26Wild-Goose Chase

IN THE SUMMER of 2004, Jake “Mac” MacDonald returned to Iraq for his second deployment. His unit was tasked with restoring peace to the city of An Najaf. A cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr had taken control of the famed city. Using his death squads and fighters from the Mahdi militia, al-Sadr imposed draconian laws on the populace, intimidated local business owners, and tortured and murdered Iraqi policemen and anybody else who supported the Iraqi or US governments.

Najaf is home to the Imam Ali Mosque and is considered by Muslim Shias to be the third holiest city, ranking behind only Mecca and Medina. In order to restore peace to Najaf, it would be necessary to remove al-Sadr from power and return the mosque to the people. Knowing this, Muqtada marshalled his sizable forces inside and directly around the mosque, using one of their holiest sites to stage their attacks.

Mac’s leaders decided that it would not be good for public perception to have American forces kicking down the door of the Imam Ali Mosque. Instead, their original plan was to train the local Iraqi police and army until they were competent enough to take back their own city. For the first few weeks of their deployment, the Marines formed an uneasy truce with al-Sadr forces. Al-Sadr’s militia was concentrated in an area called the Old City around the Imam Ali Mosque. The truce was fairly straightforward: the American forces wouldn’t go into al-Sadr’s forces’ area and they wouldn’t come out of it. ...

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