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Battle against the "Soldiers of Heaven"...

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  • Battle against the "Soldiers of Heaven"...

    The untold story of the battle against the ‘Soldiers of Heaven’

    By Gina Cavallaro - [email protected]
    Posted : Wednesday Oct 1, 2008 13:26:36 EDT

    The 11 Special Forces soldiers were speeding along in three Humvees. The call for help had come from an Iraqi army scout.
    The Iraqis had moved a little after dawn to arrest what they thought were about 30 potential troublemakers.
    The SF team members had no clue they were racing into a 24-hour battle, vastly outnumbered and outgunned by a heavily armed militia of about 800 cult-like Shiite warriors.

    The “Soldiers of Heaven” were dug in to fight to the death in their quest to take over the city of Najaf and its holy shrine.
    The fighting that erupted Jan. 28, 2007, turned out to be some of the fiercest of the Iraq war. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers killed 373 enemy fighters, and more than 400 surrendered. The U.S. Army awarded more than 100 combat decorations for bravery that day, including at least eight Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
    The battle has since been reconstructed in some media accounts ,but the fight against the Soldiers of Heaven remains little known outside the circles of those who were there.
    This is that Army story.
    ‘No one knew about it’

    The call to Special Forces came at 7 a.m. from Iraqi soldiers and policemen who had come under fire from a surprisingly large force of insurgents. Within minutes, the insurgents had killed 18 Iraqi troops and sent the rest fleeing.
    Capt. Eric Jacobson was team leader for Operational Detachment Alpha 566, 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, a token U.S. presence in Najaf province that worked closely with scout platoons from an Iraqi army battalion based nearby. It was one of those scouts who called him for help.
    After alerting an SF team from 1st Battalion in the area for possible backup, Jacobson headed to the fight with his team of 10 U.S. soldiers. Small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade rounds greeted them on arrival as dozens of insurgents blasted away from entrenched positions atop 15-foot sand berms.
    “We immediately were engaging 50 to 60 people at a time from a berm position to our front and we helped our scouts get back,” Jacobson said.
    Undetected by U.S. or Iraqi forces, hundreds of fighters had somehow managed over a period of several months to set up protected fighting positions and a command and control complex within a large compound six miles north of Najaf. Iraqi forces had stumbled into the hornet’s nest earlier in the day when they went there thinking they would be arresting a group of about 30 men.
    Enemy fire quickly disabled the SF team’s three Humvees. Master Sgt. Raymond Lancey, Master Sgt. Petter Jacobsen and Staff Sgt. Gregory Keller jumped out and organized support-by-fire positions to help Iraqi soldiers pinned down by enemy fire.
    RPG fragments hit Keller in the face, but he and the other SF troops continued to fight alongside their crippled vehicles with the 25 remaining Iraqi scouts out of a force of about 40; the others had been killed or were too wounded to fight. The only people still in the Humvees were the SF soldiers manning .50-caliber machine guns.
    The U.S. and Iraqi soldiers blasted away many of their attackers, but fresh waves of fighters came in behind the dead and wounded to take positions on the berms.
    The Americans and Iraqis did not realize it then, but they were battling the so-called Soldiers of Heaven, a radical cult led by a man whom the fighters believed to be the 12th Imam, or the rightful heir to the prophet Muhammad. Followers hoped to install him in the Najaf shrine.
    Succeed or die trying — no other options existed for them in this mission.
    Though based less than four miles away from the clandestine camp, the battalion of Iraqi soldiers remained unaware of the slow build-up of insurgent forces, supplies and weaponry inside the 3-square-mile camp surrounded by 15-foot sand berms.
    “Absolutely no one knew about it,” Jacobson said.
    A look at post-dated satellite photos, he said, revealed trenches and tunnels, tree lines and a cluster of buildings inside the walled area.
    In that redoubt, the insurgents had armed themselves for an apocalyptic battle, with hundreds of AK-47s, PKC machine guns, a variety of automatic weapons, at least 500 RPGs and 50 launchers. They also manned larger crew-served weapons, such as the Soviet DShK, and three vehicle-mounted heavy machine guns.
    Underestimating the threat

    An Iraqi governor had assumed control of the province of Najaf from the Americans just two months earlier. They were tipped off to the presence of a camp of men believed to be planning to disrupt a holy pilgrimage by Shiite worshipers.
    Najaf leaders directed a drive-through in an unmarked car on the night of Jan. 27, 2007, and the intelligence gathered from that led to a plan to round up the suspects at daybreak the following morning, Jacobson recalled.
    But the Iraqis had grossly underestimated the threat and dispatched a small force of about 50 security forces in several vehicles.
    The combatants were lying in wait and immediately opened fire on the Iraqis who arrived to arrest what they thought were little more than two dozen insurgents.
    Instead, they ran into about 800 armed combatants.
    Within minutes, 18 Iraqi soldiers and policemen were dead. Most of the surviving Iraqi security forces were armed only with pistols and their vehicles were disabled by enemy fire. They fled the scene, calling for reinforcements.
    Disciplined enemy

    Jacobson’s bloodied and immobilized team fought furiously to hold off the streams of enemy combatants. Finally, after staving off overwhelming numbers for about a half-hour, about 45 men arrived from Baghdad-based Area Operations Base 510, which included Green Berets from ODAs 512 and 513, plus soldiers from the Iraqi Counterterrorism Task Force.
    They parked their vehicles to surround Jacobson’s position at the southeastern corner of the camp on an elevated road that was flanked on each side by a canal.
    The Soldiers of Heaven kept coming.
    “There were groups of 20 to 30 moving throughout the trenches and berms that were shooting at us from various positions, reinforcing themselves as they took wounded or dead and re-supplying themselves with ammunition,” Master Sgt. Sean Kirkwood said.
    The insurgents fought with a discipline the U.S. soldiers had not witnessed among other enemy combatants in Iraq.
    “The way they positioned their forces, the way they arrayed their defenses, it wasn’t by any means haphazard, it was a planned defense, tactically sound,” Kirkwood said. “The fire never stopped.”
    But the enemy could not outmaneuver the key advantage that U.S. forces held and had called in, with the help of two Air Force combat controllers — Tech. Sgt. Bryan Patton and Staff Sgt. David Orvosh of 21st Special Tactics Squadron.
    About two hours into the fighting, the battle changed dramatically as coalition fighter jets roared in: A-10s, F-16s and AC-130 gunships, as well as F/A-18 Hornets and British Tornado GR4s. Patton directed a pair of F-16s 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 a mosque 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.
    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.
    Over the course of nearly 24 hours, the aircraft would drop close to 11,000 pounds of bombs.
    More reinforcements

    Despite the aerial barrage, enemy forces remained entrenched. The bombing, however, gave the SF soldiers a chance to take stock and plan their move back to base to refit.
    “We ended up with close to 30 shot-out tires and several humvees destroyed,” Jacobson said. “All of our humvees were down to 10 to 20 percent of normal load” of ammunition.
    It was now a little past noon, and greater numbers of reinforcements had begun to arrive.
    members of ODA 563, from Hillah, about 25 miles to the north, brought an elite Iraqi special weapons and tactics team — 200 personnel and 40 vehicles — to set up a blocking position south of Najaf.
    Another group of U.S. soldiers, 12 members of military transition team 0810 from 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, were already in the fight.
    The most astonishing aspect of the 24-hour battle, Jacobson and the others said, was the tenacity of the fighters. The majority of them, according to a battle summary, “fought until KIA.”

    ...And shephards we shall be. For thee my lord, for thee. Power hath descended forth from thy hand. That our feet may swiftly carry out thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to thee. And teeming with souls shall it ever be. E Nomini Patri, E Fili, E Spiritu Sancti.

  • #2

    ‘Fallen angel’

    The first two AH-64 Apache helicopters appeared on the horizon at about 1 p.m.
    Ten teams of Apaches rotated in and out of the fight all day and night, spending about 40 minutes on station using every piece of ammunition before flying off to Forward Operating Base Kalsu about 60 miles north to refuel, re-arm and return to the battle.
    Flying in over the battle, pilots said, they could see dozens of militiamen lying 2 feet apart atop the berms, firing their weapons at coalition forces.
    Others were riding around inside the encampment in small pickups 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.
    “This enemy was quite prepared, well dug in, well defended — hundreds of insurgents,” said Lt. Col. Tim DeVito, commander of 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
    The pilots guided their helicopters through smoke, mid-air explosions, muzzle flashes, an unremitting salvo of bullets and RPG rounds, while cutting down the enemy they could see without jeopardizing friendly forces. “When we came in, there was a lot of confusion,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jake Gaston, who was flying as co-pilot gunner in the lead aircraft with pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Johnny Judd.
    Flying with them were Capt. Mark T. Resh and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Cornell C. Chao, whose job as trail aircraft was to cover the lead as it protected troops on the ground by engaging the enemy from the air.
    Spotting a large-caliber machine gun firing at the lead aircraft, Resh and Chao dove in to protect the lead helicopter, putting themselves directly in the line of fire. The full force of the enemy’s firepower engulfed the helicopter.
    Gaston was looking down at that moment, setting up his weapon for the next pass and talking with the ground guys to verify the target when Judd told him he had just watched Resh and Chao go down.
    “He said that to me and there was a moment there that it was pretty quiet in the cockpit,” Gaston said softly. “And I look, and I see the aircraft, I see the wreckage and I make the call to the guy on the ground, I say, ‘Fallen angel.’”
    The plume of smoke from Resh and Chao’s wreckage was clearly visible as another Apache, flown by pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zach Johnson and co-pilot Capt. Randy James, approached the site. The machine gunner on the ground turned his weapon toward this new target.
    “That was when my pilot started firing on the machine gun and after a couple of passes I finally hit it with a Hellfire missile,” said James.
    He and Johnson said the fighters’ muzzle flashes and the clear, sunny weather helped him orient their aircraft toward the machine gun.
    “I was close enough to see it in my sensors and I could see the person looking at us,” said James, who, until that moment, had only shot his Hellfire missile in practice. “It’s never a good feeling to kill someone, but when there’s someone firing on you and it’s either you or your fellow team member, or your fellow soldier on the ground, it has to be done. It’s a necessary evil.”
    Johnson was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, and Resh and Chao were posthumously awarded Silver Stars.
    Search and rescue

    The column of black smoke from the downed Apache rose like an ominous beacon.
    It was 1:30 p.m. and the MiTT team soldiers, who were in their Humvees approaching the southeast quadrant of the compound, made an about-face and headed toward the smoke and, they hoped, rescue of the aviators.
    “When that helicopter went down, it changed everything,” said Capt. Joe Denning, the team’s logistics officer. “We just knew we had to get there as quickly as possible.”
    The team’s three vehicles approached the wreckage, which was about 200 meters between the camp’s western berm and a smaller berm near a dirt road.
    Master Sgt. Tom Ballard, who was manning the vehicle’s .50-caliber machine gun, dismounted about 10 feet from the smoldering heap and began taking small-arms fire. Still he pressed on and after maneuvering near the wreckage, signaled with two fingers the presence of the two aviators’ remains.
    Meanwhile, Jacobson, Kirkwood and the other Green Berets had aborted a drive back to base to refit and also headed toward the smoke, unaware that the MiTT soldiers had secured the site or that they were about to take the most dangerous route possible to get there.
    They began taking fire on the eastern berm from 2,000 feet away. The road curved around the north side of the camp, and the convoy of vehicles found an opening heading south toward the smoke.
    “We didn’t have a direct route to the site, so we had to turn around and come down a dirt road where there was a break in the berm,” Jacobson said, explaining that it “went straight through the enemy’s village.”
    The convoy of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers suddenly found themselves surrounded by gunmen shooting from as close as 6 feet away.
    “They were shooting everything they had, 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,” Kirkwood said.
    “I looked out over at a guy with an RPG that was going to shoot at the vehicle in front of me, and the gunner killed him before he could shoot it,” he said, describing the determined look on the enemy’s face.
    “You know how when you get really mad and you’re making a point and your eyebrows turn into a ‘V’? That’s the biggest thing I remember is looking up and seeing this ‘V’ in his forehead, all wrinkled up and his eyebrows in a ‘V’ when he was getting ready to shoot that thing. My gunner swept him off the top of the berm before he could do it,” Kirkwood said.
    The ambush would cost three Iraqi special forces commandos their lives while wounding several others, including Master Sgt. Petter Jacobsen, who continued to fight after he had been shot in the helmet and arm. One of the shots disabled his M4, but he continued to shoot with his pistol.
    When they emerged from the ambush, they were waved in to a position behind a low berm near the hardball road by MiTT member Master Sgt. Jarrod McNabb, who was shot in the arm while doing so.
    The SF and MiTT teams established an overwatch position and 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 4 p.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.
    Close-air support

    Capt. George “Frag” Collings and Maj. August “Augie” Marquardt, with the 510th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, were in the middle of a 12-hour shift 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.
    Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Wallace, a combat controller, described the battle area as the most crowded airspace he had ever controlled.
    “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 gun runs failed to stop it, so Wallace decided to have Collings drop a GBU-12, a 500-pound laser-guided bomb, on 40 enemies in a trench about 5 feet wide and 10 feet deep. It was a tight area to put a bomb in, but Collings was confident in the laser-guided munition.
    The bomb hit its target, killing about five enemy fighters and incapacitating another 20 or 30.
    No friendly forces were hurt.
    “As soon as it went off, we were up and running,” Wallace said. “Still, big clouds of dirt were 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.”
    It was growing dark.
    Wallace 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.
    An AC-130 gunship was on its way.
    The gunship arrived soon and went to work, tracking enemy targets with its infrared sensors and destroying them with its 25mm Gatling gun.
    The gunships went after fighters out in the open, Wallace 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, 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, Wallace said.
    Mass surrender

    The company of grunts from the Stryker brigade would fight through the night while plans were hatched to invade the enemy camp at dawn.
    Maj. Brent Clemmer, then C Company commander and a captain, said he and his soldiers ended up using almost every last 120 mm and 60 mm mortar they had with them, then had to go back to FOB Kalsu for more.
    His mortar section, he recalled, “was dug in like something you’d see in a World War II movie. I never thought I would use [our mortars] in Iraq; it’s not that kind of fight.”
    Clemmer’s mortar section surrounded the helicopter rubble and the rest of his platoons took up positions around the perimeter of the encampment and began returning fire.
    B Company arrived with 20 more Strykers and trucks with flat racks to remove the helicopter. Elements of the Battalion TAC, about 30 men, also traveled the 60 miles to the enemy camp, Clemmer said.
    By 10 p.m., they had the encampment surrounded.
    It was a night Clemmer said he thought would never come to a close. At dawn on Jan. 29, he said, the infantrymen, armed with grenades, bullets and courage, prepared to cross the berm and face the enemy head-on, but the fighters, responding to a broadcast appeal to surrender, came out with their hands up.
    They had had enough.
    The mass surrender of hundreds of fighters and others, he said, was almost as astonishing as the condition of the people and the terrain around them.
    “The first thing we saw was a bunch of women and children and all the members of this cult,” Clemmer remembered. “My soldiers were like ‘Oh my God, were we killing children?’”
    The landscape, he said, reminded him of pictures he’s seen of World War I battlefields where buildings were leveled and smoke rose off a scorched earth. And the people were like walking dead.
    “The bombing all night had broken their spirit,” he said. “It was like textbook shell shock, glazed eyes, bleeding from ears and noses, it was horrible. You go from the elation of combat to the horror.”
    Over the course of the following day, as detainees were sorted out and treated, the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers found at least a month’s supply of food, hundreds of weapons and munitions and enough medical equipment to care for hundreds of people.
    “The amount of medical equipment was staggering. Some of the dead people on the objective had IVs started in them, professional amputations had happened during the course of the battle and there were fresh sutures,” Jacobson said. “You could tell a doctor had done an amputation on them. Some had died from small-arms fire, some had died from airstrikes.”
    The fighters were all dressed in civilian clothes, but all wore brand new, sand-colored magazine carriers on their chests, each rigged with five loaded magazines.
    “It wasn’t like a lot of untrained people you fight where they run out with an AK and one mag,” he said.
    Also found in the rubble were detailed plans for an assault on Najaf, including a hit list with the names of nine high Shiite clerics and religious leaders, including militia leaders Muqtada Al-Sadr, Ali Al-Sistani and others.
    Ballard said a little girl in a blue headdress led him to a room and pointed to a rug under a bed where she said her family was in hiding. He lifted the bed and pulled back the rug, opened a trap door leading to a bunker and found six men.
    “Those people turned out to be direct relatives of the man himself,” Ballard said, referring to Shiekh Mahmoud al-Sarkhi al Hassani, the man identified by Multi-National Division-Baghdad as the cult leader.

    ...And shephards we shall be. For thee my lord, for thee. Power hath descended forth from thy hand. That our feet may swiftly carry out thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to thee. And teeming with souls shall it ever be. E Nomini Patri, E Fili, E Spiritu Sancti.


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