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Dispatch from the 101st

Mission: Take the city, preserve the mosque

[AP file photo]
Iraqi Muslims make their way to the holy mosque of Imam Ali in Najaf in 2001.
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 1, 2003
Dispatch from the 101st

photoTimes staff writer Wes Allison has been attached to the 101st Airborne Division. He is living and traveling with the troops as they are deployed abroad.

Reports from a region in conflict

NAJAF, Iraq -- The order was simply stated, but not necessarily simple to follow: Destroy enemy bunkers, weapons and personnel to hasten the fall of this ancient holy city.

And do not touch the mosque. Damaging Najaf's historic mosque -- one of Islam's holiest sites -- would cripple coalition forces' efforts to win over the Iraqi people, and would further erode U.S. relations with other Muslim nations.

Backed by artillery, jets and a quartet of tanks, the 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division attacked Iraqi forces for about three hours here Monday, seizing the airport and part of the city while softening fortified positions around the mosque.

More attacks with ground troops are expected this morning, with possible house-to-house fighting, and the Americans and Iraqis continued to swap mortar fire late Monday night.

Airborne commanders and soldiers who fought there say they destroyed several bunkers, gun emplacements and buildings housing Iraqi gunmen. A helicopter and gun truck from No Slack, the nickname for the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, also destroyed three of the six known Iraqi howitzers guarding the town.

A team from the 1st Battalion seized 7,000 rifles hidden in a cache on the outskirts of town.

"We weakened their defenses, we crushed their morale, and now we're going to take advantage of that by going in there and taking it straight to them," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, the 2nd Battalion commander, said early this morning after planning for today's assault.

But as American commanders underscored Monday, blasting away near the Najaf mosque and its cemetery is dicey work. For Muslims, only Mecca is more sacred, and they believe the cemetery is the final resting place of Noah, Adam and Ali, the cousin of the prophet Mohammad.

The Imam Ali mosque is in fact named after the prophet's cousin. Its golden dome is the dominant landmark of the city and is visible for miles. Before and during the battle, Hughes and his staff repeatedly pushed the importance of protecting the mosque and cemetery.

"As this unfolds here, I want you guys to take your time," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry, told his guys over the radio. "This isn't a big thunder run."

Najaf commands a steep-sided plateau overlooking the desert floor, giving Iraqi forces a strategic view to the south and west, including a key coalition supply line.

The 2nd Battalion's attack was designed to weaken the chain of bunkers, caves and other defensive positions carved into the escarpment before its infantrymen enter the city.

Meanwhile, the brigade's 1st Battalion took a suburb on the southwest side of town, and the 3rd Battalion took the airfield. U.S. forces to the north have been plagued by clogged supply lines, and owning an airfield at Najaf would help Americans and British in their advance toward Baghdad.

No American casualties were reported Monday. The extent of Iraqi casualties was unclear Monday night, but soldiers from the 2nd Battalion who participated said they destroyed several buildings and bunkers where gunmen were hidden. They estimated they killed at least 15.

The operation unfolded methodically. Special Forces have worked around the city for weeks, identifying probable Iraqi gun emplacements, bunkers and government strongholds.

First, fire from the Airborne's 105mm and 155mm howitzers rhythmically played on the edge of the escarpment below the mosque.

Shortly afterward, a pair of Air Force F-16s dropped 500-pound bombs on suspected bunkers. Several more airstrikes followed, then Capt. Tom Ehrhart of West Chester, Pa., commander of 2nd Battalion's Delta Company, led his gun trucks down a narrow paved road to the base of the plateau.

His lightly armored Humvees are rigged with heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and antitank missiles. They drew fire from above almost immediately.

A platoon of four tanks borrowed from the 1st Armored Division of Fort Riley, Kan., followed the gun trucks, pumping .50-caliber rounds and occasional shells into pillboxes and other fighting positions.

An enemy rocket-propelled grenade or mortar struck one tank, but bounced off harmlessly.

"We went through the sandbags, but they were up so high we couldn't tell" who or what was behind them, Lt. Brian Hawley, 23, of Brewster, N.Y., the platoon leader, said afterward.

Ehrhart's trucks were continuously harried by machine gunners in a large, white brick building near the cemetery.

The Air Force finally flattened the white building, revealing three 105mm howitzers behind it -- all promptly destroyed.

Even as they took and returned fire, the American commanders reminded each other to avoid the mosque and cemetery. U.S. forces believe 150 militants have taken refuge in the mosque.

"We want the people in the town to turn against them," said Maj. Jim Crider, No Slack's operations officer.

At one point during the battle, Hughes told Ehrhart to stop firing at gunmen because he was getting too close to the mosque.

"Let the (Kiowa Warriors) work it for you, they can see it much better," Hughes said over the radio.

Later, as the attack slowed, civilians carrying white flags began converging on the mosque for evening prayers. Their presence stopped a Kiowa from blasting a mined berm and quieted the gun trucks.

"You guys be very careful up there," Hughes ordered. "Don't fire unless you're fired upon."

Najaf is being defended by Iraqi soldiers, including members of the Special Republican Guard, as well as officials with Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party and the fedayeen, known for their fierce loyalty to Hussein.

The 3rd Infantry Division surrounded the town almost two weeks ago, but American commanders were content simply to contain it, occasionally probing outer neighborhoods with their Bradley fighting vehicles.

They hoped the siege would prompt Hussein's loyalists to fall back toward Baghdad or Karbala, where they could be slaughtered. Instead, many stayed to fight.

Throughout the day Monday, men, women and children on foot or in small donkey carts fled the city for the countryside. Several told U.S. soldiers manning checkpoints outside town that the fedayeen and Baath Party officials were shooting civilians who tried to leave.

After the battle, trucks and tanks retreated Monday evening to a camp 2 miles away. Hughes sent his civil affairs unit, including a member of the Free Iraqi Force, to broadcast a message to the people of Najaf.

They should know the Americans are here to help, and here to protect them. At the same time, Hughes told the unit, "Let these people know that if they turn these guys in the mosque over, we won't have to come into town and kill everybody."

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