Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Soldiers of Heaven and the army that couldn't shoot straight:

I'm still not buying what I'm hearing and reading about this battle the Iraqi army got into with the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven" near Najaf on Sunday. Besides the ridiculously inflated body counts, there's the matter of who these people and their leader actually were --or if he's even alive or not -- and whether the Iraqi army fought courageously or were almost wiped out by their blundering into the fight in the first place. No one even knows how many fighters of the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven" there really were. I heard a report on NPR yesterday which quoted the Iraqis saying they killed more fighters than other reports claimed were actually involved in the fight. The whole thing is very sketchy, if you ask me.

Two days later, news articles in the both the WaPo and NYT highlight the confusion about what was by all accounts a pretty hot engagement. Marc Santora in the NYT reports that the leader of the "cult" was a man named Ahmed Hassan al-Yamani, but who was in actuality Diyah Abdul Zahraa Khadom. "However," Santora writes, "a Shiite cleric who has contact with the group said that the real leader is Ahmad bin al Hassan al-Basri. The cleric said that Mr. Basri was still alive and probably hiding near Karbala." The WaPo, on the other hand, reports that the Iraqi government is saying the leader is, or was, someone called Samar Abu Kamar. The Iraqi government and the U.S. military are so sure this battle was a brilliant victory, yet they can't agree on who was really behind this supposed plot to kill every cleric in Najaf or whether they even killed him or not.

Yesterday, there was even confusion about whether the Soldiers of Heaven were Sunnis or Shiites or a combination of the two. Naturally, some in the Iraqi government were quick to point the finger at al-Qaeda, but the NYT reports "numerous Shiite clerics, seeking anonymity for fear of contradicting the government, said . . . [that] was highly unlikely." The WaPo reports that Iraq's minister of national security, Shirwan al Wahli "said the structure of the groups was Shiite, but that it involved Sunni fights and that: 'based on the level of training, support and financing, it obviously has received support from outside Iraq.'" And you know what that means; it's either Saddam's dead-enders or the Iranians. In either case, it's not our fault.

While the some Iraqis were hatching absurd excuses to divert attention away from any hint that Shiites were attempting to kill other Shiites, the WaPo writes that U.S. military officials and other Iraqi officials were characterizing the Iraqi army's "attack" on the cult as "a positive signal that the Iraqi security forces were able to lead a major battle and were willing to target extremists from the same Muslim sect that runs the central government."

W. has bought into this line telling Juan Williams on NPR that the Iraqi army's great "victory" is "an indication of what is taking place, and that is the Iraqis are beginning to take the lead. So my first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something."

That contention is highly dubious. I'm sure W. would love to spin the battle as the Iraqis -- who they just recently turned over security to in Najaf Province -- finally standing up so we can stand down, but the truth appears to be far from that. Santora in the NYT writes that the reality is that "Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed . . . and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday. They said American ground troops -- and not just air support as reported Sunday -- were mobilized to help Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the militia." Imagine that! "'This group had more capabilities than the government', said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf Province." [That's a real shocker!]

So U.S. Army Colonel Michael Garrett's contention that the Iraqi soldier's performance was "impressive" is just a load of bull? It would seem so. Equally unimpressive was how the Iraqi security forces (and I use that term loosely) allowed such a large and well equipped force set up shop just ten miles from Najaf and not notice anything amiss. The mind boggles. [These are the people we're sending 21,000 more troops to fight along side of?]

Santora in the NYT writes that the Soldiers of Heaven had set up an "elaborate encampment, which Iraqi officials said included tunnels, trenches and a series of blockades. . . After the fight was over, Iraqi officials said they discovered at least two anti-aircraft weapons as well as 40 heavy machine guns." The WaPo reports that at a press conference Abtan, "said the fighters were able to amass vehicles and weapons under the pretext that they were moving building materials destined for the Najaf airport, which is under construction." Anti-aircraft guns at an airport? Of course, they're essential to the construction of any airport. Everyone knows that.

Well, in any case, it was a victory for the ages and whether it was 139 Soldiers of Heaven killed or "more than 400," the Iraqis are now clearly able to defend themselves from terrorist threats both domestic and foreign. I say W. should declare victory -- again -- and bring the troops home.


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