The Battle Of An Nasiriyah

By the Company Commanders, 1st Battalion, 2d Marines - Originally Published September 2003

This article was written by the company commanders of 1/2 to document the efforts of the Marines who fought at An Nasiriyah. Eighteen Marines paid the ultimate price and 14 others were wounded in 3 hours of intense urban combat.

The battle for the bridges of An Nasiriyah was one of the most important engagements of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and also one of the most misunderstood. Even now, newspaper and magazine reports describe the battle as an ambush. Nothing could be further from the truth. While an Army convoy was attacked after mistakenly driving through An Nasiriyah that morning, the action that followed was a deliberate attack against an enemy stronghold. The only miscalculation was in how tenaciously the enemy was expected to resist. However, the men from 1st. Battalion, 2d Marines (1/2) who attacked north to seize the bridges were prepared for a fight. At the small unit level there were no expectations about capitulation or surrender. As always, the individual infantryman couldn't afford to make such reckless assumptions. What followed that day was a pitched battle in the streets of the city. On one side was a paramilitary force that had already bloodied an American unit and learned that Americans hadn't the stomach for a real fight. On the other side was a group of Marines who were determined to win despite the enemy, despite the cost.

The battle was fought in and around An Nasiriyah, a large city in southern Iraq that guarded key supply routes to the north. The battalion began its movement to contact north at 0400 (all times are local) on 23 March with tanks and a combined antiarmor team (CAAT) forming the vanguard of the column. The battalion was fatigued from driving almost nonstop from the Iraqi border 2 days before. Most Marines had not eaten or slept as the sun slowly replaced the gray dawn. In their approach north the battalion's lead element suddenly encountered machinegun fire and nearby explosions from bracketing mortars as Iraqi paramilitary forces south of the city attempted to halt the battalion's advance.

Although the enemy force had suffered some attrition from desertion, it was essentially three brigades defending in depth along a 12-kilometer stretch, south to north, centered on An Nasiriyah. The Iraqi fighters consisted of the notorious Saddam Fedayeen, Al Quds, and Republican Guard Special Forces, as well as Iraqi regular army soldiers. An assault amphibious vehicle (AAV) company reinforced the battalion, thus every rifle company was mechanized. A reserve tank company also augmented the force and was utilized in the team mech and team tank task organization. The battalion was essentially road bound due to the consistently unreliable off-road terrain in the region.

The first enemy fires were indicative of what was to come. Most of the enemy fighters were wearing civilian attire. They were employing mortars and machineguns from the roofs of mud huts in close proximity to civilians. The rules of engagement were well-understood and had been rehearsed time and again by situational training exercises, but the training and thoughtful preparation did not present a solution that a Marine could feel good about. The necessity to destroy an active enemy target could potentially exact a toll on the lingering civilian population.

Throughout the early morning, 1/2 sliced through enemy resistance along Route 7. Close air support and indirect fires were integral in providing an opportunity for added momentum to the battalion's push north. Initially, the enemy forces were not determined to defend their terrain and quickly folded under pressure from the combination of maneuver, direct fire, and supporting arms. As the battalion pressed the attack, a beleaguered Army convoy from the 507th Maintenance Company was found strewn along the road. Elements of 1/2 rescued the remnants of the convoy from enemy fire and evacuated the wounded soldiers. Eventually it was learned that the Army convoy made a wrong turn and instead of continuing up the relative safety of Route 1, drove up the enemy held Route 7. They drove deep into enemy territory-through An Nasiriyah before realizing their mistake. As the Army convoy turned around and moved south, the enemy became emboldened and began firing at the convoy, killing and capturing most of the soldiers. The enemy's success against the Army convoy bolstered their confidence for their defense of An Nasiriyah throughout the remainder of the day.

Sporadic fighting continued as 1/2 advanced to the railway bridge just a couple of kilometers south of the Euphrates River. It was just before arriving there that the tank company needed to break contact in order to replenish its dwindling fuel. With tanks refueling well to the rear, Bravo Company took the lead across the railway bridge. Soon after climbing the south side of the bridge, Bravo Company spotted several T-55 tanks and requested battalion antimechanized assets to move forward and engage the tanks. With the MlAl tanks still refueling, the CAAT moved forward and engaged the enemy tanks, destroying at least five. An additional T-55 was killed by the Javelin team with Bravo Company and was possibly the first tank kill by a Javelin in combat.

Throughout the movement and engagement of enemy tanks, Marine aviators provided killing fires in support of the 1/2 advance. Marine pilots lived up to the high standards set by their predecessors, providing close air support to the infantry units in contact without regard for their own personal safety. Over and over the Marine fliers attacked enemy tanks, machinegun and mortar positions, and troop concentrations. Their fires were lethal and in concert with the ground scheme of maneuver. Repeatedly the pilots checked off with the 1/2 forward air controllers after running out of fuel or ordnance, or sustaining battle damage, only to quickly return and continue their impressive support.

Having destroyed the enemy tank company near the railway bridge, the battalion commander ordered the attack to continue to the north. Upon return of their tank platoon, Bravo Company, organized as Team Mech, led the attack toward the Euphrates River Bridge in the southeast corner of An Nasiriyah. The other companies followed in column carefully steering around the burning remains of a U.S. Army vehicle and smoldering Iraqi T-55 hulks before accelerating toward the city. As the companies wound through gentle turns along lush, palm-lined streets leading to the bridge, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) were fired at the column, and machinegun fires could be seen and heard from the far side of the Euphrates River.

The Marines of 1/2 experienced soaring levels of confidence until this point. Most of the enemy fires experienced thus far were sporadic and ineffective. The surgical destruction of the enemy forces was not unlike any other combined arms drill executed over and over at Combined Arms Exercise 9-02 the previous summer. Crossing the Euphrates River into the city presented a more imminent threat to the battalion. The Marines suddenly did not feel so impervious inside the thin aluminum skin of the AAVs that were not equipped with the enhanced applique armor kits that were available to most mechanized infantry battalions in the 1st Marine Division.

The plan was a "be prepared to" mission. The battalion was supposed to defend south of the city and then possibly attack north to seize the bridges, providing a supply route through the eastern side of An Nasiriyah. As the battalion was attacking north earlier in the morning, the battalion commander was ordered to seize the bridges in order to allow other I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) forces to use Route 7 as an alternate route toward Baghdad. The seizure of the bridges became a higher priority than the defensive mission, and the attack continued past the planned battle positions into the city of An Nasiriyah.

Bravo Company was tasked with entering the city first, turning to the right, and bypassing the built-up area by using the vast open area to the east. The planned route would avoid the road through the city already known as "Ambush Alley." Bravo would only turn back to the west to drive toward the northern bridge and establish a support by fire position on the southern side of the bridge below the Saddam Canal. Alpha Company's mission was to follow Bravo Company and seize the Euphrates River Bridge. Charlie Company was tasked with following in trace of Bravo Company's advance and seizing the northern bridge over the Saddam Canal. Shortly after crossing the Euphrates River Bridge and heading to the east, Bravo Company came under intense fire from small arms, machineguns, and RPGs. Their progress was brought to a sudden halt as the apparently firm ground turned out to be a thick muddy bog disguised by a thin crust of hardened dirt. Vehicle after vehicle quickly became stuck in the deceiving terrain forcing Bravo Company to stop in order to recover vehicles and search for a new route. The vehicles of the forward command post that were following in trace of Bravo Company's advance also halted due to the impassable terrain. At this point Bravo Company continued north with essentially one infantry platoon while the rest of the company stayed behind to provide security for the vehicles that were stuck in the mud bog. The pilots from Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 continuously provided coverage to the immobile force, and their heroic actions thwarted the enemy attacks for over 4 hours.

Moving behind Bravo Company and the forward command post across the Euphrates River Bridge, Alpha Company was executing "sagger" drills, a technique used to dodge RPGs. Not yet across the bridge, Alpha Company had already come under fire from the far side and from enemy fighters south of the bridge. Having rehearsed the attack several times, the battle positions were quickly established just prior to 1300. There was a lull in the action for a few minutes as Alpha Company Marines dismounted their AAVs and took up positions in the southern area of the city. It was extremely hard to pick out targets because there wasn't a uniformed soldier to be found. At first it just appeared to be noncombatants moving around in front of the Alpha Company Marines, but continued observation revealed other activities.

The soldiers were wearing civilian attire and moving toward weapons caches inside buildings. There were others who were moving combatants around the city and resupplying the fighters by using civilian vehicles, especially orange and white taxis and white pickup trucks. Many of the vehicles had white flags attached to them even while they were actively participating in an attack against the battalion of Marines.

While the fires directed toward the Alpha Company Marines began to increase to a deafening level, Charlie Company began passing through Alpha's position. Charlie Company pushed north through the 4 kilometers of Ambush Alley, coming under intense machinegun, small arms, and RPG fire throughout the gauntlet. Sensing that something wasn't right about the disposition of the battalion's forces, the Charlie Company commander decided to quickly seize the northern bridge to ensure the overall success of the battalion. Meanwhile, Bravo Company was split into two forces. Half of the company were engaged in a street-to-street fight, the rest were recovering wheeled and tracked vehicles from the mud, leaving the northern bridge unchallenged. Charlie Company's understanding of commander's intent and aggressiveness in an uncertain situation made the biggest difference in the battalion's victory that day, but the success came with a price.

During the final stretch through Ambush Alley, an RPG struck the flank of a Charlie Company AAV. The blow engulfed the vehicle in flames and wounded four of the Marines inside. Damaged and on fire, the AAV crew managed to drive the vehicle out of the city several hundred meters to the northern side of the Saddam Canal. Upon arriving at the far side of the Saddam Canal Bridge, Charlie Company immediately established a defensive perimeter and began engaging enemy forces with heavy machineguns and company mortars. A medical evacuation (MedEvac) was requested for the four injured Marines, but the volume of fire eliminated the possibility of using helicopters. Demonstrating bold initiative, Charlie Company Marines loaded the casualties into an AAV that promptly headed south through the hornets' nest. Under fire the entire way, the lone AAV screamed through the city and over the Euphrates River Bridge until it reached the friendly lines of 2/8 where the casualties were treated and evacuated.

The battalion Marines could feel the pressure building from a coordinated and determined enemy attack. Enemy paramilitary forces were attacking along multiple axes converging on the Marines in the city. The enemy fighters were bounding from house to house, drawing closer to the company battle positions, and increasing their volume of fires. Suddenly, the headquarters section from Team Tank crested the Euphrates River Bridge and entered Alpha Company's position. A brief conversation took place between the two company commanders, and the four tanks were quickly brought to bear against the mounting enemy attack. Throughout the position, tank crewmen and young infantry leaders coordinated the tank fires that resulted in several well-placed tank main gun rounds and extremely effective coaxial machinegun bursts. The effect was a change in the momentum in favor of the Marines. The enemy volume of fires was dramatically reduced, and the Marines became more effective in destroying enemy targets.

Things looking a little better for now, the Alpha Company Marines looked back toward the street to see a Charlie Company AAV limp into their position. It was already badly damaged, dragging its ramp, and slopped dead in the middle of the street in Alpha's most hotly contested piece of terrain. Within moments of its arrival, the sickening white plume from an RPG was seen plunging into the flank of the vehicle, shaking it mercilessly, but leaving it intact. Seconds later another RPG dove into the open troop hatch, detonating the large ammunition stores and resulting in a devastating explosion that collapsed the weakened structure. The smoldering wreckage remained in the street yielding only three survivors. For the next 90 minutes the fight continued in the Alpha Company position as the Marines successfully defended the enemy counterattack and worked to recover a survivor buried beneath the heavy wreckage of the destroyed vehicle. Meanwhile, the tank company commander and his executive officer decided to push to the north with their two tanks to reinforce Charlie Company. With the arrival of two more AAVs into the Alpha Company perimeter came the news that Charlie Company was taking heavy casualties in their fight to the north. Five AAVs had been organized to move Charlie's dead and wounded south across the Saddam Canal Bridge. Only three vehicles made it to the Alpha Company position, and the location of the other two remained a mystery for the time being.

At approximately 1430 each of the three rifle companies was decisively engaged in nonmutually supporting positions throughout An Nasiriyah. Urban obstacles negated lateral communications between the maneuver elements. Each commander was intermittently frustrated in his attempts to coordinate with the battalion command post. Casualties were beginning to mount, and the anticipated relief by 2/8 Marines was waylaid by enemy resistance to the south.

The company defense continued north of the Saddam Canal, and Charlie Company was in a fight unlike any other. It had now been 2 hours since the decision was made to push north to seize the bridge. The original defensive perimeter was now beset with mounting casualties, continual strafing fire, and bracketing artillery. Now separated into squad-sized defensive positions, the company was valiantly fighting against an enemy force that was effectively using indirect fires and maneuvering behind protective terrain. The company fire support team, AAV platoon, and 60mm mortar section were the only means to accurately range the counter-attacking enemy, and they were all sustaining heavy casualties during the battle. Adding to the dilemma was the havoc that was caused by friendly fire from an A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft that had mistaken Charlie Company for an Iraqi mechanized force. The remainder of the Marines maneuvered under continuous pressure Lo move the wounded to casualty collection points while rigorously defending the strategic terrain.

At 1530 a CH-46E from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162 began to circle the Alpha Company position searching for the smoke marking the landing zone. The pilot quickly dropped into the middle of the street, heroically exposing his aircraft to enemy fire to save the life of a fellow Marine. Upon loading the casualty, the aircraft lifted, miraculously escaping intact from the red-hot zone. With 2/8 delayed in their fight to the south, the Alpha Company commander made the decision to move north through Ambush Alley in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Charlie Company to the north. The fires were relentless along the route and the Alpha Company Marines witnessed first hand more of the destruction endured by Charlie Company. The two missing AAVs were found along the main supply route just south of the Saddam Canal Bridge. One was disabled on the east side of the road, and the other was torn open in the center of the road, churning out a thick plume of gray-black smoke.

Bravo Company and battalion forward had linked up in the center of An Nasiriyah along Ambush Alley. They gained a clear line of sight to the north and witnessed the disabled Charlie Company AAVs south of the Saddam Canal Bridge. The Bravo Company commander could see Alpha Company taking an increasingly heavy volume of fire as their vehicles screamed by in the movement to Charlie Company's position. The Bravo Company artillery forward observer immediately directed suppressive artillery fires upon the western side of Ambush Alley. These fires allowed Bravo Company and the battalion forward command post to move to the downed vehicles and recover an additional casualty.

As Alpha Company quickly crossed the bridge and entered Charlie Company's position, another pair of abandoned AAVs could be seen. A raging fire consumed one vehicle, and the other, just off the west side of the road, appeared seriously damaged. The fight was already over. Charlie Company, reinforced by the tank company headquarters section, had driven the enemy from the bridge and secured the second battalion objective through 3 hours of relentless combat. Upon Alpha Company's arrival, the Marines consolidated their combat power and began the heart-rending MedEvac process. Shortly after 1700 CH-46E helicopters evacuated more than 30 casualties from the day's fight, and Bravo Company and the forward command post crossed the Saddam Canal Bridge into the defensive perimeter. The company commanders quickly discussed the situation with the battalion commander and were directed to push the remaining kilometer to the "T" intersection, 2 kilometers north of the Saddam Canal, to establish a defensive position for the night.

On 24 March, 2d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion passed through An Nasiriyah along the route that was forced open the day prior. Their use of Route 7 spearheaded the I MEF attack north to Baghdad and gave satisfaction to the Marines who had fought so hard for that, purpose. Over the next week the battalion and the rest of Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT-2) continued to capture or destroy remaining regime forces, beginning the steady transition to security operations and humanitarian assistance. The victory was hard fought and won by all of the members of the RCT. Such critical actions as the aggressive urban fighting by 3/2 and 2/8, the massed artillery strike that destroyed a gathering Fedayeen force of over 2,000 fighters, the selfless and courageous flying by pilots and aircrew of 2d and 3d Marine Aircraft Wings, and the critical flow of combat service support throughout were critical in the overall victory. It became obvious that most of the enemy resistance in the city had broken. The steady flow of civilian traffic increased, and crowds of thousands of people moved through the city trying to return to their lives. Although much hard work remained, it was clear to the Iraqi people that their freedom was close at hand.