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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005





Part I

Setting the Stage


Chapter 1
Overview of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM: May 2003 to January 2005

 

Peaks and Valleys: October 2003–March 2004

As the summer heat began to fade, the situation in Iraq remained very unstable. There were new opportunities for the CPA to grasp as it attempted to formulate a winning combination of reconstruction, new governance, and military action to create a secure Iraq. Yet as 2003 waned, one of the squandered opportunities in the period after the fall of Saddam’s government came back to haunt the CPA in the form of a radical young Shia cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr.

In the spring of 2003, al-Sadr had seemed merely a troublesome figure to the Coalition officials; but they had underestimated him. Al-Sadr’s father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and two of Muqtada’s elder brothers had been assassinated in An Najaf in 1999, presumably on Saddam’s orders. Muqtada al-Sadr exploited the tremendous respect the Shia community held for his late father, and, using his own charisma, began building a large following, including a militia called the Mahdi Army. US military intelligence recognized that al-Sadr’s rhetoric at times threatened the Coalition’s vision of the nature of post-Saddam Iraq and that his militia had been seeking larger numbers of small arms. Bremer and the CJTF-7 commander, however, differed over how best to defeat al-Sadr. By August Coalition military headquarters had developed plans to arrest al-Sadr, but the CPA called off any aggressive moves against the Shia leader to avoid inflaming his followers, hoping instead to discredit or co-opt him.

In October al-Sadr continued his aggressive anti-US rhetoric through sermons and his newspaper, al-Hawza, demonstrating that Coalition efforts against the radical cleric had been unsuccessful. At the same time, the Mahdi militia continued its expansion throughout Baghdad as the overall security situation deteriorated. The Mahdi Army became increasingly belligerent and challenged the CPA’s authority to govern in certain parts of the countryside and the capital city, especially in the huge Baghdad slum called Sadr City—named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father.

Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was not the sole reason for the increasingly turbulent situation on the ground in Iraq. Insurgent and terrorist organizations across much of Iraq were stepping up the number and sophistication of their attacks. The number of attacks on Coalition forces increased each month that fall, a period that included the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (26 October through 24 November 2003). In November the Coalition recorded approximately 1,000 insurgent attacks. They included a growing number of attacks on Iraqi infrastructure, the ISF, and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), the latter a group of paramilitary organizations trained and equipped by Coalition military units to assist in the worsening environment.19 The downing of a US Army Chinook helicopter by a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile on 2 November 2003, an attack that killed 16 US Service personnel and wounded 20 more, was only the most striking example of the insurgents’ increasing capability. That incident proved to be the worst single-day loss of US Soldiers since May 2003.


If Coalition forces met increasing armed resistance across Iraq in the fall of 2003, Coalition leaders faced another type of opposition from Iraqi politicians. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other Shia leaders were pressuring Bremer and others to hold elections in the near future and to quickly transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis. Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders also sought a quick transition of political power. However, the Kurds and Sunnis were adamant that their country establish a constitution before it held elections. Only an established constitution, they believed, would guarantee their rights in the Shia-dominated state that would likely result from the electoral process. For their part, Bremer and Coalition leaders maintained serious doubts about speeding up the transition of sovereignty. Bremer himself had agreed with the Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians, arguing that the Iraqis needed a constitution before they could create a government, but he believed that both processes would take years.

Despite these concerns, in October 2003 President Bush ordered the CPA to devise a plan to turn over full political authority to an Iraqi Government no later than 30 June 2004. Bremer then began negotiating with the critical Iraqi groups and by mid-November had finalized an agreement that committed the United States to build an Iraqi caretaker government to govern the country until the Iraqi people could approve a constitution. The so-called November 15th Agreement stipulated that the IGC would draw up the outlines of a transitional government with a specific bill of rights by 28 February 2004.

Ambassador Bremer’s timetable was, by necessity, ambitious. The IGC would establish regional caucuses and, after gaining the CPA’s approval, those caucuses would select the Transitional National Assembly (TNA), a body that would appoint a government and by January 2005 would conduct elections for delegates to a constitutional convention. By 31 March the plan called for the IGC to negotiate an agreement with the Coalition forces that clearly laid out the role of the latter with regard to security issues. Thus, by April 2004 Iraq would be asserting its sovereignty as the country progressed toward the 30 June 2004 transfer of power. As December 2003 began, it appeared that the CPA had paved the way for a peaceful transition to Iraqi sovereignty.

While a political settlement emerged in late 2003 and early 2004, Coalition military forces appeared to be making progress in their campaign to provide a safe and secure environment in Iraq. Tactical-level units became more familiar with their AORs and refined their approaches to engaging local populations and insurgents that operated in those areas. The significant decrease in insurgent attacks in this period suggested that Coalition forces had finally begun reaping the benefits of their efforts.20 The capture of Saddam Hussein on 13 December 2003 was another apparent indicator of this progress. Saddam’s detention resulted from months of careful intelligence work by the CJTF-7 staff, US Special Operations Forces, and especially the Soldiers of 4th ID who were operating in the Sunni heartland, the area where reports placed the fugitive dictator. In an operation called RED DAWN, the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT) and Task Force (TF) 120, a special operations team that had been hunting high-value targets in Iraq, surrounded the village of Ad Dawr near Tikrit and, after a careful search, found Saddam hiding in a spider hole.

The Bush administration, along with CPA and CJTF-7 leaders, believed that Saddam’s capture would be a significant turning point in the Coalition’s campaign in Iraq. Clearly, when Bremer excitedly announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him” to Iraqis and Coalition leaders in Baghdad, many perceived the event as a major triumph.21 As long as he eluded capture, members of the former regime could take heart and hope one day that Saddam would return to power and restore all Baathists to their former positions. The capture of Saddam ended that dream, but it did not end the Sunni Arab insurgency nor lessen the Shia demands for dominance in any future government. Still, the former dictator’s capture appeared to temporarily disrupt the Sunni insurgency. The number of insurgent attacks in the winter of 2004 dropped to approximately 600 per month, significantly below the number for the Ramadan period.22


The early spring heralded another positive event: the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which promised to move Iraq closer to self-government. The negotiation over the provisions of the TAL proved to be a tortuous process for both the Iraqis and the CPA. Getting Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and the Shias—not to mention the smaller blocks within those divisions—to agree on a temporary constitution to govern Iraq taxed the Coalition’s patience. After much wrangling, shouting, walkouts, and hard negotiations among the various groups, the Iraqis approved the TAL on 8 March 2004.

Approval of the TAL appeared to be a major step toward a new Iraq. Perhaps most importantly, the law provided for regional governments, a decision that helped assure many Sunni Arabs that the new constitution would help retain their political position in Iraq by preventing the Shias from using their superior numbers to electorally swamp the Sunni Arabs.23 The TAL would serve as the working constitution of Iraq until the body elected in January 2005 drew up a long-term constitution. The bitter infighting waged by the various groups during the negotiations indicated that the idea of minority rights was not fully accepted by all groups. However, by the beginning of 2004 Iraq seemed to have reached a political rapprochement that solved a number of the country’s thorniest issues and set the nation on the road to a representative government and stability.


Chapter 1. Overview of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM: May 2003 to January 2005





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