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Cleric’s Militia Has Surprised American Forces

Times Staff Writer

They’re a ragtag team of about 1,000 young, impoverished men who sometimes shoot one another by accident or stick machine guns out windows and spray the area without looking.

Yet they’ve also set up clever ambushes, demonstrated surprising resilience and executed defensive maneuvers that have impressed the U.S. military.

After a week of butting heads with Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi army, U.S. military authorities tasked with capturing or killing the Shiite Muslim cleric call his militia a mix of sophistication and amateurism.

“They are prepared. They are bold. And they are willing to fight,” said Army Maj. Rick Heyward, 38, of the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, which has clashed with the militia twice in the last week. “But they’re undisciplined and don’t have our training.”

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The vast majority of Sadr’s militiamen are unemployed and are inspired by the cleric’s anti-American rhetoric and calls to end the occupation of Iraq.

“They’re mostly thugs,” said Col. Dana Pittard, commander of the newly created task force in Najaf. “A lot are young kids who are in it just for the thrill.”

Soldiers who have faced the militia in street battles say fighters frequently lose control of their weapons or fail to aim carefully.

“We call it spray and pray,” said Capt. Sean Stinchon, 29, of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry. “They don’t even use the scopes.”

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Stinchon and other officers, awaiting the resolution of negotiations over the U.S. military’s standoff with the cleric, got a firsthand look at his militia’s questionable marksmanship Tuesday when their six-vehicle convoy was forced by rocket-propelled grenade fire to cross a bridge over the Euphrates River and race through the town of Kufa.

As the U.S. forces sped the wrong way down a busy commercial street at 50 mph, about 50 Sadr followers fired machine guns and AK-47s. None of the soldiers was hit.

“We should have been dead,” Heyward said.

Because the attackers positioned themselves across the street from one another, some appeared to have shot their own men as well as hitting bystanders, U.S. soldiers said. Eight civilians were killed in the fighting.

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Sadr also has assembled a core of experienced security professionals who consider themselves holy fighters. Some were groomed at a special Sadr training camp, military officials said.

This group, believed to number about 100, provides Sadr’s personal protection and helps plan strategies, according to military intelligence reports.

They move the cleric frequently between locations in Najaf and neighboring Kufa. They’ve positioned themselves in the mosques, which they know the U.S. is loath to attack. They bury weapons in the cemetery and drive in stolen police cars, military officials said.

Although Sadr has publicly claimed to be pulling back from his positions in the cities, military officials have observed his forces tightening their hold, setting up fighting positions in key buildings in preparation for a U.S. invasion.

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On Friday, U.S. officials left a five-hour battle with more respect for the militia members, who after nearly four hours of heavy bombing continued to hold their position inside a palm grove next to Kufa.

Unlike insurgents who attack from afar with mortars or improvised explosive devices, Sadr’s forces maintained their grip on a building in the grove, using a water tower as a lookout post to help launch counterattacks.

“This was not just an ambush,” said Maj. Mike Davies, 40. “It was a defense. They got into prepared fighting positions.”

After several hours of fighting, the militiamen fell silent, lulling the U.S. soldiers. Then the Sadr followers struck with a rocket-propelled grenade, wounding two soldiers.

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When U.S. forces finally captured the building housing Sadr’s forces, they climbed on the roof and saw scores of reinforcements crossing the river to continue the battle. The U.S. forces decided to withdraw.

“These guys are different from the enemy we’ve seen in other parts of Iraq,” said Capt. Chris Budihas, who fought against the militia in the ambushed convoy last week.

He also said the militiamen appeared to be learning from their mistakes. When the military vehicles escaped ambush Tuesday, Sadr’s followers repositioned themselves so they could fire from the rear. They struck again Friday, setting a tank on fire and critically wounding a U.S. soldier.

“They’re getting smarter,” Budihas said.

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But they continued to make rookie mistakes.

Three Sadr followers were captured Friday when their car got stuck in the sand.

In the shirt pocket of one man was a document saying he was a French journalist. But he also was carrying an invoice for weapons for the Al Mahdi army, diagrams for making homemade bombs and a picture of Sadr.


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