Iraqis: At least 200 insurgents killed

Now we are getting somewhere!

From the AP:

Iraqi officials said Monday that U.S.-backed Iraqi troops had targeted a religious cult called “Soldiers of Heaven” in a weekend battle that left 200 fighters dead, including the group’s leader, near the Shiite holy city of Najaf. A military commander said hundreds of gunmen planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill clerics on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar.

The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said the raid on Sunday in date-palm orchards on the city’s outskirts was aimed against a group called the Jund al-Samaa, or Soldiers of Heaven, which appeared to have had links to
Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters. Officials said the cult was hoping the violence it planned would force the return of the “hidden imam,” a 9th-century Shiite saint who Shiites believe will come again to bring peace and justice to the world.

Both Mohammed al-Askari, the defense ministry spokesman, and an Iraqi military commander in charge of the Najaf area said 200 terrorists were killed and 60 wounded, lowering previous estimates. Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the commander of the 8th Division that is in charge of Najaf, said 150 had been captured, while al-Askari put that figure at 120.

The fighting began Sunday and ended Monday. U.S. officials said an American military helicopter crashed during the battle, killing two soldiers on board, but gave no further details. Al-Ghanemi said the aircraft was shot down. It was the second U.S. military helicopter to crash in eight days.

Authorities said Iraqi soldiers supported by U.S. aircraft fought all day Sunday with a large group of insurgents in the Zaraq area, about 12 miles northeast of the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

U.S. and British jets bombed and strafed the militants, the U.S. Air Force said Monday. U.S. F-16s and A-10 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on insurgent positions, the Air Force said.

Provincial Gov. Assad Sultan Abu Kilel said the insurgents had planned to attack Shiite pilgrims and senior clerics in Najaf during ceremonies marking Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar commemorating the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The celebration culminates Tuesday in huge public processions in Najaf, Karbala and other Shiite cities.

Al-Ghanemi said the army captured some 500 automatic rifles in addition to mortars, heavy machine guns and Russian-made Katyusha rockets in what amounted to a major test for
Iraq’s new military as it works toward taking over responsibility for security from U.S.-led forces.

The commander said the leader of the group was among those killed and identified him as an Iraqi named Ahmed Hassan al-Yamani, who went by several aliases and was armed with two pistols when he died. Abdul-Hussein Abtan, deputy governor of Najaf, said the cult leader had been detained twice in the past few years, although he did say why.

Abtan also said a few women who were believed to be residents of the area were among those taken into custody.

Al-Ghanemi said the area where the men were staying was once run by Saddam’s al-Quds Army, a military organization the late president established in the 1990s. The commander said “the gunmen had recently dug trenches in preparation for the battle.” He added that the area of full of date palm groves. Other officials in Najaf said Saddam loyalists bought the groves six months ago.

Al-Ghanemi said 600 to 700 gunmen had planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and attack Najaf on Tuesday, the day they believed that the Imam Mahdi, or the “hidden imam,” would reappear. He said leading Shiite ayatollahs consider such fringe elements as heretics.

Their aim was to kill as many leading clerics as possible, al-Ghanemi said.

Najaf government officials indicated the militants included both Shiite and Sunni extremists, as well as foreign fighters. Although Sunni Arabs have been the main force behind insurgent groups, there are a number of Shiite militant and splinter groups that have clashed from time to time with the government.

You hear that you quitters, nay sayers and doom and gloomers? The Iraqis are standing up for themselves and getting the job done. This is how we need to get rid of these terrorist nut jobs! I say kill ’em all and let allah sort them out!

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