After the Siege, a City of Ruins, Its Dead Rotting

By ALEX BERENSON

The New York Times

August 28, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 27 - The wild dogs of Najaf ate well this week.

In this holy city, in lightless basements, in empty crypts, in the shadow of the golden dome of the shrine of Imam Ali, thousands of men have tried desperately and often successfully to kill one another. They have fought with knives and guns, grenades and mortars, tanks and mines and roadside bombs, and sometimes even their bare hands.

Now, as a cease-fire halts the three-week fight between American forces and Iraqi insurgents, the toll from the battle is only too clear. On Friday afternoon, the decomposed bodies of insurgent fighters lay in houses in and around the Old City, which surrounds the shrine.

One house at the western edge of the city held four blasted corpses, missing arms and legs, their stench heavy in the hot midday sun. Dogs had been at the bodies overnight, marines said. Indeed a dog skulked nearby as Iraqi medics carried the remains to an ambulance for transport to the shrine, where they are washed before burial.

As many as 1,000 guerrillas may have been killed since early August, American commanders say, along with 11 American marines and soldiers. More than 100 have been wounded, including dozens of serious injuries.

About 3,000 American soldiers and marines took part in the fight, battling somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 guerrillas, a number that varied as Iraqis joined or quit the battle.

For every shot they took, American troops returned scores or hundreds. For every mortar round the guerrillas lobbed, the gunners at the Marine base here responded with a 100-pound artillery shell. The insurgents had donkey carts loaded with rocket-propelled grenades, the Americans 70-ton tanks that can survive direct hits from mortars and grenades. The American advantage was especially large at night, when night-vision goggles allowed troops to see in the dark.

The two sides have caused uncounted civilian casualties and inflicted tremendous damage on Najaf's Old City. The area stinks of sewage and soot, and its streets are filled with rubble from bombed-out buildings. Even the mosque has been slightly damaged.

Civilians walked freely around the shrine on Friday, and the area was nominally peaceful, but passions are running high just below the surface. Just before the noon prayer call, this reporter was accused of being a spy and set on by a crowd just west of the shrine, then briefly taken captive by Moktada al-Sadr's guerrillas, blindfolded and tied up, and threatened with death before being released unharmed after senior Sadr officials intervened.

Overwhelming American firepower has caused nearly all of the structural damage, although it is unclear whether guerrillas or American troops are responsible for more civilian casualties.

Unlike the guerrillas, American troops generally appeared to make an effort not to fire at random, but when fired upon they responded with overwhelming force. They joke that they are living bait, luring guerrillas out of their holes to be killed.

"When we take fire, we just usually light it up," said Pfc. Anthony Johnson, a soldier in the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, which fought in the southern part of the city.

For three weeks, the fighting was fierce and nearly nonstop, moving from a sprawling cemetery just north of the Old City to the blocks in the southern part of the Old City and then nearly to the gates of the shrine itself.

Armed mainly with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and light machine guns, the insurgents tried to counter American troops equipped with tanks and supported by artillery and air power.

The resulting battle was intense but lopsided, especially after the first few days of fighting, when the American military brought in two heavy Army battalions to take over the fighting in the cemetery and south of the Old City while the marines raided strongholds elsewhere in Najaf and Kufa.

Still, American soldiers and commanders say they have been surprised by the tenacity and toughness of the guerrillas, fighters loyal to Mr. Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric.

"They're brave," said Specialist Mark Siapco, a soldier in the First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry, which has fought north of the shrine. "They're crazy."

In the most brazen attack, a guerrilla jumped onto an American tank in the cemetery two weeks ago and killed two soldiers before fleeing.

"You have to be careful about underestimating your enemy," said Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the battalion. "Their tenacity, though not equal to our own, probably surprised us a little."

Besides the deaths and wounds, many more men have stories of close calls, dud mortar shells that failed to explode or bullets that smashed into body armor instead of skin and bone. On the front lines, soldiers no longer blink at mortars that explode 50 feet from their armored vehicles or rocket-propelled grenades trailing sparks by their heads, instead methodically trying to figure out the location of the guerrillas in order to destroy them.

"A close call would be getting hit in your Kevlar," the chest and back armor that every soldier and marine wears, Specialist Siapco said. "A bullet whizzing by, that doesn't count. You don't have to worry about that."

American forces advanced daily so that by Thursday the rebels had no ground left to give. Early that morning, American tanks reached the gates of the shrine and fought in its shadow. On a bombed-out street illuminated only by the stars and the glow from the lights attached to the mosque's walls and minarets, the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles turned their turrets left and right, searching for targets.

Guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades from buildings nearby, but even direct hits did not seriously damage the American armor. The Bradleys returned fire, pouring bursts of 25-millimeter high-explosive shells, essentially miniature grenades, into the buildings.

The shells glowed red, setting fires that burned orange in the night. With the shrine's golden dome as a backdrop, the street had a surreal beauty, and soldiers said they were astonished to be fighting so close to one of the holiest sites in Islam.

But the Mahdi Army did not stop fighting. Snipers took aim at Maj. Doug Ollivant, an American commander directing the battle from about 100 yards away, and a hidden mortar position rained shells around Major Ollivant's armored Humvee. The mortar was so close to the Americans that soldiers could hear shells being fired 30 seconds before they landed, because they essentially were traveling straight up and down.

"It's going to kill you, you know," Major Ollivant said, as one soldier lighted a cigarette not long after a mortar crashed down nearby.

By Friday afternoon, with a cease-fire in place, the scene in the Old City was very different. Men walked through the streets, surveying the damage and walking past American troops who would soon be pulled back from their positions.

"You never know if some of these guys were the guys fighting us," one soldier said to another, watching the men walk by.

"I guarantee you some were," the second responded.

But First Sgt. Justin Lehew of the Marines, whose men killed the fighters whose bodies the medics were gathering Friday afternoon, said his troops were not unhappy that the fight had ended without a climactic battle.

"They just want to go home," Sergeant Lehew said. "Like everybody else."