Iraq

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Iraqi soldiers attacked a group of militants near the holy city of Najaf, leading to heavy fighting yesterday. As many as 300 militants were killed. The battle lasted some 15 hours and involved U.S. tanks and aircraft near the Shiite city, which is south of Baghdad. During the fighting, a U.S. attack helicopter was shot down, killing two Americans on board.

We go now to the BBC's Andrew North, who is in Baghdad. Hello.

Mr. ANDREW NORTH (BBC): Hi there. Good morning.

MONTAGNE: This fighting is described as some of the fiercest since the U.S.-led invasion nearly four years ago. And of course the big news is it involved so many Iraqi troops. Tell us more about it.

Mr. NORTH: Well, that's right. This was an Iraqi-led operation and in fact in Najaf the Iraqis are now in the lead. The Americans handed over responsibility there last month. And so essentially it was Americans providing support for this Iraqi army operation.

It was focused around some orchards north of the city of Fatah, and we hear from a variety of different sources this was very heavy fighting. The gunmen appeared to be very well armed, but they were subjected to a sustained attack by Iraqi soldiers, but also by U.S. helicopter gunships from the air. Also, U.S. tanks were involved. And this is why Iraqi police, Iraqi army are saying the casualties were very high.

MONTAGNE: Is it known who these militants were?

Mr. NORTH: There are still a lot of questions over this. Now, the Iraqi police - the governor's office down in Najaf - say that they were members of a previously unknown group, the Army of Heaven. They're describing it as some kind of - almost a religious cult, and they say that they were plotting to carry out attacks on key Shia clerics in Najaf. But others say there's still some question, some lack of clarity over exactly who this group of gunmen were.

MONTAGNE: And you say that the concern was they were going to attack some Shiite clerics. Is that what triggered the fighting?

Mr. NORTH: This is what Iraqi officials are saying to us, that they decided to launch this attack because of concerns that they could launch this operation. There would obviously be real concern that if there was any successful attack on some of the most senior clerics, that could trigger serious violence. The leading Shia authority is in Najaf, so they're saying that was their concern.

I think also we were hearing reports that these gunmen may also be trying to attack pilgrims who are gathering for the annual Ashoura(ph) mourning festival.

MONTAGNE: Which is an important holy day for Shiites.

Mr. NORTH: That's correct. And it's culminating today and tomorrow. This is the annual 10 days of mourning, the most important time in the calendar for Shia Muslims when they mourn the passing of Imam Mahdi, who was the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, and really it goes back to that time that the split between Shias and Sunnis developed.

MONTAGNE: Now, is this battle something of a turning point for the Iraqi troops? Did the Iraqi troops in any sense prove themselves to be battle worthy?

Mr. NORTH: Well, certainly that's what the Iraqi authorities are keen to display, that this was an Iraqi-led operation and they are saying that they have put an end to quite a serious threat. I have to say, there are still a lot of issues here that are unanswered. We're still not entirely sure why American support was needed for this operation; why indeed nothing was launched earlier. We're talking about quite a large number of gunmen, from the reports that we have been given. So some questions still there, but the Iraqis certainly keen to show that they are taking control in this province where they are now in the lead.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. NORTH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: The BBC's Andrew North, speaking to us from Baghdad.

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