Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fighting The Insurgency In Iraq 2004 vs 2014

Many of the current events in Iraq harken back to previous times. In 2004 the insurgency made a major progression from hit and run tactics and setting off roadside bombs to making a surge into some of the country’s urban areas. The American and Iraqi forces responded with the two battles of Fallujah and other smaller clearing operations. By the end of the year, American commanders were claiming that they had broken the back of the insurgency. A series of intelligence reports were saying the opposite. They warned that the militants were actually getting stronger. The parallels with the current situation are obvious. The insurgency launched a major summer offensive and captured sizeable territory in Ninewa, Salahaddin, Kirkuk and Anbar provinces in June 2014. Now the ISF are attempting to regain the initiative just as the U.S. did in 2004 via a number of large-scale campaigns. The clearing of major urban areas in 2004 was hailed as victories then, just as the current operations by the ISF are. Despite those setbacks, the insurgency showed great resiliency and was able to regenerate its losses and actually increase the pace of its attacks in 2005. The lesson to be learned from 2004 is that defeating the insurgents in urban areas does not mean their end, and that their dispersal over other regions may actually lead to an increase in overall violence in the country in the future.

At the beginning of 2004 the United States had a false sense of security. The commander of the 82nd Airborne Division General Charles Swannack said that the insurgency was defeated in March. The Americans were moving their forces out of Iraq’s cities and into large bases. There were also plans to pull out frontline troops and replace them with National Guard units that were supposed to be 40% of the force after June. The number of attacks betrayed a different story. There were around 300 incidents in November 2003, going up to 370 in the first week of April, before hitting roughly 600 the next week. The Americans didn’t notice it at the time, but at the start of the year the militants were building up their networks in Iraq’s cities in preparation for a major uprising to be launched in the spring.
The 1st battle of Fallujah in April 04 ended almost as soon as it began due to political complaints about civilian casualties (U.S. Marine Corps)

The trouble started at the end of March in Anbar’s Fallujah and would spread to other areas of the province. On the last day of the month, a convoy of Blackwater security contractors was stopped and four members killed in an ambush. Their bodies were later strung up on a bridge. Marine General James Mattis who was then commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force wanted to conduct a police operation to quietly find and kill the insurgents responsible for the attack. The television coverage generated by the ambush however led the Coalition Provisional Authority and the White House to demand a major military operation to pacify the city. That led to Operation Vigilant Resolve, which started on April 5. The Americans wanted to give an Iraqi face to the assault and deployed the 2nd Iraqi Battalion to participate. The unit proved not ready with 106 of the 695 soldiers deserting and another 104 refusing to fight. Many of the Iraqi interpreters that worked with the unit also quit. The Marines went ahead. After surrounding the city they attempted to move into its environs. Suddenly, four days after the start of the operation it was called off. Just as the media played a role in the start of the operation, the coverage of civilian casualties led America’s political leadership to call it off. General Mattis was incensed and questioned the decision when none of the goals of the operation had been achieved. At the same time heavy fighting broke out in Ramadi on April 6. The Marines there were almost overrun as militants attacked them in four different locations. It started when a routine patrol was fired upon in the northwest section of the city. Then by the Euphrates in the north another contingent of fighters was seen and intercepted leading to another firefight. The shooting would then spread to other sections of the city, and would last until April 10. At the same time, militants attacked Husaybah near the Syrian border with 300 fighters in an attempt to draw away American forces from the assault upon Fallujah. These attacks highlighted the strength of the insurgents in Anbar. They were able to mass forces and carry out large-scale military operations in multiple locations at the same time. They were also emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal from Fallujah. This would give the militants a strong foothold in Anbar that would take the next few years to reverse.  

By June, the Americans were paying for the failure to carry through with Vigilant Resolve. Various Islamist factions within Fallujah began imposing their version of Islam upon the city. Many participated in a ceremony that month to pledge allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and named him the emir of the Islamic caliphate of Fallujah. At the same time, U.S. and Iraqi officials admitted that the decision to pull back from the city was a mistake, and that insurgents were now in control of it. This was all setting a stage for the second battle of Fallujah, but that was still a few months away.

Anbar was not the only trouble spot however, as Tal Afar in western Ninewa proved. At the beginning of September the U.S. began a two-week siege of the town to clear it of insurgents called Operation Black Typhoon. September 12 two U.S. battalions and an Iraqi one moved into the city only to find that most of the fighters had fled. As was the practice then, the Americans quickly withdrew to focus upon other areas. That allowed the militants to move back in. Tal Afar eventually became an important way station in bringing in weapons and foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq, and insurgents were able to impose their will over the city. A local tribe aligned with the militants and the police either disappeared or began collaborating with the fighters.

The U.S. almost repeated the same mistake in Salahaddin’s Samarra. At the beginning of September the Americans decided to pull back from the city. That allowed the insurgents to establish control there, and cut deals with local sheikhs to widen their influence. At one point, 500 fighters marched through the streets. That prompted the American and Iraqi forces to move to retake Samarra at the beginning of October. 2,000 Iraqis were deployed. There were some problems when one battalion had 300 of its 750 soldiers desert before the operation started. Others carried out their duties much more admirably and were responsible for securing the Golden Mosque at the start of the battle. Afterward the U.S. began major reconstruction projects to try to secure the city after the fighting was over. This was much different from other operations when the Americans would mostly leave. The problem was that this was still the exception rather than the norm. Samarra was also a precursor to the impending battle of Fallujah as the Coalition command wanted to clear out smaller cities before moving onto the main target.
A Marine Abrams tank engaged during the second battle of Fallujah (Dept of Defense)

Everyone knew that Fallujah would have to be dealt with again and in a much more thorough fashion. In June, General George Casey replaced General Ricardo Sanchez as the commander of Multi-National Force Iraq. Casey wanted to destroy insurgent strongholds before the January 2005 elections for an interim parliament. That led to the 2nd battle of Fallujah dubbed Operation Phantom Fury. The U.S. went in with a much larger force then the first attempt consisting of 6,500 Marines, 1,500 army soldiers, 2,500 sailors, and 2,000 Iraqi troops. At first, the U.S. told the civilian population to leave the city to avoid the conflict. The fighting started on November 8, and ended up destroying almost the entire city. 2,000 buildings were ruined and another 10,000 badly damaged. It was believed that 1,000 insurgents were killed, although many actually fled before the attack began. Clearing missions continued for six weeks afterward with more heavy clashes. General John Sattler the new commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force claimed that Phantom Fury had “broken the back of the insurgency.” The general’s comments reflected the general mood amongst the Americans at the time. Fallujah was a major insurgent base where different factions were able to openly operate and foment their rebellion against the state. The clearing of the city therefore was considered a major setback, which it was hoped the militants would not recover from. This proved to be wishful thinking.

The insurgency was far from over, which was shown in neighboring Ramadi. After the fall of Fallujah, many fighters regrouped in Ramadi just to the west. By the fall the city was considered under insurgent control. The governor’s three sons were kidnapped there and only released after he agreed to resign. The deputy governor was also abducted and executed, and the president of Anbar University was seized as well. It wouldn’t be until the emergence of the Awakening the next year that Ramadi would be fully secured. This again showed the ability of the militants to move on after their losses and re-form in new locations to carry on with their fight. This was an important trait that would be exercised again and again.

By the end of 2004 the White House and some military commanders were feeling quite good about the situation in Iraq, but there were a number of dissenters. In the fall, a senior administration official told President Bush that the U.S. was not winning. Later U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte went on to say the same ting. In November a confidential army report said that the tactics used by the Americans in Iraq such as mass arrests and holding prisoners for months could be fueling the insurgency. (1) In December the CIA station chief in Baghdad sent a report to Washington warning that the insurgency was growing. December 17 Colonel Derek Harvey a military intelligence analyst briefed the president saying that the militants were strong, and that a civil war could break out at any time. CIA Director Porter Goss then met with the president in the middle of the month telling him that the U.S. and interim government hadn’t been able to find or exploit any divisions withing the insurgency, and that they hadn’t been able to win over many Sunnis either. Finally, a study by the then Knight Ridder Newspapers showed how violence had only escalated in the country since the U.S. invasion despite the setbacks the militants faced in 2004. In May 2003 there was an average of 17 U.S. military personnel killed per month. That went up to 82 per month by the end of 2004. The number of Americans wounded during that period increased from 142 to 808. Attacks increased from 735 in November 2003 to around 2,400 by October 2004. Finally, mass casualty bombings went from 0 in the first four months of the U.S. occupation to an average of 13 per month by the end of 2004. President Bush was fully committed to the war in Iraq, and did not listen to any of these warnings. Instead, he pushed ahead despite the U.S. not having a strategy to win the war for three more years. The predictions in the briefings also proved largely true as the militants did grow stronger in the following years, and the civil war broke out in 2005. Finally, the much lauded January 2005 elections showed the level of Sunni discontent with the new Iraq rather than bringing them in. 58% of eligible voters participated, but in largely Sunni provinces the turnout was much lower with 2% in Anbar, 17% in Ninewa, 29% in Salahaddin and 33% in Diyala. Without winning over that part of the population the insurgency would persist.

A major difference between 04 and 14 is that IS is far more dependent upon holding territory and constant victories to maintain its following then previous insurgent groups (AP)

2004 has many parallels and lessons for 2014. In the former militants were attempting to take the insurgency to a new phase by not only attacking the Coalition and Iraqi government, but also seizing cities. The hope was that this would lead to a general revolt, and the much hoped for return to power for those that had lost out after the fall of Saddam. The U.S. and Iraqi forces were able to clear the militants out of several of these locations, most famously Fallujah, but at the cost of largely destroying the place. This simply dispersed the armed factions to other locations where they regrouped and regenerated their losses and capabilities. The rebellion didn’t materialize, but the violence ended up increasing. The major problem was that the United States had no strategy to defeat the insurgency. It could clear out a city, but it lacked the political and economic follow up to hold any place and win over the populace so they did not welcome the fighters back. This mirrors current events. The Islamic State planned a major offensive this summer in cooperation with other armed factions and tribes. It didn’t imagine that it would be able to take Mosul, but when the ISF collapsed and the city fell it took advantage of the opportunity to seize other territory in Kirkuk and Salahaddin. Like in ‘04 the government responded by ordering massive military campaigns to regain territory. That started with the relief of the town of Amerli in Salahaddin, and was then followed by the clearing of the rest of the Tuz Kharmato district, Jurf al-Sakhr in Babil, and now Baiji also in Salahaddin. The problem is just like in the former period the Iraqi government has no real strategy to defeat the insurgency. Like the Americans Baghdad has no plans for how to reach out to Sunnis and break up militants’ networks, which is necessary in the long run to secure the country. The major difference between then and now is that the Islamic State is much more dependent upon holding territory and winning constant victories to maintain itself. It has taken on a large number of foreigners, fighters from other organizations, and tribal elements. They have all joined because of the promise of gaining power. If IS continues to face setbacks in Iraq it could eventually reach a tipping point when these fellow travellers withdraw their loyalty and leave the group. That may not end the war however as many of these IS men are hardcore insurgents who will keep up the fight just under another guise. Ultimately, the armed factions can survive without places like Tikrit and Mosul. If they are lost the fighters will just move on to other places and violence might actually increase just like it did in 2005. The one positive to come out of that will be the loss of the Islamic State’s dominance over other armed factions, but it too has shown great staying power over the years as well. Until the Iraqi government finds a way to appeal to Sunnis so that they no longer support taking up the gun in order to assume power the war will continue at various levels for the foreseeable future.


1. San Francisco Chronicle, “Army told of abuse before Abu Ghraib,” 12/1/04


Cambanis, Thanassis, “Enemies find common ground,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4/7/04

Filkins, Dexter, “Fallujah now a ‘terrorist hotbed,’” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/8/04
- “U.S. forfeiting influence in growing number of Iraqi cities,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9/5/04

Fox News, “Showdown in Samarra,” 10/11/04

Fumento, Michael, “Return to Ramadi,” Weekly Standard, 11/27/06

Hashim, Ahmed, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency In Iraq, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006

Kirdar, M.J., “Al Qaeda In Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011

Lasseter, Tom and Landay, Jonathan, “Analysis: Iraqi insurgency growing larger, more effective,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 1/21/05

Lund, Aaron, “Who Are the Soldiers of the Islamic State?” Carnegie Endowment, 10/24/14

McGeary, Johanna “Mission Still Not Accomplished,” Time, 9/20/04
- “Which Way Is The Exit?” Time, 3/15/04

Oppel, Richard, “Magnet for Iraq Insurgents Is a Crucial Test of New U.S. Strategy,” New York Times, 6/16/05

Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, New York: Penguin Press, 2006

San Francisco Chronicle, “Army told of abuse before Abu Ghraib,” 12/1/04

Schmitt, Eric, “In Iraq, U.S. Officials Cite Obstacles to Victory,” New York Times, 10/31/04

Schrader, Esther and Mazzetti, Mark, “Insurgents threaten Iraqi elections, U.S. officials say,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20/04

Stannard, Matthew, “The Challenge Of Controlling Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9/24/04

Strobel, Warren, Walcott, John and Landay, Jonathan, “U.S. isn’t winning against Iraqi insurgents, agencies warn,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 12/17/04

Wire Services, “Five Marines killed in battle near Syria,” St. Petersburg Times, 4/18/04

Zoroya, Gregg, “Fight for Ramadi exacts heavy toll on Marines,” USA Today, 7/12/04

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