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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


Operation BATON ROUGE: The Full Spectrum Engagement of Samarra

As the Sadrist threat lessened during the early fall of 2004, the Coalition leadership’s attention focused on the armed Sunni Arab opposition that posed serious obstacles to Iraq’s stability. Faced with the entrenchment of insurgent forces in two cities dominated by Sunni Arabs—Samarra and Fallujah—and preparing for national elections in January 2005, the new Interim Iraqi Government (IIG) and the Coalition began planning measures to remove the insurgent control of these two cities as part of a larger campaign to prepare for the elections. To allow both Samarra and Fallujah to remain under insurgent domination was an unacceptable admission of impotence and threatened the viability of the elections.

Operation BATON ROUGE was a direct response to the sudden increase in anti-Coalition and anti-Iraqi violence in and around Samarra in mid-2004. Located on the Tigris River in Salah ad Din province, Samarra had a population of approximately 200,000, the large majority of which were Sunni Arab. Even though most of its citizens were Sunni, Samarra was a significant religious center for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. At one time, the city had been the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, and its al-Askari Mosque, also known as the Golden Mosque, became the site of the tombs of Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari, the 10th and 11th Shia Imams. The mosque also holds a monument to Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the 12th and final Imam or Hidden Imam of the Shia. Many Shia believe that at the funeral of his father, al-Mahdi disappeared, was hidden by Allah, and would someday return. Because of these sites, many Sunnis who revere these figures of Islamic history view Samarra with special significance. The presence of such religious sites in the city placed critical constraints on the operations of Coalition units.

Since the arrival of Coalition forces in 2003, Samarra had been a bastion of Sunni Arab intransigence, and by early 2004, a mix of insurgent, criminal, and tribal organizations struggled to gain dominance over the city, despite the presence of Coalition forces in the area and their attempts to win over the population with reconstruction programs and other civic projects.63 The increase in insurgent power in late 2003 in Samarra did not go unnoticed by Coalition forces. To combat the insurgency, the 4th ID reinforced its 3d BCT and sent it into Samarra in December 2003. In an operation called IVY BLIZZARD, the brigade attempted to eliminate the insurgent presence in the city and hand responsibility for Samarra’s security over to the newly constituted ISF.

While American leaders initially saw IVY BLIZZARD as a success, they soon discovered that insurgent leaders had received notification of the operation before it was launched and had escaped. Because of requirements elsewhere, at the end of January 2004 the 4th ID directed most of the elements in the 3d BCT to return to their own AORs, leaving one mechanized task force and a US Army Special Forces detachment in the city. This decision made the return of insurgents possible, and by February Samarra was once again falling under the sway of Sunni Arabs who opposed the Coalition and its vision for Iraq.64

In March 2004 the 1st ID replaced the 4th ID in and around Samarra. During the Shia uprisings in Sadr City and An Najaf in April, attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces in the Samarra area tripled from 5 to 15 per week. The escalation in violence forced the 1st ID to respond with Operation SPADER STRIKE, an offensive by the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry (1-26th IN) in May 2004 designed to flush out and kill or capture insurgents in the city. While enjoying some success, SPADER STRIKE also encountered a significant amount of armed resistance inside Samarra, an indication that insurgent forces had consolidated and strengthened in the city since the 1st ID had taken charge.

Following SPADER STRIKE, conditions in Samarra rapidly worsened. Between May and July, the city council president resigned only to be replaced with a citizen council sympathetic to the insurgency. The ISF charged with the mission of maintaining peace and stability in Samarra largely disappeared, with some members even joining the insurgency. Not surprisingly, die-hard Baathists, foreign and domestically recruited al-Qaeda operatives, and other insurgent groups flocked to the city. The nadir in Samarra came on 8 July 2004 when insurgents attacked the 202d ING Battalion headquarters located on the western outskirts of the city with small-arms fire, mortars, and a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). The attack killed 5 US Soldiers from the 1-26th IN and wounded 20 others, all of whom were working with the Iraqis at the facility. The ISF lost three soldiers and suffered four wounded. The suicide bomber had driven an Iraqi police car and worn a police uniform.65

This assault on both American and Iraqi forces compelled the leaders of the 1st ID to look for a permanent solution to the problems in Samarra. The division commander, Major General John Batiste, and his division staff began planning Operation BATON ROUGE, a brigade-size combined arms operation that would wrest control of Samarra from the insurgents, reestablish the ISF in the city, and set conditions so the insurgency could not return. From the inception of their planning, however, the leadership of the 1st ID attempted to fit the operation into the broader campaign planning of MNF-I, which had established four lines of operation: governance, communications, economic development, and security. BATON ROUGE’s objective was not solely to clear out insurgents but to direct operations along all four lines to create a stable city with a legitimate Iraqi Government and robust security forces willing and able to defend the new order. Further, the 1st ID planners hoped the Iraqi Government and its security forces would lead all of these operations as a way of creating greater legitimacy for that order within the city.

Thus, as the plan evolved in July, BATON ROUGE came to resemble a template for an extended full spectrum operation rather than a plan featuring massed mechanized formations in a large-scale assault on the city. In fact, in its final form, BATON ROUGE included only a brief “kinetic” period that included an abbreviated combined-arms assault that might be used against those insurgents, terrorists, and criminals that proved intractable in their opposition. Rather than begin with a determined preparation for an assault on Samarra, the 1st ID staff, working with the division’s 2d BCT, crafted the operation to begin with Phase I—Set Conditions, Reconnaissance, and Preparation. This phase would begin in late July or August and use focused attacks on insurgent targets to disrupt enemy organizations and eventually allow the ISF and civil government to establish control of Samarra.

Success in this first phase of BATON ROUGE would lead directly to Phase IV, the decisive part of the operation that the leaders of the 1st ID called Transition Operations. During Phase IV, the Soldiers of the 2d BCT “would continue to support the ISF and civil authorities in and around Samarra to ensure irreversible momentum toward self-government.”66 The 1st ID commander and his staff envisioned that this phase would include reconstruction projects, IO, the establishment of a legitimate and popularly-supported government, and the placement of well-trained security forces in the city. Only when Batiste felt that these conditions had been met and the city would not revert to insurgency control would the operation end.

If the 2d BCT and local authorities did not succeed in Phase I in setting the proper conditions for an Iraqi solution to Samarra’s problems, Colonel Randall Dragon, the brigade commander, was prepared to execute Phase II, Isolation of the City, and Phase III, Search and Attack. The latter phase of the operation called on the BCT, reinforced with other US units as well as the ISF, to enter Samarra, locate and destroy insurgent forces, and secure key sites within the city.67 This was the large-scale combined-arms assault that the 1st ID hoped to avoid.

The 1st ID began Phase I, Set Conditions, Reconnaissance, and Preparation, in late July. As part of this phase, in August the 2d BCT launched three operations—CAJUN MOUSETRAP I, II, and III—that used the brigade’s mechanized battalion task forces, Army attack helicopters, and US Air Force close air support to mount raids into Samarra.68 Although these attacks were limited and the brigade’s Soldiers did not hold areas of the city, the three actions yielded tangible results. Sergeant Major Ron Pruyt, the operations sergeant major for 1-26th IN which participated in the missions, described how the shaping operations forced the enemy to reveal their intentions, “We attacked into the city and secured a few objectives and held them for a short period of time. This allowed us to determine how they would defend the city when we conducted the actual mission. They were great operations.”69 Pruyt also noted that the three “mousetraps” lured the insurgents into pitched battles with the tanks and mechanized infantry of the 2d BCT, actions that allowed US forces to focus their considerable advantage in firepower on identifiable enemy forces. During CAJUN MOUSETRAP III, which ran for 3 days between 13 and 15 August 2004, the Soldiers of the 2d BCT killed approximately 45 insurgents who had resisted the brigade’s entry on the edge of Samarra.70

While the 2d BCT mounted these initial raids, the 1st ID staff directed IO at political and religious figures in the city, clearly articulating the four conditions in which the Coalition would end the isolation of Samarra and enter the city peacefully to begin important reconstruction projects. Those conditions were the selection and seating of a new mayor and city council, installation of a police chief capable of creating a stable security environment, termination of insurgent activity, and safeguarding access to the entire city for US forces and ISF.71 This message and other promises, it was hoped, would drive a wedge between the insurgent groups on one side and the tribal and political leaders in the city who chose a peaceful solution to Samarra’s problems on the other. It almost worked. By 10 September the city had established an acceptable city council and established enough security to allow US and Iraqi forces to enter unscathed.72 It appeared that Major General Batiste and the 1st ID had avoided the large-scale combat operations of Phase III and moved directly to Phase IV of Operation BATON ROUGE.

Unfortunately, this transition was premature. Pro-stability politicians and ISF inside Samarra proved too weak to maintain the forward momentum toward a peaceful solution. On 10 September 2004 insurgent groups renewed their attacks on American and Iraqi units in the city in earnest. Six days later insurgent threats forced the Samarra police chief to resign. These incidents forced leaders in the Coalition military command and 1st ID to consider more forceful action. After recognition that more drastic measures were required for stabilizing the city, on 28 September the decision was made to go ahead with the isolation of Samarra (Phase II) and the assault on enemy forces (Phase III) in the city.

The third phase of BATON ROUGE, Search and Attack, began on 1 October. For this operation the 1st ID committed the 2d BCT, which at the time of the assault consisted of 1-26th IN and 1-18th IN, both of which were mechanized battalions equipped with BFVs; 1-14th IN, a light infantry battalion equipped with armored M1114 high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs); 1-77th Armor, a battalion equipped with M1 Abrams tanks; elements of the 2-108th IN, an air assault infantry battalion from the New York Army National Guard that served as light infantry; and 1-4th CAV, a mechanized squadron armed with a variety of equipment and weapons. The BCT also controlled six battalions of the ISF, including the 36th Commando Battalion. Batiste further reinforced the effort with intelligence assets, artillery, and close air support. The assault that began on 1 October was the largest single offensive action by Coalition forces to date since the initial invasion in the spring of 2003.

The 2d BCT commander planned to hit the enemy in Samarra from multiple directions to keep them off balance and unable to mass their forces. At midnight that attack began with 1-26th IN entering the city from the west. Simultaneously, 1-18th IN came in from the northeast, 1-77th Armor assaulted from the southeast; and elements of 1-4th CAV operating on the north, northeast, and southeast edges of Samarra. The Iraqi battalions would follow the 2d BCT units as the latter fought their way into the neighborhoods on the fringes of the city. Despite the operations aimed at eroding the insurgents and their combat capabilities in the 6 weeks leading up to the assault, the enemy met American units with small-arms fire, RPGs, mortars, and IEDs. The greatest resistance was found on the southeastern edge of the city and in the northwestern
quadrant where the Golden Mosque was located. In most areas, the enemy operated in small groups. In the southeast portion of the city, however, US forces found larger enemy concentrations soon after the attack began and called in AC-130 gunfire to destroy them.73 As dawn approached, the Soldiers of the 2d BCT were still involved in clearing insurgent fighters from neighborhoods on the perimeter of Samarra.

Just before sunrise, 2d BCT ordered a sixth battalion, 1-14th IN, into the fight. The light infantrymen of this unit had arrived on 30 September, the day before Phase III began, from the city of Kirkuk where it normally operated as part of the 2d Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. Many of 1-14th IN’s Soldiers were on leave when Major General Batiste ordered the battalion to participate in BATON ROUGE. Although equipped with M1114 up-armored HMMWVs armed with heavy crew-served weapons, Colonel Dragon decided to increase 1-14th IN’s combat power by attaching to it two BFV-equipped platoons and one M1A2 tank platoon from 1-26th IN. Once the fight began, the light infantry platoons and the HMMWVs worked closely with the BFVs, tanks, and other combined arms to push their way deeper into the city.

The mission of 1-14th IN was critical. In the opening hours of the assault, 2d BCT had secured footholds on the perimeter of Samarra. To secure those lodgments and prepare for deeper penetrations into the city, Dragon directed 1-14th IN to pass through 1-26 IN’s position on the northwestern edge of the city and turn south to clear insurgents from roughly 2 square kilometers on the western edge described by one member of 1-14th IN as “dense urban sprawl.”74 Once the unit secured the western flank of Samarra, Dragon would direct 1-26th IN to continue the attack east into the city center.

As the companies of 1-14th IN worked their way south between dawn and the afternoon of 1 October, they operated as combined arms teams that moved gradually through the neighborhoods of southwest Samarra, making contact with small insurgent groups and using mortars, heavy machineguns, and in a few cases, attack helicopters to suppress enemy fire.75 Around noon on the eastern side of 1-14th IN’s zone, the light infantrymen, engineers, and HMMWVs of Charlie Company, 1-14th IN, met up with the tanks and BFVs of Apache Company, 1-26th IN, and advanced south together down a major avenue. The M1A2 Abrams tanks led the way in this maneuver, relying on the dismounted infantry to secure their flanks and rear. Insurgent teams equipped with small arms and RPGs shadowed the company’s progress, moving in a maze of alleyways parallel to the avenue. The American infantry prevented this enemy force from setting up ambushes that might have deterred the unit’s advance.76

When the formation arrived at its objective—a multistory building that dominated the surrounding neighborhoods, the tanks and M1114s surrounded the site while the light infantry and engineers entered the building, cleared it, and established a command post in its vicinity. The position then came under persistent enemy fire, which only gradually decreased as the infantrymen sought out and destroyed those insurgent threats in the area. As the sun went down, the infantrymen of Charlie Company regrouped around their command post. In the 12 hours of almost continuous combat that helped secure the western edge of the city, the company had suffered 1 Soldier wounded in action and had killed approximately 24 insurgents.77 They would continue to mount patrols, cordon and searches, and other operations in this part of Samarra for the next week.

The 1-14th IN’s movement south allowed 1-26th IN to penetrate more deeply into Samarra. By 0700 on 1 October, the battalion’s BFVs and tanks had reached the area surrounding the Golden Mosque, approximately 1 kilometer east from their point of entry into the city. By the end of the day, they had pushed another 1,000 meters toward Samarra’s center. Like their counterparts in 1-14th IN, the Soldiers of 1-26th IN met continuous resistance and used combined arms teams to suppress enemy fire. The presence of insurgents in the Golden Mosque, however, posed a unique challenge to the battalion’s leadership. Preferring to have Iraqis enter the religious shrine, Dragon tasked the soldiers of the Iraqi 36th Commando Battalion to force their way into the mosque and eliminate the enemy threat. At around 1100 that morning, after Soldiers from 2-108th IN emplaced a cordon around the mosque compound, the Commandos blew open the front doors of the main building and secured the site, detaining 25 insurgents in the process.78 The 36th Commando Battalion would later capture 50 suspected insurgents while securing the city hospital. Other Iraqi units, advised by members of US Army Special Forces, followed the American units, holding the neighborhoods taken by US forces as they moved toward the center of Samarra.79

By the end of 1 October, the Soldiers of the 2d BCT had secured all of their major government and religious objectives. Offensive operations continued for the next 2 days to engage known insurgent targets and locate weapons caches. After 3 days of intense combat in Samarra, the 2d BCT had seized control of the city, killed over 127 insurgents, wounded 60, and detained 128.80 In taking back the city from the grips of the insurgency, the brigade had suffered one fatality and eight Soldiers wounded.81 A combat operation involving a reinforced brigade and set on urban terrain might have become an extended fight. Nevertheless, Major General Batiste believed that careful preparation and focused firepower from the combined arms teams and other sources allowed his division to avoid the type of debilitating urban combat that might have produced higher casualties on both sides. The 1st ID commander contended:

[Phase III] was over so quickly for several reasons. We had good intelligence and a well developed and rehearsed plan. We attacked from the march to overwhelm the insurgency in a 360-degree fight with the right kind of fire control measures. . . . In addition to employing artillery and mortars in urban operations, we employed lots of CAS with F-18s, 16s and 14s; our own Kiowa and Apache helicopters were in this fight the entire time. We employed AC-130s every time we could get them.82

After 3 days of combat, the 2d BCT had neutralized the enemy presence in Samarra, killing or driving out almost all of the insurgent forces in the city. Some small pockets of resistance remained behind in the city, laying low and re-emerging in the weeks that followed to harass American units and ISF. Despite their continued presence, Phase III of Operation BATON ROUGE had set the stage for creating lasting stability in Samarra.

On the afternoon of 3 October, Colonel Dragon directed the Coalition forces in the city to once again shift to Phase IV, Transition Operations. Overnight, the 2d BCT’s emphasis switched to reconstruction operations. Major Barrett Bernard, the assistant operations officer for the brigade, noted that Dragon and his subordinate commanders immediately began projects of all types to help rebuild Samarra and reestablish the Iraqi Government and the ISF in the city. Bernard recalled that the reconstruction efforts included “everything from making a trash dump to sewer systems, water, bridge, hospital repair, rebuilding the doors to the Golden Mosque—there was a litany of them.”83 In the minds of many Soldiers in Samarra, the most important projects were those that had an immediate impact by employing Iraqis who might have otherwise gravitated toward the insurgency. Using the 9th Engineer Battalion and teams from the 415th CA Battalion to oversee the projects and infantry units to conduct raids and other operations that kept insurgent groups from interfering with the rebuilding effort, Dragon restored a semblance of stability to Samarra. The Soldiers on the streets of Samarra noted that the attitude among the populace had changed dramatically. With the insurgent threat neutralized, many of the city’s residents felt free to interact with the Americans. In the days following the transition to Phase IV of BATON ROUGE, Lieutenant Greg Longo, a platoon leader in 1-14th IN, remarked that the reconstruction and security operations had achieved their desired effect: “We’re winning over those folks that may have been borderline before. . . . It’s night and day as far as their reception toward us now and before.”84

Unfortunately, the stability that emerged in Samarra in October did not become permanent. In the days before Operation AL FAJR began in Fallujah in November 2004, some of the insurgents located in that city fled to Samarra and began operating against the ISF established after BATON ROUGE. The enemy presence compelled US and Iraqi forces that remained in Samarra to mount focused intelligence operations and raids to keep the insurgent organizations from gaining the initiative. As 2005 began and Iraq approached its first democratic elections, Samarra still had not become completely pacified. BATON ROUGE had revealed the potential that full spectrum operations offered to a commander intent on defeating an intransigent insurgent force and setting the conditions for stability and self-government. However, the operation also highlighted the difficulties in forging lasting changes in those communities where the insurgents chose to contest the Coalition.

Chapter 8. Combined Arms Operations in Iraq

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