Squeezing An Najaf

  • Share
  • Read Later
At dawn Monday, Colonel Ben Hodges, Commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne, climbed a 150-foot tower, standing on a recently abandoned electrical plant. He was going to watch the opening phases of the brigade's first offensive operations. In the morning chill, he saw the brigade's 3rd Battalion form up behind a low berm south of the An Najaf Airport. At exactly 6:30 AM the battalion, supported by five tanks, swept across the airfield in almost textbook fashion. By 9:00 AM one of the largest airports in southern Iraq was declared secure and Army engineers were already on the airfield opening it up for future use and for cargo flights of emergency humanitarian relief.

Even before daylight, one of Colonel Hodges's other units, 1st Battalion, had moved out on a separate mission to assault a large infantry training complex being used as a rallying point for paramilitary forces. After quick initial gains the battalion came under heavy automatic weapons, RPG and mortar fire. By dusk, the battalion had killed 44 Iraqi paramilitary soldiers and captured a storehouse filled with weapons.

But it was the Brigade's 2nd Battalion that faced the toughest assignment. Their mission was to silence harassing fire from the Tomb of Ali without seriously damaging one of the holiest sites in Islam. They drove Iraqis off, but their return is considered a certainty.

Containing An Najaf

Coalition commanders never wanted to go near An Najaf, which along with Karbala is considered by many Muslims to be among the holiest places in the world. Inside the city is the tomb of Ali, son-in-law and cousin to Mohammed and founder of the Shiite sect. Coalition leaders saw no benefit to getting into a possible street fight in a city that could be portrayed as an attack on Islam.

But last week, as units of the 3rd Infantry Division rolled into areas west of the city they were greeted by furious assaults by paramilitary forces staging out of An Najaf. When the 3rd ID departed to rest and refit for the assault on the Republican Guard, the job of containing the city fell to the 101st Airborne Division. Using two of its three brigades the 101st put a cordon around An Najaf. Unwilling to send infantry into the city, which still held upwards of 500 Saddam zealots, the Division's leaders have adopted a slow squeezing strategy.

At one entry/exit point in the cordon, what has fast became known as Checkpoint Charlie, the troops got the first indication that the people in An Najaf welcomed their arrival. Hundreds of them passed by smiling and waving to the soldiers who remained wary nonetheless. Dozens of men approached the soldiers to offer information about the paramilitary forces inside and ask when the Americans were going into the city.

Americans who may wonder why the people of southern Iraq have not risen up in revolt against Saddam yet would receive an instructive lesson in a household near the American positions. Outside the house a man stood smiling and waving at every passing American vehicle. A soldier, passing on foot spotted a picture of Saddam on the wall and pointed at it. Unabashed the man went into his home took the picture down and spit on Saddam's face. He then carefully wiped it off and hung the picture back up.

An Iraqi from the area traveling with the Americans explained. "He remembers the last time America encouraged the people in this area to revolt and that Saddam came here with his tanks and killed hundreds of thousands. He will not take the picture down until he is sure you are staying this time."

Inside the fight

By Sunday evening Colonel Hodges had made his plans and issued all of the appropriate orders. Driving back to Checkpoint Charlie he joined a small group of vehicles that made up his Operations Center for the upcoming attack. Checkpoint Charlie, at night was a dismal place. It was bitter cold, fly infested and the sporadic incoming mortar round made it hard for those so inclined to sleep. Two dead Iraqi soldiers were only 20 yards from the position and Hodges ordered them removed immediately, but not before wild dogs had already gorged on them.

At dawn, Hodges rushed off to the tower to be in position to watch the seizure of the airfield by his 3rd Battalion. After watching them for an hour, Hodges left to check on reports his 1st Battalion was meeting enemy resistance at the military complex it had been told to seize. By the time he arrived Lt. Colonel Marcus DeOliveira had called in an air strike, which killed or at least silenced the 3-4 Iraqis holding up the advance.

Moments later though, the lead company came under heavy mortar, automatic rifle and RPG fire that made further movement impossible. Using all the weapons his battalion could bring to bear brought a quick end to enemy fire. Iraqi attempts to send more troops to the area by pick-up truck ran into the 120mm main guns of tanks sent to reinforce the 2nd Battalion. They fared no better then their compatriots who were killed by the 3rd ID days earlier.

When the fighting was over, 1st Battalion counted 44 enemy dead and had captured 3,000 automatic weapons, hundreds of mortars and anti-tank weapons along with thousands of cases of ammunition.

Even before the 1st Battalion had won its battle, Colonel Hodges had departed to oversee the attack of 2nd Battalion. Unable to hit an enemy that was using the Tomb of Ali for sanctuary the battalion commander, LTC Hughes, was trying to impress them with the hopelessness of the situation by using his own version of shock and awe. For two hours he called in artillery and Air Force fire all around the suspected enemy areas, as his troops moved through tough terrain to recon approach routes for tomorrow's full attack.

LTC Hughes admits that he may have to enter the cemetery to get the Iraqis out of there, though he clearly hopes that will not be necessary. As for the Tomb of Ali itself he says, "We will not go in there. If it comes to it, I have snipers that will kill them without doing any damage to the building."