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We Remember Iraq: The Easter Uprising – Part IV
By RU Contributor Antonio Aguilar
The Battle of Al Kut
To me, Al Kut is just a blur of exhaustion. I don’t remember exactly how many days we were there in total. I remember that it was at least a few days before we retook the city. During that time we were running various brass around or conducting little reconnaissance missions on the city. When the assault finally happened, my platoon, 1st, was held back as a reserve force and I got the first sleep I had enjoyed during those days. I didn’t actually get to see the assault, and then after the city was taken we moved into the CPA compound, destroyed the lead elements of a Jaysh al Mahdi counterattack, and settled things right there. Others remember other things from the days there, and I’ve tried to piece together an accurate picture from those stories.
A funny thing I remember happened during this time. We received instructions from the Brigade TAC to send an element to the airfield and pick up one of the assistant Division commanders and bring him to the Brigade TAC. CPT Logan decided to do this himself and took our Chevrolet Suburban truck which contained anti-jamming electronics for defense against IED’s. SGT Rico Campbell had been driving this vehicle throughout this operation to include our running of the gauntlet the previous night. During that shooting escapade, he had been returning fire with his M9 pistol out the driver’s window while driving through the hail of bullets. Once CPT Logan picked up the General and was returning to the TAC, he made a turn on the airfield and several pieces of empty 9mm brass came rolling across the dash and landed in the general’s lap. From what CPT Logan told me afterward, the general said, after picking up the brass out of his lap, “Well, Bryan, looks like you boys have been in quite a scrap”… -SFC Chris Hahn.
At some point, 1st Platoon was pushed out to the perimeter of Camp Delta and given the mission of observing a building on the other side of the river. There were several walled compounds on the banks of the Tigris right there and someone higher up had picked out a specific one, wanting us to watch it. We climbed up to the top of a sort of fortified gate, manned by Ukrainian snipers, and between admiring their Dragunov rifles, we took turns with binoculars and watched that building. It was funny, because nothing was going on there. The compound next door had lots of activity but the one we had been told to watch didn’t seem to be occupied. We called up for confirmation and were told that, yes; we were watching the correct building.
I lay there in the warm sun, trying to ignore how crusty and nasty my one uniform was, and watched an Iraqi Police truck race into the compound next door. A few moments later, smoke started pouring out of the building and the truck raced away. Then part of the building blew up, a huge plume of smoke shooting up into the air and a small shock wave rolling across the river. Having lived in Oklahoma prior to joining the Army, the first though that popped into my head was, “Someone’s meth lab just blew up!”
We called up the explosion, and a short time later a message came down from Brigade. The now partially destroyed building had been the CPA compound, and they had given us the wrong building to watch.
Our 2nd Platoon sent a small reconnaissance force forward to the bridges in the evening, and they stumbled on a group of Jaysh al Mahdi also pushing forward to set an IED on the bridge. There was a brief exchange of fire and an RPG was fired on the lead truck, missing it and slamming into a wall. The platoon broke contact and made it back without any casualties, but it proved the point that the bridges would be hard to capture.
On the first or second night around midnight in Al Kut, following the reconnaissance mission of the bridges, K Troop 3/2 CAV assaulted the bridges and captured them. From what I have been able to dig up after the fact, it took an Abrams direct firing its main gun into a captured police station to dislodge the Mahdi Army forces at the bridges. At the same time an infantry force from our brigade attacked the city from the north. At our position, as the reserve force, myself and the rest of Ghost Troop, 1st Platoon, stood watching. Apache helicopters were circling the city, firing on targets, and the night sky was lit up with tracers. To SSG Isaacs, the whole thing was “terrifyingly beautiful”.
The only action I saw that night was the death of an enemy RPG team. It was a classic example of why we won this battle. The enemy hardly ever got more than a few rounds off, if that, before being completely cut down by overwhelming fire superiority; heavy but focused fire.
Around 0200 hours the brigade commander decided he wanted to move forward to speak to the commander of K Troop. As 1st platoon was the lead reserve element, we were tasked with escorting him forward. We reached the forward elements with no problems, but were assaulted by an RPG team immediately upon our arrival. The enemy was dispatched before they even fired a shot. I was running from vehicle to vehicle updating the truck commanders on the situation in case we needed to move over bridge three and support 3/2ACR; however, the decision was made that we would not be helping in the assault and were pulled back to the compound with the brigade commander in tow. -SSG Corey Isaacs.
I remember taking cover behind a low, concrete wall as the firing on the RPG team started, watching a palm grove in case there were more of them hidden in the trees, but if there were they must have fled when their comrades died. We did pull back from the city, back to our reserve position, and waited to be called if we were needed again. The fighting continued on throughout the whole night, and I finally crawled into the driver seat of my gun truck, pulled my sleeping bag over me, and dozed for a few hours.
I woke to chilly dawn and a hand shaking my shoulder. I pulled the sleeping bag off and looked up to see SFC Chris Hahn, sometimes called “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hahn” for his ability to go from happy to raging in a split second, looking down at me. All I could think was “Oh shit, I’m dead”. His words, however, were “If I’m going to go through the trouble of getting hot chow for you guys then you’re going to wake your lazy ass up and eat it!” I did just that, and we stood on the banks of the Tigris on a chilly April morning having breakfast while watching the smoke rising from Al Kut and listening to the occasional bursts of gunfire rolling across the water. SFC Hahn was standing there with a huge grin on his face, and mentioned something about the Army finally fighting with some of it real power, though the gloves hadn’t fully come off.
We pushed across the river that evening and relieved K Troop 3/2 CAV at the CPA compound. The place was trashed, with Ukrainian uniforms and gear scattered around. Part of the building was burned out from the explosion that JAM had set, trying to destroy the whole thing to prevent us from taking it back. Ghost Troop was spread thin around the perimeter and there was once again no sleep for any of us. I found myself on a roof top in another fighting position as darkness set in. Others found something more important than a good fighting position.
As the platoon’s leadership was combing the compound going over defensive emplacements and fields of fire, we stumbled upon the first working toilet since leaving our home in Baghdad. As per our standard operating procedures, we took turns enjoy the running water and the cleanliness of an indoor toilet with a door. -SSG Corey Isaacs.
Night came and Jaysh al Mahdi came out as well. I can’t recall which happened first, the fire team that was captured as they tried to maneuver up on our position; or the one that was wiped out by the AC-130 strike called in by SSG Isaacs. However it happened, Jaysh al Mahdi had pushed at least two elements up toward the CPA compound to try to capture it again that night. Those two teams were taken out before they could get fully set, and they gave up the attempt to take the city.
At our position, SPC Michael Paccarelli and SGT Mungia saw a group of men in Iraqi Police uniforms run into a house across the street from us. We called it in and a group of infantry from either 1/6 or 2/6 moved up in a Bradley. The squad stormed the house and the JAM fighters, as they turned out to be, surrendered without firing a shot. Having a Scout team on one side with an M240B on them and a Bradley on the other side with a squad of infantry storming the house; they probably didn’t think their cause was suddenly worth dying for any more. It probably helped that many of their friends had died over the night and day prior.
The other incident began with SPC Phillip George spotting another fire team of Jaysh al Mahdi moving up toward the CPA compound.
After scanning my line of fire for about a hour a saw a few guys running towards the wood line. I told Rudy what I was seeing and SSG Isaacs and Lt Elliot came over. At that point a group of men came out of the wood line and moved on to the road and another moved into a house. I again reported what I was seeing and SSG Isaacs told me not to engage because we were out numbered. He said he would call in air support via Apache. Well, the Apaches would not come because I was told they would have to get too close and were in danger from RPGs. I’m not going to lie, I was scared and thinking WTF is going to happen now. At this point Lt Elliot called in for the AC -130 gun ship. I remember feeling a little relief but it was short lived because they could not see our LASER that Lt Elliot was using to glaze the enemy troops. The guys in the AC -130 told us to engage the enemy so they could see the tracer rounds. Sgt Isaacs gave me the order to engage and I never felt so scared. He said “Engage the enemy on the street then shift to the house and the AC- 130 will start dropping rounds”. -SPC Phillip George.
I do remember some incoming fire and the whole time I’ve got this LASER pointer up, and I’m standing fully upright trying to mark targets, and all I’m thinking is that I’m going to get my arm shot up doing this. I also didn’t get to shoot at the enemy which was equally disappointing.
This lasted for a short while, [and] then Spooky identified our targets. I said they were cleared hot and then the fun started. Very few people ever get to witness this event in the military, and those who do will never forget it. I remember hearing the sound of the gun firing overhead; the rounds making this whoosh sound and they came screaming down; and the sound of the impact, this ‘kawhoomp’ sound as they impacted. It was breath taking. I watched the rounds impact through my night vision and watched as it tore through the enemy ranks. The disturbing thing was that the enemy was running towards us and the rounds were following them. We fired again at the enemy just to stop them and the last two enemies took cover in a roadside stand about a split second before everything in my night vision went pure white. This was due to the gunship putting its final round into the roadside stand at approximately the same time the two enemy fighters jumped into it. Right after this, the firing quieted down and it was later determined that our actions that night thwarted the counterattack of the militia to retake the compound. We had apparently hit them as they were gearing up for an attack and were so shocked and surprised they retreated back to the north. -SSG Corey Isaacs.
From my position on the rooftop, I could hear the ominous drone of Spooky circling our position, and then the “thoomp, thoomp, thoomp” as it began firing, flashes illuminating the thin clouds. Whoever said that conventional weapons and conventional warfare was gone didn’t see us those two nights in Al Kut, when we retook the city from an unconventional force. Many of us have good memories from those terrible days, our own little parts of a small victory in a bigger war. For me it’s bright, chilly mornings that take me back to the banks of the Tigris. For others it’s cigars.
I spent the rest of the night periodically checking the perimeter and Troopers. In between these checks, SSG Bieling and I waited at Scout 6 with CPT Logan drinking coffee and smoking Cuban cigars. To this day when I travel through Kenya, I always pick up a box of Guantanmera cigars and reminisce about that evening on the banks of the [Tigris] and smile. All of these men performed their duties to the highest level of professionalism and inspire me even today. -SFC Chris Hahn.
We returned to Baghdad shortly after and had a victory celebration of Iraqi Pizza and Arabic sodas. We found out as well that we were extended for an extra three months, taking over an area south of Baghdad that included part of the “triangle of death”. I would return to this area in 2006, in time to see the so called Sunni awakening of 2007 when the Iraqis began to slowly turn against the insurgency and help fix their own country. Much of my world view, and my opinion on war were shaped by those eventful days in April 2004 though, and they are events that will live with me forever. There was fear and there was death and other things I will always want to forget; but when I find myself stepping out of the house on a cold morning, squinting at the sun, I will still smile and remember a similar morning on the banks of the Tigris River.
I think a few words should probably be said about those events, just to tie up loose ends. 2/1 Armored Division came away with a Presidential Unit Citation from that operation. There was another Shi’a uprising in August of 2004 that was also squashed, and the Iraq government did push Jaysh al Mahdi out of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum that they had controlled for much of the war. Unfortunately, Muqtada al Sadr is still around. What he, and his Iranian puppet masters, will do remains to be seen.