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The Battle for Sadr City

A new RAND report explains that the integration of airpower and boots on the ground in the 2008 battle for Sadr City, Iraq, is the perfect model for success in urban warfare without significant collateral damage.

—Amy McCullough

Aug. 19, 2011— In October 2007, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki banned US forces from operating inside Sadr City after an air strike killed a number of civilians. This allowed Sadrist armed militias to maintain control of the city with relatively little interference from US or coalition forces.

By March 2008, a major battle was brewing in Basra. The militia had stepped up rocket and mortar attacks against the Green Zone and President George W. Bush directed the Pentagon to stop the onslaught of rockets and defeat the criminal militias in Sadr City, which was located in the center of Baghdad's Thawra district. The city was roughly half the size of Manhattan and home to about 2.4 million residents.

Over the next six weeks, US soldiers and Iraqi security forces would be engaged in continuous operations. Six soldiers would lose their lives and nearly 700 Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) fighters would be killed.

The seamless integration of airpower with boots on the ground would be the key to gaining control of the city and reducing the string of violence, according to a recent report from the RAND Corp., titled "The 2008 Battle of Sadr City."  

Col. John Hort, then-leader of embedded provincial reconstruction team-3, had "unprecedented" resources allocated to him. They included: two US Air Force MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles; two US Army RQ-7B Shadow RPAs; three aerial weapons teams, each consisting of two AH-64 Apaches; and fixed-wing close-air support platforms available for 24/7 support.

"What was different compared with past practice was the manner in which these resources were employed: Col. Hort controlled these assets without having to go through intervening headquarters," states the RAND report. "Although most of these systems were used to engage JAM fighters or rockets, on occasion, large weapons (e.g. 500-pound guided bombs) were used to destroy buildings that were sheltering snipers."

Inside the tactical operations center, Hort had access to continuous feeds from the Air Force's Predator drones, both armed and unarmed, and the Army's Shadows, as well as other ISR assets. The staff was able to feed the information down to the operational units enabling troops "to find and kill JAM rocket teams and destroy other targets (e.g., mortars)."

"Predators were particularly useful because JAM was expected to have SA-7 man-portable air defense systems and the UASs [unmanned aerial systems] enabled attacks on JAM without putting Apache crews at risk," the report states.

As the counter-rocket fight evolved, the brigade battle staff developed "tactical patience." Instead of hitting only "low-level operatives," the command staff relied on the ISR feeds to "watch the rail." They would then strike "when the operatives returned to a supply point or a command location to get additional rockets and instructions … hitting not only the operatives but higher elements of the network as well."

The RAND report found that integrating persistent ISR and precision strike capabilities with ground maneuvers was "fundamental to success" in the battle for Sadr City. As the Army plans its future capabilities, the authors believe it should look to the battle and such integration as a model for succeeding in urban warfare with low collateral damage.  

RAND report