The eleventh chapter of the U.S. Army history of the Iraq War covers the events at the start of 2004. The American military thought the insurgency was waning and that it could withdraw as soon as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were rebuilt, while the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was forced to bring in the United Nations to settle its dispute with Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani over elections. The U.S. was operating in a vacuum as it missed the maturation of the insurgency and was ignoring Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.
At the start of the new year the U.S. still lacked an overall strategy for Iraq. On February 1, 20014 the U.S. commander in Iraq General Ricardo Sanchez complained to the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about that issue. Wolfowitz replied that the goal was to win the war and writing about plans was a waste of time. This was one of the most ironic moments of the American occupation of Iraq. Wolfowitz had been one of the main advocate for invading Iraq since the 1990s and was known for coming up with big ideas for U.S. foreign policy. Now that the U.S. was finally in Baghdad he dismissed the need for a strategy on how exactly to win the war. This reflected the general opinion of Washington D.C. at the time all the way up to President Bush who liked to talk about victory but was unconcerned about how to achieve it.
Despite the lack of guidance from the Bush administration the U.S. military thought it was in a good position in Iraq in 2004. General Sanchez felt the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein meant that the insurgency was coming to an end. The general’s command believed that it was mostly fighting former regime members and without its titular head would eventually collapse. That led Sanchez to order his units to pull back from urban centers and concentrate in large bases to begin the transition to Iraqi control of the country. The 1st Armored Division for instance had 46 forward operating bases in Baghdad in May 2003. By January 2004 that was down to 26. In a few months it only had 8. On February 10, Sanchez briefed a National Security Council official that he wanted out of all of Iraq’s cities by the end of the year. This would prove to be a tragic mistake. The withdrawal from urban areas would deny the Americans information on what was happening in the country. With this move it would miss much of what insurgents and militias were doing in their struggle for power.
The Americans also believed they were succeeding in rebuilding the Iraqi army and police. Early reports were that the Iraqi police would be ready by October 2004 and the Civil Defense Corps which would eventually become a new army would be fit for services before that in March or April. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered General Karl Eikenberry to write a report on speeding up the development of the Iraqi forces (ISF) in January 2004. His paper said that with the development and expansion of the ISF the U.S. military could withdraw by July 2006. Rumsfeld championed this report and ordered General Sanchez to make the ISF his top priority. Again the Americans were missing the facts on the ground. The quick expansion of the ISF was based upon quantity over quality. The number of police and soldiers were touted as progress but ignored the fact that many recruits were taken from militias, tribes and political parties whose loyalties were not always to the state. The short training regimen the U.S. was pushing would also be exposed in 2004 as many ISF units would refuse to fight the uprisings that occurred later in the year.
On top of all this the Americans were going through a major troop rotation which would reduce the number of soldiers and marines they would have in Iraq. From January to March 2004 almost all the U.S. units got transferred out of Iraq. Sanchez’s command ended up with one less division because it felt that security was improving. This created huge security vacuums throughout Iraq. By mid-March 2004 there were only 95,000 U.S. troops and 25,000 Coalition ones in the country. Not only that but because the Americans believed things were getting better many of the incoming units did not come with their full complement of equipment such as tanks. The lack of troops and equipment would be exposed when twin uprisings hit the country in the spring and summer of 2004. The U.S. went into Iraq with false assumptions and rosy predictions and was still suffering from that at this point in the conflict.
Paul Bremer faced another setbacks to his political plans for Iraq. He was against holding elections instead preferring complicated processes which the U.S. would control to write a new constitution and form an Iraqi government. He was constantly opposed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who demanded that Iraqis be given the ballot. At an impasse the United Nations appointed a special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to come up with a compromise on how to select an interim government. Bremer acted like an autocrat consulting with neither Washington nor the Iraqis about his policies. His main priority was that he be in command of everything. He’d already been rebuffed by the White House who forced him to drop his 2-3 year transition to Iraqi sovereignty. Now he had to bring in the U.N. as well because he found out he couldn’t ignore Sistani anymore.
The insurgency was also having its say about the U.S. plans. The various groups were maturing, cooperating with each other and had laid out their general tactics to undermine the occupation. That including isolating the U.S. from Iraqis, splintering the Coalition, undermining reconstruction and the Iraqi authorities, and separating the new Iraqi leadership from the people. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also wanted to start a civil war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. This was laid out in a letter captured from him to Al Qaeda in January 2004. Osama bin Laden had sent out operatives to Iraq to assess the different organizations and pick which one would become Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. That would be Zarqawi’s Tawhid wal-Jihad. The U.S. was missing almost all of this. Even when it got ahold of Zaraqawi’s plans it didn’t make any adjustments to deal with this new threat. Instead its troops rotations and withdrawal plan would hand over large parts of the country to the militants.
On top of all that Washington decided to ignore what Iran was doing to undermine the U.S. effort. Since the end of the war Tehran had launched a multi-pronged campaign to assert its power in Iraq. It was buying up property throughout the south, trying to take over local councils such as the Najaf provincial government using its ally the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and assassinating former regime members and new political and security leaders including the Karbala police chief. A January 2004 U.S. military assessment for instance believed that the Badr Brigade under direction from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force had killed at least 43 Baathists and Iraqi officers from the Iran-Iraq War. These goals were not clear to the Bush administration however which was split between those who thought Tehran was trying to bring Iraq under its hegemony to others who just believed Iran wanted to stabilize its neighbor. Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz argued that the worst Iranian proxies like the Mahdi Army who were openly opposed to the occupation should be dealt with by force while the other groups like SCIRI should be co-opted. No decision was ever made which allowed Tehran to continue with its moves unopposed. It would largely be successful as a result and is still a problem for U.S. Iraq policy to this day.
Rayburn, Colonel Joel, Sobchak, Colonel Frank Editors, with Godfroy, Lieutenant Colonel Jeanne, Morton, Colonel Matthew, Powell, Colonel James, Zais, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew, The U.S. Army In The Iraq War: Volume I, Invasion, Insurgency, Civil War, 2003-2006, Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2019