Academic journal article Military Review

Iraq: Italian Lessons Learned

Academic journal article Military Review

Iraq: Italian Lessons Learned

Article excerpt

CLASHES DURING the spring of 2004 put 3,000 Italian officers and soldiers to a hard test in Dhi Qhar Province in southern Iraq during Operation Antica Babilonia. The most important battles occurred in Nasiriyah near three bridges on the Euphrates River. The enemy was 600 Shiite irregulars, most of whom were members of the paramilitary Mahdi Army led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.1

The Mahdi Army was equipped with AK-47 rifles, Dragunov precision rifles, 60-millimeter (mm) mortars, machineguns, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and a large stock of ammunition. According to U.S. sources, Al-Sadr could count on approximately 10,000 combatants with a hard core of 3,000 militiamen.2

Between 800 and 1,200 Sadrists received military training in three camps in southern Iran. Members of Iranian secret services infiltrated Iraq by opening 18 "foundations of charity," officially for works of beneficence, but in reality, active centers of recruitment.3 Although Iran initially favored the AngloAmerican military intervention in Iraq (witness the case of Amhad Chalabi), it nonetheless prepared a strategy to create a post-Saddam Iraq favorable to its national interests.

The First Battle of Nasiriyah

A climate of tension preceded the first battle of Nasiriyah that limited normal operations by Italian units. On 5 April 2004, the Sadrists (led by the young sheik Aws al-Khafaji) seized unguarded bridges with an unopposed, surprise attack, entrenched themselves, constructed improvised barricades, and created several fire centers inside buildings and on rooftops.

As the revolt spread, British command gave the order to free the bridges and restore free movement to and from the city. The Italian Government then gave the green light for Operation Porta Pia to help free the bridges. The operation involved three companies from the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment, a marine company from the San Marco Regiment, a cavalry squadron from the Savoia Regiment, elements of the Carabinieri GIS (Special Interventions Group), and parachutists from the Tuscania Regiment. In all, the military force included about 600 solidiers.

A mechanized column of 60 vehicles of several types and 8 Centauro armored reconnaissance vehicles (the contingent's heaviest armored vehicle) began to move at 0300 and arrived in the southern zone of Nasiriyah at 0600. Once the column arrived in sight of the Euphrates River, the Sadrists began an intense barrage of light arms and RPG fire. At least 400 RPGs were fired during the battle. The irregular army also fired several mortar rounds from the north side of the river. The Italians replied by firing all their weapons, including the Centauro's 105-mm cannons, destroying a building used by Iraqi snipers.

After clashing with a group of 40 insurgents, 90 San Marco marines in two mechanized and motorized platoons retook the first bridge to the east and established themselves on the opposite side of the Euphrates. With his force under constant fire, the San Marco Regiment marine commander asked for and received reinforcements-six sharpshooters mounted on a VM-90P soft-skinned vehicle. Two RPGs hit the VM-90P as it crossed the bridge. One did not explode, but the other did, wounding three soldiers.

The fight for the second bridge was more difficult. An advancing Bersaglieri platoon, which was receiving strong resistance from tactically well-positioned Sadrists, needed reinforcement to maintain its position on the north side of the bridge. During this clash, Mahdi Army RPGs hit two VCCs (an Italian version of the M-113 light-tracked armored fighting vehicle), but in at least one case, the grenade did not explode.

Poor military preparation and maintenance was probably the main reason for the Mahdi Army's relatively ineffective use of RPGs. The Sadrists often fired their RPG launchers from too short of a distance, which they did not have enough time to properly arm the grenades. …

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