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At Least 200 Militants Killed in Battle near Najaf

January 29, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Borzou Daragahi, welcome. There was a major battle in Najaf yesterday, some 200 people killed, we hear, and an American helicopter shot down. What happened?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: Well, I should caution that accounts are somewhat contradictory. And in addition to that, rather fantastic, in terms of what happened in Najaf yesterday.

Apparently, there was a Shiite cult holed up in one of the villages in that area. They had stored weapons; they had ammunition; they had food. They even had a makeshift hospital on the premises there, and they had planned an all-out assault on the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

They wanted to take the city, attack the shrine, kill some of the senior clergy, in the belief that this would hasten the coming of the last Shiite sheik that disappeared over a thousand years ago and whose return is to herald a new age of justice.

MARGARET WARNER: And this was to occur right on this very holy day that begins this evening?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It was timed to occur on the 10th of the Muslim lunar month of Muharram, which is the most important time in the Shiite calendar. It is the commemoration of the Imam Hussein, whose death on the field of Karbala created the rift that created the split between the Shiite and Sunni sects.

The role of Iraqi security forces

MARGARET WARNER: So, now how did the Iraqi government or the local governor get wind of this? And how did the battle actually unfold?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: According to officials that we've spoken to, this group had been infiltrated as many as 10 days before this event, and they suspected something was up. And they launched a preemptive attack of some sort on the group.

They were initially repelled, the Iraqi security forces, overwhelmed by the sophistication of the militant group and the weapons they had, as well as their level of organization. They ultimately called for Iraqi and U.S. support.

That's when the helicopters came. One of them was shot down. The U.S. possibly sensing that this was a very, very well-armed group, well-organized group, at that point, according to Iraqi officials, called for ground support, armored vehicles, tanks, artillery perhaps, and definitely air strikes with fighter jets.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said this was a Shiite cult or group, yet the governor was quoted as having said yesterday, well, Sunnis were actually -- Sunni fighters were deeply involved. Have you been able to unravel that?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: We've had a difficult time being able to unravel that, and I think you make a really good point. These reports are preliminary, and we should be cautious.

At this point, because of the sensitivity of what's happening in Iraq, and because of our inability to get direct access to certain locales, we're not exactly sure. The government definitely has a motive, if they were, in fact, Sunni insurgents, in saying that they weren't Sunni insurgents, because that might prompt an escalation of the ongoing sectarian civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: Najaf was actually turned over to Iraqi security officials in December. What do U.S. and Iraqi officials, now that you've spoken to, think this incident says, and the need to call in the U.S. forces yesterday, about the ability of Iraqi security forces to handle security on their own?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: U.S. officials have been very hush about this particular incident. They released a press release finally today in which they praised the Iraqi security forces, saying that they fought hard and they fought fiercely against this militant group.

Now, from what we understand, however, the local Iraqi security forces were being routed pretty much, were being beaten, until they called for support from a nearby province, the famed Scorpion Brigade in the province of Babil.

They came, and they're known as sort of a rapid reaction SWAT team, and they helped turn the tide of the battle. And according to every Iraqi official that we talked to, really what changed the tide of the battle was the U.S. air support, the air strikes.

Fabric of society 'coming apart'

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
It speaks to the desperation and devastation of the country and just how afraid people are that they're turning to many would-be cult leaders, like this guy who apparently said he was an incarnation of the Imam Ali.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say that these events have a broader significance in political terms?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I don't know about political terms. Almost in social terms, we've been actually tracking these messianic Shiite cults for some months now, watching somewhat amused in the past before this event with reports about such groups.

I think it speaks to the desperation and devastation of the country and just how afraid people are that they're turning to many would-be cult leaders, like this guy who apparently said he was an incarnation of the Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. And they believed the guy, and they were following him to his doomsday scenario.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think it says anything about Shiite unity or lack thereof?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think the whole country is fragmenting. It's really interesting. It seems like the whole fabric of the society is coming apart.

The senior clergy don't have as much influence as they used to have. The government doesn't have as much influence as it used to have, neither local nor national. It seems like the tribal structure is breaking down. And so you're going to get these alternative forms of authority.

MARGARET WARNER: Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, thank you again.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure.