250 Are Killed in Major Iraq Battle
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: January 29, 2007
BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 — At least 250 militants were killed and an American
helicopter was shot down in violent clashes near the southern city of Najaf
on Sunday, Iraqi officials said.
For 15 hours, Iraqi forces backed by American helicopters and tanks battled
hundreds of gunmen hiding in a date palm orchard near the village of Zarqaa,
about 120 miles south of Baghdad, by a river and a large grain silo that is
surrounded by orchards, the officials said.
It appeared to be one of the deadliest battles in Iraq since the
American-led invasion four years ago, and was the first major fight for
Iraqi forces in Najaf Province since they took over control of security
there from the Americans in December.
That handover was trumpeted by the Iraqi government at the time as a sign of
its progress in regaining more control of Iraqi territory.
The American military confirmed that the helicopter crashed around 1:30
p.m., and said that two soldiers aboard died in the crash. But American
military officials said they could not confirm the total number of dead in
Col. Ali Numaas, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces in Najaf, and an
Interior Ministry official said the number of dead could rise. They said
that the fighting stopped just after 10 p.m. and that most of those killed
were militants. An employee at a local morgue said at least two Iraqi
policemen were among the dead.
In a statement, the United States military said bodies of the two soldiers
aboard the helicopter were recovered. The crash, at least the third
involving an American helicopter in Iraq over the past week, is under
The precise affiliation of the militants was unclear.
Asad Abu Ghalal, the governor of Najaf Province, said the fighters in the
orchard were Iraqi and foreign, some wearing the brown, white and maroon
regalia of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. He said they had come to
assassinate Shiite clerics and attack religious convoys that were gathering
in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest cities, and other southern cities
for Ashura, a Shiite holiday that starts Monday night.
At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Ghalal said the fighters
called themselves the Soldiers of Heaven, and seemed to be part of a wider
Sunni effort to disrupt Ashura, which marks the seventh-century death of the
Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.
The holiday attracts hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims to Karbala,
where Hussein is believed to have been killed, and for days, the roads of
southern Iraq have been filled with convoys of pilgrims beating drums and
preparing for the day’s rituals, which include self-flagellation. In past
years, Ashura has been a magnet for violent attacks from Sunnis, with at
least 180 people killed on the holiday three years ago.
But two senior Shiite clerics said the gunmen were part of a Shiite splinter
group that Saddam Hussein helped build in the 1990s to compete with
followers of the venerated Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
They said the group, calling itself the Mehwadiya, was loyal to Ahmad bin
al-Hassan al-Basri, an Iraqi cleric who had a falling out with Muhammad Bakr
al-Sadr — father-in-law of the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr — in Hawza, a
revered Shiite seminary in Najaf.
The clerics spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they had been
ordered not to discuss Shiite divisions.
Iraqi officials said the group of 100 to 600 fighters was discovered in the
orchard Saturday night, leading to a midnight meeting of local authorities
who hatched an attack plan.
“We agreed to carry out an operation to take them by surprise,” said Mr.
Ghalal, the Najaf governor.
At dawn, the governor said, the area was surrounded and the offensive began.
He said the militants had antiaircraft rockets and long-range sniper rifles,
and, according to a soldier involved in the fighting, Iraqi security forces
encountered heavy resistance. Commanders called for reinforcements and a
brigade of soldiers from nearby Babil Province joined the fight.
Eventually, Iraqi officials said, they called on the United States military
for help. American tanks and helicopter gunships arrived, and gun battles
continued into the night. By 10:30 p.m., the gunfire had died down and Iraqi
troops began searching the area for bodies.
Elsewhere in the heavily Shiite south, there were other signs of potential
strikes on Ashura. Officials in Karbala said the police arrested three men —
a Saudi, an Afghan and a Moroccan — who were found on the road between Najaf
and Karbala with a suicide bomb belt and explosives in their car. The
officials said the vehicle had been hollowed out so it could be used as a
The United States military also announced the deaths of a soldier and a
marine on Saturday.
The marine died from combat wounds in Anbar Province, where American troops
have been battling Sunni insurgents for months. The soldier, a member of the
military police, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his patrol
north of Baghdad.
Throughout Iraq, the drumbeat of daily violence continued.
In Kirkuk, two car bombs at a Kurdish car dealership and a Kurdish market
killed at least 17 people, authorities said.
In Baghdad, 54 bodies were found, many showing signs of torture. At least
five girls were killed and 20 wounded when a mortar round hit a school in
Adil, a Sunni neighborhood.
At 7:30 a.m., a bomb inside a minibus exploded in a Shiite area of the
capital east of the Tigris River, killing one and wounding five. Two hours
later, in the Sunni area of Yarmouk in western Baghdad, gunmen killed four
people, including a consultant with the Ministry of Industry and his
daughter, who were shot on their way to work.
After dark Sunday night, residents of the Yarmouk neighborhood reported that
heavy clashes had broken out, with gun and mortar fire raining down for
Also on Sunday, Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid acknowledged in
court that he had given orders to destroy scores of villages during Iraq’s
campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s.
Prosecutors introduced two dozen documents they said incriminated members of
the Hussein government in the killing of tens of thousands of Kurds.
The Associated Press reported that Mr. Majid, also known as Chemical Ali
because he is accused of using chemical weapons against the Kurds, said the
area “was full of Iranian agents.”
“We had to isolate these saboteurs,” he said.
He added, “I am the one who gave orders to the army to demolish villages and
relocate the villagers.”
Khalid al-Ansary and Qais Mizher contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an
Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Najaf.