In April 2004, a convoy from the US Army's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division was on a routine escort mission. The Baghdad neighborhood they were operating in – Sadr City – would become notorious among American and Coalition forces for at least the next four years. What happened to 1st Cav that day came to be known as "Black Sunday," a battle then- Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey called "the biggest gunfight since the fall of Baghdad."
Soldiers from B Co., 3/15 Infantry hand out hard candy to kids in Sadr City, Iraq, Feb. 28, 2003. An ominous stencil of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr looms in the background.
The mission started like any other escort mission. Soldiers in a convoy escorted sewage trucks, known as "honey wagons," to locations inside the Sadr City area of the Iraqi capital. Though times were tough for the Iraqi people, lawlessness was on the rise throughout Baghdad. Still, everything was for the most part peaceful...until Palm Sunday 2004.
The neighborhood now known as Sadr City housed three and a half million people in five square miles – roughly half of the city's entire population. Built by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, it was full of mostly Shia muslims who were persecuted under Saddam's rule. As a result, this densely populated area – smaller in size than most American cities, but with a population higher than Houston or Chicago – was deeply impoverished.
A U.S. Army soldier assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Calvary Regiment, armed with a 5.56mm Colt M4 carbine, provides security during a patrol near Forward Operating Base Camp Eagle, Sadr City, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The area came under control of the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who took the citizens' distrust of the occupying Americans and turned in into full-fledged anger. His militant followers formed the formidable Mahdi Army, which attracted fighters from other countries as well as Iraqis. By the time the U.S. was ready to take down al-Sadr, he had grown too powerful. When American shut down his newspaper for inciting violence, Sadr City residents were outraged.
They protested peacefully in the streets at first, but that outrage soon boiled over.
American troops raided al-Sadr's house and arrested one of his senior aides on the order of Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. That same day, unbeknownst to the Coalition, al-Sadr's militia captured Iraqi Police stations across the city.
April 4, 2004 was the day 2-5 Cav was escorting honey wagons as they worked in Sadr City. They had just deployed to Camp War Eagle, on the edge of Sadr City, allegedly the "safest place in Iraq." They were ambushed by the Mahdi Army as they made their way out of the city. Unable to move all their men out of the area, 19 soldiers holed up in a civilian house, awaiting rescue amid hundreds of enemy fighters.
They had only been in country for a few days.
Gary Volesky, commander, 2-5 Cav., addresses Soldiers of Task Force Lancer in April 2004 at Camp War Eagle, shortly after the unit's arrival in Sadr City. Volesky is portrayed by actor Michael Kelly in "The Long Road Home."
Relief columns were mounted by 1st Cavalry but those were unable to use the heavy guns on their Bradley M-2A3 Infantry Fighting Vehicles due to the rules of engagement. The rescuers were themselves ambushed by the forces hidden in Iraqi Police stations and, unable to bring firepower to bear, were pushed back.
Eventually, the superior firepower was authorized against the Mahdi Army's superior numbers. 1st Cav's use of the Bradleys' main turret was complimented by a force of 1st Armored Division M-1A2 Abrams tanks.
Eight soldiers were lost in the initial ambush and rescue of those trapped and surrounded in Sadr City that April Day. The fight to rescue the platoon from 2-5 Cav is dramatized in National Geographic Channel's miniseries The Long Road Home, which begins Nov. 7, 2017.
U.S. troops patrol the deserted streets of the sprawling Shia slum of Sadr City at sunset, Apr. 4, 2004. (Wathiq Khuzaie)
But the fighting for Sadr City didn't end in April 2004. The fighting in the Baghdad neighborhood would rage on in the streets between American forces and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army for another four years. It ended with a ceasefire agreement that allowed Iraqi government troops to enter the area.