- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

12:08 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said today that U.S.-backed Iraqi troops had targeted a religious group called the Jund al-Samaa, or Soldiers of Heaven, in a weekend battle that left 200 fighters dead, including the group’s leader, near the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf. Two U.S. soldiers also were killed when their helicopter crashed during the fighting.

The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said the raid yesterday in date-palm orchards on the city’s outskirts was against the group, which appeared to have had links to Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters. Officials said the group was hoping to force the return of the “hidden imam,” a ninth-century Shi’ite saint who Shi’ites 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 for the death toll. Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the commander of the 8th Division, which is in charge of Najaf, said 150 had been captured; Mr. al-Askari put that figure at 120.

The fighting began yesterday and ended today. Iraqi security forces frisked suspects while others patrolled elsewhere on the battlefield in a mopping-up operation.

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

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

Gen. al-Ghanemi said the army captured about 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, also known as Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb or Abu Qamar al-Yamani. He was wearing a coat, hat and jeans and was carrying two pistols, Gen. al-Ghanemi said.

The commander 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.

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