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Iraq Italian Lessons Learned (Military Review) - with errata

Iraq Italian Lessons Learned (Military Review) - with errata

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Published by r_cappelli
Clashes during the spring of 2004 put 3,000 Italian officers and soldiers to a hard test in Dhi Qhar Province in southern Iraq during Operation Antica Babilonia. The most important battles occurred in Nasiriyah near three bridges on the Euphrates River: several lessons learned emerge from a first analysis of those violent events.
Clashes during the spring of 2004 put 3,000 Italian officers and soldiers to a hard test in Dhi Qhar Province in southern Iraq during Operation Antica Babilonia. The most important battles occurred in Nasiriyah near three bridges on the Euphrates River: several lessons learned emerge from a first analysis of those violent events.

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Published by: r_cappelli on Nov 24, 2008
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March-April 2005
LASHES DURING the spring of 2004 put3,000 Italian officers and soldiers to a hardtest in Dhi Qhar Province in southern Iraq duringOperation Antica Babilonia. The most importantbattles occurred in Nasiriyah near three bridges onthe Euphrates River. The enemy was 600 Shiite ir-regulars, most of whom were members of the para-military Mahdi Army led by firebrand cleric Muqtadaal-Sadr.
The Mahdi Army was equipped with AK-47 rifles,Dragunov precision rifles, 60-millimeter (mm) mor-tars, machineguns, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG)launchers and a large stock of ammunition. Accord-ing to U.S. sources, Al-Sadr could count on approxi-mately 10,000 combatants with a hard core of 3,000militiamen.
Between 800 and 1,200 Sadrists received militarytraining in three camps in southern Iran. Membersof Iranian secret services infiltrated Iraq by open-ing 18 “foundations of charity,” officially for worksof beneficence, but in reality, active centers of re-cruitment.
Although Iran initially favored the Anglo-American military intervention in Iraq (witness thecase of Amhad Chalabi), it nonetheless prepared astrategy to create a post-Saddam Iraq favorable toits national interests.
The First Battle of NasiriyahThe First Battle of NasiriyahThe First Battle of NasiriyahThe First Battle of NasiriyahThe First Battle of Nasiriyah
A climate of tension preceded the first battle of Nas-iriyah that limited normal operations by Italian units.On 5 April 2004, the Sadrists (led by the young sheik Aws al-Khafaji) seized unguarded bridges with anunopposed, surprise attack, entrenched themselves,constructed improvised barricades, and created sev-eral fire centers inside buildings and on rooftops.As the revolt spread, British command gave theorder to free the bridges and restore free movementto and from the city. The Italian Government thengave the green light for Operation Porta Pia to helpfree the bridges. The operation involved three com-panies from the 11th
Bersaglieri Regiment, a marinecompany from the San Marco Regiment, a cavalrysquadron from the Savoia Regiment, elements of the Carabinieri GIS (Special Interventions Group),and parachutists from the Tuscania Regiment. In all,the military force included about 600 solidiers.A mechanized column of 60 vehicles of severaltypes and 8 Centauro armored reconnaissance ve-hicles (the contingent’s heaviest armored vehicle)began to move at 0300 and arrived in the southernzone of Nasiriyah at 0600. Once the column arrivedin sight of the Euphrates River, the Sadrists beganan intense barrage of light arms and RPG fire. Atleast 400 RPGs were fired during the battle. The irreg-ular army also fired several mortar rounds from thenorth side of the river. The Italians replied by firingall their weapons, including the Centauro’s 105-mmcannons, destroying a building used by Iraqi snipers.After clashing with a group of 40 insurgents, 90San Marco marines in two mechanized and motor-ized platoons retook the first bridge to the east andestablished themselves on the opposite side of theEuphrates. With his force under constant fire, theSan Marco Regiment marine commander asked forand received reinforcements—six sharpshootersmounted on a VM-90P soft-skinned vehicle. TwoRPGs hit the VM-90P as it crossed the bridge. Onedid not explode, but the other did, wounding threesoldiers.The fight for the second bridge was more dif-ficult. An advancing Bersaglieri platoon, whichwas receiving strong resistance from tactically well-positioned Sadrists, needed reinforcement to main-tain its position on the north side of the bridge. Dur-ing this clash, Mahdi Army RPGs hit two VCCs (anItalian version of the M-113
light-tracked armoredfighting vehicle), but in at least one case, the gre-nade did not explode.Poor military preparation and maintenance wasprobably the main reason for the Mahdi Army’s rela-tively ineffective use of RPGs. The Sadrists oftenfired their RPG launchers from too short of a dis-tance, which they did not have enough time to prop-erly arm the grenades. Had all the grenades deto-nated during their attacks, Italian losses would havebeen quite serious.While Italian forces marched toward the third andlast bridge, the enemy constantly received reinforce-ments and ammunition and even used city hospitalambulances for transportation. As the firefight grew
Riccardo Cappelli
March-April 2005
in intensity, the Italians employed the Panzerfaustantitank weapon (with 15 rockets) and the MilanAntitank Guided Missile System (with 4 missiles) toneutralize Mahdi Army positions, which were par-ticularly strong near the third bridge.Because the bridge had a “mule-back” structure,some Italian marine riflemen climbed to the top of a parapet and looked through binoculars to view ac-tions on the other side of the river, where insurgentmilitiamen intermingled with the women and childrenof Nasiriyah. Because they did not have any less-than-lethal armaments, Italian forces could not hopeto separate the Mahdi rebels from the women andchildren. To avoid slaughtering innocent noncom-batants, the Italians did not attack.The Italians did not have reconnaissance aircraftand unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at their dis-posal, and their AB-412 and HH-3F helicopterswere vulnerable when flying over urbanized areasheld by hostile infantry. Therefore, San Marco Regi-ment marines were exposed to lethal fire when try-ing to obtain situational awareness. Not having aerialsupport was penalizing: aircraft could have engagedenemy emplacements on rooftops and destroyedmortars and insurgent vans from the sky, giving theMahdist leadership something else to think about.The battle lasted until noon when the belligerentsdeclared a truce to conduct negotiations. At 1500,the opposing forces agreed the south side of thebridge would remain in Italian hands, and Iraqi po-licemen would patrol the north side. Another hourof gunfire accompanied the Italian disengagement.At the end of the day, Italian soldiers had expended30,000 rounds of ammunition, and it had been nec-essary to resupply the troops 5 times during the day.The official casualties were 15 Italian and 15 Sadristskilled in action, but the Iraqi death toll might havebeen as high as 150 or 200.
The Second Battle of NasiriyahThe Second Battle of NasiriyahThe Second Battle of NasiriyahThe Second Battle of NasiriyahThe Second Battle of Nasiriyah
In May, about 300 Mahdi Army irregularslaunched a new offensive, and this time they werebetter armed, having portable ground-to-air SA-7missiles and, perhaps, more powerful mortars. TheMahdi Army’s organization and military preparationseemed improved: they operated in several assaultgroups of from 20 to 30 militiamen, each led by 2well-trained commanders (called “the chosen”), withcommunications assured by a system of couriersand luminous signals. The accuracy of the MahdiArmy’s mortar fire was also improved, probably be-cause the Army now used informants and observ-ers. Nevertheless, the overall military performanceof the Sadrist rebels was poor and not even remotelycomparable to the performance of seasoned guer-rilla organizations such as the Chechen separatistsor the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.Aside from the bridges, the Mahdists’ main ob- jectives were the sandbagged Coalition ProvisionalAuthority (CPA) building and the Libeccio base (aformer museum, now a police station, on a road of strategic importance). The Mahdi Army, which be-gan its attack after Friday prayers, soon gained theupper hand against only token resistance by localpolice and quickly occupied the bridges and majorintersections.In the early afternoon, 40 insurgents stormedLibeccio base, but two platoons of Italian Carabinieriand one Romanian contingent arrived to dislodgethem. The Mahdists attacked the CPA building,which was defended by 1 platoon of Italian marineswith a few VM-90P and VCCs; 32 private secu-rity guards from the Philippines, armed with AKMautomatic rifles; and 6 American private securityguards. Approximately 150 Mahdi Army Shiites laidsiege to the CPA building with guns, mortars, androckets, but they did not seem to be particularly anx-ious “to kick in the door.” Instead, they preferred tomagnetize a nucleus of Italians (who had becomesemi-trapped while conducting a sortie) and enticeItalian reinforcements to traverse narrow city streetstransformed into dangerous tunnels of steel and fire.Italian aid columns, with the Centauro in good evi-dence, became targets of the aggressive Mahdists.
The CPA building’s symbolic value was greaterfor the Italians than for the militiamen, who preferredtrying to kill and wound as many Italian soldiers aspossible instead of risking heavy casualties for themere possession of a waving flag. Italian governorBarbara Contini, who at the beginning of the clasheswas outside Nasiriyah, chose to return in the be-sieged CPA complex and immediately became anew target for the guerrillas and a new worry forthe defenders.On the night of 15 May 2004, six VCC-1s leftthe main Italian military base (called “White Horse”)to shore up the CPA building’s defenses. TheSadrists ambushed the mechanized formation sev-eral times, and an RPG that did not detonate hit anarmored troop carrier. But, the Italian force arrivedto reinforce the building and evacuate the journal-ists and most civilian employees trapped inside.On the morning of 16 May, 50 infantrymen andcavalrymen from the Lagunari Regiment and theSavoia Squadron launched an assault against forti-fied enemy emplacements and mortars. The Italianforce advanced through the narrow streets of Nasiriyah with eight troop carriers, four Centauros,and an anti-barricades tank (a Leopard tank with-out gun but equipped with a steel spade). Thewheeled Centauro encountered several difficultiesin moving alone through improvised barricades andother obstacles.
March-April 2005
The Italians fired five or six Milanmissiles to neutralize four enemy po-sitions, but a deluge of fire stoppedtheir advance. One Centauro had tworipped wheels, and eight Mahdi RPGs(luckily loaded with antipersonnel in-stead of antitank explosives) hit twoVCCs armored carriers. After afierce, 6-hour firefight, the Italian ar-mored column retreated. Had it beenproperly equipped with tanks andarmed helicopters, it could have ac-complished its mission.In the meantime, the Mahdi Armyintensified pressure on Libeccio base,which was defended by a platoonfrom the Lagunari Regiment that hadreplaced a Romanian unit. A 60-mmmortar bomb killed an Italian soldierand wounded two others. Under con-stant fire by 100 militiamen, Carabin-ieri parachutists and Portuguese gendarmes arrivedat Libeccio base in a column of 16 military vehiclesand 2 Centauros to facilitate evacuation.As night fell, the Italian units began a series of “aimed operations” to eliminate the mortar threatonce and for all. An American AC-130 gunship bom-barded a mortar position, two car vans transportingmortars, and a bus full of insurgents, while Italianparachutists conducted mopping-up operations ingreat style.In the late evening, General Gian Marco Chiarini,head of the Italian joint task force in Iraq, reachedan agreement with the Sadrists for a cease-fire, buta dissident Shiite armed faction violated it and be-came the target of the night’s final action.
On themorning of 17 May, the Italian Army restored calmin Nasiriyah. Italian casualties had been low (1 deadand 15 wounded); the final toll for the Mahdists wasunknown.Allowing Sadr’s militia to safely retreat fromNasiriyah did not exactly reduce the threat to Ital-ian troops. In counterguerrilla operations, the maindifficultly is to identify with certainty who the en-emy is, and mistakes in the field increase supportfor the rebels. But, when the guerrillas tried to oc-cupy territory, the Italian Army had to rise to the oc-casion and neutralize them definitively. To do so, theItalian contingent had to possess sufficient militaryresources to isolate the battlefield; prevent the en-emy from refueling, limit his ability to exfiltrate andmaneuver; and force him to spend his resources,contrasting isolation and attack actions.While Italian units faced many difficulties in thebattles of Nasiriyah, one should not forget that theAmericans, who are sometimes much too ready tocriticize their allies, also encountered great difficul-ties during counterinsurgency operations in built-upareas and had to agree to debatable unofficial cease-fires in Najaf, Kufa, and Falluja.
The Sadrists haveoften used such pauses to resupply and disengagethemselves, recruit new volunteers, and attack else-where. So, it is no surprise to read that “U.S. unitsaccustomed to the disorganized, hit-and-run strikesof insurgents in Baghdad and elsewhere were im-pressed to see the black-clad fighters of the MahdiArmy moving in coordinated units [and firing riflesas] cover for the launch of rocket-propelled gre-nades, the weapon that has been most damaging toU.S. forces in Iraq.”
Lessons LearnedLessons LearnedLessons LearnedLessons LearnedLessons Learned
Several lessons learned emerge from a first analy-sis of the violent events at Nasiriyah.
Italy mustspend more resources to adequately prepare andequip Italian soldiers to fight in urbanized areas andbuy tactical UAVs and more observation devices tohelp identify the enemy. Italian forces also needmore heavy weapons (tanks, combat helicopters, andself-propelled artillery) at the inception of militaryoperations.
Reducing firepower does not help the peaceprocess: the problem is
force is used, not itspossession. Bringing heavy weapons into a foreigncountry does not necessarily mean military escala-tion, although this is a widely accepted view in Italy.Italian forces could place heavy weapons in hangarsand depots and keep them well-oiled and readyto use.Western armies, including the U.S. Army, haveneglected the lessons Israel learned during the
An Italian Army soldier from the 151st Regiment, Sardinia, Italy, stationshimself on the roof of the CPA-Dhi Qar building during the meeting ofCoalition Provisional Authority Administrator, Ambassador L. Paul Bremerwith the then commander of the Italian joint task force in Iraq, BrigadierGeneral Bruno Stano, the Governor of Nasiriyah and other Iraqi, British,Portugese, and Romanian officials, 10 January 2004.
   U   S   A   i  r   F  o  r  c  e

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