The spring 2004 uprising by Moqtada al-Sadr and the 1st Battle of Fallujah killed any hope the U.S. might have of a short occupation and immediate withdrawal from Iraq. That led to a period of transition during the summer. There was a new U.S. commander General George Casey who created the first campaign plan for the war although the goal was the same, to get out. There was a new effort to rebuild the Iraqi security forces, the United Nations was finally able to broker a deal for the return of Iraqi sovereignty, while the Americans were hit with a new scandal.
In late April 2004 the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story became public. 60 Minutes II and the New Yorker both ran stories on the affair which was caused by overcrowding, lack of trained personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison, and confusing rules which led to human rights abuses. The issue was exploited by Arab news channels like Al Jazeera to further criticize the Iraq war, while the insurgents used it to recruit new followers. Abu Ghraib would be a black eye upon the U.S. occupation and another example of how things were going wrong for the Bush administration.
Shortly afterward the entire U.S. military leadership in Iraq was replaced. General Ricardo Sanchez was out and General George Casey became the overall commander. There was a new security transition team under General David Petraeus to rebuild the Iraqi army and police. There was also a third command to handle day to day operations. The three new commands had to go through the bureaucracy which took time and led to staffing problems until the end of the year. There was also a shortage of qualified personnel. General Sanchez was thrust into running Iraq without the organization or experience to deal with it. That was because Washington believed he would only be in charge of a transition process to withdraw from Iraq instead of a full fledged war. It took one year to realize that wasn’t true and try to solve it.
General Casey created the first campaign plan for Iraq but it was largely the same as Sanchez’s. In August 2004 the strategy was published which called for a counterinsurgency campaign to isolate the insurgency from the population, rebuild the Iraqi security forces, transfer authority to them and then withdraw from the cities and eventually out of Iraq. Casey shared the same view as his boss Central Command head General John Abizaid and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the U.S. needed to do less so that the Iraqis didn’t become dependent upon them, which also meant the Americans had to be out of the country as quickly as possible. This was another bad assumption by the U.S. The Iraqis were completely unprepared to run or secure their country due to a plethora of mistakes the U.S. made such as deBaathification and disbanding the military which led to widespread opposition to the occupation along with Iraqi exiles being put into power who often only cared about themselves and not the country as a whole. Pulling back therefore led to an even bigger vacuum then the U.S. had already created.
General Petraeus returned to Iraq as the new head of the training mission for the Iraqi forces. Originally civilian planners wanted a small Iraqi army that would not be a threat to its neighbors. With the insurgency and militias Petraeus wanted it greatly expanded requiring tens of thousands of new recruits. That also meant that support staff like logistics were shelved while all the emphasis was upon the number of personnel. Petraeus was also given a reserve division for his mission which was staffed by part time soldiers who couldn’t always provide the support necessary. The emphasis upon quantity over quality was a major fault with the original rebuilding plan and that continued under Petraeus. Militiamen, tribesmen, and even insurgents were brought into the new army and police whose loyalties were not with the state. The lack of support units would plague the Iraqi forces to the present day. The training problem was also still not getting the staff it needed to be successful.
Finally, United Nations representative Lakhdar Brahimi was able to broker a deal to return sovereignty to Iraq. U.N. Resolution 1546 set up elections in January 2005 for an interim government which would draft a constitution and then December 2005 there would be ballots for a permanent administration. An interim government would also be created in the meantime under exile leader Iyad Allawi. Paul Bremer had opposed elections wanting to control every step of the process of creating a new Iraqi state. He ran into the objections of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who demanded the public have a say in all major decisions which meant the Shiite majority would take power. Brahimi’s negotiations meant Bremer’s ideas were dropped and voting would happen. In the meantime Allawi’s government would be a minor disaster. Political parties were given control of ministries and began stealing as much money as they could. Shiite religious parties started taking over the Iraqi forces and resources and using them against Sunnis such as running deaths squads out of police units.
The battles with the Sadrists and insurgents in April 2004 were a shock to the U.S. who thought things were stabilizing in Iraq and it could get out. Its response was to double down on its original plans of a staged withdrawal. Rebuilding the Iraqi security forces was still plagued with problems. The interim government was full of graft, sectarianism and violence, and the elections that the U.N. brokered and Ayatollah Sistani demanded would only divide the country further and eventually push it to civil war. All the American hopes for the Iraq war were going up in flames and yet it still thought it was succeeding.
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