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U.S. forces break siege in holy city of Najaf

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2003

OUTSIDE NAJAF, Iraq -- With fire on the city's western end casting dark, oily smoke into the night sky, American forces prepared this morning to move deeper into Najaf, one of Saddam Hussein's key strongholds south of Baghdad.

The 3rd Infantry Division sent Bradley fighting vehicles and infantrymen into parts of the holy Islamic city Friday afternoon, breaking a days-old siege.

They also shelled Iraqi military positions on the hillsides outside of town, sending plumes of dust into the air, as the thunder of artillery continued intermittently throughout the day.

As the 3rd Infantry prepared to move farther into town, parts of the 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne took up positions on the outskirts to block escaping soldiers of the Republican Guard and stop the nightly infiltrations of Iraqi militiamen.

Sgt. Maj. William Barnello, 42, command sergeant major of the 164th Armor of the 3rd Infantry Division, said Iraqis have attacked his armored unit each night for the past week.

They have no night-vision goggles, and most have only small arms that are useless against the Bradleys and the tanks.

Captured fighters have said they are fighting under orders of the fedayeen, Islamic militants backing Hussein.

"They put them in a uniform and give them a little bit of money, and tell them if they don't fight, they're going to kill their family," said Barnello, the command sergeant major of the 164th Armor.

American commanders have been told most of the Iraqi soldiers in and around Najaf are essentially local militia, called "alert battalions." They fight from pickup trucks and on foot at night. Some fight in uniforms, while others are dressed as civilians.

About an hour before sunset Friday, soldiers outside town reported hearing a large boom, then saw fire and smoke pour into the sky from the western edge of town.

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