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The Battle of Sadr City, Iraq (March – May 2008) was a successful military operation conducted by the U.S. military troops together with the Iraqi government forces against Jaish al-Mahdi terrorists who had a firm grip on the territory. Due to a number of important events and decisions which occurred / were made during the armed conflict, it was possible for the allies to defeat the enemy. The operation on the whole was able to lead to the desired political outcomes, for the terrorists were driven out from the territory, and the Iraqi government managed to establish control of the city. It is important that the victory of the allies occurred in spite of the numerical superiority of the foes and the difficult terrain of the urban territory; the U.S. Army suffered only relatively small losses.
In this paper, the data gathered from literature related to the 2008 battles in Sadr City will be used in order to understand the events that took place there and to analyze the outcomes of the mission as a whole. The literature used will include books and reports about the events, as well as other scholarly and online sources. The main plans and actions that the American Army implemented will be described, and the ways in which they helped the troops to win against the enemy or made them lose their positions will be exposed. Our analysis of the events and our conclusions will be based on the criterium of effectiveness of the military actions, which includes the ability to defeat the enemy and to suffer the minimal losses of troops while taking part in the hostilities.
Analysis of the Operation
The battles in Sadr City took place in March – May 2008. According to George Bush, the President of the U.S. of that time, the general aim of the whole mission of the American troops was “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs”; the Baghdad Security Plan is reported to have been the main component of the surge1. It is stated that, according to this plan, the military operation had three main objectives: clear the territory of the extremist elements that might cause trouble for the local dwellers, capture the control over it by providing a full-time presence of the American and Iraqi troops on the street, and retain this control.2
The terrorist organisation of Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) had firm control over the Sadr City. As a result, the intelligence that the U.S. forces were able to gather about the territory was limited. On 23 March 2008, JAM launched a number of rockets at the Green Zone (or International Zone) in Baghdad, where Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies were located, and on 25 March Iraqi government checkpoints were massively attacked.3 4 On the whole, 86 rockets were fired at the Green Zone from 23 to 31 March.5 The U.S. forces did not plan to take part in any attacks at all before this occurred, but they were forced to retaliate.6 The enemy forces were situated along the Route Gold (see Fig. 1); the distance from it to the International Zone was just at the range for JAM rocket launchers and mortars, so for this particular military operation it was important to push the JAM forces above Route Gold in order to impair their ability to fire at the Green Zone.7 It was also needed to defeat the criminal militia forces that held Sadr City, and decrease the levels of violence coming from the gangs that invaded the place.
However, the U.S. forces lacked troops in order to “clean” the area block by block; on the other hand, the fact that most buildings were low and level with each other allowed for effective surveillance.9
At first, the JAM attacks were intense, and on 23-25 March they actively tried to barricade streets and used improvised bombs everywhere. American and Iraqi government soldiers were also ambushed a number of times. The response of the American troops started on 25 March. Aerial forces were also employed in order to disable the enemy’s rocket launchers that hit the Green Zone as soon as possible.
As the fighting progressed, the U.S. forces decided to block new militia reinforcements from joining the battle, as well as to prevent the enemy from launching rockets at the Green Zone.10 To do that, a decision to build a 12-feet-tall concrete wall along the borders of Sadr City was made; it happened in the middle of April 2008. The wall was also meant to cut the enemy off and to create a protected zone near the southern quarter of Sadr City which would then be secured by the joined efforts of American and Iraqi government troops so that the Iraqi government could begin rebuilding the place.11
It is not known where the idea originally came from, but it attracted massive and desperate attacks of the enemy. Having learned that the wall started being constructed, the enemy launched dozens of attacks a day on the forces engaged in building. The foe was absolutely determined to prevent the wall’s construction. Their forces were constantly gaining reinforcements: it is claimed that a number of new people who supported the terrorists joined the fight every day.12 Even snipers were employed in order to attempt to destroy the cranes that were necessary for the building process. The American forces utilized a vast amount of military technology, including heavily armoured tanks, to counter these attacks; in particular, the thanks destroyed some buildings from which the enemy snipers were operating.13 Still, it is claimed that the main advantage of the US forces came from UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), which had advanced sensors and were able to spot the enemy even at night or through clouds of smoke;14 as it was mentioned, the terrain and the cityscape were favourable for intelligence efforts.
These systems allowed for the so-called “persistent surveillance”, providing the American troops with detailed information and allowing for precise planning of attacks and counterattacks. It is stated that, as a result of the battles, approximately 700 militia warriors were killed, whereas the U.S. forces only lost six soldiers during the time when the wall was being constructed.15 (On the other hand, it should be noted that the total losses of the operation were about 1000 killed and 2600 wounded civilians and soldiers from both sides; however, the U.S. Army’s losses were relatively insignificant.)16 Later, on 6 May, when the wall was almost ready, the American and Iraqi government forces struck at the enemy’s leadership; many leaders either were defeated or fled. The enemy forces were gradually worn out in the battles, as well as in other clashes, and eventually asked for a ceasefire. The truce offered on 12 May did not finish the operation, however; the reconstruction efforts were still carried out with the security provided by the American forces for some time. However, the Iraqi government gained control of Sadr City as a result of the operation, which allowed for the stabilisation of the economic and political situation in the area.17
There are a number of interpretations of the Sadr City operation. Some authors claim that the successful outcome (gained control of the area, relatively small losses of troops) of the whole mission was a result of five factors: the U.S. Army’s capacity to gather intelligence and use it; the construction of the wall, which drew the attention of the enemy and forced them to attack the U.S. troops recklessly; the U.S. reconstruction effort, which helped to restore the economic situation in the city and fill in the political vacuum which appeared after JAM’s defeat; the progress of the Iraqi Army during the battles; and the miscalculation of the JAM: the organization seems to have counted on the 23-25 March intense attack and failed to prepare any other plans in advance.18
It has also been theorized that the fact that the operation was a “wide-area security mission” instead of a “take and clear” operation was crucial in ensuring the success of the battles. Non-centralised decision making was important to resist the fleeting enemy, and the use of heavy units such as tanks helped avoid significant infantry losses.19
Claims and Arguments
Having summed up the mentioned above, we have come to the opinion that the success of the tactics that the American forces employed resulted from a number of reasons. First, the use of modern technology, especially air forces and flying surveillance devices, in the given setting permitted to gather much information about the enemy’s activity and successfully use it in the Army’s operations. The use of air forces that were not easy to detect or counter also allowed to avoid numerous dangerous situations that the soldiers would face if they were forced to gather intelligence while being on the ground.
Second, it was already mentioned that the decentralised decision making also proved useful, for the local commanders could make the decision fast and quickly respond to the new surveillance data, instead of waiting for the decision of the centre, which would probably take much more time and eliminate the element of surprise; at the same time, the exact position of the enemy units would often have changed before the response of the centre would have been received.
Third, the utilization of heavy armoured units such as tanks and other military vehicles to counter the forces of the enemy proved extremely useful, as the enemies were not able to dispatch them easily, while the infantry could easily have been ambushed or trapped in various dangerous places.
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And, finally, the decision to build the wall provided the troops with a serious advantage, for the enemy started attacking the builders recklessly and in large numbers, and the U.S. and Iraqi government forces had the chance to deal with them in a place that was well-guarded, instead of falling victims to the unexpected ambushes in the city’s perilous slums.
There also exists an opinion that the success of the whole operation (including the future political outcomes) was the result of the very fact that the troops engaged in fighting at all (and were able to defeat the foe), instead of simply trying to promote development of the area. It is pointed out that at first the American operations in Iraq were mostly nonlethal, aimed at protecting the local population and supplying funds for various projects in order to stimulate development and enable the provision of essential services. However, it is also claimed that such projects very often failed, and were even more dangerous for American troops than lethal operations. Therefore, it is argued that the battles that took place in Sadr City were more effective than the preceding non-lethal operations and eventually allowed to restore peace in the area to a certain extent.20
As it can be seen, the military operation conducted by the U.S. military forces together with Iraqi government troops can be called successful because it resulted in the enemies being driven out of the city or eliminated, while the allies’ armies only suffered relatively light losses. The use of constant surveillance and decentralised decision making allowed the militaries to successfully gather intelligence data and quickly use it in order to gain victories over the foe. Heavy armoured vehicles permitted to avoid the loss of troops and protected the forces from the hazards coming from the peculiarities of the local urban setting. The decision to build the wall, even if it was contingent, proved successful, for it caused the enemy to recklessly attack the forces mainly in the known locations instead of ambushes. And, finally, the whole decision to carry out the military operation successfully cleared the city of the terrorist gangs and allowed for establishing control over the territory, and further economic and political restoration of the area.
Collier, Craig A. “Now That We’re Leaving Iraq, What Did We Learn?” Military Review 90, no. 5 (2010): 88-93.
Ensby, Geoffrey. “The Final Fight: The 2008 Battle of Sadr City.” [email protected] University. Web.
Fussman, Doreen, and Tom Sills. “‘One T-Wall at a Time’: Battle of Phase Line Gold, Sadr City, Iraq, March – May 2008.” Joint Center for Operational Analysis Journal XI, no. 2 (2009): 25-47. Web.
Gordon, Michael R. “U.S. Begins Erecting Wall in Sadr City.” The New York Times. Web.
“How Technology Won Sadr City Battle.” CBSNews. Web.
Johnson, David E., M. Wade Markel, and Brian Shannon. The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013.
Johnson, David E., M. Wade Markel, and Brian Shannon. The 2008 Battle of Sadr City. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011.
“Urban Warfare: The 2008 Battle for Sadr City.” Defense Technical Information Center. Web.
“U.S. and Iraqis Battle Militias to End Attacks.” The New York Times. 2008. Web.
1 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), xii.
2 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), xii-xiii.
3 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), 6.
4 U.S. and Iraqis Battle Militias to End Attacks,” The New York Times, Web.
5 Doreen Fussman and Tom Sills, “‘One T-Wall at a Time’: Battle of Phase Line Gold, Sadr City, Iraq, March – May 2008,” Joint Center for Operational Analysis Journal XI, no. 2 (2009): 28, Web.
6 Geoffrey Ensby, “The Final Fight: The 2008 Battle of Sadr City,” [email protected] University,Web.
7 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), 6.
8 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), 6.
9 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), 17.
10 “How Technology Won Sadr City Battle,” CBSNews, Web.
11 Michael R. Gordon. “U.S. Begins Erecting Wall in Sadr City,” The New York Times, Web.
12 “How Technology Won Sadr City Battle,” CBSNews, Web.
13 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), 75.
14 “How Technology Won Sadr City Battle,” CBSNews, Web.
15 “How Technology Won Sadr City Battle,” CBSNews, Web.
16 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), 98.
17 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), 97.
18 David E.Johnson, M. Wade Markel and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), 99-102.
19 “Urban Warfare: The 2008 Battle for Sadr City,” Defense Technical Information Center, Web.
20 Craig A. Collier, “Now That We’re Leaving Iraq, What Did We Learn?,” Military Review 90, no. 5 (2010): 88-93.