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Dispatch from the 101st

Smiles, waves greet march into holy city

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq -- They left at dawn, marching into smoke from fires still burning from the pre-emptive strike the day before, and by noon had become the first U.S. soldiers to occupy a major Iraqi city since the war started two weeks ago.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division took the historic district of this Muslim holy city Tuesday, capturing Iraqi soldiers, flushing out fedayeen militants and being welcomed by local residents who smiled, waved and flashed the thumbs-up.

About 300 troops from the Airborne's 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry marched easily up to the crumbling enclave of brick and stone buildings on this desert plateau, as helicopters and artillery quelled any last pockets of resistance.

At 3:40 a.m., an Iraqi missile landed near U.S. positions, but it didn't appear to do any damage. Throughout the day, soldiers encountered sporadic small-arms fire, but suffered no injuries.

They began making nice with the locals while searching homes for weapons, ammunition and enemy fighters, and they plan to press deeper into the city this morning.

"The purpose of this is not to clear every room, the purpose of this is to clear the fedayeen and the Special Republican Guard," said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion.

The 2nd Battalion, called No Slack, set up operations in an abandoned school with a walled courtyard. As night fell, soldiers secured their positions with mortars and sandbags as the Muslim call for prayer rang through the city.

The soldiers had spent most of their first week in Iraq driving or marching. They were excited to attack, and while some bemoaned the lack of combat, they appreciated the lack of injuries.

"They sent me here to count casualties . . . so I had a boring day," said Pfc. Adam Shinnaberry, 23, of Apopka. "Which is a good thing. I just hope it's as easy with the other cities."

Meanwhile, the 1st Battalion of the 327th continued holding a suburb on the city's southeastern side, where soldiers have found thousands of weapons and rounds of ammunition.

The regiment's 3rd Battalion held an airfield just outside town, which is being made ready for military flights.

Battalions from the Airborne's 2nd Brigade, the 502nd Infantry, reached Najaf's northern outskirts and were expected to enter the city today.

This morning, No Slack troops and Special Forces plan to send a small delegation to visit three local Muslim clerics, including an imam named Sustani. He is the top imam at the Mosque of Ali here at Najaf, which is among Islam's holiest places.

Shiites believe the cemetery here is the final resting place of Ali, the cousin of the prophet Mohammed, and of Adam and Noah, from the Old Testament.

To the Shiite Muslims who populate Najaf and the rest of southern Iraq, Sustani is as important as the pope is to Catholics, intelligence officers said.

Hughes said U.S. officials want his advice on winning support from the people. They will offer to secure the mosque until hostilities end, but in no way want to appear as if they are seizing it. The fedayeen had been using the mosque complex and cemetery to hide themselves and their weapons.

On Tuesday, at least a few dozen fedayeen fled north toward Baghdad as U.S. troops advanced. The Americans allowed them to get just north of town, between the cemetery and Highway 9, the main north-south route. Apache and Kiowa helicopters then hit them with their guns midmorning.

Roughly 30 men were killed, and three military vehicles destroyed. So were six 21/2-ton troop trucks and two antiaircraft radar systems, Hughes said.

"Because they are not true warriors, because they are just thugs, they are doing exactly what we want them to do, and that's escape where our Apaches are waiting for them," he said as the helicopters attacked.

On Monday, Airborne's gun trucks had coordinated with four borrowed tanks, Air Force fighter-bombers and its own artillery and Kiowa helicopters to decimate Iraqi positions around the steep escarpment protecting the city.

During that three-hour battle, in which U.S. forces took heavy machine-gun fire, the Airborne killed at least 23 Iraqi fighters and destroyed bunkers and ammo dumps.

Tuesday's assault began just past dawn, after one final huddle with Hughes and his commanders at a derelict foundry about 3 miles from town.

C Company went first, followed by B Company. They marched straight down the main road to town while Kiowa helicopters scouted the territory ahead and strafed potential enemy positions.

Battalion engineers detonated nearly 100 land mines, sending a two-story plume of smoke and dust into the sky.

The walk wasn't long but it was hot, especially in the heavy protective suits American soldiers wear in case of an Iraqi chemical attack. B Company frequently was ordered to kneel or lie in the trash-strewn sand on the side of the road as Kiowas checked for enemies.

Each time they stopped, soldiers were swarmed by flies that fill the rubbish. It got worse as they entered the town, where soldiers found mostly squalor. Najar is a sprawling city of 500,000, where dirt streets are covered in rubble and trash, barefoot children and chickens. There is no electricity and no running water in this part of town. Sewage flowed down some side streets.

A steady stream of refugees left for the second day in a row Tuesday. Soldiers stopped and quizzed dozens, including a young man with a bandoleer of spent 5.56mm machine gun shells.

"We want to be as nice to these people as possible. At the same time, we can't let them run around with weapons," said Sgt. Brandon Neal, 29, of Gainesville, Texas, team leader for 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, after the man was freed.

Thirteen men in civilian clothes, but carrying Iraqi army identification badges, surrendered to U.S. troops, begging for prisoner of war status because they feared retribution, Hughes said.

One man approached Special Forces and admitted being an official of the ruling Baath Party. He had returned from Baghdad three days ago with explosives for suicide missions, but decided against conducting them because he was "fed up" with the regime, an interpreter said.

With a detailed map, the man identified two complexes near the cemetery where explosives and other ammunition are being kept.

Staff Sgt. Kadhim Al-Waeli, 30, of the Free Iraqi Force, a U.S.-trained resistance group, is traveling with the 101st Airborne. He talked through loudspeakers mounted to the roof of an armored Humvee, advising the townsfolk to stay home for a couple of days.

"These people are really glad and happy," said Al-Waeli of St. Louis, where he works as a media consultant. "They want us to go up to the mosque . . . They look at me and say, "You are the man.' "

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