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Fighting Through the Fog of War

by Maj Karl C. Rohr

Overcoming the friction points and succeeding in combat.

“Fog can prevent the enemy from being seen in time, a gun from firing when it should, a report from reaching the commanding officer. Rain can prevent a battalion from arriving, make another late by keeping it not three but eight hours on the march, ruin a cavalry charge by bogging down the horse in mud etc.”

—Carl von Clausewitz,
On War

“Whatever form it takes, because war is a human enterprise, friction will always have a psychological as well as physical impact.”

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting

As these quotes suggest, “fog” plays a role on all battlefields. In the battle for An Nasiriyah—particularly on 23 March 2003—friction influenced every action, often compounding difficulties in an ever-growing chain. While the attack to seize and open a corridor along Route 7 through the city ultimately succeeded, the men engaged were forced to deal with a fluid situation, mass casualties, disrupted communications, and a willful and determined but incoherent and often illogical enemy. This article summarizes many of the friction points and their effect on the battle.

The Iraqis
When Saddam called upon his people to fight back against the invader by any means, the response was not overwhelming. The hardliners—Ba’ath Party loyalists and others who risked disenfranchisement and death if Saddam lost power—descended on the forward defenses to intimidate and cajole the less-than-motivated populace into fighting. Many soldiers who did not want to fight found they had no choice while the zealous Saddamists remained in their midst. The Iraqi commanders on scene relied on the principle, “fear me more than the enemy.” Their battle plans had to be kept simple—night movements and infiltration tactics. Anything requiring initiative and coordination from the regular troops was not practicable.

The Iraqis devised a strategy—based on the Chechen and Egyptian models from the battles of Grozny and Suez City—that sought to lure the attackers deep into cities then entrap and ambush their armored forces. Following these models, the Iraqis could use massed rocket propelled grenade (RPG), recoilless rifle, mortar, and small arms fire to decimate enemy armor and pin the infantry in their vehicles. Their kill zones would be based on specific streets, not on particular buildings, and the hunter-killer teams could remain small and semi-independent of each other in a zone defense. They would operate in populated areas where they would be relatively safe from coalition airpower. The need for communications would be greatly reduced because the troops could be told in advance to defend from a particular area. Generally, the Iraqis lacked the training and skill of the Chechens—who were mostly Soviet trained—and of the Egyptians—who had the services of retired officers and dedicated militia in the defense of Suez City.

Task Force Tarawa
Task Force Tarawa (TFT) was the ground force for the 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade and acted as the connecting file between the two major players—1st Marine Division (1st MarDiv) and the U.S. Army V Corps’ 3d Infantry Division (3d ID). The battlespace given to TFT was a sliver of desert running from the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border to Jalibah Airfield then slicing north and west to An Nasiriyah.

With 3d ID on the left and 1st MarDiv on the right, TFT closed up on the Euphrates River late in March. An Nasiriyah and its three main highway bridges were TFT’s targets. The city was home to 250,000 people and, with its outlying sprawl, covered an area of 20 square kilometers (kms). The western bridge, the primary artery that carries Route 1 over the river, was already in the hands of U.S. Army units; all that was required of TFT was a relief in place. The eastern bridges, on the other hand, were inside An Nasiriyah and in enemy hands. TFT’s staff speculated as to whether those bridges would be left standing. Logic and doctrine dictated that any conventional military bent on delaying the advance of a more powerful invading force would destroy the key bridges on the invaders axis of advance. Their intact condition indicated that Saddam did not have control of this city.

TFT’s objective was to create a corridor through the city by seizing the two bridges and then sweeping the enemy from the fringes, allowing 1st MarDiv units freedom of movement north along Route 7. 1st Battalion, 2d Marines (1/2) was to attack through the city and seize the bridges, then pass on to the north, securing the key intersections leading into the city. 2/8 and 3/2 would take over responsibility for the bridges and maintenance of the corridor in the city.

In this type of attack, the attacker saves time and maintains offensive momentum by rapidly seizing the corridor and passing forward. Since the lead element is not tasked with defeating the enemy within the city, it expends minimum resources and minimizes collateral damage in concentrating on the corridor. However, this type of attack depends on excellent intelligence, an unprepared enemy, surprise, and speed. Faulty intelligence or an alert, active enemy can negate the advantages. Also, follow-on forces may require extensive support to defeat the enemy on the flanks of the corridor depriving the attacking forces of needed fire support, or they may not be able to defeat the enemy at all, thus creating a threat to the line of communications.

An Nasiriyah, 23 March 2003.
An Nasiriyah, 23 March 2003.

The Planning Process and Urban Assault
TFT was assigned the objective of An Nasiriyah’s bridges on 6 February. Planning for a coup de main, or rapid seizure, of the corridor through An Nasiriyah was continued in earnest with minor adjustments until about 15 March. The plan was revised 15 to 17 March when it was determined that only the western Route 1 bridge was needed, and TFT’s mission would be to block any enemy interference with the traffic on Route 1 from An Nasiriyah. The assault and seizure of the corridor was now relegated to a “be-prepared-to” mission, executed only if the conditions were right. This plan was confirmed on the night of 20 March as the units of TFT formed up in their assembly area on the border.

Early on 21 March TFT crossed the border into Iraq, cruised through the desert with little trouble, and arrived at its assigned position near Jalibah Airfield by the afternoon of the 22d. It was poised to move to its blocking positions, the plan calling for an 0400 (all times local) departure. Between 0500 and 0600, TFT countermanded the defensive plan and initiated the be-prepared-to mission of assault and seizure.1 It is now apparent that not all units received this change prior to first contact, which was reported at 0615.

As stated earlier, seizure of a corridor depends on excellent intelligence, but also on realtime confirmation or denial of the intelligence by reconnaissance elements. In this case the intelligence reports that needed confirmation or denial were as follows:

  • Saddam Fedayeen, using white pickup trucks and small arms, planned to fight in cities in civilian clothes, maintaining control of civilians by force (4 March).
  • A curfew ordered by Ba’ath Party members, who had taken control of city police, was in effect in An Nasiriyah, (18 March).
  • The U.S. Army had secured the western bridge with little to no fighting, the enemy’s 11th ID commanding officer had been captured or surrendered, the 10th Armored Division was planning to move south down Route 7, the 51st Division had capitulated, and 1,000 white pickup trucks had pushed south from Baghdad, probably driven by the Saddam Fedayeen (21 March).
  • The enemy’s11th ID tank company had moved south of An Nasiriyah to an area near a hospital east of Route 7, a commando company had been established north of the city, and the 11th ID mortar and artillery units were still active in and around the city (22 March).

Reconnaissance had not confirmed any of this intelligence as of 22 March. No serious resistance was faced by I Marine Expeditionary Force, so far, and none was expected until the outskirts of Baghdad and the Republican Guard was engaged.

Urban Attack Planning
According to Marine Corps doctrine, the four phases of an urban attack are reconnoiter, isolate, assault, and clear. In the battle for An Nasiriyah, they break out as follows:

  • Recon of the city and its approaches did not occur. Intelligence of the city consisted of a 1-year-old but accurate satellite map, human intelligence (HumInt) from 10 years earlier, and active HumInt from other sources, reinforcing the perception that the Iraqi regular forces in the area had no fight in them. Disturbing but sketchy news continued to come in that irregular troops had been seen in small numbers throughout the area. Planners discussed using the attached recon unit, Company A (Co A), 2d Reconnaissance Battalion, or the attached Co C, 2d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion to scout the approaches to the city but dismissed the action as too risky or too slow. Both units ended up moving to and guarding the Route 1 bridge crossing the Euphrates west of the city.
  • Isolation and assault of the bridges and of the corridor itself took the form of a deliberate, bounding attack by the mechanized (mech) rifle companies of 1/2.
  • Clearing was to fall to the motorized infantry companies of 2/8 and 3/2.

The be-prepared-to plan was initiated because of the light resistance encountered thus far in the campaign. The initial engagements, including that of TFT south of An Nasiriyah, did not reveal a capacity for strong, coordinated resistance. On the strength of this information a rapid seizure of the eastern bridges was deemed possible. Speed was to act as security; 1st MarDiv had the momentum and needed to keep pressing. However, the situation had already changed.

TFT, utilizing classic movement to contact actions, relied completely on the lead attacking units for information gathering. As TFT’s lead elements were engaging enemy positions they began recovering wounded Army personnel (victims of an earlier ambush). This was the first unanticipated event of the day. The poor intelligence picture was compounded by the lack of coherence in contact reports flowing from forward elements. The inaccuracy of the reports is attributable in part to the widespread and unexpected recovery effort,2 the disjointed efforts of the Iraqi defenders, and the lack of forward reconnaissance.

Iraqi Defense of An Nasiriyah
An Nasiriyah was the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 3d Corps, composed of the 11th ID, 51st Mech ID, and 6th Armored Division—all at around 50 percent strength. The 51st operated south covering the oilfields, and the 6th was north near Al Amara, which left three brigade-sized elements of the 11th ID to guard the An Nasiriyah area.

At one time the center of gravity (COG) in An Nasiriyah rested on these regular army units and their will to resist. They were at the breaking point. But a late influx of fanatical irregular infantry caused the defenses to stiffen. The new COG rested on these hardline Saddamists. Fear of retribution provided some of the will to resist. All that was needed to translate this fear into action was a single act of defiance—such as the ambush of an underdefended convoy. Tangible evidence of success could sway the fence sitters to the hardliners’ point of view.

The variable that the “shock and awe” campaign was designed to destroy was the will to fight. TFT’s shock and awe was to be provided by Co A, 8th Tank Battalion, the lead element for 1/2. This formidable force represented the team tank of the mech battalion and, with the lead combined antiarmor platoon (CAAT) section, was to be the first to engage the enemy in An Nasiriyah. It was supposed to be the first force the Iraqis in the city would see.3 Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.

No other attempt to influence the defenders of An Nasiriyah was made. The enemy’s regular army units in the area were not targeted to receive any preparatory fires. (As stated earlier, they were on the brink of capitulation.) The city was never fired upon prior to the attack. The desire to minimize collateral damage and the rules of engagement (ROE) precluded this tactic.4

Where did the Iraqis suddenly find the will to fight? An innocuous event occurred in the early morning of 23 March. As TFT was preparing for the assault on the city, a U.S. Army convoy from the 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn. This convoy was hit and decimated,5 giving a false hope of future success to the Iraqis. Troops on the brink of capitulation had reason to fear the hardliners again for they had just destroyed the first U.S. “attack” on the city.

The impact of the 507th ambush on the battle of An Nasiriyah cannot be underestimated. What was expected and planned for was a rapid seizure of a corridor with little resistance. What was encountered was heavy, albeit disorganized, resistance from swarms of irregular troops receiving sporadic support from regular force direct and indirect fire assets. Part of the regular forces’ contribution was what amounted to the application of massed final protective fires on Co C, 1/2, as they captured the Saddam Canal Bridge.6 For a few hours on 23 March, the ability to dominate the enemy was lost. The ambush of the 507th was a heavy link in the chain of events weighing on TFT—1/2, in particular—as they approached the city and entered the fight.

Every Marine Corps military school teaches the avoidance of fighting in cities and urban terrain—if possible. How to train for and conduct military operations on urbanized terrain (MOUT) is a question that the Corps has been trying to answer for years. The doctrine in place at the time of this attack was sound, but training was lacking.

Proper armor integration is essential to survival and success in MOUT. In exercises as early as 1992, the U.S. Army demonstrated that the M1A1 main battle tank, properly integrated with infantry support, was virtually invincible on urban terrain. Effectively integrated tank-infantry teams could easily overwhelm and defeat any threat in a city, including dispersed hunter-killer teams.

1/2 discussed this very subject. At one point the battalion considered creating three or four mech teams instead of maintaining the standard team tank-team mech combination.7 The battalion decided against this nondoctrinal usage because of the desire to maintain the heavy punch and shock effect of the tanks in the open desert and in the initial assault on the corridor.

An unforeseen problem with tank-infantry integration arose when the battalion responded to the ambush of the 507th. Team tank, the lead element, was the first to respond. Their efforts to recover the wounded soldiers lasted from 0620 to approximately 1000. The use of the tanks in this recovery effort was a spur-of-the-moment decision that burned excessive amounts of fuel causing them to have to disengage prior to the assault on the bridges. The exact reason why the tank company did not utilize its attached infantry platoon in this recovery effort is unclear. Making matters worse, the lone remaining refueling pump was broken, forcing the tanks to rely on gravity feed, a painfully slow process, effectively removing the bulk of the shock effect from the battalion’s assault.

What remained for the assault were Co B, team mech, Co A and Co C mech, and the CAAT platoon. This brought to bear four M1A1s and a company of assault amphibious vehicles (AAVs) to provide the armored shock effect for the assault. The 507th incident was deemed an annoyance, and the initial resistance was more dogged than expected, but it was not enough to slow the attack. It was nothing Co B’s tank-infantry team couldn’t handle.8

Inside the City
By 1300 the assault forces had made the river crossing and were engaged in combat within the city. Co B, with the forward command post (CP) in trace, turned off Route 7 and took a back road to avoid a transit of the main highway. The unofficial name of this road, “Ambush Alley,” prompted the designing of the dogleg maneuver. Unfortunately, the surface of this back area was not reconnoitered and proved too weak to hold the weight of tracks and tanks. In all, three of the four tanks and three AAVs from Co B—along with two CAAT vehicles, the AAV command (AAVC7), and its chase vehicle from the forward CP—became mired in the muck created by the Iraqi sanitation system. Now, no tanks were available to the assault force.

A decision was made to maintain the momentum of the assault. Co B would continue to push to the Saddam Canal, along with them went the battalion commander and operations officer. Left behind were one platoon from Co B, its tanks, and the forward command’s command group—fire support coordination center (FSCC), S–2 (intelligence), S–4 (logistics), and S–6 (communications). This decision was made in an attempt to quickly get the battalion commander to a position with a communications capability able to keep pace with the assault.

At the same time, Co A had deployed on and around the northern end of the Euphrates River Bridge and established a defensive position, intending to hold there until relieved by elements of 2/8. It began taking heavy but ineffectual small arms, mortar, and RPG fire almost immediately as Iraqi irregulars now alerted to them surged to the bridge.

Co C, meanwhile, had passed through Co A, intending to follow Co B to the north bridge. It could not see Co B. With the bridgehead becoming a hot zone, and the space too confined for two mech companies, Co C pushed on, following the commander’s intent to secure the objective of the Saddam Canal Bridge assuming that Co B would be waiting for them there. As it did so it came under intense enemy fire. An RPG damaged one AAV en route, further inciting resistance.

All four maneuver elements in the battalion were engaged—Co A at the Euphrates, Co B split in two inside the city, Co C at the Saddam Canal taking casualties, and Co A, 8th Tanks out of the fight, refueling in the rear. Several kms outside the city with the logistics train, the main CP was extremely frustrated because it could not get a clear picture of the battle. The simultaneous engagements, urban terrain, and distances separating individual companies were wreaking havoc on the communications network. The forward CP—being split—disrupted the normal flow of information. Information that would normally come to the command group and be passed to the battalion commander and operations officer suffered delay and distortion through second-, third-, and fourth-party relays. Attempts by the command group to raise the battalion commander on radio only added to the congestion and were quickly abandoned.

In addition, the initial casualties from Co C needing immediate medevac could not be picked up near the Saddam Canal. To get them out of the kill zone, they were sent back through the city to Co A for medevac. As these medevacs were called in, more casualties were taken at Co C’s position, as if multiple companies were taking casualties.9 This situation caused confusion in casualty reporting, hindering the decisionmaking ability of TFT and other higher headquarters in regard to the missions of the follow-on forces.

The fighting in the city lasted from 1300 until approximately 1900 when the last elements of Co B and the forward CP, that had been immobilized, linked up with the main body north of the Saddam Canal.10

Fire Support
A problem arose regarding clearance of fires as the battalion commander advanced with the assault elements, out of contact with the primary command group. The command group had little situational awareness (SA) outside of the three city blocks it occupied, and it wanted to pass control to the main CP. The command group has no authority to pass control from one CP to another without the commander’s approval. This approval was not readily available, but the situation was urgent. The artillery battalion was reading multiple counterbattery radar hits, many coming from inside the southern and western portions of An Nasiriyah bypassed by 1/2. Since the infantry battalion owned this battlespace, clearing these missions had to be done by the battalion FSCC. Eventually, despite the degraded communications, the main CP and forward command group were able to pass some control and build some better SA, allowing the assistant fire support coordinator (FSC) to build a reduced boundary around the battalion, freeing the counterbattery fires as needed. This action had the extra benefit of reducing radio traffic and returning needed command and control to the battalion commander.11

With the FSCC operating on reduced SA and the main CP still building its own, the company commanders and fire support teams (FiSTs) had no choice but to rely on the no communications default that was in the battalion standing operating procedures. They cleared all fires into and out of their immediate battlespace themselves (in a manner similar to the helicopter assault course at the Marine Corps combined arms exercise). The FiST leader organized the fires as the commander desired, and the request was sent directly to the firing battalion. The commander on scene gave clearance to fire; fires could only be in his zone against targets visually identified as enemy. This is a dangerous situation. A commander and FiST engaged in a firefight of this nature will have difficulty tracking other friendly forces operating nearby but out of sight. In this case, with artillery mortars and rotary-wing close air support (RWCAS), it worked well because the units had several city blocks of separation and could achieve line-of-sight positive identification of the enemy.

The ability to conduct fire missions close to friendly units with the artillery was vital to the successful seizure of the bridges. The artillery battalion was an integral part of TFT and was involved in every step of the planning process. This integrated planning equated to full knowledge by the batteries of the individual infantry battalion’s battle plans. This in turn provided responsive fires capable of shifting to meet the changing situation.

The level of planning available to the artillery was not available with the air wing as no CAS was specifically assigned to cover TFT. The forward air controllers (FACs) had to build the pilots’ SA and do weaponeering as the aircraft checked in, determining whether the ordnance carried and CAS platform were appropriate for the close-in nature of this fight.

The lack of assigned RWCAS escort denied TFT the opportunity to conduct coordinated recon around the known enemy positions in advance of the assault. Recon would have given earlier warning of the 507th incident and increased enemy activity, allowing the commanders more time to adjust to meet the changing situation

Communications difficulties caused further complications. Some aircraft did not have the ability to communicate with the FSCC on the ground. U.S. Army helicopters flew right through the artillery gun-target line, completely unaware of the danger. Adding difficulty, the air officer in the FSCC lost ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) communications capability almost immediately after the first contact with the enemy. The air officer did not regain UHF communications until 24 March.

With communications disrupted, the air officer was not able to coordinate the flow of aircraft. Without a single check-in point, each FAC controlled the air as it came into his airspace—as part of the FiST—utilizing cross talk on the radio to deconflict. This is difficult and dangerous, and in one case it didn’t work. The team mech FAC sent a flight of A–10s north beyond the Saddam Canal. These aircraft had no prior knowledge of the plan, and the FAC had no knowledge of—or contact with—the unit closest to the Saddam Canal. The result was a friendly fire tragedy.12

The points of friction discussed here—the Iraqi morale, the effect of the 507th ambush, intelligence reports unconfirmed by recon and associated preconceptions, communications difficulties, urban terrain and its effect on command and control, mass casualties, and the complexities of fire support—did not prevent the assault from succeeding, which speaks highly of the skill and dedication of the men involved in the battle. By 24 March elements of 1st MarDiv had passed through An Nasiriyah, and the rest of the division had moved quickly across the western bridge on their way to Baghdad. The initial difficulties gave the hardliners momentary hope of success, but the Marines quickly crushed this spark, fighting on to overcome the fog of war.


1. This is the time the 1/2 CP received the change; however, there is a historical contention as to when the order was actually given.

2. The ambushed U.S. Army unit being recovered extended from the “T” intersection north of the Saddam Canal, nearly 10 kms south to the Route 7 and Route 8 interchange, and 3 to 4 kms east along Route 8.

3. M1A1 tanks (12), AAVs (3) with an infantry platoon, and armored HMMWVs (8) with TOW II missiles and heavy machineguns.

4. ROE: If a civilian populated area is being defended or used for military purposes, your attacking indirect fires must be observed. Hospitals, shrines, churches, mosques, schools, museums, national monuments, and any other historical sites will not be engaged except in self-defense.

5. Of the 33 soldiers in the convoy, 11 were killed in action and 9 taken prisoner; of the 18 vehicles, 10 were destroyed and 5 disabled.

6. This is evidenced by the dying off of regular force resistance throughout the city immediately after this event and by the postbattle inspection of enemy positions.

7. After 23 March the battalion did eventually shift to a three-team mech concept to better support the infantry companies.

8. Between 1000 and 1200, Co B and Co C, with the battalion CAAT and RWCAS support, engaged and destroyed nine T–55s, five ZIL trucks, three ZU–23s, one BTR–50, and a company of irregular infantry 4 kms south of the Euphrates River Bridge.

9. One of Co C’s medevac AAVs was destroyed by RPGs in Co A’s position while offloading wounded.

10. Three M1A1s were recovered, but the AAVC7, chase AAV personnel, an M88A2 tank retriever, and two armored HMMWVs were destroyed in place.

11. A note regarding counterbattery radar (CBR): while the amount of incoming artillery and mortar fire was considerable, particularly at the Saddam Canal Bridge, the CBR was possibly reading high-angle RPG fire as incoming mortar fire. CBR can be adjusted to pick up rounds as small as .50 calibers or loosened to only pick up artillery fires. During Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the CBR was adjusted to meet the threat of mortars that could have resulted in high-angle RPG fire being misread as mortar fire. Also, due to the close nature of the fighting, company-level 60mm mortar positions had to be clearly identified to the artillery so they would not be mistaken as enemy.

12. Co C’s FiST had been hit hard by Iraqi direct and indirect fires, killing the artillery forward observer and severely wounding the FiST leader. However, even had they not been hit, controlling CAS would have been difficult since the company had no FAC. For further information on this incident, read the A–10: Marine Friendly Fire Incident Summary, Board President BGen W.F. Hoskins, USAF.

>Maj Rohr was the CO (FSC), Weapons Company, 1/2 during the battle for An Nasiriyah. He is currently the CO, Marine Detachment, Defense Language Institute, Monterey, CA.


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