Freeing Najaf: The Smiles and Cheers of Liberated Iraqis Greeted Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in the First Days of April as the Americans Secured the City of an Najaf, Iraq, and Prepared It for Post-Regime Rule
Matise, James, Soldiers Magazine
"FROM the Iraqi people to the soldiers of freedom and peace, we wish you every happiness," read the inscription on an autographed Arabic-language Bible that one Iraqi presented to PFC Eric Tranner, a paralegal assigned to Headquarters and Hqs. Company of the division's 1st Brigade.
"I was pulling security on a convoy, and this man came up to me and gave me the Bible. He spoke really good English," Tanner said. "We talked for about two hours. He didn't want anything from us, he just wanted to talk and say 'thank you.'"
Their discussion ranged from family to the similarities of Christianity and Islam, to visions of an Iraq free of Ba'ath Party tyranny.
As Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled before the coalition forces' attack, the local people were quick to show their gratitude to the soldiers who'd freed them, Tanner said.
"It was an outstanding reception," said PFC Frank Chelkonas, another 101st Abn. Div. soldier. "We've gotten to talk to people who barely understand English, and they accept us with open arms. They're looking for a change, and they're going to get it."
The enemy forces within Najaf were under intense bombing and shelling for about four days, Chelkonas said, and quickly surrendered when U.S. forces assaulted the town.
"Since then, we've been sending out patrols every morning and assisting special forces soldiers in seizing munitions," Chelkonas said. "I expected some pretty fierce resistance, but we encountered almost none."
Najaf has long been considered an important coalition objective, with both strategic and political value. It is a key crossing point over the Euphrates River, and is considered a holy city by the nation's Shiite Muslim majority. Winning the support of Iraq's Shiites was important to defeating the Iraqi army and ensuring the future stability of post-Saddam Iraq, Chelkonas said. So far, winning the hearts and minds of the people seems likely, especially considering the city's former military presence.
On April 3, in a public move to declare the city's liberation, the division blew up a 30-foot-tall statue of Saddam Hussein. For days, as the wreckage of the statue lay broken around its prominent base, Iraqis drove by and honked their horns at the soldiers.
"Good, good, good," one man yelled from his vehicle as he passed the broken statue.
"The people asked us if we'd freed them, and if we're their saviors," SGT Lujan Williams said. "They're really nice people. They thanked us every day."
The citizens of Najaf initially found themselves without running water or power, because both had been knocked out during the fighting, but the locals were able to repair both utilities within days of the city's liberation. Meantime, the U.S. soldiers secured the area to ensure the people remained safe while they collected water.
"Initially, we helped distribute water, but now the operation runs smoothly without our help," said MAJ Brian Winski, executive officer for the 1st Bn., 237th Inf. "Water and food don't seem to be a huge issue. Our main concern is getting the power and civil infrastructure up--to get basic health and human services in place. …