U.S. Army Small-Unit Action in Iraq, 2004
On the morning of 26 August, American forces push down Route Nova toward the gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque. Although Iraqi units were prepared to assault the complex, one of the most revered shrines in iraq, that became unnecessary when the Mahdi militia agreed to a peaceful handover to authorities
The August 2004 Fight at An Najaf
August 2014, CMH
The Imam Ali Shrine in An Najaf is the holiest site in Shi'a Islam after Mecca and Medina, and it was the epicenter of a battle in August 2004 between a joint Army-Marine Corps task force and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia. The shrine is the burial site of Imam Ali, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. It attracts millions of pilgrims each year, and their offerings are an important source of revenue for whoever controls the shrine. Shiites have been burying their dead in the Valley of Peace cemetery located near the shrine for over 1,400 years, giving it the reputation of being the largest cemetery in the world.
An Najaf, located 160 kilometers south of Baghdad, has also long been a focal point of intra-Shi'a discord, and so it was again after the United States toppled the Iraqi regime in 2003. On 10 April, the day after the regime collapsed, a crowd assassinated Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a leading Shiite cleric, inside the shrine. The following August, a car bomb killed over eighty people near the shrine, including Ayatollah Muhammad Bakir al Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading political party. In April 2004, after a prolonged investigation, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr, a rival Shiite cleric, for alleged involvement in al-Khoei's murder.
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The arrest warrant added fuel to an already combustible situation in major parts of Iraq. The Mahdi militia had been launching attacks on coalition forces and fledging Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and An Najaf for months. Its principal objective had been to disrupt the transfer of authority from the Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government, which nonetheless proceeded in June. In July, the Mahdi militia skirmished with other Shiites, coalition forces in the city, and Iraqi security forces before taking control of the shrine.
In response, Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) gave I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) operational control of Najaf and Qadisiyah Provinces. U.S. Central Command committed its theater reserve, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, to I MEF, and MNC-I reinforced I MEF with Task Force 1-5 Cavalry and Task Force 2-7 Cavalry, both from the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad. I MEF established a forward headquarters to control operations inside the city.
Soldiers, marines, and Iraqi security forces spent most of August trying to secure An Najaf with a pacification effort known as Operation PACIFIC THRUST. The operation sought to eject the Mahdi militia from the city, restore control to coalition and Iraqi authorities, and reduce or eliminate the power struggle among Shiite factions in the region. The Imam Ali Shrine was key terrain and the Mahdi militia was using it as a headquarters and to store arms. However, it remained a protected site, so the coalition placed a large exclusionary zone around the mosque and banned operations in its vicinity, to include the use of direct fire capable of impacting inside the area.
With these limitations on the rules of engagement, the coalition's fight with the Mahdi militia began as a protracted battle of attrition, most of which took place inside the cemetery. Task Force 1-5 Cavalry spent nearly two weeks employing tanks and armored fighting vehicles in combating insurgents among the tombstones. Multi-National Force-Iraq finally approved a converging attack around the mosque on 25-26 August. After isolating the insurgents into a constricted area around the mosque, coalition forces halted their advance for ceasefire negotiations. On 27 August, Muqtada al Sadr pulled the Mahdi militia out of the city and turned the symbolic keys to the shrine over to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. U.S. Army troops confiscated some weapons at traffic control points along the northern boundary of the city. Having completed their mission, TF 1-5 Cavalry and TF 2-7 Cavalry returned to Baghdad on 4 September.
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The densely packed neighborhoods of the old city of Najaf surround the Imam Ali Mosque, leaving few avenues of approach. The double line of hotels and the parking garage between them extend to the left of the mosque.