A Calm Colonel's Strategic Victory

Lt. Col. Chris Hughes in najaf

Three years ago on Najaf's battlefields, soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division routed Saddam Hussein's ragtag army of loyalists and thugs. The regime's stranglehold on the holy city was over.

Embedded with the 101st, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann met hundreds of U.S. troops. But few stood out like Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, who won a big battle by never firing a shot.

On the morning of April 3, 2003, the 101st stood outside the holiest Shia mosque in all Iraq, watching hundreds of Iraqis suddenly turn on U.S. troops. Hughes had led them into the city to liberate it, but agitators had spread the lie that the Americans were going to seize the mosque and arrest the cleric.

Strassmann recalls that the situation seemed to turn in an instant.

"It seemed to turn like that, but it was a very deliberate turn," Hughes says today. "If somebody shot a round in the air, there was going to be some sort of massacre."

Hughes could have muscled his way in, but he took another approach.

"Everybody smile!" he ordered his troops, as CBS News cameras rolled. "Don't point your weapons at them. Take a knee, relax!"

For his tense soldiers, "taking a knee" first meant taking a deep breath. They did, and the crowd's mood eased. Hughes then ordered his men to withdraw.

Watch more of the interview with Col. Chris Hughes

Read Strassmann's 2003 report from the scene

He had avoided a massacre that minutes before seemed a gunshot away. But to Hughes, the strategic victory was preserving the mosque.

"In terms of scale of significance, that is the mosque that would have probably not just have caused every Shia in that country to rise up against the coalition," he says. "It probably would have at least brought in the Syrians, if not the Iranians."

These days, Hughes prowls the Pentagon's endless white corridors, into its Byzantine maze of top secret clearance. He's still involved in the war — he directs operations and contingency planning for the entire Army from the Crisis Action Center.

"We can pretty much from in here tell you everything the Army is doing," he says, "from the factory where the bayonet is coming off the assembly line to the soldier on the ground that needs that bayonet."

Despite working six days a week, 17 hours a day, Hughes feels guilty. Like any born soldier, he really wants to be back on the frontline.

"If there's anybody watching who can make that happen — besides my wife chewing me out tonight for saying that — then I would go in a heartbeat," Hughes says.

But right now, the Army has other plans for him. And as he proved outside the mosque in Najaf, Chris Hughes knows when not to pick a fight.