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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


Major Insurgent Groups

No brief survey of the major groups within the insurgent network can be complete, but it is important to offer a general summary of the organizations that provided the bulk of the energy and resources that established the network in 2003 and then expanded it in 2004. While each group is discussed as an independent entity, it is critical to recognize that these organizations often collaborated and their membership often overlapped with individual insurgents operating in a number of different groups.

Sunni Arabs

For much of the 18-month period under study, the Sunni Arab insurgency served as the primary opposition to Coalition military forces. These Sunni Arab groups, active primarily in Baghdad, Al Anbar province, and the provinces that made up the Sunni Triangle, had grown up around the support framework initially provided by members of the Baathist military and intelligence services that had gone underground after April 2003. In fact, for many Coalition leaders the role of the Baathists was so prominent as late as mid-2004 that some still identified the Sunni groups as offshoots of Saddam’s regime. General George W. Casey Jr., who became the commanding general of Multi-National Force–Iraq (MNF-I) in July 2004, recalled that on taking command, his initial assessment of the various threats in Iraq focused on these Sunni groups whose core he identified as former regime elements.91

While the Baathists may still have made up the core of the Sunni insurgency, by mid-2004 the number of groups within the larger network had grown and diversified. Within the complex structure of this constellation, however, some analysts have discerned several basic groups or clusters. Amatzia Baram, a historian who has written a lucid explanation of the Iraqi insurgency for the United States Institute of Peace, contended that there were three major factions among the Sunni insurgents: secular/ideological, tribal, and religious/Islamist.92 One unifier among traditional Sunni Muslims and Baathist or non-Baathist secular Sunni Arabs was the privileged status they enjoyed under Saddam’s Baath Party regime. According to Baram, “Most Sunnis, whatever they thought of the Baath Party, were beholden to Saddam and were often connected to the regime through relatives or close friends.”93 Baram continued, “Men with strong tribal connections and bound by tribal interests, values, and norms are just as likely to define themselves as Islamists, Saddamists, or, to varying degrees, both. Still others define themselves as ‘nationalists.’”94

While there were different motivations driving the Sunni insurgency, most insurgents could be further lumped into two categories: those who opposed the Coalition presence but were willing to work with the new Iraqi Government and those who rejected any cooperation with the new Iraqi state. The former category included all other secular and ideological groups, tribes, and even some religious organizations. “Insurgents in the latter category,” according to Baram, “include the ultraradical Salafi and Wahhabi Islamists, ex-Baathists who have either committed crimes against humanity or are otherwise convinced there is no place for them in the new system, and hardened ordinary criminals.”95 Only the most radical Islamists, such as the Wahhabis and Salafis, were likely to state any criticism of Saddam.

The number of Sunni Arabs in the latter category—those not willing to work with the new Iraqi government—grew in late 2003 and 2004, because of the notion that Americans disliked Sunnis or wanted to create an Iraq in which Sunnis were disenfranchised. Some of this was an outgrowth of the policy of de-Baathification and some of it resulted from the more general perception that the Coalition sought to deny the Sunnis their rightful role as rulers of the Iraqi state. Saddam Hussein had assured the Sunni Arabs, a group that composed approximately 20 percent of the population, that they represented the majority of the Iraqi population and thus had the right to rule the Shias, the Kurds, and other groups. After May 2003 it appeared to many Sunnis that the Coalition was overtly punishing them by granting the Shias and Kurds an inordinate amount of political power. For some Sunnis, this change suggested they might not only lose political power but also become dominated politically, economically, and socially by the Shias and the Kurds.96

Sunni disaffection increased in 2004 not only because of the factors mentioned above but also as a result of the Coalition’s large-scale offensive operations in Sunni cities such as Fallujah and Samarra that appeared to target the Sunni heartland. This loss of Sunni support showed glaringly in January 2005 when relatively few Sunni Arabs participated in the national legislative elections. Hashim quoted one particularly important Sunni official, Adnan al-Janabi, Minister of State in the Interim Iraqi Government, as stating, “[the Americans] made every single mistake they could have thought of to alienate the Sunnis. The US is behaving as if every Sunni is a terrorist.”97

Secular Ideologues: Baathists and Arab Nationalists

As mentioned earlier, Baathist groups are critical to understanding the foundation on which the insurgent network was built. These organizations were largely motivated by economic, ideological, social, and secular interests.98 Baathists defined themselves as both pan-Arab nationalists and Iraqi patriots. They used these ideologies to gather followers and mobilize them against Coalition forces and the new Iraqi Government. However, according to Baram’s report for the United States Institute of Peace, there were sectarian motives driving at least some of the Baathist insurgent groups:

Adherence to pan-Arab nationalism in the new Iraq . . . has different functions . . . it provides a respectable ideological legitimacy to the effort to return the Baath regime to power or to return the Sunni Arab community to a position of supremacy through other means. This is essentially a sectarian quest to reverse the ascendancy of the Shia and the Kurds following the war.99

Adherence to a pan-Arab ideology also brought the promise of financial, political, and military support from other Sunni Arabs throughout the world, especially from those in the Middle East who objected to any increase in Shia influence.100 The strength of these insurgent groups was based on their entrenchment in Iraqi society; their biggest weakness was that few people believed in the Baath ideology anymore. These groups were further hampered by their inability to state that they were fighting to return a popular leader to power.101 If there was a geographic center for these groups, it was located along the Tigris River north of Baghdad, in the cities of the Sunni heartland near Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.

According to interviews conducted by the United States Institute of Peace with Baathist officials turned insurgents, there were other motivations for carrying out military operations against Coalition forces.102 Many were no longer supporters of Saddam, but their grievances were centered on the loss of patronage jobs that provided economic security and prestige, and a sense of humiliation they felt both as a community and as individuals for being dishonored by the United States. Baram also detected a deep concern about the future of Sunni power among these individuals:

Many senior and mid-level Sunni Baathists believe that only they know how to conduct the affairs of the Iraqi state, and that the Shia, and particularly the Shia clergy, are totally incapable of doing so. In some cases there is evidence of a genuine fear for the very existence of the community. An interview with a few armed guards at one of Iraq’s most important Sunni mosques, the Abu Hanifa mosque, further illustrates the fear of growing Shia power. Speaking the day Saddam’s capture was announced, one stated bitterly: ‘We don’t have any future.’ They insisted they were no longer fighting for the privileges they had enjoyed but, rather, for the survival of their community in a Shia-dominated state.103

Baram described how many of the Baathist organizations took names that were essentially secular, such as the Kataib Thawrat al-Ishreen (1920 Revolution Brigades), al-Awda (The Return), al-Islah (The Reform), Jabhat al-Muqawama (The Resistance Front), al-Qiyada al-‘Amma Li-Jaysh al-‘Iraq (The General Command of Iraq’s Army), and Munazzamat al-Tahrir al-Iraqiyya (The Iraqi Liberation Organization).104

Sunni Tribes

Often intertwined with the Sunni secular groups were hundreds of tribe and subtribal groups, some of which combined to compose 10 large tribal federations. The largest two tribal federations were the Dulaim and the Shammar Jarba, which had more than one million members each.105 Baram explained, “The most meaningful tribal components . . . were the much smaller units, mainly the fakhdh (a subtribal unit numbering a few thousand) and the khams, a five-generation unit responsible for blood revenge and for the payment of blood money, or diyyeh.”106 Tribal affiliations were very strong and tribal membership served as a source of pride for many Iraqis. Most of these tribes also had a traditional reluctance to submit to any strong central authority. They preferred to rule themselves without outside, especially Coalition, interference.107 A key tribal value was the emphasis placed on the warrior and the respect and social status one gains from being a soldier, a norm that Saddam Hussein made great use of in creating ties between the tribes and his regime.108 Baram explained how the Iraqi leader took advantage of the tribal code of the warrior to mount his war against Iran:

[Saddam] believed their Arab pedigree guaranteed their loyalty in any war against Iran, and their tribal background guaranteed that they would not turn their backs to the enemy, because they were bound by the tribal code of honor (al-sharaf). As a result, during the Iraq–Iran War, young tribesmen were promoted in the armed forces at breakneck speed, filling the ranks of the Mukhabarat.109

Baram also noted how promotion in the Baathist military built greater loyalty to Saddam, “For modestly educated country boys this was the fulfillment of a socioeconomic dream, and they were staunchly loyal to regime and leader.”110

Tribal hostility toward the Coalition was then partially a result of the loyalty of the many tribal groups to Saddam. But this hostility was often exacerbated whenever US Soldiers, usually unaware of the intricacies of Arab and Iraqi culture, treated tribal members in dishonorable ways. Many tribes turned against the Coalition because of these perceived insults to tribal honor and pride. Sheik Hamad Mutlaq of the Jumali tribe said, “The hatred toward the Americans was heightened when they started to arrest the sheiks and insult them in front of their people—even in front of women.”111

Opposition to the Coalition increased when Iraqi civilians died mistakenly during combat operations. In April 2003 in Fallujah, for example, Soldiers from the 82d Airborne Division (82d ABN), believing they had been fired on, began shooting into a crowd, killing and wounding a number of Iraqis. (The actual number is still in dispute). Tribal culture demanded compensation for the deaths of innocents and often sought to redeem the dishonor of the killings by seeking revenge. To avoid this process of redeeming the honor of the group meant that the family and clan would earn the disrespect of other groups and might result in a loss of social position.112 While the US Army eventually paid compensation to the families of the victims in Fallujah, this type of amelioration did not always occur, leading some tribal members to seek revenge for the killings on US troops.

The only way to avoid tribal violence in these cases was to pay blood money to the family of the victim by the aggressor, in this case the US military. After many attacks, the US Army did offer some Iraqi families compensation for deaths, injuries, and damage to property. However, Baram’s research suggests that this did not always lead to winning the tribes over to the Coalition’s side: “While payment of this blood money led to a lessening of resentment and anger, they did not disappear. In effect, US success on the battlefield, while deterring some insurgents, encouraged others to perpetuate the insurgency.”113

Religious Groups

Because the Baath Party claimed to be a secular, pan-Arab, socialist organization, in the early decades of his regime Saddam largely ignored Islam and activities in Iraqi mosques. But, the Islamic faith was an integral part of Arab life and in Iraq, even nonobservant Muslims identified closely with Islamic culture. Those who did attend the mosques found the sites as sanctuaries for those in search of alternatives to the Baath Party to gather and discuss forbidden ideas, such as the ousting of Saddam. As noted earlier in this chapter, the situation changed in 1993 when Saddam instituted the Faith Campaign (al-Hamlah al-Imaniyyah) to encourage popular devotion to Islam. In an effort to appear pious, Saddam directed the media and the educational system to put heavy emphasis on Islamic identity. A spiritual resurgence in the Islamic world coupled with a weakened Baath Party ideology led the Iraqi leader, according to Baram, to use the new religious campaign as a way for “young Iraqis to remain politically inactive in a regime that threatened their lives if they crossed a certain line, while providing them with a sense of value and mission.”114 After the Coalition decided to eliminate the Baath Party, Islamist activity in both the Shia and Sunni communities expanded dramatically.

Ultraradical Salafis and Wahhabis

The Salafist sect within Islam offered a reactionary version of the faith to its followers. Salafism grew out of an interpretation of Islam based on the literal reading of the Quran combined with a belief in restoring an older, more pure form of the faith. Those Iraqis who became Salafists in the 1990s had no love for Saddam. Baram emphasized that Salafists viewed the secular Baath state “as a return to jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic era of barbarism and paganism” and noted that the Salafists believed it was their duty “to use violence to remove such a secular regime from power.”115 As opposed as they were to non-Muslims, many within the Salafist sect viewed other forms of Islam, including Shia Islam, with suspicion and antagonism.

Some of the Salafis were also Wahhabis, followers of the 18th-century teachings of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Like the Salafis, the Wahhabis sought a return to the Islam practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers and rejected Western ideas and influences. Wahhabis were also theologically opposed to Shia Islam because they saw idolatry in the Shia veneration of religious figures such as the Imam Ali. The Salafists and Wahhabists, who often made up the membership of the most radical insurgent groups in Iraq such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna, and Ansar al-Islam, were committed to the armed struggle against Coalition forces.116 Baram contended that for the ultraradical Sunni religious groups, this mission was paramount:

While many insurgents might one day lay down their weapons and become integrated into the new state system, this does not apply to the Salafis and Wahhabis. For them, the only options are victory, death, prison, and the continuation of the armed struggle. There is no way that the Salafis can be dissuaded from continuing their terrorist activities. To please them, any future government would need to be both viciously against the United States and rabidly for Taliban-style Islam.117

These insurgent groups claimed they would never stop fighting until their extreme religious view of government was realized in Iraq.

Shia Groups

Most Shia Iraqis were happy to see Saddam Hussein removed from power. But in the spring of 2003, a number of Shia clerics made it clear that because the United States had accomplished its overarching goal—the overthrow of Saddam—Coalition forces had to leave Iraq immediately. A growing number of young clerics helped mobilize the Shia masses into political groups, which often had militia units attached. While Sunni insurgents sought to maintain or regain privileges, Shia groups sought to acquire power that had previously been denied to them.118 During 2003 and 2004, most Shias stayed out of the armed resistance to the occupation forces, but some proved willing to join Shia insurgent groups that targeted Sunnis.

The most vocal of the young Shia leaders was Muqtadr al-Sadr, who emerged as one of the new faces of Shia politics in post-Saddam Iraq.119 Often bitter and anti-American, al-Sadr gained a reputation as a young and dynamic cleric who seized the opportunity to emphasize Shia demands in an attempt to win popular support among the people. Al-Sadr’s father, Muhammed al-Sadr, had been a senior ayatollah who spoke out against the Baathists and gained widespread respect in Iraq. In 1999 the Baathist regime killed him and two of his sons for this criticism.

In 2003 Muqtada al-Sadr claimed the downfall of Saddam was due to divine intervention rather than a US-led invasion. Asked about his ambitions in an interview with Middle East journal, al-Sadr stated, “Personally I’m not looking to claim any power or to be a member of any government, neither now nor in the future. I’m just striving to apply the Sharia law. Beyond that I have no ambitions.”120 This statement seemed in direct contrast to his call for the creation of an army to fight the occupation and the Sunni Arabs. In 2003 thousands of men from the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City and the Shia-dominated cities of southern Iraq joined al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army (Jaish al Mahdi). In April 2004 this militia rose up in armed insurrection in Baghdad and the southern cities, forcing the Coalition to fight insurgent groups in Baghdad, the Sunni heartland, and the Shia south.

The other major armed force within the Shia community was the Badr Corps. Officially aligned with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shia umbrella organization that opposed Saddam, the Badr Corps served as a clandestine paramilitary organization that had at times been in armed conflict with the Saddam regime. The group allegedly consisted of thousands of former Iraqi officers and soldiers who defected from the Iraqi Army and other Iraqis who fled the country and joined SCIRI. While its activities were difficult to document in 2003 and 2004, many Iraqis believed that organizations associated with the Badr Corps often used violence against Sunni groups.121

Al-Qaeda and Other Foreign Groups

The role of foreign insurgents in the greater Iraqi insurgency is difficult to assess with a high degree of accuracy. According to some US military leaders, foreign fighters played a relatively minor role in 2003 and 2004. For example, General Abizaid, head of CENTCOM, estimated in late September 2004 that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq was below 1,000.122 Analysts at the Brookings Institution concurred with Abizaid’s assessment, estimating that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq between May 2003 and January 2005 never exceeded 1,000.123 Abizaid did not dismiss the threat posed by these insurgents, but he did not want the Coalition to lose focus on the groups that formed the core of the Iraqi resistance: “While the foreign fighters in Iraq are definitely a problem that have to be dealt with, I still think that the primary problem that we’re dealing with is former regime elements of the ex-Baath Party that are fighting against the government.”124

The most obvious expression of foreign involvement in the Iraqi insurgency belonged to the organization called Tandhim al-Qaida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, otherwise known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Led by the Jordanian Salafist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, this group quickly became the best known terrorist group in Iraq.125 Al-Zarqawi’s political aim in Iraq was to liberate the country from US occupation and at the same time possibly provoke a civil war between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq.126 Although doubted by analysts of the Iraqi insurgency, the group claimed to have 15 brigades or battalions operating in Iraq. For al-Zarqawi, the Iraq conflict had two fronts: one against Coalition forces and the other against the Shia, who al-Zarqawi believed were heretics and should be killed.127 However, while its use of suicide attacks gained al-Zarqawi headlines, its overall role in the Iraqi insurgency was unclear. The ICG report on the insurgency contended that al-Qaeda’s importance in Iraq has been clearly overstated by both the Coalition and other insurgent groups looking to credit al-Zarqawi for the most controversial attacks, especially those on Iraqi civilians.128 That report also argued that al-Qaeda in Iraq “was more a loose network of factions involving a common ‘trademark’ [rather] than a fully integrated organization”129 While never a large organization, Tandhim al-Qaida gained publicity in 2004 by relying on suicide attacks, truck bombings, and hostage beheadings. At the same time, in 2003 and 2004 reports suggested that al-Zarqawi enjoyed relatively little popular support among Iraqis, some of whom believed the al-Qaeda leader was using the fight in Iraq for his own purposes.130

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

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