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2003 attack on Karbala

2003 attack on Karbala
Part of 2003 invasion of Iraq

From top: Lion of Babylon tank; AH-64 Apache
Date March 24, 2003
Location Karbala, Iraq
Result Iraqi victory
Iraq  United States
Commanders and leaders
Saddam Hussein
Ali Hassan al-Majid
Tommy Franks
90 tanks[1]
Several hundred vehicles
31 AH-64 Apaches
Casualties and losses
12 tanks
6 S-60 AA guns[2]
1 Apache crashed
1 Apache shot down
29 Apaches damaged (2 beyond repair)
2 pilots captured[3]

The 2003 attack on Karbala was an unsuccessful strike on the Iraqi Republican Guard Medina Division by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Medina Division was mostly deployed along the Karbala gap, west of the city of Karbala itself. The Iraqi Division was targeted as it was the best equipped Iraqi unit, and its destruction would negatively affect Iraqi military morale. The Medina Division sustained only limited damage during the engagement, and it is considered Iraq's only victory of the invasion.

The defeat for the Americans resulted in one AH-64 Apache being shot down intact. The two pilots were captured and shown on television along with the helicopter.[4] Pentagon officials stated the captured Apache was destroyed via airstrike the following day,[5][6] while Iraqi officials claimed a farmer with a Brno rifle shot down the Apache; the farmer denied any involvement after the invasion.[7]


  • Background 1
  • Difficulties 2
  • Engagement 3
  • Aftermath 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7


Iraqi morale was riding high after putting up stiff resistance at the Battle of Nasiriyah. The U.S. sought to continue the shock and awe campaign by crippling the elite Medina Republican Guard division, thus demoralizing the enemy.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the Iraqis learned from the no fly zones over their country. The threat of small arms fire from Iraqi soldiers was gravely underestimated by the U.S. attack helicopters participating in the attack.[3]


The AH-64 Apaches of the U.S. Army's 11th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, faced several problems before the operation. The terrain around Baghdad was not desert, but an urban environment caused by urban sprawl. Experience from the Battle of Mogadishu of 1993 showed helicopters were extremely vulnerable over urban areas. In addition, the urban area still had electricity as infrastructure had been spared to hasten post-war recovery. Intelligence was inadequate. The information on the enemy's disposition was sketchy, forcing the helicopters to search the target area themselves. Some targets, like 30 T-72s, were actually not present at all.

Finally, an accelerated timetable caused coordination issues. The Third Infantry Division moved ahead of schedule, causing the mission to be pushed up 24 hours. Suppression of enemy air defences occurred to the accelerated schedule even though the Apaches were not yet ready. The Apaches arrived only after a three hour delay; the fighter-bombers had left the area by then and the helicopters were without support. The three hour interval allowed Iraqi air defences to recover.[3]


The 31 AH-64 Apaches of the American 11th Regiment took off from Rams Base. One crashed immediately after takeoff when its pilot became disoriented. As they turned north toward Karbala, signals intelligence picked up over 50 Iraqi cell phone calls alerting the Iraqi forward units of the Apaches.

As the strike neared Karbala, the Iraqis signaled their troops to open fire by turning off and then, a few second later, on the area's lights. Ground troops, having recovered from the suppression air strike, opened up with small arms and other weapons. Lieutenant Jason King, pilot of Apache "Palerider 16", was hit by AKM fire[8] in the neck and suffered a severe hemorrhage, but he never lost consciousness.[3] He was later evacuated to Germany for surgery, but returned to his unit a few weeks later.[8]

The Apaches were reluctant to return fire; most enemy fire was coming from houses and the risk of collateral damage was high. The helicopters scattered in search of the Medina Division, but were hampered by poor intelligence. Apache "Vampire 12", flown by Warrant Officers David S. Williams and Ronald D. Young Jr., was forced down after gunfire severed the hydraulics. The air commander's radio was also hit, preventing communication with the other helicopters. The Apaches turned for home after a half-hour of combat. Most were without functioning navigation equipment or sights. At least two narrowly avoided a mid-air collision.[3]

Post-battle analysis indicated the American gunships were targeted in a deliberately planned ambush[9] with cannon fire, RPGs, and small-arms all combining from multiple camouflaged fireteams.


Of the 29 returning Apaches, all but one suffered serious damage. On average, each Apache had 15-20 bullet holes; one Apache even took 29 hits. Sixteen main rotor blades, six tail blades, six engines and five drive shafts were damaged beyond repair. In one squadron only a single helicopter was deemed fit to fly. It took a month until the 11th Regiment was ready to fight again. The casualties sustained by the Apaches induced a change of tactics by placing significant restrictions on their use.[10] Attack helicopters would now be used to reveal the location of enemy troops, allowing them to be destroyed by artillery and air strikes.[3]

Thomas E. White, the U.S. Secretary of the Army, felt disappointed by the outcome of the battle, quipping "we were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft."[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b "U.S. Apache Pilots Taken Prisoner". CNN. 24 March 2003. 
  2. ^ Bernstein, p. 51
  3. ^ a b c d e f Atkinson (2008), pp. 147-153
  4. ^ "Iraq shows off Apache crew". BBC News. 2003-03-25. Retrieved 2010-07-31. 
  5. ^ "Downed Apache Blown Up To Keep Secrets From Iraq". Evening Times. 25 March 2003. 
  6. ^ "Downed US Apache Blown Up With Missile". New Straits Times. 26 March 2003. 
  7. ^ "The 'Apache' farmer's tale". BBC News. 2003-04-23. Retrieved 2010-07-31. 
  8. ^ a b Bernstein, p. 49
  9. ^ Deadly Scourge of the US Helicopter Pilots in Iraq by Colonel David Eshel
  10. ^ John Gordon IV et al. Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options p87. RAND Corporation, 2005. Accessed: 18 March 2012. ISBN 0-8330-3791-9
  11. ^ "Interview: Thomas White". PBS. 2004-01-31. Retrieved 2010-07-31. 


  • Atkinson, Rick (2008). In the Company of Soldiers. Paw Prints. ISBN 1-4395-6638-0
  • Bernstein, Jonathan (2005). AH-64 Apache Units of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-848-0

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