ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign
The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005
Setting the Stage
Overview of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM: May 2003 to January 2005
The Caldron Boils Over: April–June 2004
The Coalition’s growing optimism was suddenly extinguished when the insurgency that had simmered throughout the previous year boiled over in April 2004. In that month Sunni Arab insurgents and Shia militia launched violent assaults in many parts of Iraq. Despite the drop in insurgent attacks in the months after Saddam’s capture, the Sunni Arab-led portion of the insurgency had not permanently dissipated. Instead, at least some insurgent groups seemed to use that time to reorganize and consolidate in the Sunni heartland, especially in the city of Fallujah. Similarly, the advent of spring had emboldened the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who led his militia in attacking Coalition and Iraqi governing institutions in Shia-dominated cities southeast of Baghdad.
The explosion of violence in April came at a particularly inauspicious time for the Coalition’s military forces. CJTF-7 had used the winter to begin the transition to OIF II—the deployment of a new set of American forces to Iraq and the redeployment of units that had been in Iraq since early 2003. (See Appendix F, US Army Units in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Order of Battle, May 2003–January 2005.) While Lieutenant General Sanchez remained in command of the joint task force, on 1 February 2004 the III Corps staff based at Fort Hood, Texas, formally replaced the V Corps staff that had served as the core of CJTF-7 headquarters since June 2003. At the tactical level, the 1st AD began turning over its responsibility for Baghdad (MND-B) to the 1st CAV in March; the 4th ID handed over responsibility for the Sunni heartland (MND-NC) to the 1st Infantry Division (1st ID) that same month. Also, the 101st ABN transferred responsibility for MND-N to TF Olympia, a composite unit that included the Stryker-equipped 3d Brigade of the 2d Infantry Division (2d ID), an air cavalry squadron, an aviation battalion, two engineer battalions, and other support elements.
In the middle of these transitions came an especially abhorrent attack on the Coalition. On 31 March 2004 insurgents in Fallujah murdered four American contractors who worked for the Blackwater security company and mutilated their corpses, hanging them from a bridge and broadcasting the barbaric scene around the world. In reaction, the US National Security Council and the CPA ordered CJTF-7 to take control of the city and to bring those who killed the Blackwater contractors to justice. Sanchez tasked the 1st MEF, which had just taken over responsibility for that area in Iraq from the 82d ABN, to conduct the attack.
1st MEF launched Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE on 4 April with two infantry battalions assaulting into the city. Marine forces made modest progress in clearing the city and killed hundreds of insurgents in the first week of the offensive. The Sunni Arab insurgents, however, fought back with a deadly effect and demonstrated a much higher level of tactical skill than Coalition forces expected. As a result, the 1st MEF ordered two more battalions into the city. In the course of the fighting, both sides inflicted heavy damage to Fallujah’s infrastructure and the city’s civilian population suffered greatly. The Marines also ordered the 2d Battalion of the new Iraqi Army to join the fighting in Fallujah. However, while en route to the city, a crowd stopped the unit’s convoy and confronted the Iraqi soldiers about the impending operation that would force them into combat against other Iraqis. The 2d Battalion’s soldiers refused to continue the movement to Fallujah, claiming they had not enlisted to fight their countrymen. On 9 April the IGC reached the brink of collapse over its opposition to the Coalition’s attack on Fallujah and the civilian casualties incurred by the city’s population. CPA Chief Paul Bremer reversed his earlier direction and ordered CJTF-7 to suspend the Marines’ attack. The 1st MEF declared a unilateral cease-fire and agreed to allow the so-called Fallujah Brigade, an ad hoc Iraqi Army unit led by one of Saddam’s former generals, to take control of the city.
While the CPA and CJTF-7 were attempting to reestablish control in Fallujah, Coalition leaders found themselves facing a potentially larger threat in the form of Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces. In late March 2004 al-Sadr’s virulent rhetoric and anti-Coalition actions prompted the Coalition to take action. The CPA ordered al-Sadr’s newspaper, al-Hawza, to be shut down, and on 5 April Bremer declared al-Sadr an outlaw.24 At the same time, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the murder of Shia cleric Abd Al-Majid al-Khoei on 10 April 2003.
Al-Sadr reacted by ordering his forces to move against the Coalition. Beginning on 4 April violence erupted in Sadr City and in the Shia-dominated cities of An Najaf, Kufa, Al Kut, and Karbala. In Al Kut the arrest of one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s lieutenants, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, prompted the Mahdi Army to take over the local television and radio stations and overwhelm the CPA compound, the local government buildings, and the Iraqi police station. Mahdi Army militiamen launched attacks on local police stations and government buildings in other cities as well.25 In Sadr City the attacks against American units were particularly deadly. In that part of the capital, the Mahdi Army ambushed elements of the 1st AD and the 1st CAV, killing seven Soldiers and wounding dozens of others.
The Coalition response was swift and deadly. The 2d ACR began operations against the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, immediately occupying police stations that had been taken over by al-Sadr’s forces. At the same time, the 1st AD, which was in the process of turning over authority for the Baghdad area to the 1st CAV, stopped its redeployment home and launched an offensive against al-Sadr’s forces in the southern cities. In what the division called the “Extension Campaign,” the Soldiers of the 1st AD crushed the Shia uprising. On 4 April the division sent elements of its 2d BCT to help the multinational troops in An Najaf secure CPA facilities in the city. The division then ordered the 2d BCT, newly designated as Task Force (TF) Striker, to move to Al Kut where Sadrist forces had taken over the CPA headquarters and a local radio station. Working with the Ukrainian forces in the city and with reinforcing elements from the 2d ACR, TF Striker moved into Al Kut on 8 April, and by 11 April had secured its objectives and suppressed the militia in the city.
The Harsh Realities of Full Spectrum Operations
The actions in Al Kut were the beginnings of a larger campaign that would involve most of the 1st AD as well as a BCT from 1st ID, a Stryker vehicle-equipped battalion from the 3d Brigade/2d ID operating in Mosul, and other CJTF-7 assets. As April progressed, the 1st AD reorganized for combat and launched Operation IRON SABRE, a methodical set of actions intended to clear Sadrist forces from the towns of An Najaf, Kufa, Al Kut, and Karbala. Even though the last major action in this operation was at Karbala in May 2004, al-Sadr’s forces continued to offer sporadic resistance to Coalition forces in An Najaf for another month. It was clear by that date that 1st AD and the other Coalition forces had defeated al-Sadr’s attempts to lead an uprising designed to elevate him to power. Al-Sadr announced a unilateral cease-fire and ordered his militias to disband in late June 2004. It proved to be only a temporary setback for the Shia leader.
During the al-Sadr uprising, US forces demonstrated they could wield military power in a decisive way to suppress insurrection. However, neither the 1st AD’s Operation IRON SABRE nor 1st MEF’s Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE destroyed the forces that were intent on thwarting the Coalition’s efforts in Iraq. The Mahdi Army would again strike out at American forces in the near future; undefeated insurgent groups in Fallujah became only stronger, transforming the city into a fortified sanctuary for Sunni Arab extremists; and insurgent groups in other parts of Iraq continued to mount small-scale attacks against Coalition troops. Exacerbating the situation throughout Iraq in late April and May was the public release of photographs depicting the abuse of Iraqi detainees by American Soldiers at the Abu Ghraib Prison. The Coalition had put the lid back on the caldron but the waters continued to boil.
A Decisive Month—May 2003
Military Transitions in Spring 2003
An Uncertain Summer: June–September 2003
Peaks and Valleys: October 2003–March 2004
The Caldron Boils Over: April–June 2004
Transitions of Command and Sovereignty: June–July 2004
The Sunni Arab Challenge: August–November 2004
Toward the New Iraq: December 2004–January 2005
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