August 20, 2004 – BBC Radio 4 Today Program News – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
August 20, 2004 – The news was from Najaf in Iraq this day. The Battle of Najaf was fought between United States and Iraqi forces on one side and the Islamist Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr on the other in the Iraqi city of Najaf during the month of August 2004. Major conflict began on 5 August, when the Mahdi Army (MA) attacked an Iraqi Police Station at 1 am. Their first attack was repelled but the MA regrouped and attacked again at 3 am. Soon after, a quick reaction force (QRF) from the MEU (B 1/4) was dispatched at the request of the governor of An Najaf. Around 11 am the QRF came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire from the Mahdi Army within the Wadi-us-Salaam, the largest cemetery in the Muslim world approximately 7 miles squared. The cemetery has been layered over the centuries resulting in large underground tombs, tunnels and surface monuments, many reaching two stories tall. The Soldiers of 1/5 Cav fought across this inhospitable terrain and under it in some of the first tunnel fighting seen since Vietnam.
A U.S. Marine UH-1N helicopter was shot down by small-arms fire on the second day of the fighting while conducting a close air support mission over enemy positions, the crew survived. Four U.S. military personnel were killed during the heavy street battles fought between the Mahdi Army and U.S. and Iraqi forces, until the MEU withdrew temporarily on 7 August. By 9 August, the U.S. had added three Army battalions to the battle.
Fighting began in the city centre and then moved through the cemetery. After several days the fighting shifted to the environs of the Imam Ali Mosque when the Mahdi Army withdrew and took refuge there.United States Army Soldiers from B Co. 1-5 Cav encircled the complex after fighting through the Old City and began a siege. The Mahdi Army utilized large hotels that overlook the cemetery as overwatch machine gun positions. A Bradley from 1-5 Cav shot TOW missiles at the Mahdi machine gun positions while Soldiers from Alpha and Bravo Co. 1-5 Cav assaulted several of these hotels. After heavy hand to hand and room to room fighting the hotels were secured, relieving elements of Charlie Co. who were pinned down in the cemetery. There were not enough soldiers however to properly hold the hotels and they were consolidated to two adjoining ones. The fighting damaged two of the minarets of the mosque, one of the holiest of all Shiite shrines. (Although neighboring buildings suffered considerable damage, the mosque itself suffered only superficial damage from stray bullets and shrapnel).
And there was other news that day – The Olympics in Athens were closing their first week. Reports of poor attendance had many speculating how it would play out for the last week of the games – observers reported that Olympic officials were planning on offering tickets to events for free in order to fill some of the almost-empty events around the city. Still, the competitions were forging ahead and TV coverage of the games was popular throughout the world.
All that, and a lot more for this August 20, 2004 as reported by BBC Radio 4 as part of their early morning program Today – a chance to hear how news was being covered from other parts of the world.