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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


Insurgent Tactics

As the Iraqi insurgency matured in 2003 and 2004, the various elements within the network began to use a handful of similar tactics. In general, there was a tacit understanding within the network that the various groups did not have the firepower or organization to win a military victory against Coalition forces and the increasing number of Iraqi Government security forces. When insurgent groups did try to oppose Coalition forces using conventional tactics, such as the Mahdi Army’s defense of An Najaf and Karbala in April 2004 or the Sunni defensive operations in Fallujah in November 2004, American firepower, air support, and organization proved too strong.

Instead, the insurgency adopted tactics designed to attack the Coalition’s political, economic, and social program for Iraq and shake the Coalition soldiers’ willingness—and the enthusiasm of their home nation’s population—to prosecute the campaign in support of that program. Ahmed Hashim contended that the insurgents’ overall tactical objective was “to make the occupation of Iraq so untenable and uneconomical that the Coalition will have no option but to withdraw.”131 Insurgent groups of all types did employ ambushes, mortar attacks, and other types of direct assaults as methods of attacking Coalition resolve. Perhaps the best known examples are the Mahdi Army’s use of ambushes against US Army units in Sadr City in early October 2003 and April 2004. However, one of the largest of these direct attacks came in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra in December 2003 when between 60 and 80 insurgents unleashed a well-coordinated ambush on an armored unit from the 4th ID. The American tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) caused dozens of casualties and disrupted the ambush.132

Because attacks of this type often resulted in heavy casualties for the insurgent groups, the insurgent network largely abandoned them in favor of more effective tactics that employed relatively simple technology: the roadside improvised explosive device (IED) and the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).† While the insurgents first used crude IEDs against Coalition forces in July 2003, it was later in the year when the IED became the insurgency’s weapon of choice. The IED was cheap, easy to manufacture and use, and held little risk for the attacker. The fact that Iraq was covered with ammunition caches replete with large artillery shells and other types of explosives only aided the insurgent IED effort. By November 2003 insurgent groups were hitting US Army units with IEDs on a regular basis. In Baghdad, for example, the 1st BCT of 1st AD experienced 38 IED attacks between August and mid-October 2003, and most of those attacks were on convoys moving around the city.133

Not surprisingly, IEDs supplanted rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), rockets, and mortars as the leading casualty producers among Coalition forces.134 The insurgents continued to get better at building bigger, more lethal IEDs and smarter in their placement of them. By 2004 IEDs had become a routine threat facing US Soldiers on daily patrols in settings as diverse as the urban neighborhoods of Baghdad and the rural areas of the Sunni heartland. One report by the US Army War College placed the total number of IEDs used against Coalition forces between 1 April 2003 and 30 November 2004 at 9,876, causing over 4,500 casualties.135 At times, the insurgents combined RPGs and small-arms fire with the IEDs to inflict more casualties. The insurgent use of VBIEDs showed a similar increase. The first suicide attack in Iraq occurred on 29 March 2003 when a bomber drove a taxicab to a US military checkpoint in An Najaf and detonated a bomb, killing four Soldiers.136 Suicide attacks continued, amounting to 25 throughout the course of 2003. In 2004 VBIED attacks increased to 133.137 Most of these suicide attacks were car bombs driven into a target, but some represented a variation that featured a single attacker wearing an explosive vest. The most infamous of these explosive vest attacks came in December 2004 when a single suicide bomber killed 22 American and Iraqi soldiers in a US Army dining facility in Mosul. Insurgent attacks using VBIEDs were accurate, difficult to prevent, and deadly.

The Iraqi population was not immune from insurgent violence. Indeed, the insurgent network made a concerted effort in 2003 and 2004 to target the country’s civilian population, security forces, and infrastructure as a way of preventing Iraqis from supporting the Coalition cause. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the insurgent campaign was the decision by groups like al-Qaeda to direct suicide attacks against civilians and Iraqis serving in the security forces as a way of turning the Iraqi population against the Coalition. Young men lined up outside police and army recruiting offices proved to be particularly vulnerable targets. From September 2003, when these attacks began in earnest, until January 2005 the number of monthly assaults on Iraqi government officials, civilians, security forces, and infrastructure increased at a steady rate.138 The toll of these attacks was high with over 1,300 Iraqi civilians killed and approximately 4,300 wounded by IED attacks.139

† The discussion of IEDs in this section is limited based on the 24 April 2006 memorandum from Gordon England, Deputy Secretary of Defense, regarding the “Policy on Discussion of IED and IED-Defeat Efforts in Open Sources.”

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

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