How Najaf was won
From the first clashes with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia members on the streets of Najaf, Iraq, on Aug. 12, to the final cease-fire 15 days later, American troops fought a battle that sometimes was overshadowed by political and religious events.
But as the politicians and religious leaders met, soldiers and Marines fought — and dominated — the battlefield.
“The soldiers and Marines that fought with Task Force 2-7 performed remarkably,” said Lt. Col. Jim Rainey, commander, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. “They took the fight to the enemy and closed with the enemy and destroyed the enemy, whether he attacked us, or attempted to hide from us, or attempted to exfiltrate away from us.”
Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment; the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, along with a battalion landing team from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment took part in the fight.
The plan was simple.
While 1-5 Cav and BLT 1/4 pushed from the north toward Najaf’s Medina — an area that houses the Imam Ali mosque and was the focal point of the militia’s defense — 2-7 Cavalry fought its battle from the south and east through the old city of Najaf.
“Our original plan … was aimed at seizing areas from which we could dominate portions of the city,” said 2-7 Cav operations officer Maj. Tim Karcher, 37, of Harker Heights, Texas.
During their first day of battle, Cougar Company fought its way into the southwest corner of the city, where it faced a barrage of small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and even makeshift bombs.
Concurrently, Apache and Comanche companies pushed up from the south, taking the southeast portion of the old city area. Comanche then drove north, cutting off the Medina complex from nearby Kufa, which was believed to be the main supply route for militia forces.
“The enemy fighters seemed to be caught off guard initially,” said Karcher. “We ruptured their defenses. We had traumatized the enemy, we hit them so quickly and hard.”
Over the next two days, the battalion advanced to selected objectives, tightening the noose around the militia forces in the Medina.
“We were essentially doing an urban version of island hopping,” said Karcher. “You can’t be everywhere, so you decide where you want to control. It was a very well-reasoned risk.”
Once the key points, usually schools or factory complexes, were taken, the battalion found that the enemy would usually either melt away or attempt to sneak back toward the Medina.
By Aug. 23, 2-7 Cav was less than 100 meters outside of the Medina complex, which was bordered by a ring road. Inside was a coalition-designated exclusion zone in which U.S. forces couldn’t initially operate.
As Army and Marine units drew closer to the Medina, the exclusion zone became smaller, eventually shrinking to right around the Imam Ali mosque.
Within 24 hours, 2-7 Cav got its first foothold in the Medina when a patrol led by Sgt. Chad Overman of the 3rd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment of the Arkansas Army National Guard, crossed into the exclusion zone.
By Aug. 24, companies from 1-5 Cav covered the Medina’s northern edge, while the Marines held the northwest edge. Apache Company of 2-7 Cav held the Medina’s eastern edge, Comanche the southeastern edge and Cougar sat near the southern edge. The desert provided the Medina’s western border.
Forces slowly pushed ahead, using aircraft, artillery and armor to help clear the enemy fighters from their fighting positions.
On Thursday, Aug. 26, militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi civilian and religious officials agreed to a cease-fire and withdrawal of militia fighters set for the next day.
Despite an end to the major fighting, 2-7 Cav had five wounded from enemy fire after the cease-fire was announced.
Pilgrims replaced troops in Najaf that Friday, the traditional Muslim holy day, as thousands converged on the mosque. By that evening, the first U.S. elements had withdrawn from their positions, which were as close as 200 meters from the mosque.
A few days later at Camp David, a desert Marine Corps base near Najaf, Rainey summed up the battalion’s two-week fight.
“While we had 29 wounded, none of those soldiers lost their lives,” said Rainey. “Any time you can accomplish a mission in urban [areas] … for 15 days and not lose a soldier there’s got to be a large amount of grace from God.”
Seven Marines and three soldiers from other units were killed during the fighting, which also left hundreds of militia members dead.