WARNORD: Joint Operation Valhalla SITUATION—LT. COL (Ret.) Gordon Cucullu, a decorated US...
We Remember Iraq: The Easter Uprising – Part II
By RU Contributor Antonio Aguilar
The Siege of Najaf
The trip from Baghdad to Najaf was “uneventful” as my platoon sergeant, Corey Isaacs, recalled it. The worst thing that happened to him was a kid spitting on him. The worst thing that happened to everyone, up until that night anyway, was the fuel injector on a truck going out. We arrived in the late afternoon at FOB Hotel, run by the Hondurans from what I can remember, just outside of Najaf. As dusk settled I was worked up, pacing and ranting about “why the fuck aren’t we rolling in if they’re pinned down inside the city”. Night settled in and so did the cold. Spring nights in the desert are freezing. We had packed in such haste that we had only focused on mission essential items like food, water, and POL products. Most soldiers hadn’t had time to grab their sleeping bags. I was lucky, and had left the thinner lining of my sleeping bag, along with the shell, packed into a butt-pack of the style once used with the old school LBV, inside of my truck. I gave the shell to another soldier but even that was little shelter against the cold. Ghost troop spent a cold and miserable night shivering outside at FOB Hotel.
For most of us that night was the coldest we had felt in a year. We were using everything from ponchos to gun covers to try stay warm that night. -SPC Michael Paccerelli
The following day we rolled into Najaf proper. The streets didn’t look like a war zone to me. People were out in large crowds just walking around as though nothing had happened. It was not until we arrived at Golf-Baker that we began to get a clear picture of the situation.
Golf-Baker was two FOBs linked together by a narrow road with concertina wire on either side. The concrete barriers at the main gate were pockmarked on all sides by bullet holes. A bus sat on the main road out front, completely perforated and partially burned out. Many areas of the FOBs had brass littering the ground and it was obvious that there had been a battle earlier. There were soldiers of various nationalities there, and it didn’t take long for us to gravitate to the Salvadorans.
We arrived at the Spanish compound in An Najaf around 1700 hours. As I got out of my vehicle and looked around to assess the situation, I was immediately shocked to see the condition of this compound; terrible and inadequate defenses, trash piled high all around, and port-a-potties that appeared they hadn’t been serviced in weeks. The Spanish soldiers themselves did not appear any better…
Fortunately for all involved, they shared responsibility for this sector with an element (a reinforced company, I believe) of Salvadoran soldiers. Their compounds were connected by a barely defended strip of about 300 meters of land with a single strand of concertina wire on either side of the path. I drove over to the Salvadoran compound and observed a completely different situation. This compound was laid out and prepared by the book with mortar and machine gun positions properly constructed with all around and overhead cover, sectors of fire clearly defined for each position, and clean. The soldiers themselves were all in the proper uniform and carried themselves as warriors. Needless to say, I immediately understood that if all went totally bad, I would get the Troop to circle the wagons here and not with those Spanish clowns. -SFC Chris Hahn, acting 1SG at the time.
No sooner had we arrived and the firing began. What followed was a couple of days and nights of non-stop bombardment from mortars, rockets, and RPGs. There was an on-going sniper duel that lasted the entire time we were there. We never sustained any casualties during the siege, though the Iraqis certainly did. They never made a huge push to assault the compound after we had arrived, though for most of the time we, Ghost Troop with our two 18 man line platoons and part of our headquarters platoon, were the only reinforcements inside Golf-Baker.
CPT Logan, SFC Hahn, and I were behind my vehicle talking about our positions, casualty collection points, and all the other things leaders talk about beforehand when CPT Logan heard mortars being fired at us. CPT Logan and SFC Hahn immediately headed for cover and I screamed into the radio for my platoon to take cover due to incoming rounds. The good thing is we had a heads up, the bad thing is there is not a whole lot you can do about it. My crew was the only one operating out of their vehicle and the only one without overhead cover. My crew got out, quickly, and we all sidled up next to the Hesco barriers and said a short and meaningful prayer. The first round landed about 400 meters north of our position and the second one about 300 meters north. They were walking the rounds in on us. The third landed about 275 meters out and the fourth around the same area. Lucky for us, they did not get better this night, but the next night would be different. -SSG Corey Isaacs.
There were several positions on the rooftops to hold and we were split up by truck crews. The roof top that my unit took up positions on had a partial structure on top, a series of arches and some low walls, as well as a little covered area where the stairs went up. Climbing up there was the scariest part of the whole incident for me. It was a few flights up and the stairs were dark, rough, and unfinished. Each step could easily be your last; one small trip could mean plummeting a few dozen feet down the open stair well to the concrete below. Once up there, moving past the arches often resulted in a single shot coming from out in the city, an Iraqi sniper firing wildly at the movement.
The night passed with us rotating out to catch quick naps here and there, with mortar rounds randomly slamming into and around the FOB, and sniper rounds coming in now and then. The Spanish sniper teams were up all night too, firing back, picking off one JAM fighter after another. On our second night, one of the Spanish snipers took at least three JAM snipers, all about six hundred meters away. Those soldiers stood out when the rest of the Spanish military did not impress, but more on that later.
At dawn, second platoon relieved my platoon (1st) and we went down to spend some time filling sand bags and carting them up to the roof to reinforce our positions before catching a few hours of sleep in a room loaned to us by our hosts. The bunks were made of canvas stretched on metal frames, stacked three high. Being scrawny, I got a top bunk which at least meant I didn’t have some dude hanging over me. I passed out with my hat over my face, and hardly woke from the sporadic firing that went on and off all day. Only the occasional direct hits from RPGs and mortars into the FOB would wake me.
Sometime during the first or second day there, the Spanish decided to help fight, at least a little bit. There was a building being used by JAM for their spotters, on the far side of the main road in front of the FOB. They were also stockpiling weapons there it seemed. The Spanish finally agreed to bring out their LAVs and use the main guns. On a single command, several fighting positions and the LAVs all opened up and leveled the building. The number of secondary explosions pretty much confirmed that there were weapons being stockpiled there, possibly for another assault. The other incident I remember hearing about was a JAM fighter trying to shoot an RPG out of a building. The back blast probably knocked his aim off and the rocket hit the inside of the window, exploding the room he was in. I never saw this incident myself, since I was probably asleep at the time. My main recollections of the day time was the building shaking from the explosions and the firing of the LAVs.
During that first day we were woken a little early from our sleep by our PL, 1LT Scott Elliot. Apparently there were reports that JAM was massing at a nearby mosque to launch another assault. As I got up and started cleaning my weapon, I remember thinking that this was it; this could easily be the day that I died. Considering how quiet everyone was, avoiding the usual raunchy jokes we told, I suspected others might be having the same morbid thoughts. Years later, when talking with Jason Richards, I learned that this was the case. He was also thinking that he might very well die that day. Still we got up and cleaned our weapons and went to the roof tops to listen to the sniper battle.
We shifted positions at some point and I recall a man in civilian clothes with an expensive rack and tricked out M4 crawling over to my position to ask me what was going on. I thought he was Special Forces and told him what I knew, pointing out my sectors of fire. I found out later on he was probably a civilian security contractor. The snipers kept at it, and JAM was losing ground in that arena so they started launching flares over the FOB that night. For me, what I recall of the night was hunkering down next to our fighting position, watching the flickering and shifting light of the flares play across the worried and exhausted faces of my fellow soldiers. For a few other guys it was something more, their position taking two direct hits from mortars.
I was on the floor immediately below checking the machine gun position there. Once again, we heard a mortar fire off three rounds in the distance. I don’t recall if it was the first and second rounds or second and third, however, I did hear a loud thudding sound come from the roof and another thudding sound just outside the window on the ground on the side of the building I was on. The next morning we discovered two unexploded mortars rounds, one impacted the roof and another outside the building. Those loud thuds I heard were probably caused by those mortar rounds impacting and failing to explode. I guess it wasn’t our time to go. -SFC Chris Hahn
Jaysh al Mahdi was indiscriminate with their mortars. Many of their rounds never hit the FOB. On that particular night I remember watching the impacts as they walked mortar rounds in on us across a residential neighborhood, the brief glow of superheated shrapnel flying out like sparks, marking where they struck. I always wondered how many civilians they killed that way, and why the civilians still supported them for the most part, or at least turned a blind eye to their activity. It would take years, until 2007 really, before the civilians began to realize that they could stand up to the terrorists and make their own lives better.
When dawn came after that second night, I saw the aftermath of the sniper battle. There were some Olympic rings over a dry swimming pool outside the FOB. A JAM sniper had climbed up there and tied himself off with a rope, only to be shot by a Spanish sniper. His body was dangling on the end of the rope, blood pooling on the concrete bottom of the pool below him.
In Part III we will return with the Fall of Al Kut.