Samarra In context
The recent Operation Baton Rouge by the 1st Infantry Division has thrown the ever—moving Iraq media spotlight on Samarra; a golden dome glinting in the sun contrasted with the black smoke of violence rising into a hot blue sky. Baton Rouge was a success, with American and Iraqi forces killing some 125 terrorists based in that city, who had been continuing their repeated and unprovoked attacks on civilian and military personnel. The operation, conceived through a joint US—Iraqi agreement, was the latest in a series of actions in Samarra, an ancient city freighted with centuries of history.
Located about 125 north of Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River, Samarra once gave its name to a certain kind of pottery popular in the 5th millennium B.C.
For many years it was a regional trading center, close enough to Baghdad, through which the famous Silk Road ran, so that its merchants and artisans benefited from trans—national commerce.
It was there in 363 A.D. that the Roman Emperor Julian, retreating before the Persian army, died from his wounds.
When the Abbasid Caliphate was forced out of Baghdad in the 9th Century, it moved to Samarra. For 56 years the city thus became capital of the Muslim world. Between 847 and 852 the Great Mosque was built. There, too, can be found the Golden Dome of the Sanctuary, or Tombs, of The Two Imams, completed in 1905.
If nothing else, the passing centuries supply perspective to current events. That, plus context are sadly lacking in the 21st Century, especially when viewed through 24/7 media coverage, which destroys both.
How many people ever heard of Operation Ivy Blizzard? It began on December 17, 2003 in the aftermath of Saddam's capture. At the request of leaders in Samarra, home to 200,000 Iraqis, American troops from the 4th Infantry Division and Task Force Ironhorse, along with Iraqi security forces, conducted raids to target, isolate and eliminate die—hard Baathists and terrorist cells in the city.
Events of November 30 provided another operational precipitant. On that date 100 men clad in Saddam fedayeen uniforms conducted multiple, simultaneous attacks against a convoy carrying new Iraqi currency to banks in Samarra. The primary convoy escort unit, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor, accounted for 54 enemy dead in the failed heist.
The targets for the series of raids were provided by either Iraqis working at the nearby American base or residents of Samarra.
4th Infantry division 3rd Brigade Combat team commander, Col. Frederick Rudesheim, said at the time that 'the overwhelming majority of Samarrans were fed up with the Saddam fedayeen and terrorists carrying out their attacks.'
1st Battalion, 8th Infantry commander, Lt. Col. Nate Sassanan observed; 'Samarra has been a little bit of a thorn in our side. It hasn't come along as quickly as other cities in the rebuilding of Iraq. This operation is designed to bring them up to speed.'
Other objectives of Ivy Blizzard included working with community leaders to identify and prioritize needed infrastructure repair and the recruiting and training of more Iraqi soldiers and police.
All of this was part and parcel of the coalition objective to empower local governments as a basis for what was then the forthcoming transition to self—governance. Not so easy to achieve in a city that is home to seven major and fourteen minor tribal sheiks, Muslim clerics and a secular middle class looking out for its own interests.
In March of 2004, units that had assaulted Omaha and Utah Beaches 60 years earlier met again as the 1st Infantry Division took over the 4th ID's area of operations. From 1996 through 1999, brigades and battalions from the Big Red One had seen service in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. After a month in Iraq working alongside the veteran 4th, they were ready. The 1st ID's 2nd 'Dagger' Brigade, consisting of the 1/18th Infantry, 1/26th Infantry and 1/77th Armor became responsible for the sector that included Samarra.
PFC Ryan Howell had just emerged from the battalion weight room, ready to man his Bradley Fighting Vehicle's machine gun, ready to go. 'We're always ready to go,' said his 1/26th Infantry platoon commander, LT Warren Wessling. Abrams tank gunner Sgt. Nick Roha, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, felt pretty good about it, saying, 'We've been through a lot of combat and we know how we react.'
These men were talking about Operation Cajun Mousetrap III, a limited attack mission conducted the night of August 13, 2004. Task Force Danger soldiers were to clear roads blocked by enemy forces and fire at enemy positions only if fired upon.
Tanks and Bradleys moved out from Patrol Base Razor, just across the Tigris from Samarra. Festivities opened with obstacles being cleared by heavy machine guns and wire—guided missiles as American armor roared across the bridge into the city, where they were met almost immediately by enemy fire. An hour later Samarra's lights went out. Only tracer rounds and intermittent explosions illuminated the night sky. Once the main point of resistance, a former Baath party headquarters building, had been identified, it was leveled by a 500 lb. bomb.
Captain William Rockefeller, commander, B Company, 1/26th Infantry, summed up the situation the following morning: 'We met our objectives and everybody came back.'
Two days later, more than 300 Iraqi National Guard soldiers, all of them from Samarra, graduated from basic training. During the ceremony in Tikrit, these patriotic citizens thrust their AK—47s skyward while roaring in unison, 'We are ready to kill the enemy. We are ready to fight!'
This nucleus of the 202nd ING Battalion was the first 'cohort unit' — all from the same city, they trained together and would serve together, in their hometown, alongside American troops, or by themselves.
After the ceremonies, 1st ID commanding general, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, made it clear to Samarran officials in attendance that the U.S. is ready to spend millions in the city, but not until 'streets are secured and coalition and Iraqi forces can operate there without interference from insurgents.'
To help the Samarrans with their problems, personnel from the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion and the 324th Psychological Operations Company began operating in the city.
While talking with the people and handing out candy and toys to the children, they assessed the situation. Psyops soldiers distributed radios so inhabitants could listen to the new station about to go on the air.
Meanwhile, men from the 202nd ING Battalion began establishing their presence in their city.
September 9 was an important day as 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander, Col. Randal Dragon led a group of his men and Iraqi National Guardsmen into Samarra to reinstall the city council. That body wasted no time in electing a new council, an interim mayor and an acting police chief who will remain in office until new elections are held.
Maj. Gen. Batiste commented that ' this was a significant step forward where the good people of Samarra are taking control of their destiny.'
The situation was looking more promising for reconstruction projects to begin as the situation stabilized.
As a sign of good faith, the Samarra Bridge across the Tigris was reopened to reduced civilian traffic.
And so on to Operation Baton Rouge. Participating Iraqi forces were Samarrans from the 202nd ING Battalion and the 7th Iraqi Army Battalion. Together with 1st ID 2nd Brigade soldiers, they secured key government buildings and other strategic points throughout the city 'to facilitate orderly governmental processes; to kill or capture anti—Iraqi forces, and to set the conditions to proceed with infrastructure and quality of life improvements for the people of Samarra.'
In opposition to fear, killing and terror, the people of Samarra, the people of Iraq, prefer self—governance, stability and security.
Through the lens of history, which also teaches patience and perseverance, we can see Iraqis in the near future realizing their dream of independence; freedom glinting from the dome of the Great Mosque, democracy resonant in a clear blue sky.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian. His work appears in the American Thinker frequently.