NAJAF, IRAQSgt. Michael Melugin walked down a street of this ancient city slowly, placing one foot in front of the other and his head on a swivel. To Melugin, walking down the street did not seem like the smartest thing in the world.
During the previous two days, Melugin's battalion had taken fire from small arms, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. And now Melugin was walking into the very place from which the attacks originated. Fifteen blocks into the city, Melugin's squad, the Sand Clams, stopped. A crowd began to build, peering at the soldiers. Many smiled. A few stared. Melugin thought to himself that the Army really ought to have more translators. One young man in a shirt and slacks walked toward Melugin and his men. "Back!" Melugin yelled. In broken English the man replied: "Why?"
On Tuesday, American troops for the first time occupied part of an Iraqi city. All week the 101st Airborne Division has been pressing an attack against the southern outskirts of Najaf, a town that is holy to Iraq's oppressed Shiite majority but since the invasion has been infiltrated by Iraqi paramilitary groups. The 1st Brigade's battalions struck in three locations on Monday, taking an abandoned airfield, seizing a large cache of weapons inside an agricultural college, and beginning the assault against the western edge of the city. There, the "No Slack" battalion exchanged fire with the Fedayeen militia on Monday, as Kiowa helicopters and Abrams tanks attacked buildings and positions used by the paramilitary groups.
U.S. military officials say that the Iraqi paramilitary groups have been using Najaf as a base from which to hide and plan attacks. To protect supply lines and break the resistance, the soldiers from the 101st have been trying to isolate the Fedayeen in Najaf.
But the goal of officers in the 101st and the U.S. Special Forces who are operating here is also to turn the city in their favor. They hope that a show of force will persuade Shiite residents that the United States will not withdraw until Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party are driven from power. That campaign began at dawn with a "Thunder Run." Seven tanks, on loan to the 101st from the 1st Armored Division, rolled into Najaf. With Apache helicopters flying overhead, the tanks rolled toward the center of the city. There, Capt. John Lauer, the tanker commander, looked through his scope and saw four arches, each decorated with pictures of Saddam. Lauer and his soldiers peppered the pictures with their machine guns. The tanks then turned and left the city.
"Inside the city, people were peering from alleyways," he said. "Some of them were cheering us on." This morning's raid will be the last for some time. Maj. Gen. David Petraeus nixed plans to repeat the run and destroy a statue of Saddam Hussein that Special Forces soldiers say is in the city.
The Thunder run was not just a show of force, said Col. Ben Hodges, the commander of the 1st Brigade, but also timed to distract Fedayeen from the main assault of the day, the No Slack battalion's march to the city. On Monday, a tank was disabled trying to clear a minefield on the edge of the city. Tuesday, engineers blew up the mines, paving the way for the No Slack battalion, tanks, and the other U.S. forces to move into the western edge of the city. Originally, planners expected to stick to the edge of the city. But as the battalion moved toward the city with little resistance after Monday's heavy battering, commanders of the 101st decided to press the attack.
Lt. Col. Chris Hughes drew from his experience in Haiti in drawing up the plan for soldiers to move block by block, moving from corners, checking some suspicious buildings and areas. "The purpose is not to clear every room," Hughes said. "The purpose is to destroy the Fedayeen." Hughes said that he hoped the 1st Brigade could drive the paramilitaries out of the city to the north, where they could be killed by the 2nd Brigade and 101st helicopters. On Tuesday, Hughes said his plan was working: "They are doing exactly what we want them to do."
The Fedayeen have been hiding in and staging raids from one of the holiest mosques in Shiite Islam, the burial site of Ali, the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law. American military leaders believe if they can isolate the Fedayeen in the mosque, Shiite leaders will be able to remove them from the mosque and reclaim it. Inside the gate of the city, Hughes, Hodges, and Petraeus met with Special Forces soldiers. The Special Forces reported that Iraqi civilians had told them the leading cleric of the city, an imam called Sustani, had told citizens to remain neutral until the streets were secure. "I'd like to see if we could get this imam to come out and talk further," Petraeus told a Special Forces soldier.
But Iraqi civilians said that the military would have to come to the imam, rather than the imam's coming to the military. So with three hours of sunlight left, soldiers from the No Slack battalion walked on foot, and Special Forces soldiers rode in cars into the city. The streets of Najaf were strewn with rotting garbage and dung from donkeysthe main form of transportation. In some streets, a fetid stream trickled down the roadway. The stench in some places was almost unbearable. Soldiers looked nervous as they picked their way along the streets according to Hughes plan, moving corner to corner, block by block.
At the farthest edge of the advance, an young Iraqi man stared at Sergeant Melugin. Then another Iraqi tugged at the young man's arm and forced him to retreat. "Thank you," Melugin said.
Moments later, Staff Sgt. John Johnson walked up. "Is there an op order on this, or was this a 'hey, you guys go up there'?" Melugin grimaced. He and other soldiers had images in their heads of U.S. peacekeepers killed by local militia fighters in Mogadishu, Somalia, events depicted in the film Black Hawk Down. "Yeah," he said. "It was just go up there." Johnson looked at the men who approached the soldiers. "They look hard," he said, then turned to Melugin and added, "They changed the plan of attack and pushed us up."
Five minutes later an explosion echoed across the city as American forces destroyed a maintenance yard where explosives were being held. The Iraqi civilians dispersed. With the crowd gone, the soldiers seemed calmer and began to take stock.
Pvt. Wylie Craig had a bullet fly by his head as he walked up the long hill that leads into Najaf Tuesday morning. "I've never been shot at before," he said. "It took me a second to figure out what happened." Craig had been apprehensive about walking in the city. But most of the people he saw looked friendly. And soon after the explosions from the depot ended, the civilians began gathering around Craig and other members of his squad. Speaking in gestures and a few English words, Iraqis began asking for water. One man asked the soldiers to stop bombing and restore their electricity. "They seem happy to see us," Craig said, surrounded by 30 Iraqi civilians. "It seems like they are happy we are here."
As the hours of sunlight grew short, the battalion ordered its soldiers to pull back. The No Slack battalion moved into a shuttered school at the edge of the city. Inside, battalion soldiers pushed aside desks, maps, and anatomical models so that soldiers could sleep. "I never pictured it like this," said Sgt. Jason McNeal. "I envisioned us moving into the city and going back in the desert. But it is OK here90, 95, percent of the people were happy to see us. I was glad of that."