Army Used Speed and Might, Plus Cash, Against Shiite Rebel

June 26, 2004

New York Times


BAGHDAD, Iraq - In April, as festering resistance exploded
into full-fledged rebellion, soldiers of the First Armored
Division were given their final mission in Iraq: to wrest
control of a string of southern towns from a radical Shiite
militia intent on disrupting the scheduled transfer of
sovereignty on June 30.

These American soldiers, some of whom had already left Iraq
and others just short of leaving after a year in combat,
would instead spend nearly three months in one of the most
significant campaigns of the war.

The division's operation against the militia of Moktada
al-Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric, is already being
studied by an Army struggling to learn the lessons of a war
that continues to evolve even as the formal occupation of
Iraq changes gears next week.

As described by top commanders in Iraq and senior policy
makers in Washington, the campaign was a mix of military
tactics, political maneuverings, media management and a
generous dollop of cash for quickly rebuilding war-ravaged
cities - a formula that, if it survives the test of time,
could become a model for future fighting against the
persistent insurrections plaguing Iraq.

But on the eve of the transfer of power, the question is
whether the tactical successes the commanders are quick to
claim have guaranteed a lasting strategic victory.

As the division's new date for departure approaches, Mr.
Sadr remains at large. Despite an Iraqi arrest warrant for
the murder of a rival cleric, he recently hinted that he
would challenge the new government in the political arena.

When the First Armored Division got orders to mount its
counterattack against the Sadr militia, one-fourth of its
30,000 soldiers and more than half of its 8,000 tanks,
armored vehicles and artillery pieces had already left
Iraq. The division, along with the Second Light Cavalry
Regiment, also under its command, did an about-face,
recalling troops, unpacking gear and receiving unwelcome
orders to extend its stay by 90 days.

"I called together all my commanders, and I told them that
we were going to demonstrate that a heavy force could be
agile - to put heavy and agile in the same sentence, a
place where they had never been before," said Maj. Gen.
Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the First Armored Division,
whose signature weapon is the 70-ton Abrams tank.

"And 15 hours later, from a standing start in Baghdad, we
moved 170 kilometers down to Najaf, and were in contact
with the enemy," General Dempsey said, referring to a
distance of just over 100 miles.

As quickly as the military spent its ammunition, though, it
spent its money in an effort to heal some of the wounds it
was inflicting, and those dealt by the militia as well.

From the moment the Americans recaptured Kut, the first
town where they reclaimed control, officers switched from
military to civil operations. Having scattered the enemy,
they pulled them back together and put them to work in an
amusement park destroyed in the fight.

"These are young men who have been poisoned, unemployed,
disenfranchised and very poorly led," General Dempsey said.
"We found a local tribal sheik who said he could corral
them. We hired him to repair the amusement park, and he in
turn hired these young men."

The example was repeated in Diwaniya and all across
south-central Iraq, where General Dempsey spent several
hundred thousand dollars to pay locals to remove rubble,
rebuild roads and finance claims for damaged homes and

The campaign against the Sadr militia in south-central Iraq
also had to be fought elsewhere - inside military
headquarters in Baghdad, in the command-and-control "Tank"
at the Pentagon, inside the National Security Council at
the White House and even at the United Nations, as senior
commanders debated with civilian policy makers how best to
counter this menacing militia presence that grew in the
shadows of the American occupation.

On one side were those who believed that Mr. Sadr could be
sidelined, and that to attack him would only stoke support
among his followers in Iraq and beyond its borders. This
view was convincing to the uppermost level of commanders in
Iraq, and certainly was the stance of Bush administration
officials, especially after they heard the opinions of
Iraq's own nascent leadership. On the other side were
those, mostly field commanders, who argued that Mr. Sadr
was a growing threat in advance of the June 30 transfer of
sovereignty, and that eventually he would have to be
arrested or eliminated to guarantee the future of a stable
and democratic Iraq.

Mr. Sadr had taken refuge in one of the shrines in Najaf,
the holiest site in all of Shiite Islam, making a direct
assault on him very difficult without inflicting large
civilian casualties and possibly damaging the shrines.

"We never had an operation to go after Sadr inside the holy
city," said Maj. Gen. John Sattler of the Marine Corps,
director of American military operations for the Middle
East. "We did not want to endanger the holy shrines. We
stayed clear of those."

So the plan focused on chipping away at the Sadr militia
with controlled strikes, and working behind the scenes with
more moderate Shiite clerics to isolate him and undercut
his local support.

"The more he and his followers occupied towns like Najaf
and Kufa, the more Iraqis were becoming fed up with the
negative impact on their towns," General Sattler said. "We
felt very strongly he was being marginalized."

During this period, other Shiite leaders made public calls
for Mr. Sadr to withdraw his forces from the holy cities
and return the cities to police and civil defense units
operating under American command.

Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the senior American commander in
Iraq, said this did not mean ceding territory. But others,
even within the military, worried that the Americans had in
effect allowed large parts of southern Iraq to slip out of
their control.

A number of field officers had argued - as a few still do -
for a swift strike at Mr. Sadr himself.

One senior administration official said that after June 30,
the decision about how to deal with him "is no longer up to
us." The new Iraqi government will be making those calls.

But back in early April, officers and policy makers were
wondering whether America was about to lose Iraq. General
Dempsey, whose troops had previously been in charge of
securing Baghdad and its suburbs, planned a far-reaching
campaign to seize control of provincial capital after
provincial capital.

"In Baghdad, our area of operations was 750 square
kilometers, and now we were looking at 20,000 square
kilometers," General Dempsey said. "In Baghdad, we had
strictly urban terrain, and now we were looking at a
complex mix of rural, tribal and some urban elements. My
immediate decision was that we really didn't need to
control the white spaces between the urban areas."

"What Moktada al-Sadr was trying to do was take a very
narrow uprising - it was not a broad-based popular
uprising; it was narrow - and demonstrate his ability to
stand up to the coalition and in so doing broaden his
support base," General Dempsey said. "We decided that we
can't allow that to happen. It had to be dealt with very
aggressively, very rapidly, very decisively."

His division would retake Kut, Diwaniya, Karbala and then
Kufa and Najaf, and in that order.

He issued the order, and 19 hours later a brigade and 112
combat vehicles had made the 180-mile trip from Najaf to

The Americans first had to cross a bridge that engineers
said could withstand the weight of their tanks - maybe.

Instead, General Dempsey sent smaller, armor-plated Humvees
of the Second Light Cavalry charging over the bridge into
the militia forces. The heavier tanks and Bradley fighting
vehicles sidestepped 46 miles north to a stronger bridge at
Numaniya and then back south along the river bank to Kut,
attacking simultaneously and catching the militia fighters
in the pincer.

Within 48 hours, the Americans recaptured the municipal
building, the local TV station and bridges in and out of
Kut. The Americans then took back Diwaniya, relieving a
Spanish brigade that then withdrew after the new Spanish
prime minister summoned them home, and securing a
provincial capital that sits between two of the occupation
forces' major supply routes.

The offensive into Karbala presented the Americans with
their first battle in a town with a shrine, as Sadr
militiamen had taken over a holy site and the adjacent main
thoroughfare. Seventy-two hours of intense fighting brought
hundreds of Iraqi casualties, but the militia still could
not be dislodged.

"We didn't want to take our combat vehicles right up to the
shrine, so we conducted a feint," General Dempsey said. "We
ran a tank company team on each side of the ring road,
north and south of the holy shrine."

The militiamen left the mosque area to confront the rolling
and dismounted troops, not knowing that General Dempsey had
put a pair of AC-130 gunships aloft to attack the exposed
militiamen with devastating Gatling guns, cannons and

"By the next day," General Dempsey said, "they had

It was important, though, to prevent the militiamen,
wherever they were encountered, from shooting and escaping
to fight another day. "If you drive through an ambush, or
get ambushed and seek shelter before returning fire, they
will get away from you," the general said. "This is not
going to be something where they can get away with shooting
and scooting."

Yet another goal was to discredit Mr. Sadr inside Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, a First Armored Division
assistant commander whose responsibilities include
information operations, said the Americans "advertised"
what Mr. Sadr had done on radio and TV and with handbills
and posters. The list of accusations included stealing
money from shrines and mosques to finance his organization,
running an illegal religious court in all the major cities,
using amusement parks in Kut, Najaf and Karbala to store
weapons, establishing illegal checkpoints to shake down
travelers and ruining businesses during pilgrimage periods
in Najaf and Karbala.

Commanders wanted their offensive to be seen as
"deliberate, patient, sensitive and precise" in its broader
goals, in particular that the shrine in Najaf - the holiest
site in Shiite Islam - would not be violated, General
Hertling said. But other mosques would be hit if they were
used as snipers' nests or arms depots, and soldiers and the
news media accompanying them - Arabs as well as British and
American reporters - were urged to document those militia
violations of the laws of war.

On the battlefield, though, "we wanted to be seen as rapid,
overwhelming, lethal and relentless," General Hertling
said. Reporters were brought on missions for that reason,

The militia uprisings were set off in April after L. Paul
Bremer III decided to crack down on Mr. Sadr by shutting
down a popular Baghdad newspaper, Al Hawza, which American
officials said had become a mouthpiece for Mr. Sadr's
incendiary criticisms of the Americans. But Mr. Bremer's
order caught American commanders by surprise.

A few days later, allied forces arrested a cleric who was a
senior aide to Mr. Sadr, Mustafa al-Yaqubi. Within 24
hours, Mr. Sadr decided to escalate his fight, and Sadr
militiamen were rampaging all across south-central Iraq.

The scale of the uprising caught Americans by surprise, but
General Dempsey argued that the timing turned out to hurt
Mr. Sadr in the end. "The enemy made a strategic error in
timing its uprising when it did," he said. "If he had
waited two more weeks, I was gone. First Armored would have
been home. The American military never runs out of options.
Other forces would have taken the mission. But these
options all had a greater degree of risk."

General Dempsey lost soldiers during the Sadr campaign,
soldiers who might otherwise be home alive if the
division's tour had not been extended.

Asked what he would say to those families, General Dempsey
replied, "I don't think they would expect me to say
anything different than I would have to the family of a
soldier who was killed in our first week here."

At the beginning of the uprising, commanders thought there
were perhaps 200 hard-core militiamen in Kut and the same
number in Diwaniya; that number is now down to under a
dozen in each city. In Karbala, there were perhaps 750
armed Sadr supporters at the start, and there is no
remaining evidence of the militia today. In the twin cities
of Najaf and Kufa, commanders estimated about 2,000
militiamen at the start of the insurgency. Today, there are
estimated to be 150 to 200 remaining, mostly inside the
shrine in Najaf. They are contained, at least for now,
though it is not clear whether they could regroup, since
Mr. Sadr remains at large, and the arrest warrant against
him was never executed.

In April and May, "Moktada al-Sadr could move with
impunity, he and his militia, in virtually any of those
places," General Dempsey said. "Now he moves with impunity
around the holy shrine in Najaf, and that's it."