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).

Juan Cole and Omar of Iraq the Model are in agreement: this is in all likelihood Shi’ite on Shi’ite violence. Juan Cole’s comment:

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.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. DC Loser says:

    The Mahdi Army learned their lesson in 2004 when they last decided to go toe to toe against the US Army. They’ll just melt away and bid their time this time around.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    We have as yet no reason to believe there was an anti-Ashura plot, any more than David Koresh was planning to actually start machinegunning his neighbors. All we have are claims by the Najaf police and governorate, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Badr Corps, that they had detected a plot.

    Very, very little about the reporting on this incident makes sense yet.

  3. spencer says:

    Joyner seems to be displaying a great job of rationalization. If we are losing the insurgency so badly that they become powerful enough to fight conventional set piece battles we must be winning because our army can fight set piece battles very well. Next he will convince us that black is white.

  4. Wayne says:

    It appears that the insurgents were hit at their G-base. Which from a guerilla’s point of view is not a good thing. The large scale battles argument that the insurgency is gaining steam doesn’t hold up. For one thing, it wasn’t the insurgents that initiated the battle. Even if they do in the near future, there is a question if they can sustain it. If the insurgents start and sustain larger battles then I would agree that they are going to the next stage.

    I suspect this case is the finding of a G-base or a change in ROE that the Coalition can now engage some of the radical militia within Iraq. The ROE have been way to restrictive so far.

    I would have to disagree that the insurgents are the main factor behind the Coalition losing their will to fight. The MSM and Democrats

  5. Wayne says:

    My last sentence was cut off. It should have been.

    The MSM and Democrats are the ones most responsible for that.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    That is another explanation, Wayne. I haven’t seen reports to that effect.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Spencer: I’m not rationalizing, just trying to figure out the appropriate analytic lens. From the standpoint of the traditional guerrilla model, this is an indication that the insurgency thinks it’s winning. From the standpoint of the tactical situation on the ground, though, it strikes me as potentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They seem to be winning, if the public opinion polls and actions of politicians in the US are any indication, so going into the crosshairs sure seems like a bad move.

  8. Jim Henley says:

    Since we still don’t quite know who the combatants are on at least one side of the battle, it’s too soon to draw conclusions from it. I’ve seen reports quote Iraqi officials blaming two to three different Shiite clerics for leading this particular group of “insurgents” – al-Hasani al-Baghdadi and al-Hassan al-Basri plus possibly one other – and eyewitness reports incompatibly adduce everything from headbands to “African robes.”

    BTW, Wayne, it was actually people like you that lost the war: mainly by starting it in the first place, but also by determinedly cheering incompetents at every turn while smearing those Americans who saw the situation more clearly than you and your idiot heroes. You should be ashamed. You have provided objective aid and comfort to the enemy by helping the country to fail so spectacularly.

  9. Wayne says:

    Your bias is as obvious as the sun coming up. You claim we already lost the war. I suspect you had the same “feeling” when we had the “quagmire”, “bog down” MSM situation during the 2nd week during the re supply operations shown in the news.

    I have throughout many of my post been critical of what I have seen as incompetence in our terrorist war efforts. Including having too restrictive ROE for the military and Intel gathering. Unlike most on the left, I don’t just complain all the time that the other side isn’t doing anything right but I also give alternatives on how to accomplish our overall goal. I also have given criteria to determine if the situation is getting worst or better. Unlike the left who will complain not matter what happens.

    I suppose I can do like most on the left and just call names and throw insults but that is not very productive. I am at least cheering for the US to win unlike many on the left.

  10. Jim Henley says:

    Wayne, you can kid yourself but you can’t kid the rest of us. When deadenders run around saying that “the left” can “just call names and throw insults” AFTER having written that “The MSM and Democrats” are responsible for sapping our precious will – an insult, indeed a calumny – the rest of the country just laughs.

    I don’t care who you cheer for. Your cheers are immaterial. They contribute nothing. You. Contribute. Nothing. All you are good for is slandering other Americans. Yours is the sort of behavior that Teddy Roosevelt in 1918 called “morally treasonous and servile.”

  11. Wayne says:

    The key word is just. Look at how much of your post is about insults and name calling compare to mine. Insults are almost unavoidable and are needed at times depending on how they are done.

    It is pretty telling when the left and MSM can’t even bring themselves to cheer for the US. Then they wonder how people can say they are not for the US. Just because you are an American don’t make you a good American. We have communist and skinheads who are American but that doesn’t mean we should embrace their philosophy.

  12. Stu says:

    Jim–spot on. The “name-calling-to-analysis” complaint seems rather odd coming from someone whose analysis is mainly just the Dolchstosslegende with a couple modern-day tweaks.