Squeezing An Najaf (Part 2)

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Tanks with the 3rd Infantry division begin an assualt on An Najaf

At dusk the 2-327 Infantry battalion moved up to their assault positions for the next day. They found the enemy waiting for them.

Atop a hundred-foot ridge, paramilitary infantry and medium artillery had occupied a series of apartment complexes, from where they directed heavy fire on the advancing infantry. The U.S. troops immediately went to ground and called for help.

Earlier in the day, the battalion had made an armed reconnaissance into the area and came under sporadic fire, which they suppressed with some micro-scale shock and awe. It was assumed at the time that Iraqi forces would return when the reconnaissance units departed.

They did.

Alerted by the reconnaissance as to where the next U.S. thrust would come, they came out in force to stop it. For a few minutes, it seemed that every window along the ridge was spitting out machinegun bullets. Hoping to keep collateral damage to a minimum, Battalion commander LTC Chris Hughes called on his TOWs to silence the enemy guns. The TOW is a wire guided anti-tank missile with a powerful blast, and those available to LTC Hughes' forces are fitted with the new ITAS sites that allow the user to see an enemy's trigger finger 3,000 meters away in the dark.

Over the next few hours, the battalion fired over 45 missiles into the apartment complex, almost all of them going directly through a window. By 9:00pm, it was a brave Iraqi who was willing to draw the attention of the deadly accurate TOWs, and enemy fire had almost completely ceased. Then one of the unit's artillery observers directed LTC Hughes' attention to an artillery piece being rolled into position on the top of the ridge.

No sooner had Hughes trained his binoculars on the area than it exploded under the impact of a TOW missile. But Kiowa helicopters had spotted two others behind the ridge, and reported other enemy in the area. Hughes ordered the Kiowa's to attack with their rockets and now called in his own artillery and some close air support from the Air Force. In blinding flashes of artillery and rocket impacts, the Iraq artillery and their crews were destroyed.

For a brief lull there was no fire from either side and the infantry began to slowly inch forward again. Almost immediately, they came under a fusillade of fire from a large white building on the far edge of the apartment complex. There was a brief moment of chatter on the radio: "We are taking heavy fire from our left." Close air support was already rolling in and an air Liaison officer on the ground was designating the new target.

Hughes spoke into the microphone, "What building?"

"I say again," came the reply, "The white building."

In a blast of fire and smoke the building vanished as two 500 lb bombs smashed through its center.

Having met more resistance then he expected Hughes continued to pound the ridge line with mortars, artillery and over a dozen more air strikes.

Next morning, the commander ordered his five tanks up the road towards An Najaf. The anti-mine blade on the lead tank detonated three mines as it advanced and engineers later cleared 66 more. Before the infantry started to advance, Hughes had the artillery fire a smoke screen in front of the suspected enemy positions. This was the last straw for a dozen of them, who promptly started waving white flags and walking towards American lines. A few minutes later the infantry began a cautious advance. There was no enemy fire and Hughes said, "We broke their back last night."

By early morning the battalion had secured a strong lodgment just inside the city, and its biggest problem became keeping the crowds of civilians away from U.S. positions. By the hundreds they came by to give the thumbs up sign, wave and smile. Special Forces soldiers asked the locals for help in spotting paramilitaries. Very few volunteered. A Special Forces soldier, who wished not to be identified, said, "It is amazing the hold Saddam has on these people. They are scared to death of him. Even with hundreds of soldiers in the area they are afraid he will return."

One man, ignoring the pleas of his friends stepped forward and said he could help. He was taken to a map where he pointed to a position and said, "They are there now, 20 of them and vehicles." A helicopter was sent to investigate and reported military vehicles camouflaged in a yard. Within minutes artillery and rocket fire rained in on the position, and for hours afterwards ammunition from a cache in the area continued to explode. The man returned to his friends who were now all smiles.

As the day dragged on, there were no further signs of enemy resistance in the area or in the areas of either of the other two battalions on the southern side of the city. An engineer sergeant said, "If this town were a woman you could stop buying her drinks now."

When the Division Commander, Major General Patraeus came by late in the afternoon he seemed to have come too much the same conclusion. "It is time to stop dipping around the edges," he said, "and jump into the pool." Tomorrow the 2-327 Battalion and its sister units will push deeper into the city and possibly determine once and for all who owns it.