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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 3
The Rise of the Iraqi Insurgency and the US Army's Response


Origins of Iraqi Discontent

In the weeks that followed the implosion of the Baathist regime in April 2003, the absence of organized violence created a period of relative calm. In many Kurdish and Shia regions of Iraq and even in some of the Sunni Arab areas, Coalition troops were indeed greeted as liberators as some American officials had predicted. As US units fanned out in Baghdad and other cities in the west, south, and northern regions of Iraq, they also found themselves in the middle of a political vacuum left by the collapse of the Baathist regime. The swiftness of the Coalition’s advance and the apparent evaporation of Saddam’s authority concurrently stunned the Iraqis. In retrospect, American Soldiers as well as many Iraqis have come to view this period of calm as a “window of opportunity” when Coalition forces had a chance to create a secure environment that might have forestalled the growth of any organized opposition. Those with this view suggest that this window of opportunity shut some time in mid-2003, largely because the Coalition was unprepared to conduct immediate, large-scale, postconflict operations that might have prevented the conditions in which inchoate anger could grow to form an insurgency.

Many Soldiers serving in the first units that reached Baghdad shared an acute sense of an opportunity lost. Colonel David Perkins, commander of the 2d Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 3d Infantry Division (3d ID), was one of the first senior officers to arrive in the Iraqi capital. His views on this early period are representative of this collective attitude:

Right after we got into Baghdad, there was a huge window of opportunity that if we had this well-defined plan and we were ready to come in with all these resources, we could have really grabbed a hold of the city and really started pushing things forward. By the time we got a plan together to resource everything, the insurgents had closed that window of opportunity quickly. What we started doing in September [2003] was probably a good idea to have done in April 2003.9

Lieutenant General (Retired) Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), thought similarly. After meeting with a number of Iraqi civilian leaders in early April 2003 in southern Iraq, he began pressuring CENTCOM to allow ORHA into Baghdad to begin operations before this window closed. On 17 April 2003 Garner told General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, that inside Iraq there were “too many vacuums that are filling up right now with things that you and I don’t want them to fill up with.”10 Franks then allowed Garner to travel to Baghdad and northern Iraq to begin assessing the situation on the ground. However, weeks passed before ORHA established itself and began operations in these critical parts of Iraq.

In this period just after the 3d ID and other Coalition elements arrived in Baghdad, Saddam’s army, the Iraqi police, and other institutions of authority dissolved. Concurrently, looters began stealing from buildings and facilities across the capital. Captain Warren Sponsler, a company commander in the 3d ID, described being in Baghdad and witnessing the chaotic nature of the situation in the days just after the deposition of the regime:

My company was going up the big north/south highway going to the center of the city and I remember seeing all kinds of people walking up and down the highway dragging all kinds of stuff all over the place. There were American units that were securing the routes, but it was so overwhelming that there really wasn’t much they could do about it. There were guys dragging bathtubs, construction equipment, or you name it.11

Sponsler was amazed at how brazen many of the looters were in the chaotic environment that prevailed in the capital:

We had a palace right on the corner where the big reviewing stands are that we were actually going to occupy for my company. We went in and did a recon to make sure everything was all right and it had been touched a little bit. When we went back 12 hours later, it had been completely gutted. This was right on the edge of our perimeter. They would just swarm. It definitely wasn’t organized, but folks, I think, would find a particular hot spot and they would swarm and take everything down to the wires out of the walls.12

While units did make an effort to secure some buildings in Baghdad, the enormity of the mass looting prevented the protection of all facilities. Soldiers quickly had to discern which of the museums, government buildings, weapons caches, and other facilities could be covered adequately.13 Because of the relatively small number of Coalition forces on the ground in April 2003, it was impossible to protect all or even most of these sites. Further, Soldiers on the ground who had been engaged in combat less than 24 hours earlier, and in some cases were still engaged in combat, were not immediately prepared to stop the actions of these Iraqi citizens. Soldiers are trained to use lethal force very judiciously, and firing on looters was outside the rules of engagement (ROE) established for the invasion of Iraq. Colonel Daniel B. Allyn, commander of the 3d BCT, 3d ID, offered insights into the thought process of his Soldiers in Baghdad at this time:

If they faced a hostile threat, they took hostile action to defeat it. If there was an ability to mitigate the situation with means less lethal than hostile action, they took those steps. I think probably the most challenging situation for them, quite frankly, was when the populace began to take advantage of their own people in terms of looting. That put our Soldiers in a position of forcing them to be policemen, which we clearly had not done a lot of training on.14

The looting witnessed by Allyn and his Soldiers would take a huge toll on the Iraqi economy. One Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) study estimated the looting in this early period caused $12 billion in losses.15 This damage included the significant destruction of several of Saddam’s palaces and government buildings, many of Baghdad’s sewage treatment centers, and numerous military and police facilities, as well as important cultural landmarks such as the Iraqi National Museum.

As bad as the physical damage was to the Iraqi infrastructure, the harm inflicted by the looting on Iraqi attitudes toward the Coalition was even greater. The vacuum generated by the regime’s collapse was far more vivid to Iraqis, who often did not comprehend why Coalition forces would not immediately fill that void. One Iraqi officer, Lieutenant General Nasier Abadi, who served as a senior Air Force officer in Saddam’s armed forces and would become a key leader in the new Iraqi military after 2003, pointed to the glaring gap in authority in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad’s fall. Abadi stated:

There was no contingency plan for something going wrong such as an outbreak of public disorder, looting, and crime and revenge killings. Neither was the Coalition prepared for the virtual disappearance of the police and in effect all public order forces. The Coalition had no plan for the total lack of public order forces in the wake of the success of the Coalition forces and the disappearance of the Iraqi Army. The vacuum that resulted was enormous.16

Another Iraqi, Faruq Ahmed Saadeddin, who had served Saddam as a diplomat, told an American journalist that “[i]f it had gone smoothly from the first day, honestly, I believe this a 100 percent: 95 percent of the Baathists, the registered Baathists, would have cheered, hailed America.” However, the disorder following the arrival of the Coalition forces changed his mind: “When we saw the burning and looting, that was like raping the city, that was like raping my country. I cried when I heard the news on the radio. I was pissed off. And I cried. That was the golden opportunity to win the people and they messed it up.”17

Part of the problem was rooted in Iraqi expectations of what would occur after the Coalition forces arrived. Many Iraqis were impressed by American technology during the war and thought that American skill would completely transform their country. Instead, some became bewildered by the disorder that erupted immediately following the demise of the Saddam regime. One Iraqi complained, “Saddam had ruled for nearly 25 years, behind the scenes for far longer; the Americans had toppled him in less than three weeks, and relatively few of their Soldiers had died in the task. How could these same Americans be so feeble in the aftermath?”18

For many Iraqis, the looting and disorder became signs of the Coalition’s inability or unwillingness to maintain order. From the start, some Iraqis assumed Americans did not care about the looting, or that they even welcomed the destruction. One cleric told a journalist, “I simply cannot understand how your soldiers could have stood by and watched. Maybe, [the Americans] are weak, too. Or maybe they are wicked.”19 American Soldiers became intensely aware of the rising pessimism among the Iraqi population. Major Rod Coffey, who served in the 3d ID in Baghdad, believed he understood why many of the Iraqis began to doubt the intentions of the Coalition:

The looting creates the perception that ‘my country is being destroyed’ to an Iraqi. The looting feeds all those myths that the Americans are here and they just want to take all our oil and they want us to be weak. That was certainly a perception on the street on the part of some Iraqis, or at least grappling with the doubt, ‘Well, maybe this is the way the Americans want it. All of us looting and going at each other in chaos. This is what they want. This is to their benefit.’ You can’t let that perception develop and it did.20

The absence of authority and the growing cynicism about Coalition objectives helped foster an environment in which an insurgency could grow. Lieutenant General Abadi described the situation in the following way:

With the [Iraqi] Army not in place, this left a big vacuum and the Coalition did not think that there was a necessity after they succeeded in defeating the Army to have people providing security. But they did not bring enough troops to do the policing job. We had fence sitters in Iraq who did not know what to do. At the beginning they thought there was going to be investment and money, and this came bit by bit. At the same time the insurgents came and were spending a lot of money and recruiting a lot of people to go against the Americans.21

Abadi concluded that the situation in Iraq that spring “was not a healthy atmosphere.”22

Chapter 3. The Rise of the Iraqi Insurgency and the US Army’s Response

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