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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


The Emergence of the Iraqi Insurgency

The Iraqi insurgency that evolved in the spring of 2003 was extremely complex in nature. Its disparate elements (all of which will be discussed in greater detail later in this chapter) gave it a diverse quality that militated against an easy categorization of the Iraqi opposition as an insurgency. In many of the general studies of insurgency and counterinsurgency, theorists tend to define an insurgency in narrow terms. Much of the literature on the subject refers to Mao Zedong’s theories of revolutionary warfare and his model of an insurgency as the basic templates to be used in understanding insurgent motivations and methods. In this model, derived from Marxist-Leninist theory on the subject, as well as Mao’s experience leading guerrilla groups in China in the 1930s, an insurgency is one tool in the revolutionary party’s struggle for political power.68 Mao’s well-known model features an insurgent organization that benefits from both unity of command and unity of purpose, and offers a prescriptive set of operational phases through which the organization escalates the conflict and ultimately gains political control of a country. The multiple insurgent organizations in Iraq—with their various sectarian and ethnic identities, diverse command structures, and differing goals—did not easily fit into this well-established understanding of insurgencies.

As noted in the introduction to this chapter, US military doctrine in 2003 described insurgencies more broadly than traditional definitions, characterizing them as organized movements “aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.”69 This description could be used to describe the wide variety of groups—former Baathists, secular nationalist organizations, Islamist terrorists, sectarian militias, criminal gangs and others—that made up the insurgent network in Iraq. Despite the broader scope, the DOD’s doctrinal definition of insurgency retained traditional assumptions about command and intent, viewing an insurgent organization as operating under the command of an identifiable leadership and moving toward one overarching objective. However, this type of unified command structure was not present in the days just following Saddam’s collapse and emerged slowly in the Iraqi insurgency in the summer of 2003. Nor was there any single political goal that defined the end state for all the insurgent groups fighting Coalition forces in this early period. American commanders who attempted to discern a unified purpose and command in Iraqi attacks found only vague political and religious statements and small-scale attacks, coordinated, at best, at the local or regional level. This view led to the widespread American conclusion that the violence was the work of small, isolated groups of Saddam’s paramilitary formations (Fedayeen) and recalcitrant Baathists, albeit inspired by some central concept of resistance to the Coalition invaders.

The American assessment in the summer of 2003 was accurate in part. Ex-Baathists, sometimes called former regime elements (FRE) by US commanders, appear to have been behind the small number of attacks on Coalition forces during this timeframe. However, most Coalition commanders did not realize the small groups comprising the Iraqi opposition that summer expended most of their energy and resources on organization and making connections rather than on overtly attacking the Coalition. Initially, these individuals were almost exclusively Sunni and were drawn together because of anger and dishonor over their unemployment and resentment of the occupation. Disenfranchised individuals began leveraging pre-existing party, professional, tribal, familial, or geographic—including neighborhood—networks to create the foundation of their insurgent organizations.70 Subsequent action revolved around defining the cause and recruiting followers.71 Former Baathist officials often took the lead in these efforts, combining their military and intelligence skills with knowledge of the location of vast weapons stockpiles and money hidden for the defense of Baghdad.72

Still, the early Sunni insurgent groups were not simply Saddamists fighting to restore the Baathist Party and its ideology. Instead, the insurgency in Sunni areas grew because of concerns about political status in general. Colonel Harvey, the US Army officer who led CJTF-7’s Red Team, suggested that the groups within the Sunni insurgency were always focused on retaking the political power they had enjoyed in the Saddam regime. In Harvey’s estimation, the CPA policy of de-Baathification had been tantamount to “de-Sunnification” and the Sunni Arabs, “the old oligarchy, the old leadership, the clerics, tribal leaders and others, [were] focused on regaining their power, influence and authority in whatever form that is relevant.”73

These Sunni leaders used a variety of means to recruit and focus members of their organizations. One study conducted by the International Crisis Group (ICG) contended that Sunni groups often appealed to the population with patriotic and religious themes while relegating Baathist ideology to only a minor role.74 Thus, there existed within the growing insurgent network a strong sense of religious identity and an obligation to oppose Coalition forces that could be characterized as infidel invaders. While the Baathist regime was secular in nature, Saddam Hussein had fostered the practice of Islam during the 1990s to unite Iraqi society and enhance the regime’s legitimacy. Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the US Navy’s Postgraduate School, looked closely at the origins and structure of the Iraqi insurgency and found the role of religion within the Sunni insurgent groups to be significant. As an example, Hashim quoted a middle-aged insurgent named Abu Mohajed as stating, “We fight the Americans because they are nonbelievers and they are coming to fight Islam.”75 For some religious Iraqis, the actions and policies of the Coalition forces were irrelevant. Simply by entering Iraq they had become enemies of the Iraqi people. One cleric in Mosul contended, “In invading a Muslim territory, the objective of the infidels has always been to destroy the cultural values of Islam. . . . We have been delivered of the injustices of one man [i.e., Saddam Hussein] but this does not mean we must accept the American–British domination.”76

Despite the rising importance of the religious factor in 2003, foreign jihadis played only a minor role in the day-to-day operations of the insurgent groups. The judgment of General John Abizaid, CENTCOM commander, was that in July 2003 there were “not significant numbers” of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq.77 The ICG report on the insurgency concurred, but noted that this changed as the insurgency matured: “The impact of foreign jihadis grew over time, but during the early stages of the insurgency it appears to have been negligible, and al-Qaeda in particular was absent.”78 Colonel Harvey’s assessment of the role of foreign fighters generally agreed with these assertions. Harvey argued that even as the number of foreign fighters grew after the summer of 2003, their presence in the insurgency remained disproportionately small while their use of large-scale terrorist acts earned them a great deal of attention.79 Between August 2003 and January 2005, the Iraqi insurgency continued to grow and diversify.

Spectacular attacks against the Jordanian Embassy on 7 August and the United Nations (UN) Compound on 19 August 2003 clearly signaled the emergence of a larger and better-organized threat. In these two acts, CPA and Combined Joint Task Force–7 (CJTF-7) officials began to discern an organized Sunni insurgency amid the inchoate actions of Saddamists, foreign fighters, and others, who chose targets carefully to have the maximum political effect. The sharply increasing level of attacks between August 2003 and January 2005 also indicated a growing insurgency. In August 2003 the insurgents launched approximately 500 attacks on Coalition forces, and in December 2004 this number roughly tripled to 1,500 attacks.80 The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 led to a brief respite between January and March 2004 when the attacks decreased. Still, a number of observers have noted that in the long term the removal of the Baathist leader may have actually intensified the insurgency. According to the ICG report:

Saddam’s capture in December 2003 helped rid the insurgency of the image of a rear-guard struggle waged on behalf of a despised regime. Paradoxically, his incarceration gave the insurgency renewed momentum, dissociating it from the Baathist regime and shoring up its patriotic, nationalist and religious/jihadist credentials. By the same token, it facilitated a rapprochement between the insurgency and transnational jihadi networks, which had been hostile to a partnership with remnants of a secular, heretical regime and whose resources (monetary and human) could now be fully marshaled.81

While the first 3 months of 2004 witnessed fewer attacks on Coalition soldiers, this interval was only a temporary lull that saw insurgent forces consolidating in cities such as Fallujah and creating broader networks.

The events of April 2004 stand out as a jarring shock as both Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militants rose up in armed defiance of the Coalition. These events demonstrated that the capture of Saddam had not unhinged the Sunni-led factions of the insurgency. In that month, the number of attacks jumped precipitously, reflecting insurgent reactions to the US Marine Corps assault on the city of Fallujah and the insurrection mounted in Baghdad and the southern cities of An Najaf, Kufa, and An Nasiriyah by the Shia Mahdi Army (Jaish al Mahdi) under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Coalition’s decision to end the assault on Fallujah and enter into political negotiations with the Iraqi elements in the city had a particularly profound effect on the Sunni insurgency. Hashim argued that the insurgents viewed it as “major political and military victory” because they had endured the US assault and remained undefeated.83 In a similar fashion, the Mahdi Army uprising gave strength to Shia organizations by demonstrating that they too could use violence to provoke a reaction from the Coalition and achieve specific political goals. The insurgents benefited from these events, using them to increase recruits, expand training, and improve the arming of their organizations. For the remainder of 2004, attacks against Coalition forces remained at the high levels achieved in April of that year.

As the insurgency became larger and more lethal, it also diversified. While the opposition had begun as a loose association of ex-Baathists operating more or less independently, by the spring of 2004 it had become a multifaceted and cohesive network. Because of its complex and evolutionary nature, it is difficult to describe the details of the structure of the insurgency with a high degree of certitude. However, it is possible to depict the insurgent network as a constellation of groups that cooperated but also shifted positions and loyalties as their motivations and actions changed. This constellation included the major Sunni groups made up of former Baathists, tribes, Islamist parties, and eventually terrorist organizations like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda organization. Shia groups and criminal gangs occupied positions within the constellation as well.

The key to understanding the network, according to Colonel Harvey, was the connections that key ex-Baathists leaders forged with the other groups in the insurgent constellation. Before 2003 the Saddam regime had established intelligence and paramilitary organizations such as the Al-Quds Army and the Fedayeen Saddam in every Iraqi province to secure the Baath Party’s political power.83 These organizations had established safe houses and weapons caches in large cities. They had also prepared to use specific mosques as covert bases for operations against Shia or Kurdish insurrections or any other opposition that might threaten regime power. These groups benefited from the widespread and immense arms caches Saddam had dispersed throughout the country in the years leading up to the war.84 The US victory in the spring of 2003 did nothing to dismantle these Baathist organizations, their infrastructure, or the significant relationships they had forged with tribal and religious leaders within Iraq. It was this set of Baathist institutions, Harvey asserts, that after May 2003 made up the central set of organizations in the constellation and provided general guidance and resources to other groups by leveraging their established relationships. Indeed, there was overlap between these groups, with some individuals active in more than one type of organization. This understanding of the network helps elucidate how and why former Baathists—secular in orientation—used tribal connections to establish a working relationship with Islamist terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq.85

At the tactical level, these organizations used a cellular structure to mount operations against Coalition forces. To a large degree, this cellular structure was based on the framework of the Baathist paramilitary and intelligence systems. Specialized and compartmented cells, however, were characteristic of many insurgent organizations, such as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Viet Cong, and were not unique to Iraq. Iraqi insurgent groups employed cells that procured weapons, cells that constructed bombs, cells that provided command and control, and combat cells—the small groups that actually conducted the attacks.86 One example of an organization with this type of structure was the Army of Muhammad, which operated in the Sunni heartland and claimed to have a number of specialized cells headed by an officer who had served in Saddam’s army. The role of the Baathist network in the group, however, was diluted by the presence of the large, powerful Sunni Dulaimi tribe, to which many of the group’s members belonged.87

While this diverse network was unified in its opposition to the Coalition, other overarching political objectives that might have provided cohesion were more difficult to detect. Most theoretical works on insurgency warfare make the assumption that an insurgent fights for something greater than military victory. The US military’s doctrinal understanding of insurgencies certainly assumed that larger political goals, like the revolutionary seizure of power or the establishment of a particular ideology such as communism, have provided the impetus to modern insurgencies. Events in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 forced some to reconsider this definition, suggesting it remained too narrow and positing the existence of insurgencies without clearly articulated and widely accepted political goals. The Iraqi insurgent groups shared no common goal, having instead multiple political agendas. Some insurgent groups sought dominance in a particular area for their tribe. Many elements of the insurgency simply wanted their ethnic or sectarian group to have political control of Iraq when the dust settled. This latter goal was one of the most important motivating factors behind many Sunni groups and the militant Shia organizations.

Certainly religion played a role in the political objectives of Islamist groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Salafist groups based their actions on the desire to establish an Islamic theocracy. The Salafist Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah Association, for example, openly demanded the founding of an Islamic state in Iraq.88 Some Shia groups such as the Mahdi Army at times articulated a similar version of this politico-religious end state. However, it is critical to emphasize that religious figures were not always radical Islamists and not all Islamists sought a theocratic government in Iraq. In fact, some of the religious figures that used Islamist rhetoric and have roles in the insurgent network appear to have wanted a more limited goal of greater political power for their organizations in an essentially secular post-Saddam Iraq.89

The varying political objectives did not necessarily preclude cooperation between the many insurgent organizations. In fact, the force holding the insurgent constellation together was the central motive of opposition to the Coalition. This motivation was expressed in some groups in secular terms, a patriotic duty, and in other groups in religious terms, a Quranic duty, to expel infidels from Muslim lands. Hashim argued that for some insurgents, the expulsion of the infidel occupiers became the political objective with little thought to what Iraq should be after the Coalition is pushed out. He quoted one Sunni insurgent as stating, “Our main aim is to drive the Americans out and then everything will go back to normal, as it was before.”90

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

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