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We Remember Iraq: The Easter Uprising – Part III
By RU Contributor Antonio Aguilar
The Fall of Al Kut
It was on our third night in Najaf that we got word to leave from there and go to Al Kut. The city had, apparently, fallen to Jaysh al Mahdi and 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division was tasked with recapturing it.
Al Kut was east of Najaf, straddling the Tigris River. Strategically it was of vast importance, not only for its control of bridges but also because it was close to Iran, a therefore major smuggling point for Jaysh al Mahdi. Controlled by a Ukrainian unit, there was a small detachment of Marines there that provided fire support. The NCOIC of this unit was Andre Rivera. I was able to track him down while doing research and he shared good information with me on the events of the battle prior to my unit’s arrival there. There has been at least one book written on the battle of Al Kut, and it plays down the recapture of the city. Having been there, I know that things were a little more hectic than the official version might imply. But I digress…
We were still in Najaf, on our third night, and Jaysh al Mahdi was obviously not going to take the FOB now. Ghost Troop had been the tip of the spear so to speak, the lead element of the Brigade. Now a portion of one of our infantry battalions arrived with their Bradley Fighting Vehicles. I can’t recall if it was 1/6 or 2/6 Infantry. They came into Golf-Baker and then pushed back out to try to clear the route for the Brigade TOC which had come in with them. Ghost Troop was given the order to spin up and get ready to move. It was probably the night of April 7th, going into the morning of April 8th, and events had been going downhill in Al Kut the whole time. As with Fallujah, the entire city had fallen to the insurgents. Still, we had other things to worry about, like making it out of Najaf alive.
A portion of the infantry battalion pushed out, and came under fire immediately. From inside of Golf-Baker it sounded as though all hell had broken loose in the city and for JAM, I’m sure it did feel like hell. The rolling fire fight continued for maybe a half hour and then the patrol came back in. One soldier had been wounded but from what I’ve heard he got patched up and went right back to the fight. It was just a prelude to what we would run into in a short while. There were also reports that Jaysh al Mahdi had overrun all of the Iraqi Police stations and the Iraqi Police were either working with them or dead and their uniforms looted. All of this did not bode well for us but I believe the actions of that infantry unit softened up JAM enough for us to survive what was to come.
We pushed out shortly after, having gotten a pep talk from the Brigade XO. Everything went fine at first. The streets were quiet and deserted. We reached what looked like an Iraqi Police checkpoint and the Iraqis manning it acted nervous, holding up their ID cards, waving them and assuring us that they were actually police and not Jaysh al Mahdi, and then a brigade vehicle got tangled in the concertina wire at the CP, and as SFC Hahn remembered it, “all hell broke loose. It seemed like every man who had a gun in that city had been alerted and came out to take a shot at us”.
There was a squeal of tires and a crunch of an impact at the head of the convoy. A pickup loaded with Jaysh al Mahdi had sped out of a side street, followed by a little car. The driver apparently didn’t know we were there, or didn’t realize the size of our element and tried to swerve to speed off, but hit a building instead. The JAM fighters in the back of the truck got off a few rounds and then a wall of fire hit them. All but probably two or three of the men in the vehicles died in the first few seconds of the fight. A few of them sprinted for a house to our left and at least one made it over to the wall into the building. One man, injured, was trying to raise his weapon still and Ian Wilson, who was riding behind me (I was driving), killed him. At least one house to our left was marked with tracers, coming and going it seemed. By this point I was out of my truck since the brigade TOC vehicle was still tangled up. Wilson yelled that he was out of ammo and I yelled back that I had him covered so he could change magazines. Everyone was yelling, everyone was shooting, and while we certainly poured more fire back at Jaysh al Mahdi, some of them were somehow still alive.
The convoy was moving again, and as we passed the side street, another burst of fire came across the convoy. I was steering with my left hand and had my weapon in my right, resting in the crook of my left elbow. I sent two bursts right back down the street and felt my bolt lock back. I did a magazine change on the fly and as we moved on, I could still hear the fire coming and going from the convoy as we pushed through the ambush and made it out of Najaf.
Like the Salvadorans, the Hondurans at FOB Hotel were generous with their ammunition and helped us resupply after the fire fight in the city. We barely got done with our resupply and refit and we left again, driving on through the night, the “most painful and agonizing road trip of the entire deployment” as Corey Isaacs remembered it. We were cold, exhausted, and we still had another battle to fight.
At dawn we arrived at Camp Delta outside of Al Kut, enduring SFC Hahn’s grumblings about the Soviet Block, meaning the Ukrainians, who used Russian made equipment and weapons. Having joined the Army during the Cold War, our acting First Sergeant was not a fan of anyone who drove BMPs and BRDM2s. Still the Ukrainians were welcoming enough and we finally found out some of what had happened there. I got the rest of the story later from Andre Rivera.
Al Kut had been quiet because Muqtada al Sadr was smuggling Iranian weapons through the city and didn’t want to raise any suspicions. On April 3rd, things began to go downhill though. Two Special Forces soldiers were shot, and when the SF team climbed some grain towers on the river they saw hundreds of Jaysh al Mahdi massing in the city for an assault. The SF team pulled back, and the Ukrainians inside of the city pulled back as well, with the exception of those at the Coalition Provisional Authority compound which was inside the city, right on the river. Less than a hundred people were there. Most were Ukrainian military but some were civilians and there was a small American team as well. Within a matter of minutes the compound was under siege.
Andre River had his team at the front gate of Camp Delta, and they began to take fire. JAM had more or less gained control of the city and the bridges. Rivera called up, requesting authorization to do a show of force by dropping a bomb on a sand bar in the river, but was denied. Meanwhile, as they talked to the forces inside the CPA compound, he could hear the impacts of RPGs every time they keyed up their radio. With little else to do aside from getting shot at, he linked up with the Ukrainian snipers and helped out as a spotter, helping them take out some of the Jaysh al Mahdi militia who were firing on the front gate.
Sometime around 1700 or 1800 that afternoon, Jaysh al Mahdi sent a delegation across the bridge to “negotiate” letting the besieged occupants of the CPA compound leave. They were buying time, and trying to scout Camp Delta. One of their numbers began to take pictures of the gate and the soldiers there, since there was a bounty on various SF troops. One of the Special Forces operators smashed the camera and there was a brief gunpoint standoff, which Rivera joined in. Eventually JAM backed off and pretended to keep the cease fire. During the lull in the fighting they began to push disabled vehicles into the roadways to fortify their positions.
An AC-130 came on station and Rivera came up with a plan to have the defenders in the CPA compound conduct grazing fires, trying to draw JAM out to return fire so that Spooky could locate targets. This plan, like the show of force, was shot down because it might be considered a violation of the cease fire. The cease fire was all a sham, but it was still honored regardless. Jaysh al Mahdi continued intermittent fire on both the gate and the CPA compound. A Ukrainian soldier was killed, and then, finally, under the cover of darkness after Spooky was finally able to make a few strikes, the compound was finally evacuated. Andre Rivera had spent twenty-seven hours on the radio, helping direct assets and the battle both. His own truck had been hit but his gunner held his ground and returned fire.
The situation stagnated then, with Jaysh al Mahdi holding the city of Al Kut on one bank of the Tigris and the Ukrainians, Marines, and National Guard holding the other bank and Camp Delta. Neither side could do much to change the situation at the moment, and then 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division began to arrive, along with elements of the 2rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.