Large Muslim cemetery becomes battlefield in Iraq

Thursday, August 12, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq -- Unexploded rockets stick out of tombstones. Booby-trapped artillery shells lie buried on narrow lanes lined with crypts. Guerrilla fighters hide in a vast sea of pockmarked graves filled with underground tunnels, letting loose with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire.

One of the largest cemeteries in the Muslim world has become an eerie battleground for U.S. troops who have fought Shiite guerrillas for nearly a week in Najaf. For dozens of Iraqis and a handful of Americans, it's also become a graveyard.

"It's bad luck, but we gotta do what we gotta do," Staff Sgt. Jose Resto said Wednesday while walking behind a Bradley fighting vehicle in the Valley of Peace cemetery, cradling an M-4 carbine as explosions echoed in the distance.

Hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- are buried in the graveyard, which covers nearly 5 square miles sprawling out from the outskirts of the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest in Shia Islam.

Early Wednesday, a convoy of 18 Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles carrying 97 men from the 1st Cavalry Division -- whose soldiers write their blood types on their helmets in case they are wounded -- rolled up to a low wall on a deserted street outside the cemetery.

Almost immediately, they started fighting al-Sadr's men.

The soldiers climbed to the top of a blown-out single-story tomb and shot briefly at insurgent positions in buildings on the cemetery's far side, with Bradleys adding fire from their automatic cannon.

"Target destroyed," a voice crackled over the radios.

"Never in my life would I have expected we'd be fighting in a graveyard," said the company commander, Capt. Patrick McFall, 30. "Every day I think about the families whose loved ones are buried here."

Dirt paths crisscross the cemetery, which is filled with heavy tombs, some made of concrete, others of brick. Some have rounded brown clay domes with Arabic inscriptions. The more elaborate tombs feature green and blue domes, locked doors, even stairs that lead to underground rooms. Framed black and white photographs of the dead hang inside caged, turquoise crypts.

The graveyard is so congested many tombs sit side by side, some inches apart, some leaning into each other.

For guerrilla fighters, it's a perfect place to hide.

"You can hear 'em, but you can't see 'em," McFall said. "They're hiding down in the catacombs. All you hear is 'phsssst'," he said, mimicking the sound of a passing bullet.

As parts of McFall's company pushed slowly south, it crossed narrow, sandy lanes strewn with rocks and bullet casings. Some were so narrow, tombstones scratched the sides of the Bradleys.

Two rocket-propelled grenades whooshed overhead, exploding nearby.

None of the soldiers flinched.

"We've been out here a few days," said Pvt. Henry Salice, 24. "This is an eerie place. ... You get used to it."

Soldiers found a roadside bomb: an artillery shell in the road and wires leading away from it. They blew it up.

Later, al-Sadr militiamen started firing mortars, sending up gray plumes of smoke across the skyline. One round slammed into a tomb 10 yards from McFall, shaking his armored Humvee. No one was injured.

On Tuesday, U.S. helicopter gunships had pummeled a multistory hotel 400 yards from the cemetery with rockets, missiles and 30 mm cannons. The military said about 20 people were killed inside the building.

By Wednesday, more militants were in the scorched building, firing at the Americans.

"We keep pushing south and they just keep coming," McFall said. "I think they got a reproduction facility down there. I think they're cloning."

A Bradley in front of McFall began pounding the charred building with a 25 mm cannon, sending up sparks and blasting away chunks of concrete. The hotel's roof soon caught fire -- soldiers said from either fuel or weapons caches -- darkening the sky with smoke.

Resto, the sergeant, said that when his Bradley unit swept through tombs this week, they found some tunnels and collapsed them with fragmentation grenades.

"We don't risk American lives," he said. "When we see there are tunnels, we throw down grenades."

On Wednesday, he searched one crypt with a blue door. It was empty when he examined it on Tuesday, but now he found empty cans, water basins and RPG boosters. "Somebody crept back in there overnight," he said.

Later, Resto and several other U.S. soldiers sat against the light green wall of a mausoleum, eating military rations and discussing the wisdom of war and whether George W. Bush or John Kerry would make a better president.

Two rocket-propelled grenades whooshed overhead, exploding nearby.

None of the soldiers flinched.

"We've been out here a few days," said Pvt. Henry Salice, 24. "This is an eerie place. ... You get used to it."

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