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Steve Gilliard, 1964-2007

It is with tremendous sadness that we must convey the news that Steve Gilliard, editor and publisher of The News Blog, passed away June 2, 2007. He was 42.

To those who have come to trust The News Blog and its insightful, brash and unapologetic editorial tone, we have Steve to thank from the bottom of our hearts. Steve helped lead many discussions that mattered to all of us, and he tackled subjects and interest categories where others feared to tread.

Please keep Steve's friends and family in your thoughts and prayers.

Steve meant so much to us.

We will miss him terribly.

photo by lindsay beyerstein


When the crazies strike

Missteps by Iraqi Forces in Battle Raise Questions

Published: January 30, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 —Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militia in a weekend battle near the holy city of Najaf and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday.

They said American ground troops — and not just air support as reported Sunday — were mobilized to help the Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the militia, which calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven and had amassed hundreds of heavily armed fighters.

Iraqi government officials said the group apparently was preparing to storm Najaf, a holy city dear to Shiite Islam, occupy the sacred Imam Ali mosque and assassinate the religious hierarchy there, including the revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during a Shiite holiday when many pilgrims visit.

“This group had more capabilities than the government,” said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf Province, at a news conference.

Only a month ago, in an elaborate handover ceremony, the American command transferred security authority over Najaf to the Iraqis. The Americans said at the time that they would remain available to assist the Iraqis in the event of a crisis.

The Iraqis and Americans eventually prevailed in the battle. But the Iraqi security forces’ miscalculations about the group’s strength and intentions raised troubling questions about their ability to recognize and deal with a threat.

The battle also brought into focus the reality that some of the power struggles in Iraq are among Shiites, not just between Shiites and Sunnis. The Soldiers of Heaven is considered to be at least partly or wholly run by Shiites.

Among the troubling questions raised is how hundreds of armed men were able to set up such an elaborate encampment, which Iraqi officials said included tunnels, trenches and a series of blockades, only 10 miles northeast of Najaf. After the fight was over, Iraqi officials said they discovered at least two antiaircraft weapons as well as 40 heavy machine guns.

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