Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ashura Attacks Leave Dozens of Dead in Iraq

ASHURA IN BANGLADESH Shiite Muslims flailed themselves today in Dhaka.

Published: January 30, 2007
The New York Times



BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 — As more than two million Shiite pilgrims converged on Iraq’s shrines to celebrate the holy day of Ashura, three separate attacks in different cities left dozens of worshippers dead today in bombings, mortar attacks and ambushes.

But there were no reports of violence in Iraq’s two holiest cities, Najaf and Karbala, the day after Iraqi security force, aided by American air power and ground troops, defeated hundreds of militants from a renegade Shiite militia that they said was bent on widespread death and destruction on the holy day. Hundreds of suspects were being questioned today about their possible involvement with the group, officials said.

Across the country, security forces were on the streets in numbers. Iraqi Army and police checkpoints were augmented by independent checkpoints set up by the Shiite militias that control many key areas.

Even so, several attackers managed to disrupt Shiite rituals on the holy day, which marks the death of a revered Shiite figure, Imam Hussein, in the battle of Karbala more than 1,000 years ago.

In the town of Balad Ruz in Diyala Province, a suicide bomber killed at least 23 people and wounded another 5 when he blew himself up in a Shiite mosque. In the nearby city of Baquba, residents reported fierce morning clashes in the streets, although no reports of casualties were immediately available.

In Khanaqin, a small town northeast of Baghdad with a mixed Shiite and Sunni population, a roadside bomb exploded during a procession of Shiite worshippers, killing at least 12 people, including three women.

In Baghdad, dozens of mortar rounds landed in the Shiite neighborhood of Khadimiya and dozens more landed in neighboring Ahdimiya, which is predominantly Sunni. Initial reports from police officials indicated that at least 10 people died in the attacks.

Elsewhere in the capital, four Shiite pilgrims were killed and nine more were wounded when gunmen opened fire on two minibuses.

As the investigation continued into Sunday’s clash with the heavily armed renegade militia outside Najaf, questions also remained about the performance of the Iraqi forces involved.

On Monday, American and Iraqi officials said that the forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of the obscure group and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed. They said American ground troops — and not just air support, as reported Sunday — were mobilized to help the Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the renegade militia. The group, which calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven, had amassed hundreds of heavily armed fighters.

Iraqi government officials said the group apparently was preparing to storm Najaf, occupy the sacred Imam Ali mosque, and assassinate the religious hierarchy there, including the revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

“This group had more capabilities than the government,” said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf Province, at a news conference.

Only a month ago, in an elaborate handover ceremony, the American command transferred security authority over Najaf to the Iraqis. The Americans said at the time that they would remain available to assist the Iraqis in the event of a crisis.

The Iraqis and Americans eventually prevailed in the battle with the renegade militia. But the Iraqi security forces’ miscalculations about the group’s strength and intentions raised troubling questions about their ability to recognize and deal with a threat.

The battle also brought into focus the reality that some of the power struggles in Iraq are among Shiites, not just between Shiites and Sunnis. The Soldiers of Heaven is considered to be wholly or at least partly run by Shiites.

Among the troubling questions raised is how hundreds of armed men were able to set up such an elaborate encampment, which Iraqi officials said included tunnels, trenches and a series of blockades, only 10 miles northeast of Najaf. After the fight was over, Iraqi officials said they discovered at least two antiaircraft weapons as well as 40 heavy machine guns.

The government knew that the Soldiers of Heaven had set up camp in the area, but officials said they thought they were there to worship together.

Mr. Abtan said the Iraqi forces later decided to move on the group because an informer said Sunday was “zero hour” and the government noticed more men streaming into the area.

“If this operation had succeeded, it would have been a chance of a lifetime for them,” he said.

But there were no reports of violence in Iraq’s two holiest cities, Najaf and Karbala, the day after Iraqi security force, aided by American air power and ground troops, defeated hundreds of militants from a renegade Shiite militia that they said was bent on widespread death and destruction on the holy day. Hundreds of suspects were being questioned today about their possible involvement with the group, officials said.

Across the country, security forces were on the streets in numbers. Iraqi Army and police checkpoints were augmented by independent checkpoints set up by the Shiite militias that control many key areas.

Even so, several attackers managed to disrupt Shiite rituals on the holy day, which marks the death of a revered Shiite figure, Imam Hussein, in the battle of Karbala more than 1,000 years ago.

In the town of Balad Ruz in Diyala Province, a suicide bomber killed at least 23 people and wounded another 5 when he blew himself up in a Shiite mosque. In the nearby city of Baquba, residents reported fierce morning clashes in the streets, although no reports of casualties were immediately available.

In Khanaqin, a small town northeast of Baghdad with a mixed Shiite and Sunni population, a roadside bomb exploded during a procession of Shiite worshippers, killing at least 12 people, including three people.

In Baghdad, dozens of mortar rounds landed in the Shiite neighborhood of Khadimiya and dozens more landed in neighboring Ahdimiya, which is predominantly Sunni. Initial reports from police officials indicated that at least 10 people died in the attacks.

Elsewhere in the capital, four Shiite pilgrims were killed and nine more were wounded when gunmen opened fire on two minibuses.

As the investigation continued into Sunday’s clash with the heavily armed renegade militia outside Najaf, questions also remained about the performance of the Iraqi forces involved.

On Monday, American and Iraqi officials said that the forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of the obscure group and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed. They said American ground troops — and not just air support, as reported Sunday — were mobilized to help the Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the renegade militia. The group, which calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven, had amassed hundreds of heavily armed fighters.

Iraqi government officials said the group apparently was preparing to storm Najaf, occupy the sacred Imam Ali mosque, and assassinate the religious hierarchy there, including the revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

“This group had more capabilities than the government,” said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf Province, at a news conference.

Only a month ago, in an elaborate handover ceremony, the American command transferred security authority over Najaf to the Iraqis. The Americans said at the time that they would remain available to assist the Iraqis in the event of a crisis.

The Iraqis and Americans eventually prevailed in the battle with the renegade militia. But the Iraqi security forces’ miscalculations about the group’s strength and intentions raised troubling questions about their ability to recognize and deal with a threat.

The battle also brought into focus the reality that some of the power struggles in Iraq are among Shiites, not just between Shiites and Sunnis. The Soldiers of Heaven is considered to be wholly or at least partly run by Shiites.

Among the troubling questions raised is how hundreds of armed men were able to set up such an elaborate encampment, which Iraqi officials said included tunnels, trenches and a series of blockades, only 10 miles northeast of Najaf. After the fight was over, Iraqi officials said they discovered at least two antiaircraft weapons as well as 40 heavy machine guns.

The government knew that the Soldiers of Heaven had set up camp in the area, but officials said they thought they were there to worship together.

Mr. Abtan said the Iraqi forces later decided to move on the group because an informer said Sunday was “zero hour” and the government noticed more men streaming into the area.

“If this operation had succeeded, it would have been a chance of a lifetime for them,” he said.

The Iraqis initially sent a battalion from their Eighth Army Division, along with police forces, but they were quickly overwhelmed, according to an Iraqi commander at the scene. The battalion began to retreat but was soon surrounded and pinned down, and had to call in American air support to keep the enemy from overrunning its position.

American Apache attack helicopters and F-16s, as well as British fighter jets, flew low over the farms where the enemy had set up its encampments and attacked, dropping 500-pound bombs on the encampments. The Iraqi forces were still unable to advance, and they called in support from both an elite Iraqi unit known as the Scorpion Brigade, which is based to the north in Hilla, and from American ground troops.

Around noon, elements of the American Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division were dispatched from near Baghdad.

After an American helicopter was shot down at 1:30 p.m., some of those soldiers helped secure the crash site and recover the bodies of the two American soldiers killed in the crash, according to a statement by the American military. Others joined in the effort to combat the renegade militia, the statement said.

A commander in the Scorpion Brigade said the combined American and Iraqi forces killed 470 people. He also said some of the dead Soldiers of Heaven fighters were found bound together at the ankles and suggested that the chains had probably been used to keep people from fleeing and to keep them moving as one unified group.

Government estimates of the number of fighters killed ranged from 120 to 400.

An Iraqi military official said at least 25 security force members were killed in the battle.

Iraqi officials said on Monday that they had killed the leader of the militia in the weekend fighting, identifying him as a man who went by the name Ahmed Hassan al-Yamani, but whose real name was Diyah Abdul Zahraa Khadom.

However, a Shiite cleric who has had contact with the group said the real leader was Ahmad bin al-Hassan al-Basri. The cleric said he believed that Mr. Basri was alive and probably hiding near Karbala.

Mr. Basri, while unknown to the average Iraqi, is relatively well known among the clerical hierarchy in Najaf, according to several clerics interviewed for this article.

The clerics who were interviewed said that Mr. Basri was a student of Moktada al-Sadr’s father, a revered cleric, and that Mr. Basri and the senior Mr. Sadr had a split in the early 1990s.

The governor of Najaf, Asad Abu Ghalal, in an interview on national television, said government intelligence officials told him that the Soldiers of Heaven have had ties with the government of Saddam Hussein as far back as 1993. He also said that the farmland where the militia had set up camp had been bought by a former Hussein loyalist, although he said that did not initially raise concerns about the group’s intentions.

Government officials were quick to point the finger at Al Qaeda, alleging that it provided financing for the group. But numerous Shiite clerics, seeking anonymity for fear of contradicting the government, said it was highly unlikely that Al Qaeda, a Sunni group, would link up with a Shiite messianic group.

Officials in the Shiite-dominated government are loath to detail internal rivalries in their community, but in the past three years there have been several clashes between rival factions, and the deaths of two senior Shiite ayatollahs have been linked to internal struggles for dominance.

The often bloody internal rivalries have been overshadowed by the more overt Sunni-Shiite war being fought daily in Baghdad and in other mixed cities.

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