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NAJAF

In vast cemetery, the battle can be waged tombstone to tombstone

NAJAF, Iraq -- The platoon leader's call came crackling over Charlie Company radios: ''We're taking RPG fire, 800 meters! Small-arms fire, 300 meters!"

With night falling, the soldiers of the First Cavalry Division were being attacked again by militants creeping tombstone by tombstone toward them in Najaf's sprawling cemetery, a killing field neither side has managed to secure in more than a week of sporadic fighting.

''You have to give them credit," Sergeant First Class Mike Dewilde said after a brief firefight with insurgents Thursday in a cemetery zone the military has code-named the Bronx. ''They do an amazing amount with what little they have."

The men of the First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment had been patrolling a dusty road that cuts into the graveyard's heart for eight hours to prevent militants loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr from moving north.

They had found and blown up four bombs laid on rock-strewn paths. They'd been attacked by mortars that came close but hurt nobody.

When pockets of Sadr fighter's got too close, they called in Apache helicopter gunships and pressed forward with only the faintest resistance, then pulled back.

Mostly, it was quiet, and Charlie Company commander Captain Patrick McFall spent a lot of time gazing over a computerized satellite map of the graveyard in his armored Humvee.

Near dusk, however, the crackle of gunfire and explosions rang out again.

Several Bradley fighting vehicles and half a dozen Humvees sped up to a deserted intersection on the cemetery's northeastern edge, scanning the tombstone-filled horizon with binoculars and gun turrets.

Dewilde, leader of the Third Platoon, told McFall eight men with rocket-propelled grenades and ''multiple snipers" had been spotted in the graveyard and buildings rising behind it near the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine.

US commanders are under strict orders to avoid damaging the shrine for fear of enraging Iraq's Shi'ite majority and Shi'ites worldwide.

For that reason, they maintain positions in the cemetery about 800 yards away.

Sergeant Lyle Pete, 24, of Gardnerville, Nev., said he'd seen three men repeatedly firing from a building near the shrine. ''They jump out and fire RPGs and jump back inside," he said.

''This is the second time today we've taken RPG-fire from that location," said 30-year-old McFall of Harker Heights, Texas.

With the crackle of light gunfire echoing through the graveyard, a mortar round thundered behind the men, then an RPG round exploded to their front. Smoke rose from the blasts.

A small infantry unit of about 15 men scrambled forward looking for firing positions. Some lay in the middle of a small path leading south.

A Bradley positioned in the road started pumping thunderous rounds from its 25mm cannon, and gunners perched on four machine-gun mounted Humvees began shooting.

A three-man team led by Dewilde ran up the steps of a mausoleum whose square, walled-in concrete roof provided ideal cover. They laid rifles across the upper edge of the wall and began shooting.

''Welcome to the Bronx," McFall joked.

The military has divided the cemetery, one of the largest in the Muslim world, into zones named after Manhattan boroughs.

Tense and sweating, two soldiers started to sing as they looked for targets.

''One little, two little, three little Indians!"

Dewilde cut them off. ''Shut up!"

The two laid an M-240 Bravo machine-gun along the wall and began peeling off bursts of 7.62mm ammunition. ''Hold this!" the shooter yelled, as a second soldier fed in an ammunition belt. Spent shell casings spat into the air.

After a few minutes, orders came to move ahead.

Laden in heavy body armor and helmets, the infantrymen jogged behind their huge Bradley as it pushed further into the cemetery.

Advancing slowly, they ducked behind tombs and poked flashlights mounted on their guns down crypts.

There was no way to know where the militants were.

''The problem is these guys can hide behind anything out here," said Specialist Joel Klootwyk of Knoxville, Iowa, poking a gun over a cemetery wall. ''You gotta wait for them to shoot before you know where they're at."

The Americans' overwhelming firepower has not stopped guerrillas from sneaking up as close to the troops as possible.

When Dewilde ordered his men to head back toward the Bronx, they began poking flashlights into dark tombs again.

Dewilde said his platoon had been searching crypts for four days.

''We've found cigarettes still burning, warm tea still in the cups," he said.

They have also found rockets and ammunition left behind.

As a quiet night set in, the US troops climbed back onto rooftops, surveying the cemetery through the green glow of night-vision goggles.

''You gotta give 'em credit," Dewilde said. ''They got guts."

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