September 7, 2011: One of the more spectacular victories of American troops in Iraq was the destruction of Iran backed JAM (Jaish al Mahdi) Shia militias in the Sadr City section of Baghdad in early 2008. For years, JAM maintained itself in Baghdad and Basra via extorting protection money from merchants, and subsidies from Iran. In early 2008, the Iraqi government sent some of its best troops against the larger JAM force in Basra, and won. In response, JAM forces in Baghdad were ordered to begin firing rockets, from Sadr City, at American and government targets. In particular, the Green Zone was being hit. JAM also began taking control of police and army checkpoints around Sadr City. This was meant to punish the Iraqi government, and persuade them to back off.
The U.S. decided to lead a force to destroy Jam in Sadr City once and for all. The battle area was large (35 square kilometers, about half the size of Manhattan) and contained over two million people. Several thousand JAM militiamen, and many more supporters, were hiding out there. The American plan was to hit the enemy hard, quickly and accurately. This was meant to minimize resistance and allow most of the militiamen to be killed or captured before they could do much damage (to nearby civilians or the security forces.)
The attacking force was drawn from 131,000 soldiers and police based in Baghdad. This included 31,000 U.S. troops (six combat brigades and support troops), three Iraqi Army divisions (26,000 troops), two police divisions (22,000 troops), 32,000 Sons of Iraq militiamen and 20,000 regular Iraqi police. Only about ten percent of those troops were involved in the six week long battle for Sadr City.
American and Iraqi soldiers took care of most of the combat. The police and militia maintained control of areas cleared of the Shia militiamen, and controlled access to Sadr City. The Americans supplied a fast moving intelligence system, which used a lot of UAVs, computers and data on past operations in the area. In the previous five years, the Americans had developed tactics which used excellent intelligence (thanks to all the UAVs) and quick response (by ground troops, bombers, artillery, or Special Forces) to deal with whatever was discovered about the enemy.
The Americans forced JAM to fight by seizing the areas where the 107mm rockets were fired at the Green Zone. Sadr City was far enough away that there were only a few areas from which the rockets could be fired. At the same time, a 4.6 kilometers long wall, using four meter tall, nine ton sections trucked in and quickly emplaced, was built along one of the main roads. This restricted JAM mobility. In an attempt to halt the wall building, JAM constantly attacked it. U.S. forces anticipated this and stationed snipers, UAVs and quick reaction forces on the ground to spot and go after the JAM attackers. Hundreds of JAM fighters were killed or wounded during these battles.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces began moving into Sadr city, armed with knowledge of who many key JAM members were and where they lived. This also put JAM under pressure, and many JAM men were captured or killed. Most importantly, civilian casualties were minimal. After six weeks of fighting, JAM was defeated and largely shattered by casualties and desertions. JAM’s political leaders declared a unilateral ceasefire, and fled to Iran. This was their way of surrendering.
The U.S. Army has added the Sadr City tactics to their playbook, which is itself another recent innovation. For the last three decades, the army has been documenting any new ideas, especially successful ones. There is now a computerized search capability which brings up any useful tactics and techniques from the past. Reinventing the wheel will not be used as much in the future.