Julie Jacobson  /  AP file
Major Gen. David H. Petraeus of the 101st Airborne Division at a battle update briefing in January in Mosul, Iraq.
updated 3/8/2004 12:29:30 AM ET 2004-03-08T05:29:30

Second of three articles

We crossed the border into Iraq at 9:55 a.m. on Monday, March 24, 2003, in Warlord 457, the Black Hawk helicopter of Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division. At 90 knots and from an altitude of 70 feet, the landscape was flat and vast, a great brown pan stippled with tufted grass. Bedouins waved from their tents, closely watched by our flinty-eyed door gunners.

Severe weather was closing fast, and Petraeus wanted to reach Forward Operating Base Shell -- the 101st assault command post near Najaf -- before the storm arrived. After a brief stop south of Nasiriyah at a desert refueling point dubbed Exxon, we reboarded and headed north for the final 80-minute flight.

Petraeus seemed pensive. A murderous grenade attack in Kuwait early Sunday morning, allegedly by a disaffected sergeant, had wounded 16 of his soldiers, two of them fatally, just hours before the division's 1st Brigade began streaming into Iraq. Earlier that day, a deep strike near Karbala by the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment had turned sour, with two $20 million AH-64 Apaches lost and 28 others so riddled by Iraqi gunfire that the aircraft averaged 15 to 20 bullet holes each.

From the commander's seat in the right rear of Warlord 457, Petraeus looked across to where I sat fumbling, as usual, with the complicated seat harness. "This is not only going to take determination," he said over the intercom, "but sheer determination."

"That's the best kind," I replied, affecting a phony buoyancy.

"I do think this thing is overstretched," he said. "But to be fair, they didn't expect this kind of resistance."

I barely had time to wonder what he was talking about -- wasn't the 3rd Infantry Division more than halfway to Baghdad? -- when the fair weather abruptly vanished. Dust thickened, and within five minutes the helicopter seemed wrapped in cotton batting. The pilots slowed down, picking their way.

At 11:30, Petraeus radioed the division main headquarters at Camp New Jersey in Kuwait, using his call sign, Eagle Six. "Get hold of Destiny and Thunder" -- his two aviation brigades -- "and tell them not to launch any more aircraft west. The winds are picking up and conditions are marginal."

Peering out the left rear window, I thought his description was generous. The sun floated above us like a gold lozenge in the haze, but the world below had become vague and opaque. An occasional smear of green drifted past, only to be swallowed by the relentless brown.

"Eagle Six, this is Victory Six." The serene voice of Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of V Corps and Petraeus's superior, came through my headset. Wallace was already at the V Corps advance command post, north of Shell at Objective Rams, a few miles from Najaf. "We will not conduct a mission tonight," he said, referring to a planned deep attack by 101st Apaches. Search-and-rescue teams were hunting two Apache pilots missing from the 11th Regiment's mission the previous night. "Other things," Wallace said, had also intruded on the Army's best-laid plans.

"Victory Six, Eagle Six," Petraeus answered. "Roger. High winds are forecast."

"We'll talk later," Wallace said.

"I am en route from Exxon to Shell," Petraeus added. He rubbed the window with a white cloth, as if to wipe away the murk. "The weather is marginal. Recommend against launching Chinooks" -- large CH-47 helicopters -- "with bridging equipment."

"Roger," Wallace said. "Thanks for that. I concur."

At 11:45, Warlord 457's chief pilot, Warrant Officer Marc Daniels, told Petraeus over the intercom that we had reached the point of no return. The Black Hawk had 65 minutes of fuel remaining. Shell lay 33 minutes ahead at our current pace. If we were to return to Exxon -- flying into the wind -- we had to do it right now. Petraeus wiped the window again, and advised the crew to push on.

"Roger. Bad enough to scare, but not bad enough to make yourself turn around," Daniels said with admirable sang-froid. Visibility now was perhaps a couple of hundred feet. Daniels climbed to 300 feet, following an azimuth and relying on instruments. The door gunners leaned out of the bay, watching for other helicopters, as well as uncharted hills and power lines. I tried to block out an insistent image of the Black Hawk cartwheeling across the desert in a cataclysm of broken blades and burning fuel. My palms were moist and my pulse had quickened. Petraeus was very quiet, and I wondered if he felt as unsettled as I did.

More radio reports came over the corps network. A protracted gunfight had occurred at Nasiriyah. Iraqi forces had ambushed a unit traveling by convoy at the rear of the 3rd Division. At least 15 soldiers were missing -- among them, as we later learned, Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Petraeus looked at me across the helicopter bay. I cocked an eyebrow. Nasiriyah was a Shiite Muslim stronghold that was supposed to welcome the American liberators. A phrase heard from Washington in recent weeks was, "Expect parades."

Visibility had diminished to 50 feet. Petraeus wiped his window. The pilots eased Warlord 457 up and down, climbing when they glimpsed ground through the blowing dust, then easing back down when the ground vanished.

At 12:23 p.m. I spied a rectangular patch of green, then another, and another. Tents. Vehicles. Forward Operating Base Shell. I felt a sweeping sense of salvation, and gratitude to our crew, as the pilots settled the helicopter onto the first available spot. The thin sand crust gave way beneath the wheels and the helicopter lurched sharply to the right. The engines died as we scurried out into the warm wind.

"That may have been the worst flight I have ever had," Petraeus said. He smiled wanly.

Looking 'through different eyes'
Not until Thursday, March 27, did the skies fair, permitting the Army to resume its drive northward. Wallace's original plan -- to have swarming Apaches slash holes in Iraqi defenses, with 3rd Infantry Division armored units and other forces besieging Baghdad from improvised firebases outside the capital -- had been undermined by helicopter vulnerabilities and stiff resistance by Iraqi Fedayeen irregulars attacking out of cities in the Euphrates valley.

With better weather came a better plan: The 3rd Division would press on toward Baghdad from the southwest, while the 101st subdued several large Shiite cities that Wallace originally had intended to bypass. The first and ultimately most important of these proved to be Najaf, a city of half a million and sacred site of the burial shrine of Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law. Seat of the most fanatical resistance -- four 3rd Division soldiers were killed March 29 by the first suicide car bombing targeted against the invaders -- it also straddled a vital northbound route, Highway 9.

The 101st assault began in earnest a few hours later, with Petraeus's 1st Brigade squeezing from the south and his 2nd Brigade attacking from the north after flying 250 miles by helicopter from Kuwait. By Monday morning, March 31, Najaf was encircled. Hit-and-run attacks on Army supply lines diminished. Battle rhythms are important, both for units and for commanders, and Petraeus after several days in Iraq had found a good one for himself: attending to logistics and administrative details in the morning, circulating among the brigades through the afternoon, then returning to the assault command post for further planning and a decent night's sleep.

Under Army doctrine, a division commander was supposed to anticipate and plan the battle 72 to 96 hours in advance, while his subordinates orchestrated the immediate fight. I saw how difficult that could be, given the fluidity of the battlefield, the frequent change in orders from above and the hypnotic lure of the action. Petraeus again mulled his battlefield lessons.

"Some of this is about just feeling it," he said, rubbing his fingers together as we drove toward Najaf in his Humvee, "and having a tactical awareness. It's like hearing the radio. Some people can hear it across the tent, even with all the other noise around -- their ears are somehow tuned to it -- and others just can't. As a battle develops, you have to look through different eyes -- armor eyes, dismounted infantry eyes, aviation eyes."

Shortly before noon on the 31st, we stood on the runway of Najaf's airport on the southeast edge of town listening over the radio to an account of the morning's action. The 2nd Brigade early at dawn had conducted a feint toward Hilla, 25 miles north, to draw attention away from the 3rd Infantry Division's movements near Karbala. Iraqi defenders, including unexpected reinforcements from the Republican Guard's Nebuchadnezzar Division, answered the brigade's move with artillery and small-arms fire.

Eight Apaches from the 101st had been hit, two of them seriously damaged in a fusillade of small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and antiaircraft guns from palm groves along Highway 9. One pilot, a company commander, was wounded. And the division had lost its first soldier in combat: Spec. Brandon J. Rowe of Roscoe, Ill. Killed by shellfire, he was a week shy of his 21st birthday.

Petraeus stared across the airfield as he replaced the radio handset. He looked grim, as if in physical pain. Later he told me that he had felt his blood pressure spike. Iraqi losses would prove substantial, but the Apaches' vulnerability and the defenders' tenacity were clearly preying on the commanding general's mind. "This is a very tough place for leaders," he later told me. "They have to make difficult decisions, and they have to make them quickly."

Shortly after 1 p.m., Wallace landed in his Black Hawk on the runway and walked over to the Humvee. The corps commander listened to Petraeus's battle summary: The 2nd Brigade, finishing the feint toward Hilla, would redouble pressure on Najaf from the north. The 1st Brigade would attack from the southeast, south and southwest, with a sharp increase in firepower. Wallace two days earlier had been content to bottle up Najaf with the 101st; now, with most of the division committed to the cause, he seemed willing to take the city by force.

After Petraeus finished his report, Wallace stood silently for a minute. Petraeus drummed his fingers on the map. A brilliant fireball rose from downtown Najaf, where an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter had put a Hellfire missile into a building.

"I think we're going to be seized with this thing for a while, sir," Petraeus said.

"Keep the pressure on," Wallace advised, then rambled back to his helicopter.

Synchronized violence
As we swung south to rendezvous with the 1st Brigade commander, Col. Ben Hodges, on the west side of town, Petraeus turned in his seat. "It's looking like a long war again. I'm not even sure 4th ID" -- the infantry division, originally earmarked for Turkey, was just arriving in Kuwait -- "is going to be enough. My sense is to pull it back to a tighter cordon, given the long LOCs [lines of communication]. The question now is when General Wallace will feel pressure to keep going north."

At 3 p.m., after looping around to the city's other flank, we found Hodges on a narrow road a mile from the 150-foot escarpment on which Najaf is perched. He was almost within small-arms range of the golden dome of the mosque at Ali's shrine. Brown smoke from American mortar rounds foamed through a palm grove at the base of the escarpment. Artillery tubes barked nearby, and a few seconds later white blossoms of detonating 105mm shells opened along the tree line. Petraeus and Hodges climbed onto a Humvee hood, scanning the city with their field glasses. The direction and timing of the attack had been arranged to fix the afternoon sun in the defenders' eyes.

"They've been forced back into the center of town. As they continue to come out, we're able to kill them, to attrit them," Hodges said. "We are under no time pressure. There's no need to go up there and get stuck."

Two Special Forces gun trucks had parked along the road near Hodges' command post. "Everything we got today, sir, suggests they're pretty much ready to crack," a captain who commanded the SF team told Petraeus. "The locals wonder why we're not in there already."

Petraeus shrugged. "I just think there's nothing fast about this."

"Sir," another SF soldier said, "the general consensus of the last couple days is that if we commit, and get in and seize some terrain, the population will be with us. The neighborhood near the mosque is a rabbit warren, but we think the locals will help us identify the strongholds." Fedayeen and Al Quds militiamen occupied bunkers and trenches along a canal behind the tree line, as well as a white, four-story Baath Party building, easily visible on the lip of the escarpment.

Fifty artillery shells ripped through the trees. "That hurt," Hodges murmured without lowering his glasses. "There are villages in that wood line, so we can't be indiscriminate. But I'm probably pushing it more than I would have two weeks ago."

Several prisoners under guard shuffled down the road, their hands cuffed and their faces so coated with flies as to appear masked. Overhead I heard the muffled growl of U.S. Navy F/A-18s. A GBU-12 bomb detonated with a splash of flame, followed by a rolling boom. Another exploded, and another, until five bombs had smashed the bunker line. Billowing smoke hid the golden dome.

A platoon of Abrams tanks clanked down the road, and soon the boom of their 120mm main guns echoed against the trees. Through Hodges' borrowed glasses, I could see shells gouge the facade of the four-story Baath Party building. The hysterical cackle of .50-caliber machine guns mingled with the thud of Mk-19 grenade launchers. Several Humvees scooted across a field into firing positions, and a barrage of TOW missiles erupted with a white whoosh before smashing into the building. Kiowas darted along the trees and up over the escarpment, hammering the Iraqi positions with machine guns and hundreds of rockets. Eight hundred men from the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry padded down the road in their infantry waddle and soon vanished into the tree line.

It was all so fierce, so terribly fierce, a symphony of fire. It was combined arms at its most lethal, the relentless orchestration of air, armor, artillery, infantry and all the other killing modalities. It was combined and, in Pentagon jargon, it was joint, with the Army complemented by Navy, Air Force and Marine aircraft. The U.S. military for 60 years had worked to make this the signature of American firepower, and no other nation could approximate such a synchronized application of violence. Until recently, this synchronization had been the province of senior generals, but now I could see that it was routine for colonels and captains and sergeants on the battlefield to summon the genies of the air and the earth and the sea, and to sic them on the enemy.

On occasion, of course, violence could be misplaced, or imperfectly leveraged. A few days later, in an attack on Karbala, the coordination between ground and air forces was sometimes ragged, with a U.S. Maverick missile detonating behind Petraeus and his command group. A combat commander learned to shrug off such episodes and move forward.

Hodges lowered his glasses without taking his eyes off Najaf. "What I haven't been able to figure out," he told Petraeus, "is what happens if they don't fold."

"I think you just keep pounding them," Petraeus said.

"Sir," the Special Forces captain said, "we don't want a war of attrition, but that's where we are."

"We are," Petraeus agreed. "It's a siege."

'What do we do with it?'
Three more days would be needed to fully subdue Najaf, but even before the city was completely pacified, the cheering crowds long anticipated by the Pentagon appeared on the streets, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds, and finally by the thousands.

Petraeus found himself trying to sort out his enemies. "I should have thought about this earlier, but the people who have control of these towns, the Baath Party officials, have a bigger stake in this than the Republican Guard," he mused during one of our trips from Shell to Najaf. "The ones who are really fighting are those who have the most to lose, the local power brokers who are losing their cars, their headquarters, their houses, everything. In hindsight, we should have anticipated this. It's the local power brokers we're going to have to root out."

On the afternoon of April 1, we drove up the escarpment and parked near a mechanic's garage on the southern edge of town. Najaf was foul-smelling and very warm. Several pickups with machine guns stood in the street. "OGA," Petraeus murmured, referring to Other Government Agency, the vernacular for CIA operatives. The team chief, lean and whiskered, wore a 'Bama baseball cap decorated with an "I Love New York" button and his blood type, A.

"Get word to the head cleric and tell him that we deeply regret that we've had to fire near some of his holy sites in the city," Petraeus said. "Now we need his help and advice on how to make sure that the city and the shrines are secure. Can we get a cleric to come out and talk to us?"

"We're working on it, General," Mr. OGA said. The most influential Shiite cleric in Najaf was Ali Sistani, who for years had lived under virtual house arrest near Ali's shrine. Sistani's many scholarly treatises included works on usury, marriage to infidels and "doubtful clothes," of which our OGA friends had an extensive wardrobe.

"Sistani hasn't issued a fatwa," Mr. OGA said. U.S. intelligence hoped for a clerical legal decree welcoming the invasion. "But he's not pro-regime. He's sitting on the fence." (On the fence Sistani would remain for the next year, even as he emerged as the preeminent figure in the Iraqi political landscape.)

"Again, it needs to be a tone of voice in which we say, 'We need your advice,' " Petraeus cautioned. "We need to make this a cooperative effort."

"Now we've got to think," he mused. "What the hell do we do next? We own Najaf. So what do we do with it?"

We drove back down the escarpment, past more smiling pedestrians gesturing with raised thumbs. Petraeus was silent, lost in thought, and I could almost hear the gears shifting as he pondered the abrupt transition from a deliberate urban attack to an occupation.

NEXT: On to Baghdad


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments