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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


An Najaf, August 2004: The Elimination of the First Safe Haven

Between June and August 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr spent a great deal of time in An Najaf while Iraqi police, small in number, tried to exert authority over the shrine city. Tensions rose as the summer progressed and culminated on 31 July when US and Iraqi forces arrested Mithal al-Hasnawi, one of al-Sadr’s deputies in Karbala. Demonstrations protesting the arrest broke out in An Najaf, leading to the detention of a number of al-Sadr’s followers. In response, Sadrist groups kidnapped several Iraqi policemen in An Najaf. Other attacks on police stations followed, leading the governor of An Najaf province to request military assistance from ISF and Coalition military units. On 2 August tensions rose again when Sadrist elements opened fire on a Coalition patrol near a clinic in northern An Najaf. Suddenly, An Najaf looked to be on the verge of exploding again in violence, imperiling much of what the Coalition had been trying to achieve in the months since the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. As noted previously, General George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multi-National Force–Iraq (MNF-I) after 1 July 2004, had focused Coalition military efforts on facilitating Iraq’s move toward elections based on the schedule developed by United Nations (UN) Resolution 1546. To make sure the path to elections was clear, senior Coalition and Iraqi leaders had decided to target areas that militia forces and insurgents used as safe havens. While MNF-I had already begun looking toward insurgent safe havens in the Sunni-dominated cities of Samarra and Fallujah, al-Sadr’s breaking of the cease-fire made An Najaf a more immediate target.

The Coalition responded by sending elements of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) against Mahdi Army locations in An Najaf on 5 August. On 9 August the Marines of the 11th MEU, reinforced by Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry (1-5th CAV), 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry (2-7th CAV), and 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment (1-227th AV) re-engaged the Shia militia forces in northern An Najaf near the Wadi as-Salam Cemetery and in the residential areas of southern An Najaf. In addition to the Coalition units, the 405th Iraqi National Guard (ING) Battalion, the 404th ING Battalion, and the 36th Iraqi Commando Battalion also participated in this operation. While Coalition forces conducted the initial assaults, the ISF were instrumental in helping to secure cleared areas and in conducting operations against militia forces located in sensitive sites. Indeed, as the Coalition’s military operations in An Najaf took their toll on the Sadrist forces, most of the militiamen gradually withdrew to the city’s most sensitive site—the Imam Ali Shrine. As the cordon tightened around the shrine, the Iraqi Government decided to put its security forces on the front lines in case an assault on the militia inside became necessary. On 27 August, after 3 weeks of intense fighting, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brokered an agreement between Iraqi Government officials and Muqtada al-Sadr that disarmed al-Sadr’s forces still in the city and turned authority for An Najaf over to the Iraqi Government. In exchange, US military forces withdrew from the city and Muqtada al-Sadr retained his freedom.

Once the agreement went into effect, Coalition efforts immediately shifted to restoring services and rebuilding An Najaf, with a considerable amount of effort spent on ensuring the Iraqi Government received credit for the improvements. Initial concerns focused on clearing the remaining ordnance and weapons caches in the city. While this work was ongoing, Civil Affairs (CA) personnel from the Marine Corps and the Army worked with the governor’s office to identify future projects and critical services requiring restoration after the conflict that had devastated much of An Najaf. Hundreds of local Iraqis were hired to clean up the area around the Imam Ali Mosque and the Old City, which resulted in visible improvement to the area and provided a much-needed stimulus to the local economy. As early as 29 August, the local government established a claims office to begin taking claims for death, injury, and loss of residence. The idea behind these efforts was to demonstrate the IIG and Coalition’s commitment to improve the lives of Iraqis by initiating immediate efforts to rebuild areas disrupted by violence. While small in scope, by November 2004 the US Department of State reported that 226 projects worth more than $53 million had been started in An Najaf or were scheduled to begin in the near future.61

For senior Coalition military leaders, the actions against al-Sadr in An Najaf were a formative experience. General Casey recalled that MNF-I’s response to al-Sadr’s challenge included three key elements the Coalition would use in upcoming operations against insurgent safe havens.62 The first of these elements was the role of the Iraqi Government in legitimizing Coalition military operations. The second element was the inclusion of the ISF in the actual military operations. Although the number of Iraqi units was limited in An Najaf, they did play a key role in demonstrating the IIG’s resolve to enter the Imam Ali Shrine to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr decisively. The final element was the integration of reconstruction efforts into the larger operation. When joined together, these three elements created a model that Casey and his senior commanders would follow as they planned major operations against insurgent concentrations elsewhere.

Chapter 8. Combined Arms Operations in Iraq

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