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Battle for the holy cities

Over the course of 60 days starting April 5, more than 5,000 troops from the division engaged in the most sustained urban combat operation of the now 15-month occupation. In desert cities that once welcomed American troops, they battled a Shiite uprising that threatened to upset the June 30 transition to an Iraqi interim government. Their orders were stark: Smash the uprising, and capture or kill its leader, the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

After a year in Iraq, Lt. Jon Silk and the rest of the Army's 1st Armored Division had tickets home. But before dawn on April 5, he and his platoon rumbled toward this southern city of shrines and cemeteries, headed into war.

Over the next 60 days, more than 5,000 troops from the division engaged in the most sustained urban combat operation of the now 15-month occupation. In desert cities that once welcomed American troops, they battled a Shiite uprising that threatened to upset the June 30 transition to an Iraqi interim government. Their orders were stark: Smash the uprising, and capture or kill its leader, the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Silk soon found himself in a swirl of continuous combat, the kind of close fighting that the military had expected, but mostly avoided, during the 2003 invasion. Pinned down while pushing across a narrow bridge to retake the city of Kut, he watched four soldiers in his 15-man platoon fall wounded. "It was insane the amount of fire we were taking," he said later.

By the time the uprising was over, silenced in a cease-fire June 4, the U.S. military success appeared decisive. While 19 U.S. soldiers had been killed in combat and scores wounded, military officials estimate that 1,500 insurgents were killed. Sadr's militiamen had been driven from positions many had died defending.

But like much of the occupation, the battle for the Shiite holy cities yielded a more ambiguous political outcome. Sadr remains at large; U.S.-sponsored polls show him to be one of Iraq's most popular figures. Hundreds of his militiamen escaped, perhaps to fight another day.

The mixed messages echo in the experiences of soldiers from the 1st AD, as the division is known, who next month will leave an Iraq more violent than it was when they arrived 15 months ago. The battles revealed lessons about their enemy and themselves, and about the unpredictable winds of history in Iraq.

"This was what we expected when we first got here, not at the end," said Sgt. Jacob Garcia, 34, of Corpus Christi, Tex. "The fighting should have gone from heavy to light."

This is an account of the 60-day campaign as it was seen by dozens of the soldiers who fought in key battles from April 8 through June 4 and by the commanders who guided them. It is also drawn from a tour of the area. Many of the battles took place in four cities -- Kut, Karbala, Najaf and Kufa. The soldiers were led by four lieutenant colonels, all in their early forties, each seasoned by a year in the country.

The uprising began April 4, when U.S. troops in an east Baghdad slum moved to disarm members of Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army, who were protecting the young cleric from arrest for allegedly sponsoring the killing of another Shiite leader. A 10-hour gun battle ensued that killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded 51 others.

The uprising quickly spread south. Although a third of the 1st AD's 38,000 troops and much of its equipment had been packed up for a scheduled rotation back to Germany, those orders were canceled.

Within hours, elements of the division's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 2nd Brigade were rolling south toward Kut, where Sadr militiamen had driven off Ukrainian troops and seized the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA.

The Bridge, Kut: April 8-11
Capt. Mike Wall's Bravo Company rolled into Kut near midday on April 8 and confronted a daunting landscape for a tank commander. The Tigris River slices the city in half. On the other bank sat the seized CPA compound. But it looked doubtful whether the narrow bridges knitting the two sides together could support a 70-ton M1 Abrams tank.

That evening, Lt. Col. T.C. Williams, the 42-year-old battalion commander from Potomac, Md., devised a plan for Wall's company. The tanks would roll 20 miles north to a secure Tigris crossing, then hook south toward the CPA headquarters in darkness. The ploy worked: Caught off guard by the 45-mile looping attack, Sadr's men abandoned the building with little resistance.

To retake all of Kut, however, U.S. forces needed to control another bridge a quarter-mile south of the CPA compound, and then join up with Wall's company. The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's "Killer Troop" led by Capt. Jon Dunn pushed across the span after midnight on Good Friday.

Sgt. Luis Savina, 29, was in the lead platoon as it crossed the bridge into a traffic circle overlooked by an Iraqi police station. The police had fled or joined the insurgents, and as the soldiers arrived, rocket-propelled grenades from the militia hammered their unarmored Humvees. Insurgents trained floodlights on his soldiers from the police station, washing out their night-vision goggles. The Americans shot out the lights. New ones came on.

"It was pretty perfect," said Savina, of Agawam, Mass. "They say three out of 10 soldiers never pull the trigger in battle. Fortunately, my platoon doesn't have that problem."

The close-quarters combat made it impossible for Dunn to call in airstrikes without risking friendly-fire casualties. Apache helicopters above the city were vulnerable to ground fire if they hovered long above the battlefield in search of a safe shot.

"Everything easy was hard that day," said Dunn, a 30-year-old from Woodbridge, Va.

As daylight approached on April 9, Silk's platoon pulled back to the middle of the bridge, giving the Apaches and an AC-130 gunship room to fire. Airstrikes on the traffic circle and the palm groves that lined the river drove the insurgents back.

Near dawn, Silk's platoon pushed across the bridge to find bloody tracks where wounded insurgents had been dragged away. Waiting in the traffic circle were two Bradley Fighting Vehicles sent as a greeting by Wall from the CPA headquarters.

"They seemed kind of pleased," said Wall.

Governor Street, Karbala: May 1-11
By May 1, about 200 Sadr militants had dug in near Karbala's gold-domed shrines of Abbas and Hussein, two of Shiite Islam's most sacred sites. The militia controlled Karbala's government and had access to its funds.

Karbala had been the responsibility of a brigade of Polish soldiers. Like Spain, Ukraine and other U.S. partners responsible for security in the Shiite south, the Polish government had prohibited its soldiers from conducting offensive operations. The rules rendered them useless when Sadr's militia rose up.

"We gave coalition partners land to manage because we thought we were at a particular phase in the mission," said Maj. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the division commander. "We thought we had transitioned in certain places. When the uprising occurred and that transition took a step backwards, it put them in an awkward position."

"Essentially we had ceded control of the city on April 7," said Lt. Col. Garry P. Bishop, commander of the 37th Armored Regiment's 1st Battalion.

Bishop, 40, a fiery West Point graduate from Philadelphia, was ordered to drive Sadr's forces out of Karbala. He believed the militia planned to make a stand in the shadow of the shrines. His plan called for a show of force that might frighten off Sadr's men and avoid a pitched battle over the mosques.

On May 5, beginning at an amusement park that the militia used as a weapons depot, Bishop's tanks moved down Governor Street toward the shrines. Kiowa and Apache helicopters zipped overhead, clearing snipers from hotel roofs. Sadr militants, meanwhile, drew ammunition from stockpiles along irrigation canals that were off-limits to tanks.

"As we started moving along, we'd be getting pinged with sniper fire, RPGs," said Sgt. David Taylor, 37, a veteran tank commander from Copperas Cove, Tex. "They'd pop out from behind walls and take potshots at us."

In two-man teams, soldiers left the tanks to disable roadside bombs, snipping wires and blowing up the devices. "Snipers were our biggest problem," said Sgt. Aaron Owen, 30, of Powell, Wyo., whose driver was shot in his helmet. "They chewed us up pretty good. I've got holes in my pants" from shrapnel, he said.

The flailing quality of the insurgents' early stand gave way to a more skilled defense the closer troops got to the Mukhaiyam mosque, a former funeral home that Sadr had declared a holy place. U.S. commanders throughout the south saw the same pattern.

Several said Sadr's militia appeared to be led by highly competent commanders, even though most fighters seemed poorly trained. Concentric circles of defenses were built around the leadership's refuges, weapons depots and other strategic sites. The closer U.S. troops moved to command centers or ammunition stockpiles, the more adept the resistance became.

As he rolled toward the mosque, Taylor had the "primary sight" blown out of his tank. The field hospital began treating more arm and leg wounds -- a sign that snipers knew the limits of body armor and had the skill to take advantage of it.

"The enemy started to change," Bishop said.

The Cemetery, Najaf: May 14-24
Since mid-April, Lt. Col. Pat White's soldiers of the 37th Armored Regiment's 2nd Battalion had fought nightly against an estimated 2,500 militiamen in this southern city.

The militants fought from minarets and the plumes of palm trees, a favorite sniper perch. The U.S. tactics were almost as rudimentary: Columns of unarmored Humvees patrolled the city, sector by sector, as lures for "enemy contact."

White told his company commanders: "Draw them out, kill as many as you can, and don't stop until you have."

For weeks, Sadr's foot soldiers had used the impenetrable acres of Najaf's cemetery, the largest in the Islamic world, as a staging area. Just blocks away is the Shrine of Imam Ali, the holiest place in Shiite Islam. As the battle loomed, both sites were designated by U.S. commanders as "exclusion zones" for their troops.

Soldiers said the rules of engagement around the zones allowed them to fire into the areas only if they could see an attacker, a nearly impossible standard given the cover provided. Dempsey said the zones were recommended by Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the head of the U.S. forces in Iraq, and drawn up in consultation with local commanders.

U.S. officers knew that damaging the shrines would inflame opinion in Iraq and worldwide against the Americans. The British, the firmest U.S. partner in Iraq, were already angered by what they saw as provocative U.S. military tactics in the holy cities.

"One private first class with one tank round could have unhinged this whole thing," Dempsey said.

U.S. soldiers said the zones awarded a tactical advantage to Sadr's men, who used them as refuges. Operating near the Shrine of Imam Ali, U.S. patrols came under steady fire that they did not return. Each night, mortars fell on their camp -- 495 in all -- fired from a mosque complex in Kufa, a few miles to the east, also protected by an exclusion zone.

"Our soldiers were getting hurt in the same places every day because of these zones," said Spec. Christopher Stinespring, 30, of Arthurdale, W.Va. "There was nothing we could do."

On May 14, Lt. Colin Cremin, the executive officer of "Aggressor" Company, arrayed tanks on the cemetery's edge and immediately came under fire.

"There were hundreds of them in there, and they had positions everywhere, popping up among these catacombs," said Lt. Michael Watson, a platoon leader from Bentleyville, Pa. "They were intelligent about their positions. They had to know our [rules of engagement] in regards to the holy sites."

As Watson's men pursued the fighters on foot, a grenade arced over the cemetery wall and exploded beneath a Humvee. After the loss of one Humvee a week earlier, sparking a celebration by Sadr's men, the soldiers refused to surrender this one. The resulting firefight turned into a six-hour defense of a burning car.

"We weren't going to let them dance on it for the news," said Capt. Ty Wilson, 31, of Fairfax, Va., who commands "Apache" Company. "Even all the guys they lost that day, that still would have given them victory. Once they saw we weren't going to leave it, though, they really stepped up the attack."

After the troops took mortar fire for days from behind the cemetery wall, a tank was sent to knock down a 200-foot section, exposing the fighters inside. Qasim Alwan, a Najaf resident who watched the fight, remembered the animosity it inspired.

"Most people were out of their houses because they feared the war, and what was happening in the cemetery," said Alwan, 36. "What happened disrespected what the cemetery means to us."

But the mortar attacks stopped.

Mukhaiyam Mosque, Karbala: May 11-21
By May 11, Sadr's militants had withdrawn into a square-mile area around Karbala's shrines. For the first time, Bishop's soldiers contended with an exclusion zone of their own.

That evening Bishop sent hundreds of soldiers into buildings around the Mukhaiyam mosque. Sgt. Shane Hill, a 24-year-old from Chicago, entered a boys school a block west of the mosque. He found tank rounds and four men who identified themselves as Iraqi police officers bound and gagged, badly beaten and smelling of urine.

As Hill worked to clear the school, mortar shells fell in the courtyard, fired by teams of insurgents who faded into the old city. Bishop, observing from a few blocks away, would not let his men pursue them into the exclusion zone. Asked how he made the decision, Bishop said, "By being here a year."

The battle moved to the shrines. Over 10 days, Bishop's soldiers played cat-and-mouse with insurgents who took cover among the city's alleyways, covered archways and low rooftops. Residents were caught in the fighting. The soldiers estimate that 20 civilians were killed in Karbala during the fighting, a figure that could not be independently verified.

Squeezed into a few downtown blocks, Sadr militants began using children to shuttle ammunition, soldiers said. Youngsters carrying large plastic bags darted from corner to corner, and the soldiers would not shoot them. "We all grew up knowing you don't hurt women and children," Taylor said. "And they used that to their advantage."

Sadr militants accused U.S. forces of killing hundreds of civilians, a claim denied by U.S. commanders. Hussein Hadi, the assistant director of Najaf's general hospital, said 81 civilians were killed and 353 others wounded during the weeks of fighting. Many of Sadr's militiamen wore black uniforms, making it relatively easy to distinguish between civilian and insurgent. But that changed as the battle wore on.

On May 21, Bishop's men destroyed two arms stockpiles and two Sadr headquarter buildings. The remaining militants, whose numbers swelled to more than 400 over the course of the fighting, vanished overnight.

Kufa: May 24-June 4
By the last week in May, Najaf's war of attrition had entered its endgame. From two sides, battalion-size tank units converged on the town of Kufa, a few miles east of Najaf, where Sadr delivered Friday sermons.

In darkness, tank platoons began pushing into Kufa across a bridge over the Euphrates. Fighters holed up in a former palace and a technical college watched over the west side of the river. Each night, soldiers shot tank rounds into the buildings.

On the night of May 24, Lt. Col. Bob Burns, commander of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's 3rd Squadron, sent three tanks under Capt. Geoff Wright on a scouting mission across the bridge. As the convoy turned north toward the Kufa mosque complex, the heart of Sadr's militia, six rocket-propelled grenades hit the lead tank.

"Every alley had four- to five-man teams, firing," said Wright, 31, of Emmaus, Pa. "The sheer amount of it was awe-inspiring."

Wright's tanks pounded back for hours as they looped through Kufa. When he returned to base, only one of three tanks was deemed "mission-capable." The following day Sadr's aides announced a truce.

"They may be poor, they may be untrained," Wright said. "But they are not cowards."

Before the start of Friday prayers a few days later, Burns sent a tank company across to verify the truce. It was the first daylight operation in weeks of combat.

The traffic appeared heavy when they crossed the bridge at 7:45 a.m. As they moved toward the mosque, a message blared from its loudspeaker, calling on Sadr's supporters to "fight for Allah and you will go to paradise." The firing started immediately.

"It was the first time I'd seen a Mahdi Army fighter up close," Wright said. "He was 17 or so. I was shocked he was so young."

Riding in an open Humvee, Spec. Rodney Clayborn, 21, swung down an alley following the source of grenade fire. Moments later he looked toward the rooftops and saw a ball of flame rushing at him.

"I tried to shoot it down," he said. "But it hit and blew up right in front of us."

The grenade concussion knocked Clayborn out and when he revived the Humvee was being riddled with rifle fire. He scrambled out of his seat, bleeding from shrapnel wounds to his arms, legs and right ear. He saw his sergeant on the ground, wounded badly in the arm.

"He asked me if he was going to make it," recalled Clayborn, tears streaking his smooth face. "I kind of paused, and said, 'Yes, you're going to be fine.' He didn't believe me."

He wasn't sure himself, although he turned out to be right. Screaming for help, Clayborn summoned several soldiers who pulled him out of the alley.

"I think it's God's plan to have me stay here until this mission is finished," said Clayborn, of Lancaster, Calif., who received a Purple Heart after the fight.

The cease-fire took effect on June 4, days after troops arrested two key Sadr lieutenants, one of them in a convoy that commanders believed may have carried Sadr himself. Within days, Sadr announced plans to form a political party and compete in elections next year. What remained of his army flowed out of the city in minibuses.

"We'd routinely stop caravans of men 18 to 25 years old," said Capt. Brandon Payne, 29, of Chattanooga. "They had no weapons, so we couldn't do anything."

No one is certain exactly how many Sadr militants remain, although division intelligence officers say there are no more than several hundred. Dempsey said he never formally agreed to a cease-fire, and said he could not be sure that the fighters who survived would not regroup. Nonetheless, he defended the timing of the decision to stop fighting.

"It was clear there was a point at which the people of Najaf would blame the militia for what was happening, and beyond that they would blame us," Dempsey said of the decision. "We watched that point carefully."

But many soldiers believe the decision was premature, and that it will haunt the Iraqi government after the 1st Armored Division has gone home.

"Our effort here has been semi-wasted," said Staff Sgt. Luke Andrzejewski, 35, of San Francisco. "They have lived to fight again, and that's exactly what they'll do."