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[b]May 23, 2004
U.S. Military Says Shiite Rebels Seem to Have Ceded Karbala
By EDWARD WONG- NY Times[/b]
ARBALA, Iraq, Sunday, May 23 — American commanders said early Sunday that insurgents loyal to a rebel cleric appeared to have given up control of central Karbala, where they had been shielding themselves at two shrines.
According to the commanders, there were several strong signs that the armed supporters of Moktada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric, have abandoned the area and ceded authority to the Americans and their allies after nearly three weeks of urban combat.
A large overnight raid met no resistance coming from a group of buildings where insurgents had been firing at American tanks with rocket-propelled grenades. Civilians were seen returning to homes in central Karbala that they had abandoned during fierce fighting. And in the afternoon on Saturday, tribal sheiks approached American commanders offering to persuade the militia, the Mahdi Army, to lay down its arms and leave the city.
"It looks like they just packed up and went home," Col. Peter Mansoor, commander of the First Brigade of the First Armored Division, said in an operations tent on the city outskirts where he monitored field reports. Referring to Mr. Sadr, Colonel Mansoor said, "I think his days are numbered."
At around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, in the midst of the raid, three Iraqi civilians walked up to American soldiers and asked why they would attack the buildings. The civilians said the Mahdi Army had dropped their weapons on Friday night and left the area, according to a radio dispatch from an American field commander.Not a shot was fired Friday night at a large convoy of Bradley fighting vehicles driving through the city center — something unheard of since the First Armored Division began its offensive nearly three weeks ago.
At 12:45 a.m. on Sunday, soldiers at the scene of the raid saw 10 Iraqi police cars and three police pickup trucks speeding up to the outskirts of the old city with their lights flashing. The police officers told the soldiers they were doing a patrol. The fact that the police could travel around the old city, if only on the outskirts, indicated that the insurgents were no longer in control, Colonel Mansoor said.
During the raid early Sunday, Iraqis at a nearby teahouse told soldiers that busloads of fighters from Falluja who came to town last week had left Friday. The fighters fled after concluding that they could not stand up to American tanks, these Iraqis said.
An Iraqi reporter for The New York Times in Karbala said he had seen militiamen putting their weapons in bags in recent days and trying to leave the city. Some residents of the city have distributed fliers denouncing Mr. Sadr and the presence of his fighters.
American commanders said they would press the Iraqi police to do patrols in the old city in the next week. Whether and how the police get attacked will determine how much is left of the insurgency, the commanders said.
If the insurgency in Karbala has truly dissipated, then Mr. Sadr's six-week insurrection has suffered badly. Though the Americans clamped down on the rebellion, Mr. Sadr had managed to maintain his grip on three towns: Karbala; the nearby holy city of Najaf, where he lives; and Kufa, a town adjacent to Najaf where Mr. Sadr preaches.
He might be restricted to Najaf and Kufa, but the Americans are testing those cities, too, though with care.
American officials say they have no intention of sending soldiers into the heart of Najaf, which is centered around the Shrine of Ali, dedicated to the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. They say they fear such an attack could provoke a backlash from Shiite Muslims around the world, and would prefer that senior clerics persuade Mr. Sadr to surrender.
Early Sunday morning, Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network, reported that clashes had broken out in some areas of Najaf. Explosions could be heard in the background as a reporter spoke. The Americans sent a large patrol through adjoining Kufa, but no shots were fired, Colonel Mansoor said.
The apparent withdrawal of Mahdi fighters from the central shrine area in Karbala came after nearly three weeks of intense combat in which American officers said more than 120 insurgents were killed. The Americans destroyed large parts of the city's downtown to flush out the insurgents. In the last week, the Americans had called in an AC-130 Specter gunship to strafe militiamen standing around the shrines with 40-millimeter cannon fire.
Karbala has been the scene of the most intense urban warfare in Iraq since the siege of Falluja ended last month. The Americans failed to pacify Falluja through military force because the revolt there had broad support, and the city became a symbol of resistance to the occupation. By contrast, Mr. Sadr's militia here has lost much of its backing since it took over Karbala last month, largely because the violence it brought has driven away Shiite pilgrims and wrecked the local economy.
Four American soldiers have been killed and at least 52 wounded in the nearly three-week offensive. It is the highest casualty rate suffered by the First Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment of the First Armored Division since it arrived in Iraq last May.
After being approached by the sheiks on Saturday afternoon, "it was pretty clear to me that we were approaching endgame, and that's my fervent hope," Colonel Mansoor said. "They were clearly looking for a way out."
At a briefing for unit commanders before the night raid, Lt. Col. Garry R. Bishop, the battalion commander, said: "They're trying to convince us that the Mahdi Army will be out of the area today. We'll see. One way or another, they will be."
The Americans also sent a battalion to do a simultaneous raid on a farming compound in Husseiniya, a village nine miles northeast of Karbala. The soldiers found only women, children and some old men.
The raid in downtown Karbala took place at a school and surrounding buildings immediately northeast of the golden-domed Shrine of Hussein and Shrine of Abbas. Before the raid, military analysts said recent intelligence reports indicated that as many as 150 fighters were holed up in the school, many of them from outside Iraq. To the surprise of the soldiers, they found only civilians in the area, who told them the insurgents had left. The Americans ended up detaining 10 men for questioning. "It's maybe an indication that Moktada's militia is on its last legs," Colonel Mansoor said. "They don't want to come out and play."
Fighting over the last week had been edging closer to the shrines, dedicated to two of the most revered Shiite Muslim martyrs. But early Friday morning, American forces withdrew from the Mukhaiyam Mosque, a nearby building they had occupied on May 12 after a pitched battle with insurgents in the area.
The mosque had become a foothold for the Americans in the dense urban landscape of downtown Karbala, and the Army had lost three men just trying to defend it from snipers and mortar teams.
The retreat came at a time when the American military was being forced to defend itself in light of the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib and of an air attack on Wednesday near in the Syrian border in which 41 people were killed. On Friday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Beirut and Bahrain against the American presence in the Shiite holy areas.
Before withdrawing, the Americans attacked the school northeast of the Shrine of Abbas with tanks and called in an AC-130 to pound the area. The gunship also shot up a building immediately south of the shrine believed to be the headquarters of Hamza al-Tai, the local leader of the Mahdi Army. At least 21 people were killed in the attacks, helping to lay the foundation for the overture by the sheiks and the apparent withdrawal by the militia, officers said.
"The tribal leaders were going to make a public announcement in the media to tell the Mahdi Army to lay down their arms and leave the city," Colonel Bishop said after the meeting with the sheiks on Saturday.
Hundreds of American soldiers with Task Force 1-37 moved into Camp Lima on the city outskirts on the weekend of May 1. Then in the early hours of May 5, the task force began its first big assault, going down Governor's Street in the Mukhaiyam neighborhood and opening fire on suspected insurgent strongholds. That signaled to the insurgents that the Americans had arrived.