Battle for the City of the Dead by Colonel Dick Camp

Since the start of  the Iraq War, I have been fascinated  in how the U.S. has executed operations in that War.  I have read about battles in Baghdad and Fallujah, but nothing on the Marine/Army assault on Najaf in 2004 until now.  Battle for the City of the Dead: In the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004 (320 pages with 132 color photographs and 10 maps) by Colonel Dick Camp is an excellent narrative of the fight to take the city and the effort to neutralize Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Militia.

Here is a brief description from the publisher’s website:

In the spring and summer of 2004, Iraq was coming apart at the seams. Sectarian violence pitted Shiite against Sunni. American proconsul L. Paul Bremer had disbanded the Iraqi Army, placing disgruntled young men on the street without jobs or the prospect of getting one. Their anger developed into a full-blown insurgency fed by a relentless campaign by the clergy for jihad against the “occupation force.” In August, a Shiite cleric named Muqtada Al-Sadr called upon his thousands of armed followers, the Mahdi Militia, to resist the occupation. Fighting broke out in several locations, including the holy city of Najaf, the site of the largest Moslem cemetery in the world, and the Imam Ali Mosque. The U.S. forces fought in 120-degree heat through a tangle of crypts, mausoleums, and crumbling graves. The fight was brutal, pitting religious zealots against the highly motivated and disciplined U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops. It makes for a riveting account of Americans in battle.

Camp perfectly captures the soldiers and Marines tasked with taking Najaf back from the Mahdi Militia.  The Marines, many of whom were veterans of the initial invasion of Iraq, had to adjust their fighting skills to an urban environment.  The urban environment required them to be on high alert for attacks not only in the front, but also behind and below from the burial crypts – I can’t imagine the exhaustion from the concentration, stress, and heat.  Camp conveys the utter exhaustion the Marines felt in fighting in 100 plus degree temperatures – the feeling of roasting in their body armor.

The Army Cav soldiers needed to adjust their mechanized tactics to take into account the close confines of the cemetery.  Camp explains how the tanks and armored personnel carriers were forced to take specific routes through the cemetery because of the limited avenues in the cemetery.  Because the Cav units were heavy on the mechanized and light on the infantry, they were in some situations that jeopardized the armor (not enough infantry support to protect the armor from the Mahdi light infantry) – this was somewhat alleviated by the addition of more infantry support.

Despite all that the Militia threw at them, the soldiers and Marines proved time and again why we have the best military in the world.  Our men were often outnumbered, but they were able to not only defeat the Militia, but do it in an overwhelming fashion.  Camp highlights another unique feature of the American armed forces – the men and women will do everything they can and use every type of ordinance in order to defend their fellow warriors.  Camp recounts a number of instances where the full (well almost the full) power of the U.S. military was unleashed in order to protect Americans in a tight spot.

Camp touches on an issue that is a sore point for members of our military – the rules of engagement.  During the battle, the rules restricted any fire near the Imam Ali Mosque (the restricted zone became smaller as the battle progressed) – the place where al-Sadr was supposedly holed up.  Camp explains that as a result of these rules, U.S. forces were put in more danger.  The Mahdi Militia would fire from the Mosque with impunity because they knew they could not be touched in the Mosque.  Camp highlights many examples where a soldier or Marine was either killed or wounded because of these restrictions.

I know that our military should be sensitive to a country’s religious, historical, and cultural sites, but at what cost when the enemy uses them as bases for offensive operations against our troops?

I received a free copy of this book for this review.  However, this did not influence my opinion of the book.

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