How US special operators held off Saddam’s forces for days during the largest battle of the Iraq War, according to troops who were there


Out of the Business Insider, Stavros Atlamazoglou, reports on an intense battle during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The report captures comments from those participants that braved the experience.  These heroes placed great trust in each other, adapted to the counter attacks, and worked in unison among combat units to hold and secure their position.  Hopefully, citizens of Iraq can live in peace with their loved-ones and can continue to enjoy the freedom of building an inspired future.  Here’s the report:

  • During the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, most Coalition troops entered the country from the south.

  • But a small special-operations contingent was sent to an objective close to the Iraqi capital.

  • The ensuing four-day battle at Haditha Dam was the single largest engagement of the entire war.

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The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was marked by a shock-and-awe campaign that showcased the undisputed conventional might of the US military. A blitzkrieg push from the south defeated Saddam Hussein’s army in just 26 days.

While the vast majority of the roughly 230,000 Coalition troops came from the south, a small special-operations contingent was sent to take a key strategic objective close to the Iraqi capital.

The ensuing four-day battle was the single largest engagement of the entire war, with 22 Iraqi troops engaged for each US commando present.

A dam to give a damn about

Marine Corps Haditha Dam Iraq
A US Marine uses a tent pole to bat a rock off the Haditha Dam, May 29, 2005. AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg

Located in northwestern Iraq, Haditha Dam was a strategic target for both sides. Almost 5 miles long and 200 feet high, the dam is one of the largest in the world and can provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes, even reaching Baghdad more than 150 miles away.

Before the invasion, US planners feared that Saddam might intentionally destroy the dam and flood the area in order to protect Baghdad’s northwestern flank from Coalition forces. The Iraqi dictator’s claims that the US would target and destroy the dam complicated matters further.

US commanders chose the Rangers of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment to take the dam. They were augmented with a Delta Force sniper/reconnaissance team from C Squadron, while the elite pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers,” would provide air support.

The small Night Stalker contingent of Little Bird helicopters – two AH-6 attack models and one MH-6 scout variant – would prove crucial in the battle. The MH-6 had a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera to paint targets for the two AH-6s. The MH-6 also acted as bait to draw enemy fire so the two attack birds could pounce.

Night Stalker AH-6 Little Bird Haditha Dam Iraq
Coker’s AH-6 Little Bird on Objective Serpent Courtesy photo

“We had no warning we’d be facing such a fierce response from the Iraqis – none whatsoever,” retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker told Insider. Coker, a Night Stalker pilot and author of “Death Waits in the Dark,” spent 30 years in uniform and completed 11 combat tours.

“Intel had briefed us that there was light resistance and eight to 10 personnel on the dam. But there was a major Iraqi base, a division-size force, in the town of Haditha that was home to Fedayeen, Republican Guards and Iraq regular army,” Coker said.

Iraq’s Republican Guard was an elite force that reported directly to Saddam, while the Fedayeen was a paramilitary force outside the regular military.

Haditha Dam was codenamed “Objective Lynx,” while an old airfield nearby was codenamed “Objective Serpent.”

The Delta operators conducted reconnaissance of the dam before the main assault. Rangers conducted a rare combat jump on Serpent and captured it, allowing the rest of the force to be transported in and letting the Night Stalkers use it as a forward arming and refueling point.

An unexpected struggle

Night Stalker AH-6 Little Bird Haditha Dam Iraq
Coker in front of his AH-6 Little Bird in Iraq. Courtesy photo

Early on the night of April 1, the Rangers and Delta Force operators stormed the dam.

The assault went as planned, with the Rangers quickly securing the dam and setting blocking positions on the east and west entries of the structure, while Delta operators breached the facility to clear any explosive devices that Iraqis might have planted.

But the fight was only beginning. The Iraqis counterattacked with infantry, tanks, and artillery, pressuring the Rangers to their limits. Coker and the other Night Stalkers flew several danger-close missions in support of the American commandos on the ground.

Strikes within 200 meters of a friendly position are considered danger close. That night, the Night Stalkers fired ordnance as close as 12 meters from the Rangers.

On that first day alone, the three Little Birds expended an astounding 231 rockets, 66,000 rounds of 7.62 mm mini-gun ammunition, and 8,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.

Pilots and crew also fired 6,000 rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition from their personal M-4 rifles and dropped 90 M-67 fragmentation grenades, making four runs to rearm and refuel. The choppers carried so much ammunition that they could barely hover and had to be constantly moving to keep from crashing.

After the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu in 1993, Night Stalkers, both pilots and crew, have carried more lethal personal weaponry, including sidearms and M4 rifles.

Night Stalker Haditha Dam Iraq
Coker and another Night Stalker in front of a mural of Saddam’s face at Objective Serpent during the battle of Haditha Dam. Courtesy photo

Besides small-arms ground fire – which caused severe damage to Coker’s chopper that crew chiefs mended with duct tape – the Night Stalkers had to account for hidden anti-aircraft trucks and surface-to-air missiles.

At one point during the four-day battle, the Iraqis attacked Serpent in an attempt to cut of the Rangers’ support. They even launched a SCUD missile at the airfield, but the Rangers and Night Stalkers there held them off.

A hidden battery of Iraqi 155 mm howitzers also pounded the beleaguered Rangers for hours, prompting brief memories of the artillery barrages of World War I.

Weather, including sandstorms, began reducing visibility and interfering with the Night Stalkers’ flying, but on the third day, an MH-47 Chinook helicopter braved enemy fire and resupplied the Rangers, who were approaching 72 hours under fire on what was planned as a 24-hour operation.

On the fourth day of the battle, the Rangers suffered their first casualties in an attack that foreshadowed the coming insurgency.

A civilian vehicle approached the Rangers’ blocking position at one end of the dam. An Iraqi man exited the vehicle and pointed to his seemingly pregnant wife still in the car, shouting to the American commandos for water and medical assistance.

As the fire support officer and two troops neared the vehicle, the Iraqi couple detonated an improvised explosive device, killing themselves and all three Rangers.

‘A well-oiled machine’

Marine Corps Haditha Dam Iraq
A US Marine takes down a warning sign at the Haditha Dam as the Marines return control of the dam to Iraq, December 3, 2008. US Marine Corps/Cpl. Tyler W. Hill

But the Iraqi forces at Haditha Dam were defeated by then. US reinforcements arrived and relieved the battered Rangers.

“We always work well together as a combat team, a well-oiled machine. The 160th is constantly training with Army SOF units – Rangers and Delta. They are our primary customers, and the 160th supports them with assault and precision close air support. We all conduct realistic training in all terrains throughout the year. A very close-knit team,” Coker said.

US intelligence estimates put the number of enemy at more than 3,000, with over 1,000 killed in action and many more wounded. There were no more than 150 American commandos on the dam during the battle, with a few dozen more at the nearby airfield.

Command Sgt. Maj. Greg “Ironhead” Birch, a Delta Force operator who had returned to the Rangers, received the Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor under fire, for his inspirational leadership and for saving several wounded Iraqi soldiers who were stranded in no-man’s-land after a failed attack – a moment of humanity amid the fiercest of battles.

  • 04/27/2021
  • Stavros Atlamazoglou