AN-NAJAF, Iraq -- Armed with a 9mm handgun and grit, Haidar is trying to do what the U.S. military camped nearby hasn't done: Drive the gunmen of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from this holy city.
Since mid-April, Haidar and scores of other men from An-Najaf have gathered nightly in the city's sprawling cemetery to attack members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Only a few gunmen are targeted each time to prevent big firefights that might injure civilians, said Haidar, who spoke with Knight Ridder on the condition that his last name not be used.
``If we capture them and they swear on the holy Koran they will leave Najaf and never come back, we let them go,'' the 20-year-old furniture maker said. ``If they resist, they are killed.''
The group claimed to have killed at least a half-dozen Mahdi gunmen and chased off more than 20.
Before joining Thul Fiqar, Haidar said he had shot his 9mm handgun only once and that was into the air to celebrate the capture of Saddam.
Yet the men have a major tactical advantage over Mahdi members, many of whom are from nearby Al-Kufah, Baghdad and other southern towns. Thul Fiqar fighters are hometown boys who know every inch of An-Najaf, including the hundreds of pathways in the cemetery, which is the largest Muslim burial ground in the world. This cemetery is where they have concentrated their attacks against Sadr's gunmen, who go there at night to monitor U.S. troop movements in the distance.
The immediate impact is negligible, Haidar admitted. Mahdi Army numbers in and around An-Najaf are estimated in the thousands, compared with the 250 claimed by the Thul Fiqar. Their quest also comes at a high price. Four members of the new group have been killed in firefights with the Mahdi Army, said Hashim, 27, a Thul Fiqar leader who refused to give his last name.
``The Americans made us happy when they got rid of Saddam Hussein,'' Haidar said. ``We're happy to return the favor by getting rid of the Mahdi Army.''
I'm pleased at the depth of detail in this article, which nicely counters the reductio-ad-Iran approach to any news of Iraq (see Dan Darling for a more realistic assessment of Iran's influence).
This is sort of a historical moment for me. Until now, I've never seen an example of modern-day jihad - the violent kind, precipitated by necessity, a true defense of the Faith. These mujahideen are true exemplars. I keep hammering the analogy to Jacksonian warfare because the militant form of jihad is nearly indistinguishable.
The full text of the article has been posted to the UNMEDIA list.