Battle in Najaf
There has been a major action in Iraq in Najaf:
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces killed 250 gunmen in a fierce battle involving U.S. tanks and helicopters on the outskirts of the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf on Sunday, a senior Iraqi police officer said.
The day-long battle was continuing after nightfall, Colonel Ali Nomas told Reuters, as tens of thousands of pilgrims converged on the nearby city of Kerbala for the climax of the Ashura commemorations.
A U.S. helicopter was shot down in the fighting,
Iraq security sources said. The U.S. military declined comment. A Reuters reporter saw a helicopter come down trailing smoke.
Shi’ite political sources said the gunmen appeared to be both Sunni Arabs and Shi’ites loyal to a cleric called Ahmed Hassani.
Quite a bit of what actually happened is obscured in the fog of war. There are conflicting reports of who took part in the action (Iraqi military and police with U. S. air support/Iraqi military and police with U. S. air and armored support) and who the enemy was (Sunni Arabs/Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs/Shi’ite Arabs).
It seems most likely that this was Shiite on Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram. But who knows? It is also possible that the orthodox Shiites in control of Najaf hate the heretic millenarians and the threat of the latter was exaggerated. Darned if I know. The reports of the Army of Heaven being so well armed make no sense if it was a ragtag millenarian band. But those reports could be exaggerations, too.
The up side of this action seems obvious: a large number of Ashura pilgrims have, no doubt, been saved and at least that ratcheting in sectarian tensions has been assuaged. There are at least 200 fewer insurgents.
There are down sides, too: at least two Americans have been reported killed and with political support here flagging by the day any loss may be too much.
A couple of notable things. Aren’t large pitched battles like this characteristic of insurgencies that believe they are on the upswing? Not particularly good news.
And the prospect of Shi’ite on Shi’ite violence casts some doubt on the prescriptions of the divisionists like Joe Biden whose advice on Iraq is to divide it into Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish autonomous zones. If, as a Shi’ite vs. Shi’ite conflict would suggest, far from stabilizing Iraq division into ethnic/sectarian zones would merely spiral into smaller and smaller factions vying for control within those zones, the only means to a stable Iraq might be a strong central government.
UPDATE (James Joyner): I fear Dave’s really onto something with this: “Aren’t large pitched battles like this characteristic of insurgencies that believe they are on the upswing?” In the classic model of guerrilla warfare developed by Mao Zedong, and emulated by others such as Ho Chi Minh, the insurgents switch to conventional warfare to consolidate their gains after a long gestation period doing hit-and-run fighting.
The caveat, though, is that guerrillas using that model are fighting to for control of the territory. It has never been clear precisely what end game the multi-headed, allied only in the sense that the enemy of my enemy if my friend, “insurgency” envisions. Their short-term goal is forcing the Coalition to conclude that it’s not worth fighting anymore. They’re pretty close to achieving that.
Fighting set piece battles, though, puts them into our proverbial wheelhouse. The American military is the best large scale conventional force history. As yesterday’s fighting demonstrated yet again, anyone trying to fight the Americans symmetrically will get slaughtered.
UPDATE 2 (Dave Schuler): Bill Roggio reports
An American military intelligence informed us the early indications are that the Omar Brigade, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s unit designated to slaughter Shia, was involved in the fighting. Al-Qaeda in Iraq would have a vested interest in causing mass casualties of Shia during the pilgrimage to Karbala for the festival of Ashura. Over 11,000 Iraqi Army and police have been deployed to Karbala to provide security for the event.
The U.S. military has yet to release an official statement on the fighting outside Najaf. Based on the reporting and information from multiple media, U.S.and Iraqi sources, the likelihood is the enemy composition consisted of a mix of the Shia Army of Heaven cult and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters from the Omar Brigade. Cooperation between Shia and Sunni insurgent groups is not a new development in Iraq, as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and al_Qaeda cooperated during the Fallujah/Najaf uprisings in the spring and summer of 2004. Shia Iran has been supplying the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah with weapons and bomb making materials, and is currently sheltering senior al-Qaeda leaders within its borders.
As Jim Henley notes in the comments (and as I pointed out in the body of the post) it’s too early to draw many conclusions.