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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005





Part II

Transition to a New Campaign


Chapter 8
Combined Arms Operations in Iraq

 

The 1st Armored Division’s Extension Campaign: April–May 2004

The general cessation of large-scale combined arms operations in the summer of 2003 did not prevent the Coalition from mounting major offensive actions when faced with enemy forces intent on fighting Coalition units and disrupting the overall Coalition project in Iraq. In 2004 threats of this type emerged, taking the form of Sunni Arab insurgent groups and Shia militia forces that asserted political and military authority over specific cities or geographic areas and thus challenged the power of the Coalition and the Iraqi Government. To suppress these serious dangers, the US Army, working with its joint counterparts, other Coalition forces, and the nascent ISF, mounted large offensives that featured combined arms operations. In doing so, the Army displayed its ability to transition quickly from stability missions to high-intensity conventional combat operations that allowed US units to muster all of their advantages in technology, training, and firepower.

The first of these major military challenges arose in April 2004 when the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr launched a general insurrection by his militia force called the Mahdi Army and its related organizations, hereafter referred to as Sadrist forces. This revolt began simultaneously in eastern Baghdad in the Shia neighborhood of Sadr City, and in the Shia-dominated cities of south-central Iraq—Karbala, An Najaf, Kufa, and Al Kut. Al-Sadr’s rise to power began after the toppling of the Saddam regime. In the chaos that followed, al-Sadr had set up his own power structure in Sadr City, filling the governmental vacuum. At various times in 2003, the cleric had spoken openly about establishing his own theocratic government in the huge slum. Beginning in the summer of 2003, the Coalition had forged an uneasy truce with al-Sadr, although Coalition leaders had come close to arresting al-Sadr in August 2003 for complicity in the April 2003 murder of rival cleric Abd-al-Majid al-Khoei.

The fragile truce began unraveling on 10 October 2003 when a large group of al-Sadr’s supporters ambushed a unit from the 2d ACR in Sadr City, killing two American troopers and wounding several others. This attack caused a standoff between Coalition forces and the Mahdi Army, but the conflict slowly cooled over the next several months. However, in the spring of 2004, when al-Sadr’s forces began taking over mosques in An Najaf and Kufa, leaders in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and CJTF-7 lost their remaining patience. In this tense environment, al-Sadr personally called for civil disorder and when his newspaper, al-Hawza, reprinted the appeal, Coalition authorities shut it down and on 3 April 2004 arrested one of al-Sadr’s senior aides, Mustafa al-Yacoubi. This arrest sparked violence in Sadr City and attacks by Mahdi Army militiamen on local Iraqi Government buildings, Iraqi police stations, and CPA offices in An Najaf province.

The already tense relations between the Mahdi Army and Coalition forces had crossed an invisible line. Despite US intentions, many Shia Iraqis had, by the spring of 2004, began to believe the Americans had stripped them of the freedoms they had been promised. The resulting frustration, anger, and resentment spilled over into open revolt. Major George Sarabia, who served in Sadr City in April 2004 as the executive officer of 2d Squadron, 2d ACR, described this climate:

You had the crackdown on the newspaper, the al-Hawza newspaper, so it cannot be produced. . . . Then we arrested Mustafa al-Yacoubi, one of the key lieutenants of Muqtada al-Sadr, with perhaps the intent of going after Sadr himself. Who knows? Certainly, Sadr didn’t know. But there’s the perception, and the perception becomes the reality. So now, Sadr looks like he’s getting fenced in. His newspaper’s been shut down; one of his key lieutenants has been arrested. Who knows what this lieutenant is saying in terms of this indictment against Muqtada al-Sadr for the killing of the [al-Khoei]. . . . And so tensions are rising.31

The tensions boiled over on 4 April 2004 when Mahdi Army militiamen attacked an American convoy in Sadr City, killing 7 Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division (1st CAV), 1 Soldier from the 1st AD, and wounding 52 others. At the same time, Sadrist forces surrounded the CPA compound in An Najaf and demanded the release of Mustafa al-Yacoubi. Mahdi Army militiamen also moved against Coalition forces far to the south in An Nasiriyah, took control of a radio station in Al Kut, and began assembling in the town of Karbala. To Paul Bremer, the CPA chief, it appeared that Muqtada al-Sadr was making a “straight-forward power grab.”32

In response, Bremer and Lieutenant General Sanchez began moving decisively. The multinational units that had responsibility for the southern Shia cities—the Spanish, Salvadorans, and Ukrainians—were few and not prepared to act quickly against the uprising. Sanchez determined that these forces needed assistance from the heavier and more powerful US Army and tasked the 1st AD to respond. In many ways, the timing of the uprising occurred at a bad moment for the 1st AD. The division had begun the redeployment process and approximately one-third of its force had already been cycled out of Iraq with some units already in Kuwait and Germany. The units from 1st AD that remained in Iraq were on the verge of transferring authority for their AORs to their replacements. This was especially important for operations in tumultuous Sadr City where the 2d ACR, a unit subordinate to the 1st AD, had been in charge.

After receiving a warning order from CJTF-7 on 4 April, the division commander, Major General Martin Dempsey, acted immediately by ordering Colonel Ralph Baker, the commander of the 1st AD’s 2d BCT, to reinforce Coalition forces facing the Sadrist threat to the south of Baghdad. Baker responded by tasking the 2d Battalion, 6th Infantry (2-6th IN), the brigade reconnaissance troop, and the brigade forward command post to move to An Najaf and support the multinational troops in their defense of Coalition sites in the city. The move of this force represented the first tactical step in the 1st AD’s campaign to suppress the Sadrist revolt in the Shia cities.

As the 2d BCT moved south, Dempsey met with his staff to plan the division’s next move. Without being told explicitly, Dempsey and his staff officers realized Sanchez intended to use their division as the main effort in the destruction of the Sadrist insurrection.33 They based this assumption on the fact that, in April 2004, the 1st AD was Sanchez’s de facto operational reserve. The unit had already begun transferring authority for its AORs and was preparing to leave Iraq, meaning the impressive combat power of the 1st AD was not committed at the time and was the only force available for the campaign.

After declaring the Mahdi Army a hostile force—a term that empowered Coalition forces to engage and destroy Sadrist foces—on 6 April 2004, Sanchez officially halted the 1st AD’s redeployment, ordering the division to move against the Sadrist revolt and to create a theater reserve force to respond to further uprisings that Coalition intelligence feared would arise. Dempsey ordered his commanders to cease all redeployment operations and prepare for combat operations against Sadrist forces.34 This decision entailed the return of Soldiers and equipment from Germany and elsewhere to Iraq, where they could be committed to the new operation. The division commander projected that the campaign against the Sadrist insurrection would take approximately 4 months, and on 9 April Dempsey formally announced to his Soldiers they would remain in Iraq for another 120 days. He told them, “I know you are eager to get home. I am too. But not if it means allowing one thug to replace another. We’ve worked too hard here to watch that happen.”35

With time critical, the 1st AD could not wait to begin operations until all of its forces had returned to Iraq. Dempsey and his staff began to plan for immediate action with the units he had available in early April. In this early stage the division commander established the outline for a broad, multifaceted campaign against the Sadrist revolt based on four lines of operation: combat operations, IO, reestablishment of the ISF, and stability and reconstruction operations. The division would pursue these lines of operation in a “deliberate, patient, and methodical” manner at the operational level. However, at the tactical level, 1st AD’s units would be “aggressive and tenacious” when situations required combat operations.36 These guidelines were the product of 12 months of experience in Baghdad and the critical realization that methodical campaign tempo allowed time for Iraqi political and military authorities to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces in their own way before the Coalition had to use force.

With little intelligence to help flesh out the campaign plan, Dempsey ordered the division into action with the expectation that his units would develop the situation, gather information, and assist him and his staff in creating a more detailed operational plan. The division published that plan, Operation IRON SABRE, 8 days after the uprising began. 1st AD’s operations would become part of the larger Coalition plan called RESOLUTE SWORD. In the interlude during which these plans were finalized, the units of 1st AD traveled great distances with little preparation and entered the fight against a determined foe.

TF Striker in Al Kut: 4–11 April 2004

The vanguard of the 1st AD in IRON SABRE was its 2d BCT. The first elements of this vanguard, the brigade forward command post, TF 2-6th IN—consisting of elements from a mechanized infantry battalion combined with cavalry and antitank units—and the brigade reconnaissance troop departed Baghdad on 4 April and arrived on the outskirts of An Najaf by the morning of 5 April 2004. These elements spent the next 2 days preparing to defend the CPA installations and mounting opposition to Sadrist moves focused on taking over the city. By 7 April the 1st AD staff had received numerous reports of Sadrist forces threatening to take control of Al Kut, a city located approximately 100 miles to the northeast of An Najaf. Al-Sadr’s militia had forced Ukrainian units and the CPA staff out of the CPA compound in Al Kut and had occupied police headquarters and the television and radio station in the city.37 The Ukrainian battalion, Iraqi police, and employees of the private security company Triple Canopy had not been strong enough to hold off the Shia militia. The Ukrainians, in particular, were not armed with heavy weapons and in the skirmishing with Sadrist forces, had run low on ammunition for their small arms.38

On 7 April Major General Dempsey assessed the threat in Al Kut to be more dire than the threat in An Najaf and ordered Colonel Baker, the commander of the 2d BCT, to move his forces in An Najaf to a tactical assembly area on the outskirts of Al Kut. Baker’s force, now designated TF Striker, still consisted of a mechanized infantry battalion, the brigade reconnaissance troop, a cavalry troop, and other support units. This TF arrived at Camp Delta on the western edge of Al Kut on 8 April, placing the Americans on the fringes of a city whose large Shia-dominated population of approximately 380,000 was located in a relatively small geographic area inside a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Tigris River. In fact, as Baker and his staff looked east from Camp Delta toward the heart of Al Kut, they found that the Tigris River separated them from the center of the city, which held the CPA compound and the other locations that would become major objectives in the upcoming action. To cross this major obstacle, the Soldiers of TF Striker would have to make use of the five bridges that led into Al Kut or find another way into the city. The TF staff went to work immediately to make plans to clear the city of Sadrist forces, starting with the recapture of the CPA compound on the western edge of the city, which they called Objective BETTY. The mission statement for the operation made it clear that TF Striker sought not only to seize the CPA compound but also to eliminate the Sadrist threat in Al Kut: “2d BCT attacks to seize Objective BETTY (CPA compound) [to] restore order to the city of Al Kut. [On order], continues offensive operations to destroy remnants of Mahdi’s Army (sic).”39


As the TF staff began to assess the situation in Al Kut, reconnaissance elements reported that Sadrist fighters had clustered near two bridges northeast and east of the city. The TF commander, hoping to avoid these concentrations, planned to send K Troop, 3d Squadron, 2d ACR, to seize and hold three bridges on the west of the city, a move that would place US forces close to the CPA compound. But among the staff, questions arose over whether or not these bridges could support the weight of the heavy armored vehicles in 2-6th IN, the unit designated to be the main effort in the attack. Lieutenant Colonel T.C. Williams, the commander of 2-6th IN, decided to circumvent these bridges completely by entering the city from the northwest and thus catching the Sadrist militiamen occupying the CPA compound by surprise. To do so, however, he had to find an alternative route into that side of Al Kut. After doing a careful analysis of the city and the surrounding area, Williams decided to send Team Dealer, a mechanized company reinforced with M1 Abrams tanks, 21 miles to the west—away from the city—to a bridge that crossed the Tigris River in the town of Namaniyah. Once on the opposite side of the river, the Soldiers in the BFVs and Abrams tanks hoped to find the road leading southeast into Al Kut open and the enemy unaware of their envelopment. To divert the attention of the Sadrist forces from Team Dealer’s approach, Baker planned to use close air support to attack the Sadr Bureau, the enemy headquarters located on the southern side of Al Kut, away from the CPA compound.


The operation to recapture Al Kut began in the middle of the evening on 8 April when Team Dealer left Camp Delta, crossed the Tigris River, and approached the city.40 Once this team was in place just before 0200, TF Striker began its assault by directing two AH-64 Apaches to fire a pair of Hellfire missiles at the Sadr Bureau headquarters. An AC-130 Gunship followed this salvo with multiple volleys from its 105-mm cannons. This attack on the enemy’s command and control center confused the Mahdi Army forces and enabled 2-6th IN to surprise the Sadrist forces on Objective BETTY and secure the CPA compound without much opposition. At roughly the same time, K Troop, 3/2 ACR attacked to seize the three southern bridges over the Tigris. Two of the bridges fell quickly, but enemy fighters offered a tenacious defense on the third. Williams sent M1 tanks and BFVs from the CPA compound to that bridge to overwhelm the Sadrist defenders.41 However, even the firepower of this force did not break the enemy resistance, and Baker decided to call in the AC-130 gunship to destroy the Sadrist forces mounting the defense. While some Shia fighters remained in the city and continued to engage the American units with small arms and RPGs, by dawn these unorganized centers of resistance had been cleared by a combination of direct and indirect fire.42


That morning Coalition forces appeared to have seized the initiative in the city. US forces had recaptured the CPA compound and destroyed the Sadrist headquarters. The Mahdi Army in Al Kut was in disarray and not effectively resisting the Coalition’s overwhelming force. TF Striker estimated they inflicted approximately 50 casualties in the action on the previous night. To keep the pressure on the enemy, the TF commander directed 2-6th IN to seize Objective CAROL, the television and radio station north of the CPA compound, and Objective ELLEN, the local municipal government building. These targets fell quickly, denying the Mahdi Army a means of distributing its propaganda and preparing the way for the Coalition to reestablish the basic economic and governmental infrastructure of the city.43


As 2-6th IN accomplished these tasks, Colonel Baker received some welcome reinforcements. 1st and 3d Squadrons of the 2d ACR, which had spent the previous 12 months conducting operations in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, had left the capital and arrived in the Al Kut area. The addition of these two battalion-size units gave Baker the combat power to eliminate the Sadrist presence in Al Kut. Before the sun set on 9 April, these units had begun operations to secure the bridges over the Tigris River. First Lieutenant Nathaniel Crow, who served as a company executive officer in the 1st Squadron, 2d ACR, recalled that after arriving in the city, the cavalry troopers barely paused before closing with the enemy, “We literally moved from Baghdad to Al Kut, stopped on Camp Delta to refuel, and rolled into the attack. Phil Sheridan probably stood up in his grave and cheered—it was classic cavalry.”44 His squadron cleared an enemy position on the southern edge of Al Kut known as Objective FRAN, and seized the Dawa building, the headquarters of an important Shia political party, which had been taken over by Sadrist forces.

On 10 April, the final day of the operation, TF Striker secured several other buildings in the city and then assessed the results. In 3 days of combat, the American unit had seized control of Al Kut while suffering only a small number of casualties with minor wounds. This did not mean the fighting had not been serious. Crow described the combat as “up close and personal” and noted that the Soldiers of the US cavalry and mechanized infantry units in Al Kut often dismounted from their vehicles to enter buildings and go “nose to nose” with a well-organized enemy.45 Crow summed up his experience in Al Kut by stating, “It alternated between terrifying and inspiring.”46 As determined as the Sadrist fighters were, they relied on hit and run tactics that featured small arms, IEDs, mortars, and RPGs. US forces routinely countered with heavier weapons that included the “Ma Deuce” .50-caliber machinegun and the MK-19 40-mm grenade launcher. When these weapons failed to neutralize the enemy, TF Striker called on fire support from AC-130 gunships, AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters, and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopters. In the 4 days of offensive operations that regained Al Kut for the Coalition, Baker relied on the seasoned combat veterans and superior firepower of his TF to destroy the Mahdi Army in the city. The quick and violent assault on Sadrist forces in Al Kut resulted in 33 militiamen killed, 16 wounded, and 93 prisoners.47

Containing al-Sadr: TF Duke in An Najaf, 13–22 April

When the Sadrist uprising began, CJTF-7 began work on a plan to coordinate units and actions in the Shia-dominated area south of Baghdad. The plan, called Operation RESOLUTE SWORD, became operational on 8 April and imposed order on a confusing command picture in the area of operations, allowing 1st AD and other Coalition units to operate efficiently.48 CJTF-7 created four Joint Operating Areas (JOAs) in the south: JOA SWAMP in the vicinity of Al Kut, JOA IRON between Baghdad and the town of Musayyib, JOA STRIKER around An Najaf, and JOA READY around the city of Karbala. The operation also called for the reinforcement of the 1st AD with units from other areas of Iraq. This decision, which redirected American Soldiers from Mosul and the Sunni heartland to the south, signaled the great amount of concern the Coalition had about the Sadrist threat. As part of the larger operational plan, after TF Striker defeated Sadrist forces in Al Kut on 11 April, Major General Dempsey ordered the force to return to Baghdad, complete its transition of authority with the 1st CAV, and prepare for future combat operations. The 1st and 2d Squadrons of the 2d ACR remained behind in Al Kut to maintain stability.

Although the Coalition had recaptured Al Kut, the situation in An Najaf remained dangerous. An Najaf was a large sprawling city with a population approaching 500,000. As the burial site of the Imam Ali bin Ali Talib, the Fourth Caliph and a key figure in the history of Shiism, the city had served for centuries as the spiritual center for Shia Muslims of all nationalities. Dominating the geography of the city are the Imam Ali Mosque, which houses the shrine to Ali, and the Wadi as-Salam, the largest cemetery in the Islamic world, which covers approximately 6 square kilometers. The smaller city of Kufa, several miles to the northeast of An Najaf on the banks of the Euphrates River, also contains several important Shia shrines and over the centuries became an important center of Islamic scholarship. Given the religious importance of the An Najaf and Kufa, the Coalition could not afford to cede control of this urban complex to Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces.

Lieutenant General Sanchez tasked the 1st ID to send a BCT to An Najaf to reinforce the Honduran battalion, El Salvadoran battalion, and Spanish company there. Major General John Batiste, the 1st ID commander, chose his 3d BCT, then operating near the city of Baqubah in the Sunni Triangle, to be the main force in what the division called Operation DANGER FORTITUDE. The 3d BCT staff finalized the plan for the operation on 9 April, and the brigade immediately began preparing for movement of Soldiers, supplies, and vehicles to An Najaf.49

Batiste assigned the 3d BCT the mission to conduct “offensive operations to defeat [anti-Coalition forces], capture or kill Muqtada al-Sadr, and reestablish order in An Najaf.”50 The 1st ID commander could not commit the entire 3d BCT to that mission, however. Increasing violence in the Sunni Triangle made that course of action impossible. Instead, Batiste worked with CJTF-7 to create a composite brigade-size force called TF Duke, which was built around the 3d BCT headquarters and included TF 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry (TF 2-2), a mechanized battalion TF equipped with BFVs that was normally assigned to the 3d BCT. TF Olympia, the reinforced brigade-size force that had responsibility in the north of Iraq around the city of Mosul provided two more battalions—the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (1-14th IN), a light infantry unit attached to Olympia from the 2d Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, and TF Arrow, a battalion-size composite unit made up of Stryker-equipped companies from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry (5-20th IN), 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry (2-3d IN), and 1st Battalion, 23d Infantry (1-23d IN). In addition, the BCT would deploy to An Najaf with an engineer company, a cavalry troop, an MP company as well as military intelligence, special forces, and logistics detachments.51 The BCT, now rechristened TF Duke, moved by road and air to FOB Duke, approximately 20 kilometers northwest of An Najaf, and prepared to reassert Coalition control over the city.52

The commander of TF Duke, Colonel Dana Pittard, recalled that the movement to An Najaf was a significant challenge. Not only did TF units have to move over 100 miles to reach FOB Duke, but they also faced constant attacks along their route and had to deal with insurgents destroying key bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers on their route.53 Despite the long distances and constant attacks, the move took only 40 hours. Providing critical security during this phase of the operation were the Soldiers of TF Arrow, which escorted the soft-skinned vehicles of the 201st Forward Support Battalion (FSB). During this mission, the battalion encountered blown bridges, land mines, IEDs, and two ambushes, actions which wounded two 1st ID Soldiers and killed a third. The Stryker companies, strategically situated at front, rear, and key points in the middle of the convoy serials, used their vehicular firepower and Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below (FBCB2) digital command and control systems effectively, demonstrating Stryker adeptness in providing convoy security. They proved so effective in this role that the convoy-security support requirement subsequently evolved into a longstanding mission for the 5-20th and other Stryker units.54

On arrival at FOB Duke, TF Duke along with a contingent of Spanish soldiers began isolating and containing Sadrist forces in An Najaf and the nearby city of Kufa. Over the course of the next 10 days, TF Duke suppressed Sadrist attacks and successfully contained al-Sadr’s forces, including Muqtada al-Sadr who had isolated himself and his close advisors in several of the shrines of An Najaf and Kufa. While the TF had prepared plans to enter the city and destroy al-Sadr’s forces, CJTF-7 never ordered the unit to do so. Instead, a standoff ensued as the Coalition gave Iraqi leaders time to solve the crisis without bloodshed. In those 10 days of impasse, Coalition soldiers operated on the periphery of the city, and far away from the religious shrines to avoid fostering unnecessary tension.55


Ghost Riders-Stryker Vehicles in Iraq

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was the first opportunity for the US Army to test its new Stryker family of vehicles in full spectrum operations. The lightly armored, wheeled vehicle served in a multitude of roles between October 2003 and January 2005. Although the Stryker family included a number of versions of the vehicle, the first Stryker Brigade Combat Team to deploy to Iraq, the 3d Brigade, 2d Infantry Division (2d ID) from Fort Lewis, Washington, arrived with the command vehicle and infantry carrier varieties.

After extensive use in patrolling in urban areas, the Stryker quickly gained a favorable reputation among Soldiers for its speed, maneuverability, and relatively quiet operation, making it uniquely suitable for surprise raids and cordon-and-search operations. In fact, some Iraqis in the city of Mosul began calling the Stryker Soldiers “Ghost Riders” because the vehicles were so quiet. However, the Stryker also revealed its vulnerabilities in the face of improvised explosive devices and attacks with rocket propelled grenades. The slat-armor countermeasure, called the “catcher’s mask” for its cage-like appearance around the perimeter of the vehicle, proved to be an adequate solution.

The 3d Brigade, 2d ID also took advantage of the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) digital network that linked all Stryker vehicles. Leaders passed photos, maps, graphic overlays, and other information across that network allowing, for example, enemy positions to be marked on digital maps and disseminated. These capabilities radically reduced the amount of time required to react to information and intelligence. In one case in 2004, the staff of the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry (1-14 CAV), a Stryker-equipped unit operating near Mosul, received intelligence that a high-value target had been seen in their area of responsibility. Within 10 minutes of receiving this information, the staff used the network to send the mission and operational graphics to one of the squadron’s companies which in turn began a cordon and search operation 30 minutes later. Major Joseph Davidson, the executive officer of the squadron in 2004, noted the advantages of the digital network that connected the Strykers, “FBCB2 is a great system. It allows us to dynamically change our mission on the go. A process that would normally take up to an hour or two, I’m doing it in minutes. It’s a very powerful capability for tactical planning and execution.”

Mark J. Reardon and Jeffery A. Charlston,
From Transformation to Combat:
The First Stryker Brigade at War, 2007.
Grace Jean, “Styker Wins Over Skeptics,”
National Defense Magazine, October 2005.




Soldiers dismount a Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle with slat armor to conduct a patrol in Mosul, Iraq. The Soldiers are assigned to
Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

In this period, TF Duke patrolled the outskirts of An Najaf and Kufa, restricting Sadrist fighters to the core areas of the cities. Usually the patrols were sufficient to contain the militiamen, but occasionally there were firefights between the two sides. On 16 April, for example, elements of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry landed in a 5-hour engagement with Sadrist militiamen near the Kufa Bridge that spanned the Euphrates River on the eastern side of the city of Kufa. Captain Chris Budihas, commander of Alpha Company, 1-14th IN, recalled that the enemy his Soldiers faced that day was disciplined and organized into small, five-man teams. Only after directing the fire of his crew-served weapons and calling in approximately 400 mortar rounds on the enemy positions did the militiamen retreat from the bridge and return to Kufa.56

Soon after this engagement, political negotiations defused the crisis and CJTF-7 pulled TF Duke out of the An Najaf area, replacing the brigade-size unit with TF 2-37 Armor, a smaller battalion-size TF. On 20 April, just before TF Duke began redeploying its forces to their various AORs in the north, Lieutenant General Sanchez explained to the Soldiers of the TF why he had decided against sending them into the Sadr-controlled urban complex, “The problem is that if we launch you into the city of An Najaf and we get you into a major firefight . . . and if we get into destroying the holy shrines it will create a backlash.”57 TF Duke departed the area with the knowledge that its Soldiers had intervened in an explosive situation in An Najaf, contained the insurrection there, and prevented the further spread of the Sadrist uprising.

Operation IRON SABRE

The operations of TF Striker and TF Duke at Al Kut and An Najaf demonstrated the US Army’s stunning ability to rapidly shift forces at the operational level and quickly conduct combat operations in new and distant areas. What is more striking is that in a few short days, in the midst of a brewing Iraqi political crisis over the Marine assault on Fallujah, CJTF-7 and the 1st AD had completed new campaign plans, RESOLUTE SWORD and IRON SABRE respectively, which viewed the operations around Al Kut as simply the first tactical step in a longer, more complex effort. Those plans restructured the entire architecture of the Multi-National Division–Central South (MND-CS) area, creating the JOAs mentioned earlier. On 18 April Sanchez took another decisive step, giving Major General Dempsey, the commander of the 1st AD, tactical control of all the units conducting operations in these areas.58

As described earlier, after the recapture of Al Kut, CJTF-7 moved 1st ID’s TF Duke to An Najaf to relieve the 2d BCT of 1st AD. This move released the 1st AD to do several important things. First, the 2d BCT returned to Baghdad from Al Kut and completed its transition of authority with the 1st CAV. The brigade then moved to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to refit and prepare for future combat missions in the south. Dempsey also directed the 2d ACR to move to JOA SWAMP, the area just south of Baghdad, while sending its 3d Squadron to An Najaf to replace TF Duke. By the end of April, the division’s 1st BCT had shifted to the city of Karbala where it worked with Polish forces to isolate Sadrist forces while a political solution was sought there as in An Najaf.

Between 20 April and the end of May, 1st AD units were involved in several more significant combined arms operations in An Najaf, Karbala, and other cities in the Shia south. These operations, aimed at hemming in Sadrist forces, were demanding urban-combat missions, which featured the widespread and synchronized use of all weapons systems available to the Soldiers of the division. At various times, 1st AD leaders employed M1 Abrams tanks, M2 BFVs, 81-mm and 120-mm mortars, howitzers, C-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, and a wide variety of crew-served weapons and small-arms. Lieutenant Colonel Pat White, the commander of TF 2-37 Armor, which served in An Najaf, claimed that of all these systems, the most precise weapon in his unit was the M1A1 Abrams tank because its combination of machinegun and main gun gave Soldiers a choice and the ability to use pinpoint fire at ranges that prevented effective counterfire from the enemy. The logistics efforts to support the sustained urban-combat operations in this period were remarkable. In fact, the division created an air bridge, dubbed the “Iron Eagle Express,” which featured UH-60 and CH-47 helicopters for the ferrying of 250 tons of rations, ammunition, and other critical supplies from Baghdad to Karbala and An Najaf.59


The Tank in the Concrete Jungle

There has always been debate about the utility of armored vehicles in urban terrain. In the summer and fall of 2004, armor units in Iraq adapted to the needs of the new campaign by developing tactics and technology that allowed the tank to become a critical weapon system in urban operations. In August of that year, Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia forces threatened to take control of Sadr City and An Najaf. To prevent these areas from becoming enemy sanctuaries, Multi-National Force-Iraq and the Interim Iraqi Government (IIG) took decisive action.

In August, the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry (1-5th CAV), operating as part of the 1st Cavalry Division in the Baghdad area, deployed to An Najaf and prepared to begin mounted operations against the militia enemy. 1-5th CAV’s M1A2 Abrams tanks were equipped with the System Enhancement Package (SEP), a series of technological improvements that gave the gunner and the tank commander their own independent sights. This innovation became critical in the close quarters of an urban fight when enemy fighters could simultaneously approach from a variety of directions. The greater situational awareness provided by the SEP allowed the unit’s Soldiers to move through the area more effectively while “buttoned up” (all hatches closed).

As 1-5th CAV began operations inside An Najaf and in the huge cemetery that made up part of the battlefield, the unit created new formations that enabled its Soldiers to penetrate deeply down the alleys of the city. The new formations featured tanks with Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFV) and dismounted Soldiers that slowly moved in unison. This moving “box” of armored vehicles thus provided its own interior and flank protection and individual gunners could concentrate on identifying and destroying insurgent targets before the insurgents had time to react. This technique was also employed by the Soldiers of 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry who called it the “Sadr City Box” after using it successfully in that neighborhood.

In the fall of 2004, tanks and BFVs proved effective in Operations BATON ROUGE and AL FAJR, both of which took place in complex urban terrain. The success of those missions suggested strongly that when called on to go into battle in towns and cities, the mechanized combined arms team can survive and even serve as the decisive force.

MG Peter Chiarelli, MAJ Patrick Michaelis,
and MAJ Geoffrey Norman,
“Armor in Urban Terrain: The Critical Enabler,”
Armor, March-April 2005, 7-12.




Moving block by block, the patrol would travel at extremely slow speeds to allow for acquisition of targets in the alleyways and proper handoff to subsequent vehicle gunners.


It would be a mistake, however, to focus solely on the combat aspect of Operation IRON SABRE. Equally important was that commanders in the 1st AD viewed operations in An Najaf, Karbala, and the other towns through a full-spectrum lens. In his original guidance to the division, Major General Dempsey had stressed the need for four lines of operations that included stability operations, reestablishment of the ISF, and IO. The operations conducted before and after the publication of IRON SABRE followed this guidance. In Al Kut, An Najaf, and Karbala, US units reached out to the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) and police units that had crumbled in the face of al-Sadr’s militiamen. The remaining Iraqi forces often proved very useful in dealing with the local population and in the hunt for weapons caches that Sadrist forces hid in mosques. ICDC counterterrorist teams in An Najaf were especially effective in these missions.60

Major General Dempsey had originally envisioned the 1st AD’s extension campaign as a “deliberate, patient, and methodical” operation that would contain Sadrist forces, wear down their fighting capacity and overall effectiveness with full spectrum operations, and grant time for a political settlement. There is no doubt that for the Soldiers in this campaign, patience was the last thing that came to mind when they engaged in tough urban combat in the streets of Karbala and An Najaf. In any event, Dempsey’s approach proved successful. American forces had proved too strong for the Mahdi Army to defeat and gradually its manpower and fighting capability was worn down by unrelenting Coalition operations. By late May the last of the fighting in Karbala was over, and in June Muqtada al-Sadr announced a cease-fire, allowing the Coalition and Iraqi forces to reestablish authority over the Shia south.


Chapter 8. Combined Arms Operations in Iraq





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