KARBALA, Iraq—For almost a year, soldiers from the 37th Armored Regiment's 1st Battalion fixed schools, hunted insurgents and dodged roadside bombs in a relatively quiet section of Baghdad.
Then, as they were packing up to go home in April, Iraq exploded in violence and the weary soldiers were ordered back into combat, their tour extended by three months.
Their mission was to retake the once-peaceful Shiite Muslim town of Karbala, which had fallen, along with several southern cities, to the foot soldiers of a radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
During three weeks in May, the 600-soldier battalion destroyed al-Sadr's forces in some of the most intense combat since the fall of Baghdad. The Bandits, as they are known, killed as many as 400 militiamen, disbursed the rest and switched gears to restore the collapsed local security forces with a multimillion-dollar training and rebuilding program.
And they did it without damaging the two holy Shiite shrines, where al-Sadr's men sometimes set up firing positions. Today, buildings within 200 yards of the ornate, gold-domed structures are pockmarked with bullet holes. Not the shrines.
Other 1st Armored Division units had similar, though less decisive, success in challenging al-Sadr's control of Kut, Kufa, Najaf and other southern cities. Military commanders tout the campaign as a crucial victory that averted a wider Shiite rebellion.
"I think what we did in Karbala should be the model," said the Bandits commander, Lt. Col. Garry Bishop, 40, of Philadelphia. "We crushed an insurgency, but we did it in a manner that minimized collateral damage and maintained the support of the people. And when it was time to leave, we left."
In Karbala on Friday, few residents spoke warmly of the Americans, but nearly all expressed contentment with the outcome of the battle. The streets are teeming with commerce, the shrines are open and al-Sadr's men are nowhere to be seen. Shopkeepers credit the Iraqi police with maintaining order.
Many residents have already rewritten history. Some said al-Sadr's forces were peaceful, while others said it was locals—not the Americans—who pushed them out. No one is happy about the street battles, which killed what residents estimated was around 50 civilians.
But at the central police station, Officer Abbas Hussein said without hesitation: "It was 100 percent success."
Beyond Karbala, however, the victory over al-Sadr was incomplete. Bishop and the rest of the 1st Armored Division will depart Iraq over the next 10 days with the promise to "kill or capture" al-Sadr unfulfilled.
Al-Sadr is more popular than before he fought the Americans, with plenty of armed men at his disposal.
But the Americans denied al-Sadr the cities. They succeeded by using overwhelming force decisively but selectively, while waging an information campaign to discredit the militant cleric. They avoided firing at Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in Najaf and Karbala, though the restraint put soldiers at risk.
Three of Bishop's soldiers, and one military policeman linked to the unit, were killed. One young sergeant lost his eyesight; another lost his left hand. Altogether, 19 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division died in the campaign, the division said, and scores were injured.
Yet, some soldiers found the battle exhilarating. Finally, they were fighting an enemy who stood his ground.
"We were like, `Now it's just fighting war,''' said Spc. John Stevenson of Philadelphia. "We were doing what we trained to do. So we didn't mind that at all."
In early April, Iraqi police surrendered or fled in the face of al-Sadr's militants, and Polish and Bulgarian troops watched helplessly, barred by their governments from combat.
By the time Bishop's battalion arrived on May 1, al-Sadr's men had set up well-defended fighting positions around the city.
The holy shrines and most businesses were closed, strangling a tourist economy that had grown up around an influx of religious pilgrims from Iran.
The Bandits slept 70 to a tent in a military camp outside the city. For 21 days, they ran continuous combat operations.
Their first move was a night attack on the militia's strongest positions—including the main government building—with tanks, armored vehicles and foot soldiers. They dropped leaflets warning residents to leave or stay indoors.
The fighting raged until morning. Young men in flowing dishdashas fired dozens of rocket-propelled grenades that bounced harmlessly off the Abrams tanks, which responded with devastating fire from their main guns.
"This wasn't Baghdad, where they'd see a tank and run away," Bishop said. "Here, they actually fought."
Infantrymen followed behind the tanks to clear buildings, encountering booby traps that detonated in fiery explosions. Through their night-vision goggles, soldiers could see the people they were killing. Bodies littered the streets.
"An older man came out with his young daughter and said, `I'm glad you Americans are here. We've been held captive in our neighborhood for a month by these thugs,'" Bishop said.
The second night, the Bandits located and destroyed what they believe was the main weapons cache, in an amusement park. Then they began running daily patrols around the city to draw out and kill insurgents. Apache helicopters poured down support fire.
On the third day of patrols, "they had to sit there for an hour and a half before anyone came out and shot at them," Bishop said. "At that point, I figured, we either eliminated him or wore his ass out."
Bishop had strict orders not to damage the Shiite shrines, one of which is the burial place of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Al-Sadr's men quickly began hitting Americans and melting into the restricted area. The limits infuriated soldiers.
But, Bishop said, "If I shot back, instead of fighting against 200 people, I'm fighting against 200,000 people."
The Americans began to see more sophisticated enemy tactics, and intelligence suggested that new militants were arriving. Identity cards from Syria and Yemen were found in the pockets of two dead insurgents, Bishop said.
One night, a well-trained sniper killed two soldiers and wounded several others before he was found and killed.
"He knew exactly where to shoot," Bishop said. "One man got killed right above the plate (in his body armor). One got shot right below the plate and bled out. A lot of the wounded were from hits to the extremities—legs and arms."
Fighting in and around the old city lasted for days. Finally, the Bandits were able to draw out large numbers of militants so they could be killed by cannon and machine-gun fire from AC-130 gunships.
On May 22, residents told Bishop that the remnants of al-Sadr's fighters had left the city. Immediately, the Bandits moved into what Bishop called "a massive humanitarian, civic affairs program." They rebuilt the police academy, the amusement park and a Boy Scout camp.
Bishop walked around with $5,000 cash in his pocket, with which he hired contractors on the spot to fix buildings and roads. Special Forces soldiers and military police began training a reconstituted Iraqi police force.
At Karbala's ramshackle central police station on Friday, officers said they still lacked the firepower they needed. But they said they were prepared to fight this time if al-Sadr's men reappeared. So are the security officers of the Badr Brigade, a more moderate Shiite faction that protects Karbala's shrines.
"We've now been out of Karbala two weeks," Bishop said last Sunday. "My sergeant major flew down there yesterday to drop off some stuff—spoke with the MPs. They've had no incidents whatsoever since we left."
While al-Sadr's men are gone from Karbala, the same is not true of Najaf, where al-Sadr himself is thought to be holed up in a shrine. The new Iraqi government is preparing to offer al-Sadr and his fighters an amnesty if they agree to hand over their weapons and enter politics.
The next chapter in the al-Sadr story has yet to be written. But Iraqis probably will write it. The Bandits' time here is over.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-KARBALA