For years, insurgents in Iraq have been stymieing U.S. troops with homemade, low-tech weapons, like car bombs and improvised roadside explosives.
But in this battle of Sadr City, as 60 Minutes learned in a high-level debriefing with the U.S. commander in Iraq, the Americans overpowered the Shiite militias with hi-tech, including the most advanced, sophisticated, whiz bang hardware and software on Earth, like electronics, lasers, and high-resolution cameras that can literally cut through the fog of war.
When 60 Minutes was in Iraq to interview the new commanding general, Ray Odierno, we went with him as he surveyed the former battlefield, through neighborhoods now pacified and into a market returning to life. At his side was the brigade commander who led the battle there, Col. John Hort.
"This was some of the heaviest fighting that we had experienced during our two months in Sadr City," Hort told Stahl. "Right where we're standing."
Standing there, or any place in Sadr City, could not have been done just five months ago - the area was off-limits to Americans. For years, the fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shiite militia controlled the streets.
Last March, they began using the neighborhood as a launching pad to lob rockets into the nearby "Green Zone," the seat of the Iraqi government and site of the U.S. Embassy.
"Not just one or two, but we're talking 20 to 30 rocket attacks coming out of Sadr City," Hort explained.
Col. Hort gave General Odierno his first briefing on the battle, and 60 Minutes was invited to sit in. It's rare that reporters can videotape sessions like this. We were asked to turn our cameras off only once, and were allowed to broadcast only a few slides that were later de-classified for us.
The U.S. military had wanted to mount an attack in Sadr City, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki balked for a year because the militias are Shiites like him, and that made a decision to fight them politically risky.
Odierno waited for the prime minister, saying the decision to go ahead was Maliki's to make. "I think what he finally realized were that the militias that had safe havens in Sadr City were really trying to destabilize the government of Iraq, and he realized it would add instability to his own government," the general told Stahl.
Once Maliki gave the go-ahead, a U.S. Stryker battalion went in, but they confronted a steady stream of militia reinforcements. "I mean every day, it was 20, 30, 40 new guys that were coming down to fight," Hort recalled.
So Hort and his men had to do something to keep them out. They decided to build a barrier straight across Sadr City. It would also create a buffer zone wide enough to prevent militia rockets from reaching the Green Zone.
To build the wall, Col. Hort's Charlie Company began putting up massive T-shaped concrete slabs. Fighting erupted almost immediately, as sniper fire came in from every direction; Charlie Company retaliated with massive tank fire.
"We fired 800 tank rounds in this fight. We haven't fired that many tank rounds since the start of the war," Hort told Stahl.
Col. Hort said "the building of the [so-called] T-wall became a magnet for every bad guy in Sadr City." This was one of the most intense engagements in the entire war. Yet even as the battle raged, the wall went up.
"It was literally concrete barrier by concrete barrier. We just wasn't goin' out there puttin' up some barriers. I mean, it was a fight every inch of the way," he said.
"Guys would climb the ladders to unhook the crane chains from the wall unarmed, while people are firin' at 'em. So it was high adventure," Lt. Col. Brian Eifler remembered, whose team laid down cover fire while some soldiers, wide open and exposed, unhooked the chains from the crane.