Before the Fight
eployed to Iraq in mid-2004, Lieutenant ColonelJohn L. Mayer’s Battalion Landing Team, 1stBattalion, 4th Marines (BLT 1/4) expected arelatively familiar mission as operational reserve in theBaghdad region. Instead, it walked into the path of araging storm, resulting in one of the most intense battlesthe Marine Corps had seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom.In the city of an-Najaf, the battalion engaged a fanaticalenemyinaplacewhere“itrainedshrapnel,”andmachinegun, small arms, and rocket-propelled grenade rereached intensities unknown to already battle-testedMarines.
Temperatures soared past 125 degreesFahrenheitincompressedand confusing city blocks. especial operations capable 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (11th MEU), of which BLT 1/4 was the groundcombat element, operated in a tightly restrictivesupporting armsenvironment reminiscent ofVietnam atits height—and it cost Marine lives.Even before they departed, the Marines of ColonelAnthony M. Haslam’s 11th MEU did not expect an easy deployment. e command element anticipated tenseperiods of combat as inevitable no matter what themission. But the violence that followed came morequickly than even the most foresighted expected.
eMarines always stood ready to ght, but confrontationdeveloped so rapidly, and later so explosively, that 11thMEUcommandersfoundtheneedtoexpediteandadjusttheir plans.e rst adjustment came as the expeditionary unitfound its mission changed just days out of port fromKuwait. Originally slated as operational reserve for theBaghdad area, theater commanders recognized that the11th MEU did not possess the necessary manpowerrequired to support the anticipated violence andinstability in the capital city following the transfer of authorityfromthecoalitionleadershiptothatoftheIraqiinterim government. Instead, the theater commandersassigned the unit a challenging security and stability operation mission. e expeditionary unit was to takecontrol of the southern Iraqi provinces of an-Najaf andal-Qadisiyah, an area of 16,000 square miles with a violentrecentpast thatstillfestered. ColonelHaslamandhis ocers took the sudden change of mission in strideand began planning accordingly. Studying intelligencereports, the 11th MEU sta outlined a comprehensive,aggressive long-range plan.
As Lieutenant Colonel Mayer’s battalion landing teamdeployed, it faced a situation of growing violence andcomplexity that had been building since the Coalition’sinitial invasion of Iraq in 2003. e defeat of SaddamHussein and the subsequent establishment of aprovisional government in early 2004 created anenvironment of volatile political instability, particularly in the Shiite cities of southern Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, acharismatic Shiite Muslim cleric, had emerged as a self-proclaimed populist champion of Iraq’s poor andoppressed. As the defender of the downtrodden, al-Sadrdemonized the occupying American forces as well aswhat he considered their puppet Provisional IraqiGovernment. His followers included the Mahdi, anarmed paramilitary force that served as al-Sadr’s privatearmy and whose members vowed to follow his orders tothe death. Driven by al-Sadr’s inammatory rhetoric, themilitia initiated a widespread insurrection throughoutmuch ofIraq on4April 2004when the newly establishedProvisional Iraqi Government issued an arrest warrantfor al-Sadr for the murder of an Iraqi judge.Fighting erupted in several major Shiite-dominatedcities, including Baghdad, Karbala, al-Kut, an-Nasiriyah,andothers, principallysouthofthe capital. Overthenexttwo months, Coalition forces responded to quell theuprising, battering the militia in several engagements,with 1,500 to 2,000 of its members killed in the ghting.e insurrection nearly collapsed, with the remainingmilitia ghters making a last stand at Najaf. But beforetheCoalitioncouldcompletelyeliminatethemilitia,they negotiated a truce eective as of 6 June 2004 thattemporarilyendedtheghtingandleal-Sadrunscathed.
Under the truce terms, al-Sadr and his followers were touphold a cease-re, disarm, and relinquish territory heldbyhisforces,buttheagreementallowedthemilitiatoretaincontrol of Najaf and al-Kufa, al-Sadr’s home territory, andrestricted access of Coalition forces into either city. WiththisreprievefromtheCoalition,al-Sadrconvertedthetwo
The Battle of An-Najaf
by Francis X. Kozlowski
On the Cover:
Marines of Company A, BLT 1/4, strike the militiaoccupied Iraqi police station in Kufa near an-Najaf during a raid on20 August 2004.
Photo courtesy of Lucian M. Read