TAJI, IRAQ: There are few pictures of a US Army Tactical Operations Centers, and once inside you realize why. Everything within the walls of a TOC in Iraq — and there are dozens at the company, battalion and brigade levels — is more or less classified. Screen after screen of live Unmanned Aerial Vehicle camera footage, high-definition video from floating balloons tethered high above each forward-operating base, high-powered FM radios connected with ground troops, three tiers of desks with sergeants and captains using internal message and email systems to communicate with UAV operators. It’s a bit Hollywood for the uninitiated.
On these screens, the battle for Sadr City in late March and April played out. The 4th US Army Division’s 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, located at Taji Airbase in the suburbs of Baghdad, had responsibility for close-air support and reconnaissance for most of Baghdad east of the Tigris River when between March 25 and mid-May, elements within Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought pitched with Iraqi Army and Coalition forces for control of the stronghold.
The spike in violence caused the regiment to keep six AH-64 Apaches in the air over northern and eastern Baghdad at all times as part of coordinated ground attacks with Iraqi National forces and the US 4th Division and 10th Mountain Division. During that time, Apaches from units surrounding Baghdad fired more than 200 Hellfire laser-guided missiles, killing 251 enemy combatants, according to Civil Affairs Sergeant First Class Chris Seaton. Sadr’s forces and the Iraqi government of Nouri al Maliki agreed on a cease-fire in May.
During that period there were “dozens of engagements a day. Now we’re back into where we want it to be,” said Lieutenant Colonel Todd Royar, the regiment’s commander. “Iraqi security forces are showing active signs of improvement. Almost all the missions are joint, and almost all of them have been Iraqi led.”
The evolution of US Army’s TOCs during the Iraqi conflict may be among the biggest reasons why the military “surge” in the past year has helped cut year-on-year violence in the country by up to 80 percent, according to the Department of Defense.
The near instantaneous, error-free communication between air surveillance and ground troops has allowed much fewer troops on the ground to coordinate with air support and Iraqi forces, making units such as the 10th Mountain Division a potent constabulary force using a fraction of the troops normally necessary for such role.
“The ground units have been … getting high-value individuals, time-sensitive targets,” said Apache pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeffrey Dumond. “They were sporadic before in Sadr City. Then, it became everyday, then, several times a day. It seems to have worked. It’s uneventful out there now.”
Doing the job of a unit twice its size, the 3rd Regiment operates 24 Apache helicopters, the US military’s premier attack helicopter, and 10 Blackhawk helicopters — used for everything from medivac flights to office moves. In the past seven months, the 36 helicopters have flown 14,000 hours, more than a regular unit would fly in two years.
Sadr’s forces took a relentless pounding from US aerial attacks and the Iraqi Army, while anecdotal evidence from Iraqi police and Army patrols showed parts of Sadr City decimated of grown men, leaving only 12 or 13-year-old boys to fight. Violent activities in Sadr City have plummeted since the May cease-fire. More than 1,000 members Mahdi Army member are believed to have been killed there, while another 1,300 Mahdi Army fighters from Iraq may have escaped to safe houses in Iran.
US intelligence reports say Sadr is trying to get his leaders to meet him in Qom, Iran, where he may be hiding, in order to reconstitute forces with a focus on attacking exclusively US military targets.
“It’s possible there is a slowdown because of the regional elections coming up” in October or November, said Dumond, speaking after an evening pilot’s briefing. “They may feel they need to rebuild trust” after organized bombing in crowded areas angered Shia populations that represent the core of Sadr’s political support.
The exhibition of force by the US and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki in the past months is not without US critics. A Washington Post article published May 23 criticized the unit and particular pilots for civilian deaths and injuries occurring during the March to May period.
“The Post article did a real disservice to the pilot,” said Major Geoff Crawford, second in command of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. “It came here with an agenda.” Officers in the unit wrote a letter to the Washington Post, complaining that much of the story’s reporting was taken out of context. The letter itself was edited without permission before publication, Crawford said.
Despite the importance of the Iraqi Army’s investiture of Sadr City and Basrah and the dethroning of Sadr’s powerbase within Baghdad, periods of decreased violence in the past have not lasted, while political reconciliation between Shia, Sunnis and Kurds remains incomplete.
“Success now is not determined by the number of engagement, but by lack of engagements,” said Captain Matthew Paladino, who operates the regiment’s Tactical Operations Center.
The regiment this month is in the process of transferring south to Baghdad’s International Airport, taking over surveillance and close air support over much of southern Iraq until February, when the 700 soldiers in the unit rotate back to Fort Hood, Texas.