Issue Date: September 13, 2004
2-7 Cav: 15 days in the fight
Soldiers go deep into world of urban combat
By Matthew Cox
Times staff writer
NAJAF, Iraq — In the hours before dawn, infantrymen from the 1st Cavalry Division hunkered down in a filthy, ground-level room inside a two-story building.
The periodic bursts of AK47 fire in the distance didn’t bother them, not anymore. After two weeks of continuous street fighting against militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, such sounds were more annoying than frightening.
Just hours earlier on Aug. 26, these 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, troops had seen some of the heaviest fighting while securing their position in the ring of U.S. forces around Sadr’s stronghold inside the Imam Ali mosque.
Like everyone thrown into the urban fight that had been raging since Aug. 5, the men with 2-7’s 1st Platoon of A Company were exhausted but couldn’t sleep, not yet. Soon, rocket-propelled grenades began to explode.
The enemy was setting up a position in a building across the street. It had to be cleared. A Bradley fighting vehicle rolled up and a gunner quickly prepped the target, shredding the door with bursts of 25mm cannon rounds.
A handful of 2-7 soldiers stacked up outside the door and rushed inside — into an explosion, recalled Spc. Abel Garces, an M249 squad automatic weapon gunner.
“We were trying to hurry up in the door when my squad leader caught shrapnel in the arm and stomach,” he said.
Some of the soldiers worked their way into the building and cleared it as others pulled the wounded back to a casualty-collection point.
Later that day, Sadr’s forces would leave the sacred Shiite shrine and lay down their weapons.
But the formal cease-fire didn’t bring an end to the fighting, not for a while.
Securing the victory
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and other U.S. commanders, credited 1st Cavalry soldiers, Marines and Iraqi security forces with handing the interim Iraqi government its “first strategic victory.” It was the final encirclement of the mosque that tightened the noose around Sadr and his Mehdi army, and convinced him to capitulate.
“When it came down to negotiating the last deal, he had no more cards on the table,” Casey told soldiers from 2-7 during an Aug. 29 visit to a small camp outside this holy city as U.S. forces began pulling back.
Soldiers from 2-7, whose roots go back to Gen. George Custer and whose motto is “Garry-Owen,” taken from an Irish drinking song the unit adopted in 1867, deployed here Aug. 8 out of Camp Cook in Taji, a camp 25 kilometers north of Baghdad. They traveled 170 kilometers south and once here, came under the control of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
They attacked Aug. 12 into the southern and southeastern portions of the city as part of a coordinated operation with soldiers from the 1st Cavalry’s 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, Marines from the 11 MEU’s 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry, and several hundred Iraqi soldiers from the new Iraqi Army.
For the next 15 days, Lt. Col. Jim Rainey’s 2-7 soldiers would fight a day-and-night urban battle.
“We fought through a 100,000 [inhabitant] urban area, 2½ kilometers by 3 kilometers, against a pretty committed enemy,” Rainey said during an Aug. 29 interview inside an Iraqi police station here.
M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles rumbled into the fight. dismounted infantry picked their way along the narrow, dangerous streets of Najaf’s Old City, backed up by Air Force and Navy fixed-wing aircraft and Army Apache and Marine Cobra helicopter gunships.
Mehdi militia, dressed in black with red scarves and carrying AK47s, soon countered with heavy mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades and multiple improvised explosive devices.
“Thank God we had tanks,” said Maj. Tim Karcher, operations officer for 2-7. “The enemy was firing down alleys less than 100 meters away.”
Instead of clearing block by block, 2-7 units leapfrogged their way through the city, raiding large buildings and compounds on dominate terrain, Rainey said.
The enemy, however, was not easily scared off and continued to attack the oncoming Americans.
“It was a little surprising that they continued to attack as long as they did, with absolutely zero success. They continued to send guys out with [rocket-propelled grenades] and AK47s to attack.”
On Aug. 23, 2-7 units, along with other U.S. ground forces, penetrated Sadr’s inner defenses and began forming a ring around the mosque.
“That is probably what convinced Sadr that talking his way out of there would be a good idea,” Rainey said. “His strong point was surrounded, and he had three [U.S.] battalions penetrating his defense.”
U.S. forces had killed untold scores of Iraqi militants, but the enemy was still not ready to give up. The fighting intensified when 2-7 units set into their positions about 300 meters from the mosque. Then U.S. and Iraqi forces began the pounding that finally would persuade the enemy to negotiate.
After the militants had moved out, U.S. troops found prepared enemy fighting positions and greater evidence of more professional command and control in the defenses, Rainey said.
Combat after the cease-fire
Some of the heaviest fighting continued even after U.S. forces were given word of the Aug. 27 cease-fire agreement.
“Even when we were told to cease operations, if you were a young infantryman in a rifle squad, you didn’t know the difference,” Rainey said.
This was definitely the case for 1st platoon, A Company. Iraqi militants wasted no time trying to gain the advantage when Bradleys pulled back from their over-watch position as part of the cease-fire.
“I guess they thought we pulled out, too; we saw them coming,” Garces recalled, describing how he and two others watched a small group of enemies approach up the alley toward their ground floor position.
“We put our weapons on them,” Garces said. “As soon as they noticed us, they raised their weapons ... so we dropped them.”
The enemy soon began attacking in groups of five to eight Iraqis, firing RPGs and small arms, said Garces, who suffered a shrapnel wound to the hand.
Once the cease-fire took hold, 2-7 had suffered 29 casualties and zero soldiers killed, said Rainey, who was thankful that Sadr agreed to leave without a final fight.
“Had this continued, I think there would have been a significant loss of life, mostly on the enemy side, but also some of our great soldiers as well,” Rainey said.
Initial reports estimated that as many as 4,000 militants were located in and around the mosque, said Rainey, who figured a more conservative estimate would be about 500 hardcore fighters backed by up to 3,500 lesser-trained militants loyal to Sadr.
“There were enough arms and ammo in there for twice that many,” he said.
When the dust settled, Iraqi residents of the city came out to thank the men who faced down the militants.
“Four families piled out of this house and came up and said ‘thank you,’” Karcher said.
A Company 1st Sgt. Richey Green, who saw combat with the 24th Infantry Division in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said he had a new respect for all his soldiers after watching them in battle.
“It was like the movies — guys laying down fire so you could get the casualties back to the medevac helicopters,” he said. “I have learned a lot about my soldiers out here. I didn’t know they had the will in them. The crews inside the Bradleys were up all night scanning ... the guys who are always late and slacking at [physical training], these guys were ready to go. There isn’t one of them that I would trade right now.”
His arm is fucked up, is the new armor only for shrapnel?
A most excellent post...
Is there something on his shoulder? That new armor?
Yes, that is the new armor that protects the shoulder/upper arm area.
I didn't see the story in the NYTimes, LATimes, WAsh Post, CNN etc.
Will someone who has been in combat please explain something to me?
How can people who are exhausted and shell-shocked continue to function effectively? What keeps them going?
I have my own ideas, but I've never been in combat, so I'm not inclined to take the ideas at face value....
it's called the WILL TO SURVIVE!!! When you get in a firefight, you try your damnedest to make it out of their alive and make the other poor bastard die for his cause.
I figured, but is it really as "simple" as that, or is there something else?
The shoulder flaps? I am not sure, but he didn't have the Sandia Gauntlet so it could of hit just below the flap. Also remember, they are not to protect the arm from attacks from the front but to protect the arm openings from attacks from the side, into the torso.
The Sandia Gauntlent covers the whole arm, up to right about where the flaps begin and they are made with RCC composite panels that are Level III.