In Najaf, regime's symbols tumble

Troops seek to stress Hussein's loss of control

Most welcome U.S. forces

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAJAF, Iraq - The Army's 101st Airborne Division effectively declared itself in control of this city yesterday, and officers knew just the symbolic act to drive home the point.

The imposing 25-foot-tall statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on horseback with saber drawn had to go. So in late afternoon, the centerpiece of Saddam Circle was blown up, signaling that Hussein's regime was no longer in command of Najaf.

In a gesture meant to signal that the American forces want residents to take responsibility for what happens here, the Americans asked a local opposition figure to detonate the explosives.

"We want you to have the honor of destroying the statue," said Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the division's 1st Brigade.

"Thank you very much," said the man, who would not give his name but said he had joined an underground Shiite movement in 1996. "When they first built this, it was my dream to blow it up."

The force of the C-4 explosives shattered the statue and threw the remains to the foot of its marble pedestal, and drew a crowd of hundreds of boys and men out of their homes and into the traffic circle. The Baath Party headquarters there were already in ruins.

"Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you very much," Sudad Hello, 25, chanted in English, smiling all the while. "Can me go to America?"

Some of the men clambered on the leftovers of the statue, while others began defacing a large mural of Hussein on the side of a nearby building.

One young man walked up to a U.S. soldier, looked him in the eye and said, "Kill Saddam." Mostly, they just grinned and shouted phrases such as, "Americans good!"

The war is far from over, however, and many questions remain about how Iraq will be governed in the future. But for an afternoon, some citizens of Najaf rejoiced in the prospect of greater freedom than they have known.

"I'm very happy to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is a criminal," said Maden Salah, 21. "Security and safety I don't get. The simplest life, I don't get - food, water. I want now freedom."

Others had more materialistic concerns. "Nobody had any satellite television," said 22-year-old Ali Ghalib Salih, pondering what he wanted in the future. "That was prohibited. We don't have any mobile phones." There was also, amid the excitement, a recognition that not all the country's problems will be solved by a change in regime.

"We need a long time to keep peace in Iraq, to get a good government," said Ammar Al-Safi, a 33-year-old computer technician. And he expressed doubt that democracy would take hold. "That's impossible in Iraq - Shia, Sunni, Kurd," he said. "That's impossible mix here in Iraq."

The American military's apparent success in subduing paramilitary forces here and in other cities may have eliminated a threat to the military supply lines that are essential to the push north to Baghdad.

Initially, military planners assumed that cities such as Najaf would pose little problem because of their sizable Shiite populations. The plan was to bypass them. When fedayeen fighters began attacking troops, a decision was made to put pressure on the fighters and the city.

For the last two days, members of the 101st have moved on foot and Humvee through the city, destroying weapons caches and putting on a display of power meant to intimidate the fedayeen and reassure city residents that the Americans were here to help.

"The most important thing is we are finding pockets of resistance because locals are pointing them out to us," Hodges said. "When they see us destroy buildings, that gives them confidence to come out and overthrow the Baath Party and fedayeen who have been kicking their ass for 20 years."

It was a tip from a resident that led Charlie Company of 3rd Battalion to compound with large stores of weapons and ammunition. The haul included 48 rocket-propelled grenades, six crates of ammunition, 12 AK-47s, three gun tripods, 10 crates of grenades.

The compound appeared to have been occupied recently and evacuated quickly. There were fresh eggs, potatoes and beans. Beds appeared recently slept in, clothes scattered. Intelligence officers said they were told eight to 10 people left two hours before U.S. troops got there.

Without the tip, the troops probably would not have thought to enter the compound.

Neighbors also pointed troops to similar caches in school buildings.

"I am amazed at how much stuff we found," Hodges said.

Troops fanned out across the city yesterday at dawn. They carried battering rams and axes but purposely passed by most houses. Only when something looked suspicious or when helicopter pilots spotted weapons did they sweep inside. Some gunfire was exchanged with snipers, and at least one Iraqi was killed. No one in the battalion was injured.

For the most part, what soldiers encountered on the dusty roads were smiles, waves and thumbs-up from curious residents. A little boy gave one soldier a flower and five pieces of chewing gum.

Officers seemed attuned to the need to limit civilian damage. When weapons were found in a school next to a mosque, Lt. Col. Ed Palekas urged extreme caution to avoid damaging the mosque.

Yet some residents were not convinced of the Americans' intentions. One man, who gave his name only as Abdul, said people want assurances that the United States will not abandon Iraqis as happened after the gulf war.

"They are sure you are here to save them," he said. "But they hesitate because they are not safe because of what happened in 1991. They remember 1991."

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