Airmen play pivotal role in victory at Najaf
By Erik Holmes - firstname.lastname@example.org
Air Force TimesPosted : December 03, 2007
The Battle of Najaf on Jan. 28 and 29 was one of the biggest sustained
engagements of the war in Iraq, but few Americans know anything about it.
Within just a few hours, hundreds of American and Iraqi troops, and dozens of warplanes and attack helicopters, were battling nearly 800 heavily armed insurgents, members of a fanatical Shiite cult known as the Soldiers of Heaven.
But perhaps no one contributed more to victory in the 24-hour battle than a handful of airmen - three special operations combat controllers and the pilots who unleashed air power on the enemy.
The controllers directed F-16s, A-10s, AC-130 gunships, Army AH-64 Apache helicopters, Navy F/A-18s and Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s that dropped more than 10,500 pounds of bombs, conducted numerous strafing and rocket attacks, and killed most of the 373 enemy fighters who died.
Another 407 fighters surrendered, including 14 high-value targets.
That only two Americans - and a relatively modest number of Iraqi soldiers and police - died during combat that inflicted horrendous casualties on the enemy is a testament to the decisive advantage airpower provides. In fact, one well-placed Air Force bomb turned the tideof the battle.
Military Times interviewed numerous airmen, soldiers, Army pilots and special operators for a rare inside look at the coordination of ground and air power that led to victory in one of the biggest and most complicated engagements of the Iraq war so far.
Here's their story.
Political and law-enforcement leaders in Najaf had just received a disturbing tip. An obscure religious cult - holed up in a large compoundsix miles north of the city - was planning to disrupt the city'sobservance of the Shiite holiday Ashura and assassinate some of thecountry's top clerics.
After cruising by the Soldiers of Heaven compound in an unmarked car the night of Jan. 27, the leaders hatched a plan - round up the 30 or so suspects at daybreak the following morning, before everyone was up and about.
But the Iraqis had grossly underestimated the threat.
The Soldiers of Heaven, a fanatical sect led by a man followers believe to be the 12th Imam, or the rightful heir to the prophet Muhammad, had amassed personnel, supplies and an impressive arsenal in a few shortmonths - and they were more than willing to use them.
"You can liken these guys to the Branch Davidians in the Waco incident that happened a few years ago," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Wallace, a combat controller with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air ForceBase, N.C., who gave a briefing of the battle at the Air Force Association conference in September.
The Iraqi government had assumed control of Najaf from the Americans two months earlier, and only a small number of American special operations forces remained in the area. But neither the Iraqi authorities nor theAmericans were aware of the goings-on in the three-square-mile camp,hidden from view by 15-foot sand berms.
Post-dated satellite photos revealed trenches and tunnels, tree lines and a cluster of buildings inside the walled area, Wallace said. The fighters had obviously prepared for something big.
The Iraqi convoy was ambushed the minute it pulled up to the southeastern entrance of the compound at about 7 a.m. on Jan. 28. Unseenattackers were firing heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades,Wallace said.
Within minutes, 15 Iraqi police and three Iraqi soldiers were dead.Several more police and soldiers were wounded, and their vehicles were destroyed. The outmanned and outgunned Iraqis abandoned their vehicles,fled east toward a river and called the Americans for reinforcements,Wallace said.
Operational Detachment Alpha 566 - an Army Special Forces team - got the call and headed to the fight with 10 U.S. special operators in three vehicles. Army Capt. Eric Jacobson, a team leader with 2nd Battalion,5th Special Forces Group, also got on the radio and alerted a second Special Forces team that was stationed in Baghdad but happened to be near Najaf.
The moment Jacobson's team arrived, it came under withering fire from an overwhelming number of enemy fighters entrenched in firing positions atop the tall earthen berms. The team's Humvees were almost destroyed by shrapnel from RPGs, he said.
Like the Iraqis, Jacobson was soon urgently calling for reinforcements.The Baghdad team quickly blazed in with 45 men, including their own Iraqi scouts, and several vehicles. They fortified Jacobson's position at the southeastern corner of the camp on an elevated roadway flanked on each side by a canal.
But the Soldiers of Heaven kept coming, Jacobson said, displaying training and proficiency at infantry tactics the Americans had never before seen in an insurgent group.
The Baghdad team had with it two Air Force combat controllers - Tech.Sgt. Bryan Patton and Staff Sgt. David "Squish" Orvosh, both with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron - who immediately went to work.
The battle changed dramatically at about 9 a.m. as the sky over the encampment came alive with the roar of engines from A-10s, F-16s and Navy F/A-18s. And above the fast movers were three unmanned aerial vehicles providing surveillance of the battle to air commanders at the air operations center.
Patton was on his radio controlling a pair of F-16s overhead, Wallace said, and told them to strafe the abandoned Iraqi police and army vehicles that were now overrun with enemy fighters. The jets also dropped a few 500-pound bombs just inside the berm on the south perimeter of the compound.
A short time later, coalition forces began taking sniper fire from amosque a few hundred meters to the north, outside the eastern berm of the compound.
Orvosh called in bomb strikes on at least two groups of fighters that had massed in trenches on the inside of the berm, Wallace said.
For three hours, as coalition forces and the Soldiers of Heaven traded heavy gunfire, the jets bombed and strafed targets identified by the combat controllers.
"They would work our targets for us, then they would leave and the next group would come in," an Army Special Forces master sergeant said. "They were stacking Air Force pretty good because of the amount of enemy we had on target.
"The airstrikes helped quiet the field for a time, giving the American teams the opportunity to withdraw and resupply in Najaf while their Iraqi allies pushed forward.
It was now a little after noon, and large-scale reinforcements had begunto arrive.
Wallace - with Operational Detachment Alpha 563, a Special Forces unit that advised an Iraqi police SWAT team in Hillah, about 30 miles north of Najaf - had been monitoring radio chatter since the battle began, but he didn't mobilize until late morning.
At about 1 p.m., his detachment and the SWAT team - almost 200 personnel and 40 vehicles - arrived at a checkpoint along a highway near the southside of the compound.
The Apaches arrive
As they conferred with Iraqi police and army leaders, the first two AH-64 Apache helicopters appeared on the horizon.
Flying in over the battle, the pilots said, they could see dozens of militiamen lying two feet apart atop the berms, firing their weapons at coalition forces.
Others were riding around inside the encampment in small pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the backs.
A mortar pit with several tubes was positioned in the center of the compound, and fighters scurried into deep trenches dug along the length of the inside of the berms.
"When we were first advised that there were troops in contact, obviously we had no idea that it was a force that size. This enemy was quite prepared, well dug in, well defended - hundreds of insurgents," said Army Lt. Col. Tim DeVito, commander of 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in a phone interview from Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jake Gaston, flying as co-pilot gunner in the lead Apache with pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Johnny Judd, said confusion reigned as they flew in. Flying with them were Capt. Mark T.Resh and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Cornell C. Chao, whose job in trail aircraft was to cover the lead aircraft as it engaged the enemy.
Wallace saw the Apaches take fire from heavy machine guns and RPGs, and radioed the pilots to warn them. The pilots replied that they were being fired on by a truck-mounted machine gun, so Wallace and other members of his team headed to the east side of the compound to seek out the enemy.
They made it to the southeast corner of the compound - near where the battle had begun - and ran their Humvees up the berm so their the gun turrets peeked over the top, Wallace said.
The team began taking fire from the west, he said, and Iraqi SWAT teammembers and some American special operators ran to the top of the berm to return fire.
Two of the Special Forces soldiers got shot in the helmets and fell backdown the incline, Wallace said. Fortunately, the bullets missed the soldiers' skulls and only knocked them unconscious.
Wallace then called the Apache pilots to tell them what he could seeover the berm. The pilots told him what they had observed aboutpersonnel and vehicles inside the compound and said they were coming inwith their guns hot.
As the first Apache began its attack run, its chin gun malfunctioned because of damage from small-arms fire, Wallace said.
"Then his wingman came in right behind him, pointed at the same target,and his rotors just stopped," he said. "No smoke, no sparks, no fire.The rotors just froze, and the helicopter fell out of the sky from 600 to 700 feet.
"The helicopter disappeared behind a distant tree line, and seconds later, a plume of thick black smoke rose over the battlefield. Everyone knew the pilots had been killed, Wallace said.
Gaston could see enemy fighters rushing toward the crash, so reaching and securing the site before the enemy could get there became everyone's priority. But this was no easy task, Wallace said, as intense machinegun fire from the west made it impossible to take a direct route.
Wallace, his Special Forces team and about 50 Iraqi SWAT team members instead began to advance north along the eastern berm, under heavy fire,to try to flank the enemy fighters.
George "Frag" Collings and Maj. August "Augie" Marquardt, with the 510th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, were in the middle of a 12-hourshift at Balad Air Base when a request for close-air support came in.Minutes later they were airborne, headed toward Najaf.
This would be Collings' eighth mission over Iraq, but he had never dropped a bomb in combat.
Collings and wingman Marquardt established contact with Wallace toassess the situation on the way.
"They were taking fire, so it was kind of hard to establish any kind of good comm," Collings said.Wallace told them he was trying to bring another Apache in as the F-16s set up an orbit of the battle area at about 1:30 p.m. But by the time they had established which groups were friendly and which were enemy,their jets reached a "critical point as far as fuel goes," Marquardt said.
Collings sent off Marquardt to refuel from a nearby KC-130 so they wouldbe able to keep at least one fighter in the area if things got busy.
Things were already busy for Wallace.
"I've got two radios on my ears, and then outside of that the teamleader that's next to me and all the other guys on the battlefield are yelling back and forth, along with explosions and bullets going off.It's a lot to hear," he said. "Tuning one thing out and tuning the other thing in, and switching back and forth, and turning the volume up on this and turning it down on this, covering up one ear so I can hear the other one and yelling back and forth at people. It's a lot of just total chaos, and it turns into a really big headache after a couple of hours.
"It was also the most crowded airspace he had ever controlled, and it mayhave been overkill.
"At one point, I had two UAVs, maybe two or three flights of Apaches,F-16s, P-3 Orion, Tornadoes and A-10s, all there at the same time," he said. "So you can imagine this one small bit of airspace stacked all the way up to 20,000 feet. We had a lot of aircraft.
"As Collings orbited overhead, watching the battle through his targeting pod, Wallace became pinned down by machine-gun fire. A few Apache gunruns failed to stop it, so Wallace decided to call in an F-16 strike.
"While my wingman was at the tanker, the [combat controller] wasn't getting the effects he wanted with the Apache, so he started talking to me," Collings said. It was "a pretty urgent call.
" Wallace asked Collings what he thought would be most effective, andCollings recommended a GBU-12, a 500-pound laser-guided bomb. Wallacecleared him hot, but Collings was worried because the target wasdangerously close to friendly forces.
"I asked him ... how close were the friendlies, and they were 100 meters away. That's pretty close," Collings said.
He decided an east-to-west attack heading "would minimize any chance of fratricide." As Collings began his bombing run, Marquardt arrived back on station and started monitoring the battle with his targeting pod.
The enemies - about 40 of them - were in a trench about 5 feet wide and 10 feet deep, Collings said. It was a tight area to put a bomb in, but Collings was confident in the laser-guided munition.
The moments after Collings released the bomb were the most tense of the whole battle for Wallace. He had just told a pilot to drop a 500-pound bomb 100 meters away from his position; "danger close" for a GBU-12 is 300 meters.
"I had about 30 seconds to think about that one, after he released it and before it landed," Wallace said.
The bomb hit its target. "He plopped that GBU-12 ... right square in the [southeast] corner,"Marquardt said, "and there were enemy troops actually in that positionthat he took out.
"The bomb killed about five enemy fighters and incapacitated another 20 or 30, Wallace said. And the trench contained much of the blast, so no friendly forces were hurt.
"As soon as it went off, we were up and running," he said. "Still, bigclouds of dirt falling on us.
"Wallace and two other Americans stormed the enemy position and killed the remaining fighters, opening the route north.
"That set the conditions for our next advance," Wallace said of the F-16 airstrike. "Basically, it shut down all the bad guys in that berm.
"Marquardt said Wallace later told him that one bomb turned the tide of the battle.
"They were never on the defensive from that point on," he said.
"The big piece of the pie there was having the supporting arms to keep the bad guys' heads down long enough for us to maneuver and hook 'em up with some death," Wallace said.
As Wallace directed Apache gunfire at enemy fighters ahead of the coalition's northward advance, the two original American Special Forces teams - from Najaf and Baghdad - returned from their supply run.
Orvosh, the combat controller, was with them. The two controllers agreedOrvosh would control air assets above the western half of the compound -including the crash site - and Wallace would control the eastern halfand the F-16s.
The teams continued up the eastern side of the compound in about 15 vehicles, taking fire from atop a berm about 2,000 feet away. After reaching the northeast corner of the camp, the road curved around to the west.
The convoy proceeded west and finally found an opening heading south toward the smoke from the crash site.
"They were shooting everything they had," the Army master sergeant said."Rounds were pinging off the vehicles, breaking off windows, hitting the gunner's shield. One of my guys even had to engage a guy with a pistol because he was so close he couldn't even get his machine gun around.
"The convoy finally made it to a safe point about 100 meters west of the crash site, but at a cost of eight Iraqi dead, three American wounded,all 15 vehicles disabled and seven machine guns destroyed.
Behind the relative safety of a berm, the team linked up with a military transition team attached to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, that was responding to a request for assistance from Iraqi soldiers they advised, who were involved in the battle.
The Special Forces teams and MiTT soldiers held the perimeter until a company of infantrymen from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, rolled in about 4p.m.
When the Strykers arrived, Orvosh, a Special Forces medic and a few other operators loaded into a Stryker to secure the crash site and retrieve the pilots' bodies.
It was growing dark, and only then did the Americans begin to learn fromIraqi intelligence whom they were fighting.
Wallace also got a call from air commanders in theater who were monitoring video footage from a RQ-1 Predator loitering overhead. The surveillance showed about 100 enemy fighters regrouping and massing in the village inside the compound, the air commanders said. And a fearsome AC-130 gunship was on its way.
The gunship went to work, tracking enemy targets with its infraredsensors and destroying them with its 25mm Gatling gun.
"They were watching them come out of those trench lines and move into the houses," Wallace said. "Once a bad guy went into the house, we chased them down with ordnance and took the guy out.
"The gunships went after fighters out in the open, he said, and left the buildings to laser-guided bombs and Global Positioning System-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions dropped by A-10s and F-16s.
The airstrikes ended at dawn Jan. 29, Wallace said, but ground troops were still engaging enemy fighters until about 8:30 a.m.
By the time the gunships returned to base, their firepower had killed an estimated 175 enemy fighters, he said.
By 9 a.m. the coalition force had advanced into the compound from the west, calling for the remaining fighters to surrender. Hundreds of dazed and wounded fighters emerged from bunkers and tunnels to lay down their arms, Wallace recalled. In all, 407 fighters surrendered, according to Army Master Sgt. Thomas Ballard from the MiTT team, which oversaw the processing of detainees in the week following the battle.
As the smoke cleared, Wallace recalled being overtaken by exhaustion, araging headache and a wave of elation.
The Americans and their Iraqi partners had destroyed a large,well-trained and heavily armed insurgent force while sustaining minimal casualties themselves.
"There was no fratricide and the enemy got dead," he said. "And weaccomplished it in about 24 hours. ...
"It's like winning the Super Bowl, you know.
" Staff writer Seamus O'Connor contributed to this report.
//SIGNED//AMY C. COOPER, 1st Lt, USAF
AFSOC Public Affairs
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