The untold story of the battle against the ‘Soldiers of Heaven’ (Updated)

Battles like this one near Najaf and Operation Turki Bowl begin to tell the real story of clearing safehavens and training camps in Iraq during the winter of 2006 before the so-called Surge

The untold story of the battle against the ‘Soldiers of Heaven’

Gina Cavallaro

Army Times

The fighting that erupted Jan. 28, 2007, turned out to be some of the fiercest of the Iraq war. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers killed 373 enemy fighters, and more than 400 surrendered. The U.S. Army awarded more than 100 combat decorations for bravery that day, including at least eight Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

No one knew about it.

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Lessons Learned in Iraq: the Battle of Zarqa

by Don Kramer

www.army.mil

With the trappings of World War I and II tactics and 21st Century weaponry, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment's fight in January 2007 to recover a downed Apache helicopter south of Najaf stands as unique among Operation Iraqi Freedom engagements.

Counterinsurgency operations carry their own metrics, different from those that measure success in combat against an enemy who stands and fights. But by all military standards, Lt. Col. Barry Huggins' 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker battalion achieved a smashing success in what might have been the most traditional battle of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It ended in such a one-sided victory for U.S. and Iraqi forces that anticoalition media attempted to frame it as a "massacre" - until details came to light of the enemy's plans, detailed preparations and prodigious arsenal of weapons and equipment.

On Jan. 28 and 29, 2007, a fanatic and well-armed Shiite paramilitary faction stood and fought in southern Iraq against two companies of 2-3 Inf. augmented with engineers, 8th Iraqi Army elements and two Special Forces detachments, on a compound the insurgents had prepared for months. Riddled on three sides with deep trenches, high berms and antitank positions and protected on the fourth by the Euphrates River, nearly 600 Jund as-Sama', "Soldiers of Heaven," fired all of their considerable ordnance and launched one assault after another throughout the night in attempts to surprise and outflank the Patriot Battalion task force. For the Shiite fighters, they had begun an apocalyptic battle they believed would hasten the return of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam.

 

When to Confront Mahdists: A Challenge for the U.S. Military

Jun 15, 2008

Combating Terrorism Center

Soon after the 2008 incident, the two Mahdist groups became mixed up in the Western media. There is, however, reason to believe that the cells that were targeted in 2008 had developed quite independently of the Najaf group. Styling themselves as “followers of Ahmad al-Hasan al-Yamani,” the group had a visible presence in Basra since at least 2005 [3]. In the subsequent period it remained active in Basra and the far south, gaining adherents among former Sadrists and religious students, especially in Basra and Nasiriyya. In the wake of the 2007 clash in Najaf, the group vigorously distanced itself from the Jund al-Sama’ group, claiming they disagreed over interpretations of how and when the Hidden Imam would reappear [4].

Rivers of Babylon

by Nibras Kazimi

Prospect Magazine

Why would a handsome, fun-loving man from Birmingham, newly possessed of British citizenship, sell his profitable business and return to his native Iraq to die in a hail of bullets? Muhammad Hussein, never known as particularly religious, recently sold his barber shop in Moseley and took his wife and two-year-old son to a settlement near Najaf, where he was probably killed when Iraqi and US forces stormed the compound of the Soldiers of Heaven cult in late January. Muhammad’s charred British passport was found among the wreckage. In the final tally, 263 cult members were killed.

Before leaving, Muhammad told a Rivers of Babylon source over a couple of beers in a Birmingham nightclub: “I am going off to do humanitarian work in Iraq,” where “the Mahdi is about to emerge.” Many of the dead in the Soldiers of Heaven compound were found chained to each other, and it is possible that Muhammad did not know he was being recruited for battle.

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One lesson is the rapid response of the Strykers. Their high speed and low fuel consumption, coupled with rapid intertheater and intratheater deployment may mean they (and other infantry-centric vehicles such as JLTV) assume a larger role in the future Army.

Contrast this with Objective Peach where an isolated armored task force took on two Iraqi regiments with mostly infantry and M113s because the rest of the 2nd brigade was turning around on dikes due to excessive weight. Likewise, the earlier efforts of Marine AAVs at Najaf are instructional (even heavy tracked AAVs got stuck in thick mud forcing others to conduct their own "thunder run" on a road through town).

Would the result have been much different with a defending Stryker battalion with 105mm guns and lots of Javelins and Infantry? Couldn't Abrams be task-organized with Strykers?

Goes to the heart of the argument that Saddam was internally starting to see well organized resistance groups that over the long haul would have casued his downfall--both from the Shia side as well as the Sunni side.

Do not think for a moment that this particular Shia group "just appeared in 2007".

Salafists in Baghdad had long standing connections in the Shia south already in 2001/2002--there has been some undocumented reporting from the period 2004 through to 2008 and even into 2009 of Iranian support to AQI in terms of money and weapons and of HME sales from the Sunni's into Shia groups.

Example---while we claim that EFPs were the mark of the Shia---Sunni insurgent groups in 2003/2004 were already detonating homemade EFPs from their own designs.

Thanks for the pointers to the two articles on the battle against the "Soldiers of Heaven".

I had the opportunity to hear Ali A Allawi speak to the topic at the Jamestown Foundation, but sadly the video of his presentation is no longer available on their site, and as far as I know no transcript of it is available. As I recall, Dr Allawi found it significant that the (then) most intensive battle fought in the Iraq war should have been one in which the enemy was a Mahdist camp – Iraqi Mahdism being in his view something that mostly passed "under the radar" of westerners.

Fortunately, however, Reidar Visser has published an informed discussion of the theological implications of that battle – and of the one the following January, fought against a different Mahdist group but frequently confused with the SoH in western reportage – in the CTC Sentinel.

In this piece, written while the war in Iraq was still on-going, he raised the "fundamental question" as to "what purpose the U.S. armed forces are serving by volunteering to adjudicate on these rivalries", and noted:

The historical parallels suggest that this is first and foremost a theological dispute about the timing of the return of the Mahdi in which the stronger party (the Iraqi government, under pressure to be seen as the upholder of orthodox Shi’ism and desperately trying to reach out to the higher-ranking clergy of Najaf) concocts inflated terrorism-related charges against a possible threat to the monopoly of the established clergy.

His piece concluded:

Details about the recent operations against Iraqi Mahdists remain sketchy, but the timing (in both cases during the Shi`a holy month of Muharram) strongly suggests that this was primarily an attempt by Shi`a leaders to enforce sectarian orthodoxy during testing times. If similar requests for U.S. military help should materialize in the future—and reports out of Iraq suggest that there is no shortage of discontented Shi`a prepared to explore the Mahdist option—it would be prudent for the U.S. armed forces to sort out theological and security-related issues before the label of “terrorism” is taken at face value.

[h/t David Ronfeldt]

Charles,

I first learned about this fight in 2008. My buddy was the GPF commander from the Strykers. As we compared notes from our two fights, we were both shocked that 1. we didn't know about each others battles and 2. no one was talking about them.

As we had time to sort things out, I described the resistance/separatist groups in Diyala akin to Appalachian snake healers.

For the Shia in Zarqa, this was Iraq's version of Waco and the Branch Dividians.

Thanks Mike for adding the insights from those who fought at Najaf, they will supplement the sparse reporting at the time and comments available on an Internet search.

There was a UK connection too, a family from Birmingham were detained in the encampment, the husband was jailed and later released to his surprise. His wife and children with difficulty managed to return home.

There is a good 2007 article on the incident, on the Shia sect involved:
http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2007/03/riversofbabylon/