NAJAF, IRAQWhat started out as a military march became a political parade and rally today in an ancient Iraqi city sacred to Iraq's Shiite majority. American forces prompted the city's residents to start an anti-Saddam Hussein demonstration, an indication that the 101st Airborne Division's campaign to spark an uprising in this city has gained significant ground.
Iraqi paramilitary forces had been using Najaf as a base from which to harass American supply convoys. The 101st Division has moved in on Najaf in an effort to destroy the paramilitary fighters and show Iraq's Shiites that America will support them if they rise up against Saddam's forces.
On Wednesday morning, soldiers from the 101st Division's "No Slack" Battalion and four trucks of Special Forces officers marched from a headquarters building at the edge of the city to the outskirts of a complex that contains one of the holiest mosques in Shiite Islam, the burial site of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, the prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law. But on the march back to the shuttered school that has become the headquarters of the 1st Brigade's No Slack Battalion, soldiers from the division and the Special Forces' 5th Group began broadcasting pro-Muslim and anti-Saddam messages. "Die, die Saddam," the crowd shouted, according to Al-Waeli Kadhim, a translator with a U.S.-organized Iraqi opposition group who works with the 101st.
A large crowd, mostly young men, gathered around the sound truck, jumped up and down, danced, and joined in traditional Shiite Muslim call-and-response chants. The men in the truck, under the control of the Special Forces, told the city residents that Saddam was no longer the president of Iraq and that the U.S. military was going to protect them. "You can feel safe," the truck blared, according to Kadhim's translation. "Feel safe because we aren't going to leave you like we did in 1991."
The parade followed a 20-block route from the edge of the mosque back to the No Slack Battalion's headquarters inside a shuttered school. Though some residents stood at the side of the route with expressionless faces, overall the military seemed to make great strides in winning over the residents.
Perhaps most telling was the change in attitude toward the helicopters buzzing overhead. Early in the morning many in the crowd watching the soldiers would scatter or at least pull back when the division's Kiowa warriors flew overhead. But as the soldiers left at midday, people cheered when the helicopters passed over. "If they cheer for us, it means they aren't afraid of being killed," said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, who commands the No Slack Battalion. "After this they will come to us and tell us where the Fedayeen are hiding. Then we will go out and hunt them down."
On Wednesday, the division's 1st Brigade began conducting raids to hunt down members of the ruling Baath Party in Najaf as well as to seek and eliminate weapons caches. Those raids are also designed as expressions of military might intended to reinforce the idea that the Americans control the city. Though many residents seem to appreciate the military parades by Americans, they are apprehensive about airstrikes and artillery raids. In the morning, the division's helicopters struck a building suspected of housing a Baath Party official. But in the streets residents had no idea what the target was and seemed to grow agitated.
One resident, Sameer Salmi, called out to one of the infantrymen lining the street outside the mosque compound, when an airstrike from an A-10 attack plane rumbled in the distance. "What is the situation?" asked Salmi, a student at a Baghdad college who speaks some English. "I do not know," replied Sgt. Brandon Neal. "We have to get Saddam; we have a lot of work to do." Salmi looked up as another burst of gunfire erupted in the sky. "What?" he asked. "Bombs from the Air Force dropped on the Fedayeen," Neal replied.
Ali, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer who speaks English but declined to give his last name, said that he and the people he knew welcomed the American operation to drive Baath Party operatives out of the city. Ali said that 13 people had been killed in the blocks around the mosque. "We want the American troops here, but we do not want the damage," he said.
Ali said that Saddam's forces had cut off water to the city and shuttered the schools. But he said he hoped the military would restore the water supply. He said he wanted the Americans to occupy the city and help rebuild the leadership. "I think democracy will come to Iraq, but there are not many educated people to realize democracy," he said. "It will take time." Another man, for whom Ali translated, said the Americans needed to provide protection from attacks by retribution. "We want security for our people," he said.
Many of the Baath Party officials and members of the Fedayeen paramilitary force have fled the city, according to military officials, who claim to have killed many of the militants as they tried to escape. But Ali said that some regime forces remained in the crowd, dressed as civilians.
Residents also fear Saddam's missiles. Two FROG-7 surface-to-surface missiles were fired early Wednesday morning, striking near areas where the military was massed. No one was hurt, but the impacts prompted members of the 1st Brigade to don chemical masks twice.
Indeed, soldiers from the No Slack Battalion were wearing chemical masks before they mustered in the courtyard of their headquarters just before dawn. But the masks were gone by the time the troops marched out of their headquarters toward the mosque with four trucks from the Special Forces. The 101st's leaders had heard that a man named Sustani, the cleric in charge of the mosque, was under house arrest by Baath Party members. But when the soldiers reached the outskirts of the mosque complex, they learned that the cleric's guards had fled when the 1st Brigade began its attack on Monday.
The forces were unable to coax the cleric to come out and meet the military, and Hughes was reluctant to bring his forces near the mosque. When they could not get the cleric to come out, the commander of the Special Forces unit turned to Hughes and asked him about the orders of Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who leads the division. "Does General Petraeus have a message he wants passed on?" the Special Forces officer asked. "Yes," replied Hughes. "He wants the cleric's advice on how to protect the mosque. We do not want to kick down the doors. We want them to bring us the Fedayeen and we will arrest them. We want his advice on how to do that without hurting the mosque."
Negotiations with residents dragged on for several hours, before Special Forces officers reported to Hughes that the negotiations with the cleric would take longer than three or four days. Moments later, Hughes called to Capt. Timmy New, commander of Bravo Company. "Get them up," Hughes said of the battalion soldiers. "We are going back the way we came. We are done here."
But the battalion was not done; still ahead was the anti-Saddam rally. The cheering on the way back to the compound heartened Kadhim, the battalion's translator. "This is a great victory," said Kadhim, who was born in Iraq and now lives in St. Louis. "This is Najaf. If we control Najaf, we control Iraq. Now we have the capital city of Shia [Islam]. Look at them; look at how they greet us."