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Damage in Najaf a sign of challenges for US

NAJAF, Iraq -- The scars of war line every vista leading to the gold dome of the Shrine of Ali. Fire has blackened hotel facades, shells have punched through apartment buildings, and bombs have leveled rows of shops in the normally bustling warren of streets around Iraq's most revered Shi'ite mosque.

After tank fire, air attacks, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades pounded Najaf's Old City for three weeks last month, the job of clearing the rubble, repairing the damage, and rebuilding all that was destroyed will cost $500 million, Najaf officials say. The devastation will paralyze the economy, which is dependent on pilgrims from Iran and around the region, for at least several months.

Nonetheless, US commanders, who led the assault on the area to drive rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militiamen out of the shrine and other civilian buildings they commandeered, are touting the battle of Najaf as a success story -- a blueprint for winning control of other "no-go" zones in Iraq.

US commanders have praised Marines in Najaf for using only as much force as needed, said Marine Staff Sergeant Jason Smith as he rode past the skeletons of Old City buildings last week in a US convoy that drew smiles and waves from some Najafis even as they worked to clear away the rubble.

"They'd like to see the same thing in other engagements," he said.

But even a success as ugly and imperfect as this one may be hard to achieve in other trouble spots in Iraq, such as Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, and Baqubah, where the US-backed interim government has vowed it will drive out insurgents in time to hold elections by the end of January.

Najaf is uniquely tolerant of the US presence compared with other Iraqi cities. Oppressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein and long open to outsiders because of the pilgrim trade, it welcomed the US invasion last year without a fight. Many residents look down on Sadr and his followers as Baghdad-based rabble without the proper respect for Najaf's senior Shi'ite clerics.

Given that US forces had to inflict such destruction on a relatively friendly city to dislodge a militia the locals wanted out, commanders are loath to predict how they'll handle cities like Fallujah where large segments of the population actively back the insurgents and virtually everyone wants US troops off their streets.

Even in Najaf, the amount of destruction adds to the challenges facing a US reconstruction effort that had already been slowed since April because clashes with Sadr's forces hampered US troops' ability to work in the city. Repairing the damage also adds to the costs at a time when the Bush administration is seeking approval from a skeptical Congress to divert more than $3 billion of the $18.4 billion slated for Iraqi reconstruction to security improvements amid increasing violence.

Majid Jebreen, an aide to Najaf's provincial governor, made clear he would hold the United States and the Iraqi government responsible for the cleanup.

"There have been promises from the central government and from the coalition forces, and we hope they will live up to all of these promises," he said at his office, surrounded by high concrete blast walls. "This city is central for the Islamic world and for Iraqis."

Jebreen said that rebuilding would cost at least $500 million, and that Allawi had recently pledged $50 million.

US officials said they could not provide figures for how much new US money would be allocated to fixing the battle damage. Staff Sergeant Randy Heffner of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit said $6.5 million in projects has been approved since the end of the fighting, but much of it is for things planned before the battle, such as rebuilding schools, hospitals, electricity substations, and other facilities neglected under the previous regime.

A total of $65 million in US funds is slated for Najaf. But the bulk has not yet been spent, a senior coalition military official said. So far, $12 million has been used to complete 176 projects, and another 109 projects worth $19.5 million are in progress.

Najaf merchants had already taken heavy losses this year as the clashes dampened the pilgrim trade.

Despite the magnitude of the battle damage, Talal Bilal, another aide to the governor, said he was not angry with the US military. He said there was no other way to dislodge Sadr's militia.

"We tried 100 ways and we failed," Bilal said, as several Marine officers, escorting reporters around the city, stood nearby.

Najaf's police force was too weak to do the job, Bilal said. In addition, other Shi'ite political groups, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had set a precedent under which nongovernment groups routinely intimidated people with guns and surveillance.

In April, Sadr's forces attacked police stations in Najaf as part of an uprising in several cities around Iraq. Most police fled. US forces battled Sadr's troops, killing hundreds, but the militia never really relinquished control of the city until after September's battle.

After US troops fought their way to within hundreds of yards of the shrine, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior cleric, stepped in to broker a truce under which Sadr's forces left unscathed.

Another intervention by Sistani might not be forthcoming in other cities, since he stepped in largely to save the shrine.

Marines gave a detailed description of the battle that suggests how hard it might be to take other cities where insurgents have had months to entrench.

Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Middleton said his explosives ordnance disposal team found 367 roadside bombs during and after the fighting, many of them planted over months in and around the Old City and the sprawling cemetery outside it.

"They had fallback positions on every avenue, covered by [improvised explosive devices] and small-arms fire," he said. "They had almost a year to prepare. They basically kicked civilians out of the Old City."

The militia had stockpiled 18,000 rounds of heavy-caliber machine gun ammunition. Four 7-ton truckloads of munitions were found after the fighting inside a parking garage directly across from the shrine. A bomb weighing nearly 3,000 pounds was found at a key intersection.

The conflict erupted on Aug. 2, the Marines say, when a security patrol came under fire near the school. Sadr's spokesmen say aggressive patrols near his house provoked the attacks.

What's not in dispute is that on Aug. 5, Sadr's forces attacked a police station in downtown Najaf. The police called for help from the Marines. Staff Sergeant Smith's platoon was called in, along with five light armored vehicles and 16 Humvees.

As they approached a main intersection near the old city, they came under fire from small arms.

Suddenly, Smith said, "You looked out at the graveyard and there was a sea of people. The whole place was moving."

Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades rained down. The Marines fought back with equally heavy weapons. That began the three-week battle.

This time, the Marines say, the police did much better, actively fighting back and confiscating enemy weapons -- unlike in April, when they handed over their own weapons to the militia.

Still, the city paid a heavy price. Hundreds were killed.

Bilal said he's not afraid Sadr will come back, even if Iraqi police still are not as strong as Najaf residents would like.

"He is weak now," Bilal said.

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