, which has seen the fiercest fighting in Iraq since May, only sporadic conflict was reported Saturday.

U.S. helicopters and warplanes droned overhead, and occasional mortar rounds whistled and exploded in the abandoned streets.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said they had made progress in retaking control of a cemetery close to the Imam Ali shrine that was being used as a base and weapons storehouse for members of Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

The sprawling graveyard, pocked with caves and mausoleums, was the scene of running battles between militants and U.S. Marines, sometimes leading to hand-to-hand fighting so close that "you can smell a man," said Lt. Col. John Mayer, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"This is the most intense combat I've seen," said Capt. Coby Moran, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

U.S. officials Friday put the number of militants killed at 300 but acknowledged that such battlefield estimates were "always iffy." Sadr's aides said the figure was closer to three dozen.

Saturday's action culminated in the surprise move by Iraqi police and the Iraqi national guard to swarm Sadr's home in an attempt to arrest him.

"We surrounded the house, but he was not at home," said Gen. Ghalib Hadi Jazaery, Najaf's chief of police.

Jazaery said his officers were serving an arrest warrant issued last year against Sadr in the killing of a rival cleric. U.S. troops tried to serve the warrant in April, igniting an uprising among his followers that lasted two months and left hundreds of Iraqis dead before ending in an uneasy cease-fire.

"We want to clean up this city from this devil," Jazaery said.

There was confusion over who ordered Saturday's arrest attempt. U.S. officials said they were not involved in the raid. One Iraqi national guard commander, Lt. Col. Aqeel Khalil, accused Jazaery of grabbing 130 of his men for the raid without authorization. He said a guardsman was killed and nine were injured in the raid, and 17 were missing.

"They've become shaken and scared," Khalil said. "They're in low spirits."

The move against Sadr came two hours before the expiration of a 6 p.m. deadline set by Najaf Gov. Adnan Zurfi for all militants hailing from outside Najaf to quit the city.

Prime Minister Allawi, at his Baghdad news conference, said that of the 1,000 militants U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have captured, many have dissociated themselves from Sadr during questioning. He reiterated allegations by Iraqi officials that most of the fighters had come to Najaf from other cities or countries, particularly Iran, or were criminals out to wreak havoc.

The seeming contradiction between the attempt to seize Sadr and Allawi's conciliatory statements may be part of a delicate political balancing act.

The transitional government is keen to stamp out the lawlessness and violence that have angered Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion last year, but officials also desperately want to avoid setting off a rebellion among Iraq's long-suppressed majority Shiites. The prime minister is a Shiite.

"I think he tried to play it smart," said Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad political analyst. "Let the Americans do and say what they want" — blaming Sadr and cracking down in Najaf — "while he played it cool."

Pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces could therefore help squeeze Sadr into accepting the government's olive branch. "Put him in the corner and give him just one alternative," Bazaz said. "It could work."

Associated Press reported that other Shiite leaders and a U.N. envoy met with Sadr's deputies Saturday to mediate an end to the conflict.

To persuade others to give up violence, Allawi announced the limited amnesty program, good for the next 30 days, for Iraqis guilty of "minor crimes," such as owning weapons or explosives, failing to pass along knowledge of militant plots or sheltering those involved in insurgent attacks.

Officials ruled out pardons for anyone directly involved in fatal assaults such as the suicide bombings that Sunni Muslim-backed insurgents have used to deadly effect.

The plan fell far short of expectations, casting doubt on whether it could win over active sympathizers of the insurgency, which supporters regard as patriotic resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

"This has been established to allow our citizens to rejoin civil society … instead of wasting their lives on a lost cause," Allawi said.

The tough-talking prime minister reserved some of his harshest words at Saturday's news conference for the satellite channel Al Jazeera, possibly the most popular source of news for the Arab world.

Allawi accused Al Jazeera of inciting hatred and violence by airing grisly footage of hostage executions, siding with the insurgents and putting out a "bad image" of Iraq.

"I am not worried whether Al Jazeera likes it or not," he said of the decision to shut down its Iraq operations for a month.

Journalists called it an ominous sign of the interim government's views on press freedom.

"We're pretty shocked at the decision," said Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout at the channel's headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

The media have "been promised, for months now, freedom of the press and freedom of expression…. This particular move has changed the scene completely in Iraq."

Iraqi police descended on Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau Saturday night, demanding keys from employees, locking rooms and ordering everyone out.

"This is not a shop. You can't just tell us to stop selling goods and close the shop," Haider Mullah, the bureau's legal counsel, insisted to police.

"This is a media network. We have to know what our legal rights are."

Last month, Allawi sanctioned the reopening of Sadr's newspaper, which had been closed by American officials in March because they said it was inciting attacks on U.S.-led forces and their Iraqi allies.

Chu reported from Baghdad and Sanders from Najaf. Special correspondent Said Rifai in Baghdad also contributed to this report.



08-09-04, 08:18 AM
Watchdogs head to Iraq
Submitted by: MCAGCC
Story Identification #: 20048613567
Story by Sgt. Jennie Haskamp

MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. (Aug. 6, 2004) -- His dad won’t be there for his first day of kindergarten. He won’t be there for his birthday either. In fact, this year, his dad will miss every birthday in their family of four along with Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.

His name is Cameron Whitehead, and he is almost six years old. His dad, Staff Sgt. James Whitehead, a Troy, Ala., native, is Marine Unmanned Aerial Squadron 1’s quality assurance chief. He left for Iraq Aug. 1 along with the rest of his unit.

Cameron and his 12-year-old brother, Codey, aren’t alone. The VMU-1 "Watchdogs," like every Combat Center unit deployed abroad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom 2, left dozens of families behind. Dozens of women will act as mom and dad for the next seven months, and, though the numbers are smaller, husbands left behind will slip into the role of both parents as well.

Spouses who don’t have children at home to focus on will be forced to adapt to being alone for the duration of the deployment. Family members and loved ones alike will endure the deployment.

Believing in their Marines and Sailors and supporting them from afar helps make the separation easier.

"I support everything he does," said Amber Pratt, an Amarillo, Texas, native whose husband Staff Sgt. Eric Pratt is part of VMU-1’s communications team. "It’s what he wants to be doing, so it’s what I want him to do."

The unit, whose mission is to operate Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicles and provide support to the troops on the ground in the form of aerial reconnaissance, will have experts supporting them on the ground in Iraq.

"We’re capable of seeing the enemy miles ahead of the Marines and Sailors and alerting them to possible ambushes or attacks," said support technician Larry Louden, a contractor with Pioneer UAV Inc., based in Patuxent River, Md., who volunteered to re-deploy with the unit. "We’re a small company, and there aren’t many employees. I did eight years in the Corps—-I guess volunteering to deploy with them again is some of that esprit de corps we all talk about."

Louden, along with fellow technician Frenchy Couture, who works with the unit full time and lives in Twentynine Palms, is responsible for providing back-up technical support to the Marines assigned to maintain the UAVs.

"We’re here to support them in case they run into something they can’t fix," explained Louden. "We won’t be changing locations as often as we did last year, breaking them down and rebuilding them—so they should hold up better this time."

Louden said the unit will work as a police force from above; looking for weapons caches and improvised explosion devices and any other suspicious activity.

"We’re like the 24-hour eye in the sky," he said. "We’re there to make things safer for the guys on the ground."

The Marines, Sailors and civilians of VMU-1 know it will be a long deployment void of the comforts of home, but they’re ready to do their jobs, and their leader reminded them they were up to the challenge.

"Your family, your country and your Corps are all proud of you," said Lt. Col. John Neumann, commanding officer, VMU-1, standing in front of his troops and their families. "We’re up to the challenge, we’re ready to complete this mission."

The group knows they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and as they boarded the buses for first leg of their trip to Iraq, the realization hit home.

"Leaving my family again is hard—-I never want to leave them," said Whitehead, his eyes settling on his young sons, his arm around his wife, Wendy. "I don’t want to leave, but I want to do my job-—and that is what I’ll do. I’ll leave, do my job and come home to my wife and kids."


Codey Whitehead, 12, and his 5-year-old brother, Cameron, wave to their dad as his bus pulls away Aug. 1. Staff Sgt. James Whitehead, quality assurance chief, deployed to Iraq with the rest of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. Like many Combat Center units currently deployed, it is the unit's second trip to Iraq in two years. The Watchdogs are expected to remain in Iraq for the next seven months. Photo by: Sgt Jennie Haskamp



08-09-04, 09:02 AM
August 5, 2004
Release Number: 04-08-19



FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq — As the direct result of large-scale, repeated attacks on the main police station in An Najaf, the Multi-National Force responded to the Najaf Governor’s request and rapidly provided reinforcement to Iraqi Police and National Guard units.

Initial reports indicate that, working together, the Iraqi Security Forces and Multi-National Forces have killed approximately seven anti-Iraqi forces. These anti-Iraqi forces appear to be members of the Muqtada militia, supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. This attack is an overt violation of the cease-fire agreement reached in June between Multi-National Forces and Muqtada al-Sadr, as brokered by the Governor of Najaf, other local civic leaders, and the Bayt al-Shia (the informal counsel of senior Shia clerics).

"All of these terrorists and killers are working for the same organization regardless of which banners they carry or which hats they wear," said the Minister of Interior Mr. Falah al-Nakib. "They attacked Iraqi Police and we must respond. We have the thugs isolated. Our police forces, supported by the Multi-National Force, are doing their job."

Initial reports also indicate that a Multi-National Force helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing. The crew and the helicopter were recovered.

Mr. Falah al-Nakib indicated that seven terrorists have been killed and 22 have been wounded and taken into custody.

Anti-Iraqi terrorists have an extreme disregard for Iraq’s laws and the lives of innocent Iraqi citizens. Multi-National Forces continue to work closely with the Iraqi Police, National Guard, and Security Forces to prevent and repel these attacks.

"Our brothers, the Iraqi Police and supporting forces have gained glorious victories in their efforts to make Iraq a strong, sovereign nation," said Mr.al-Nakib.



08-09-04, 11:03 AM
Marine combat engineers keep vigilant of IEDs
Submitted by: 1st Marine Division
Story Identification #: 20048552343
Story by Sgt. Jose E. Guillen

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq (Aug. 3, 2004) -- Most people try to avoid explosives in Iraq. Gunnery Sgt. Sean P. Hanna hopes to trip over them.

He and his Marines from 3rd Platoon, Company B, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion spend their days criss-crossing Iraq, armed with metal detectors in one hand and a beacon device in the other.

"Nine out of 10 times we'll find stuff," said Hanna, the platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon. "They may not be big, big, huge caches, but we're consistent at finding weapons that can hurt us."

Hanna gives credit to the know-how of his Marines for being successful at discovering buried caches and improvised explosive devices.

"I'm not sure what we're doing to find weapons caches all the time, but I think it's just the experience of being here for almost six months," he explained. "We have a system of doing things, so the Marines see different things different days, like zero traffic on a road that usually has traffic flow."

The Marines work in teams, scouring roadsides and crop fields. There are telltale signs that tip them off, but not always.

"If something looks out of the ordinary like soft dirt in a middle of a crop field, we'll start digging," said Cpl. Carlos Montalvo.

Sometimes, cache discoveries are found through subtle hints. Property owners sometimes will walk out and greet Marines as to redirect them to search another location, but only give themselves away.

"Sometimes when we get close to something, the property owner will start acting weird or nervous," Hanna said. "That's just an indicator for us to keep looking."

"We'll sweep anything, but I enjoy it even though it's somewhat dangerous," said Lance Cpl. Jose M. Rios.

Rios made his biggest find during a sweep while attached to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, finding 12 IEDs all designed to detonate simultaneously. It's called a "daisy-chain." It's also that sort of success that makes Rios want to continue explosives work after he leaves the Marine Corps.

The work is tiring and monotonous. Days are spent in full gear, sweating and probing. Not every sweep turns up caches. Still reports of Marines falling victim to IEDs only amplifies the need to rid the streets of potential threats.

"The hardest part is seeing young Marines die or get hurt," Hanna said. "We're just tired of that."

"Every time we find something buried, it's a success," said Lance Cpl. Jared S. Treadway, a combat engineer with 3rd Platoon. "It feels good to find weapons."


Cpl. Carlos Montalvo, a combat engineer with Headquarters Squad, 3rd platoon, Company B, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, digs for more rocket-propelled grenades after detecting the cache with a metal detector in Al Kharma.
(USMC photo by Sgt. Jose E. Guillen) Photo by: Sgt. Jose E. Guillen



08-09-04, 07:24 PM
Marines Pushing Deeper Into City Held by Shiites

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 7 - Marine commanders battling Moktada al-Sadr's rebel militiamen in this Shiite holy city said Saturday that the fighting had cleared the rebels from the ancient cemetery in the heart of the old city, but that more fighting lay ahead in the streets and alleyways nearby as an American-led offensive moved to the end of its third day.

American commanders, who said they were acting under orders from the new Iraqi government, gave little sign that they intended to heed appeals for a cease-fire from clerics and others claiming to represent Mr. Sadr. But their forces pulled back from the cemetery's edges overnight to take up more secure positions, and the city streets were mostly quiet.

The marines described engaging in hand-to-hand fighting in the vast cemetery, which lies adjacent to the ancient Imam Ali mosque, a golden-domed shrine that is one of the holiest in Shiite Islam. The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which returned to Iraq recently after taking part in the American-led invasion last year, had endured the fiercest battle of all its engagements in Iraq, the commanders said.

"The engagements in the cemetery were done on foot, encountering numerous fighters at a range when you can smell a man, and it's hand-to-hand combat," said Col. John Mayer, who leads the battalion that took part in the fighting. He spoke at a forward Marine base on the outskirts of Najaf, about three miles from the fighting, as fresh Marine units prepared at dusk for nighttime deployment into the city.

American accounts of the fighting on Saturday said that there had been only sporadic exchanges of rifle, rocket and mortar fire after the intense battles of the previous 48 hours, in which the marines and an allied force of Iraqi police officers and national guardsmen claimed to have killed more than 300 fighters wearing the black outfits of the Mahdi Army, the militia force loyal to Mr. Sadr. Spokesmen for the militia have countered the claims, saying only 40 of their fighters had been killed.

The United States command said American losses in the fighting up to noon on Saturday amounted to two marines and one soldier killed, and about 20 American servicemen seriously wounded.

Reports from Najaf told of a city now largely deserted, especially in the area of the old city where the fighting has been concentrated. Shops and other businesses remained closed. The few people who ventured out on foot could be seen clearing rubble, seemingly oblivious to the rattle of nearby machine-gun fire. All power, water and telephone lines were cut.

An Army battalion is expect to join the marines in Najaf, though Marine officers said the United States is hoping that Iraqi national guard and police will take the lead, especially at the fringe of the cemetery near the shrine; in that area the Americans are vulnerable to attack and feel constrained to wage an offensive.

In Baghdad, representatives of Mr. Sadr met Saturday with a United Nations official, Jamal Benomar, who offered himself as an intermediary, along with a group of Iraqis from a range of political and religious groups. Mr. Benomar said Mr. Sadr's envoys appeared to be reaching for a cease-fire. "In a nutshell, they are keen to meet with the government and come to a settlement," Mr. Benomar said.

But there was little sign a cease-fire would be accepted by the Iraqi government and American commanders. Instead, the indications at nightfall were that the American and Iraqi units intended to press the battle, in the hope of breaking the back of Mr. Sadr's force in Najaf.

The Iraqi police commander in the city, Gen. Galib Hadi al-Jazaery, told reporters at the Marine base that Iraqi police officers and guardsmen had surrounded and attacked a house that Mr. Sadr has used as a headquarters in recent months. But the force did not find the cleric. "We want to rid the city of this devil," General Jazaery said.

Lt. Col. Aqil Khalil of the Iraqi national guard said the attack on the house was botched, and that the guard and police did not work effectively together. The Iraqis are struggling to prove themselves in battle.

Much in the immediate future of Iraq depends on the Najaf fighting, and on lower-intensity skirmishes in the last 72 hours in other urban areas across central and southern Iraq, including the sprawling slum of Sadr City, on Baghdad's outskirts, and the southern city of Nasiriya. The central question is whether the decision to confront the militiamen, and to do so in a place of the highest religious sensitivities, Najaf, will win the support of Iraq's Shiite majority, or provoke a potentially crippling backlash against the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

On Saturday, after remaining silent during the first 48 hours of fighting, Dr. Allawi gave a news conference in Baghdad in which he appeared intent on reinforcing his appeal to Iraqis as the strongman many have said they wanted during the 15 months of lawlessness and insurgency that has followed the American invasion last year.

He turned aside appeals for a cease-fire, saying prisoners taken during the fighting included "more than 1,000 criminals," at least 400 of whom had been released from prisons under an amnesty declared by Saddam Hussein six months before he was toppled from power.

"What has occurred in Najaf is pitiful," the prime minister said. Referring to the militiamen, he continued: "These attacks have aimed at destabilizing the government. These people are trying to deprive our people of their freedom and progress. Our country has gone through too many wars, and too much hardship, and I'm confident our people will choose the path toward peace and prosperity."

Dr. Allawi described the fighting as an attempt to undermine the new government's efforts to improve security, strengthen the economy and prepare for parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of January. A fully elected government is planned by January 2006. At one point, he invited Mr. Sadr to abandon reliance on his militia and to run in the January elections, an idea that Mr. Sadr had already rejected.

Dr. Allawi, a Shiite who trained as a physician and joined Mr. Hussein's ruling Baath Party as a student but defected to the exiled opposition 20 years ago, showed some of the political deftness he will need if he is to emerge from the tangled machinations of Shiite politics as a contender for power in the elections.

He suggested at the news conference that the militiamen fighting in Najaf, whom the Americans have said have mostly worn the black outfits of Mr. Sadr's militia, might not be Sadr loyalists at all, but "people using his name." He said he had been receiving "positive messages from Moktada al-Sadr." But he gave no details, and did not clarify whether he was referring to private communications from the rebel cleric or to discussions in Baghdad earlier on Saturday between representatives of Mr. Sadr and Mr. Benomar.

Dr. Allawi's suggestion that Mr. Sadr might not be responsible for the men battling in Najaf appeared intended to provide an alternative to an all-out showdown with potentially grim implications for both men.

If the Najaf fighting has shown Dr. Allawi at his most combative, he used his news conference to brandish a carrot along with the stick. He announced that he had signed a decree offering a 30-day amnesty period for people involved with the insurgency that has paralyzed wide areas of the country. The terms of the amnesty cover only relatively minor actions - among them, possessing illegal arms and explosives, failing to disclose information about terrorist groups, and otherwise helping with attacks. But under American pressure, the amnesty offer would not include anybody who has engaged in killing United States troops.

Throughout the clashes, American military spokesmen have stressed the point that fighting with the Sadr militia has been undertaken under the political authority of the new government. They have said that the Najaf battle was triggered at early light on Thursday when the city's Iraqi governor appealed for the marines to send a quick reaction force from a tent camp 30 miles east of the city to support Iraqi policemen and national guardsmen defending a police station in Najaf's old city from waves of attack by the militiamen.

The United Nations offered to try to resolve the fighting "even at this late hour, to work out a cease-fire and peaceful solution.'' NATO sent a handful of officers, its first batch, to train government forces in Iraq.


08-09-04, 07:24 PM
At dusk on Saturday, Brig. Gen. Erwin F. Lessel III of the Air Force, the deputy operations director for the American command in Baghdad, said Najaf had been mainly quiet for much of the day, but that there had been exchanges of rifle and rocket fire around the cemetery. General Lessel said there was no immediate expectation of a cease-fire. "We're going to continue operations," he said. "We are not negotiating at this point." But he added that the political decisions were for Dr. Allawi, not for American commanders. "The Iraqi government has the lead," he said. "We are there in a supporting role, and we will support the government in its decisions. It was their resolve, their commitment to take this course of action, and there's no indication that they're going to stop."

United States military spokesmen have stressed that it was the Sadr fighters who turned the mosque and its vicinity into a battleground. They have said that Mr. Sadr's fighters have fired rifles, mortars and rockets from within the mosque or its roofs, as well as the cemetery, and that the marines have fired back only when fired upon.

The 11th Marine Expeditionary Force, the American unit leading the fighting, issued a statement on Saturday saying that the militiamen had stored "large weapons caches" in the cemetery and had launched numerous attacks from the site, violating a cease-fire agreement reached with American forces in May.

The statement added: "While the international laws of armed conflict normally identify sites like this as protected places, such status is forfeited if the site is used for military purposes. The actions of the Moktada militia make the cemetery a legitimate military objective, which was only assaulted due to necessity and self-defense. During the fighting, the marines made every effort to minimize collateral damage and preserve the cemetery."

Alex Berenson reported from Najaf for this article, and John F. Burns from Baghdad. Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Baghdad.