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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


American Perceptions of the Threat

In 2003 and 2004 the American understanding of the Iraqi insurgency evolved as the insurgency matured. By the middle of 2004, US commanders at all levels of war would benefit from the relatively detailed and nuanced analysis offered by the CJTF-7 Red Team. Even so, this sophisticated picture of the threat was possible only after a prolonged period of operations in Iraq. In the summer of 2003, Iraq was an enigma to almost all American Soldiers. As early as July 2003, however, some commanders began to discern the beginnings of an insurgency. In July the CENTCOM commander, General Abizaid, stated publicly that he believed he was witnessing the beginnings of a “classical guerrilla-type campaign.”140 Abizaid suggested that terrorist groups like Ansar al-Islam and perhaps al-Qaeda were operating in Iraq, but believed the enemy cells involved in attacking Coalition forces were composed of “mid-level Baathists, Iraqi intelligence service people, Special Security Organization people, [and] Special Republican Guard people” but not under central control.141 Neither Abizaid nor any other American official had at this point directly linked the Baathist network with disaffected Sunnis at large and a more broadly-based insurgency.

Over the summer and into the fall of 2003, the American understanding of the threat deepened as the attacks became more numerous, more lethal, and more sophisticated. Initially, American officials described the insurgents with terms such as “former regime loyalists” or the broader “former regime elements.” During this period, American commanders continued to place importance on agents of the Baathist regime even as they debated the exact nature of those forces mounting attacks on Coalition troops. Major General Steven Whitcomb, the CENTCOM Chief of Staff in 2003, recalled deliberations about the enemy:

There was a lot of discussion during the fall time period about using the term counterinsurgency or insurgency . . . on what are the classic signs of an insurgency, and what are the characteristics. As we kind of looked at those, we didn’t necessarily think that it was an insurgency. We still thought it was primarily the former regime elements that we were fighting, and we started to see a bit of the foreign fighters coming in through Syria.142

For Whitcomb and others, assumptions about members of the Saddam regime forming the core of the insurgency were well founded. As the suicide and IED attacks escalated in mid-2003, Whitcomb remembered that those beliefs about the enemy remained essentially static, “We really attributed [the mid-2003 increase in attacks], again, to primarily former regime elements, because (1) they had military-aged males from the dissolved Army, so they had the knowledge; and (2) Iraq was a horrendous ammo dump. It [ammo] was just every place.”143

By 2004, however, it had become obvious that former Baathists were not the only forces involved in the insurgency. Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Odum, one of CJTF-7’s chief planners in 2003 and 2004, described how the Coalition understanding of the threat evolved:

[I]f you look at the different labels that we have stuck on the enemy over time, clearly in August 2003, the label was former regime elements. We lumped everyone together that was conducting attacks against the Coalition or a disruptive element that was causing insecurity and instability in the environment and labeled them as former regime elements. As time went on, you started to see other threats emerge like the Mahdi Army and other Sunni groups that weren’t necessarily tied to the former regime but were clearly anti-Coalition. So it is interesting if you track how we labeled the enemy or the threat in Iraq over time. It starts off as former regime elements, moves into anti-Coalition forces, and now we have the label of Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF). If you track that migration of labels, it indicates the different views of the threat.144

The term “Anti-Iraqi Forces” certainly came to include the foreign fighters and the emergence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda organization. The result was a picture of a threat that almost all American Soldiers would describe as diverse, complex, and difficult to comprehend.

Still, most units focused not on the national insurgent network but on those elements active in their AOR. Numerous threat assessments from divisions, brigades, and even battalions reveal how units sought to capture a definitive picture of the insurgent forces in their areas. In late 2003, for example, a briefing by the 1st AD documented the primary threat in Baghdad as “former regime ‘powerbrokers,’” but recognized the growing diversity of groups in the city that included Salafist and Wahhabist groups as well as the Shia Mahdi Army. The short analysis in this briefing closed with a warning about the local threat and the challenges this posed for US forces: “Defeating this threat requires precision. There is no ‘template’ that fits over the 88 neighborhoods of Baghdad.”145

On lower levels, assessments of the threat did have more precision. For the Soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery (FA) Regiment, assigned to the 2d BCT of 1st AD, the understanding of the enemy in their AOR grew more detailed over time. The 4-27th FA had responsibility for the Al Karkh district of Baghdad located near the International or “Green” Zone, and the unit’s leaders initially believed the main threat to be the vague network of former Baathists who lived in the district. After 6 months of operations in this part of the city, the Soldiers of the battalion had a more nuanced view of the enemy. Evaluation of the insurgent network in their district pointed to one particular extended family of brothers who had been very powerful in the Saddam regime and were financially supporting other elements within the network, including a small number of Wahhabist groups that had emerged in the fall of 2003.146 This sharper picture allowed the unit to focus its offensive missions while broadening its other operations designed to win the support of the population in Al Karkh.

In the city of Tikrit, the 1st Battalion, 22d Infantry Battalion of the 1st BCT, 4th ID, achieved similar precision in its September 2003 assessment of the threat. Tikrit is located in the Sunni heartland and was the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. The Baath Party had been powerful in the city and the leaders of the 1-22d Infantry saw most of the insurgents in its area as either “stay behind cells” from the regime or “malcontented ex-members of the Baath Party and of the Iraqi military” who supported these clandestine groups. However, by September 2003 the staff of the battalion had detected the presence of “religious zealots” in their area and had also identified black-market weapons dealers as part of the larger insurgent infrastructure in Tikrit.147 Like the 4-27th FA in Baghdad, the officers and men of 1-22d Infantry gained greater clarity on the actual threat and could focus their combat operations against those elements.


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

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