Starting in the spring of 2005 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched his campaign to start a civil war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. That actually angered Al Qaeda who believed Zarqawi should be targeting the Americans instead. The new Jaafari government responded in kind by recruiting militiamen into the security forces and attacking Sunnis. The U.S. on the other hand completely missed what was going on as usual even though it had Zarqawi’s plan. Its new counterinsurgency approach was also failing because of the lack of troops. This period was the prequel to Iraq completely coming apart.
The new Al Qaeda in Iraq took a hit after the second Battle of Fallujah and had to rebuild its networks in 2005. That was focused along the towns of the Euphrates River in Anbar where it took de facto control of Hit, Haditha and Rawa. Zarqawi declared Qaim his capital. He set up sharia courts, took control of the local government and increased his finances through control of gas stations and other businesses. Anbar was already the base of operations for Zarqawi who’d earlier set up his command in Fallujah. Moving up the Euphrates and taking control of western Anbar also facilitated the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq from Syria.
With his new forces Zarqawi set about starting a civil war. In April Al Qaeda in Iraq began a car bomb campaign meant to stoke sectarian fears and to undermine the government. On May 11 he set off nine vehicle bombs in Baghdad that killed 112 people. By the end of the month there had been 142 such attacks. He also carried out sectarian killings like in Madain in south Baghdad province where 57 bodies were found. In July he announced the creation of the Umar Brigades that targeted Badr and Shiite civilians in Baghdad and Anbar. Zarqawi had outlined this plan in 2004. His idea was that starting a sectarian war would rally the country’s Sunnis to his side. He also considered Shiites the true enemy of Islam. He thus hoped to destroy the new Iraq, undermine the American plan, kill his biggest enemy and start his Islamic revolution in the Middle East.
Al Qaeda was none too pleased with its new affiliate’s plans. Ayman Zawahiri wrote Zarqawi in April that he’d gone too far and that he should reconsider his strategy. He warned that starting a sectarian war could threaten his support in Iraq and in the region because most Muslims did not see Shiites as the enemy and would not understand attacking them. Al Qaeda’s advice was to focus upon the Americans instead. This would not be the first time that Zarwhiri would admonish Zarqawi. His response was to ignore Al Qaeda and follow through with his attacks. Zarqawi might have agreed to be an affiliate of bin Laden’s but he was not going to be his underling.
The new Jaafari government responded to the threat posed by Zarqawi by having militias take over the Interior Ministry and retaliate against Sunnis. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr fired 300 Sunnis from the special police and hired 15,000 new recruits mostly from his Badr Brigade. They would staff the Wolf and Scorpion Brigades. The Mahdi Army would move into the regular police. Together they ran death squads and killed and intimidated Sunnis. The two militias also began forming neighborhood security forces that started expelling Sunnis from neighborhoods. The Americans believed that the January 2005 elections and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s new administration was a turning point in the occupation. They thought that it would lead the public away from violence and towards politics. It didn’t. Instead it increased the divisions as Shiite religious parties used the security forces in the coming civil conflict.
Amazingly, the U.S. military leadership was ignorant of what was transpiring in the country. General George Casey was warned several times that the police were being taking over by militias and that could start a civil war but he dismissed the reports claiming the Interior Ministry was balanced out by the Defense Ministry which was mostly Sunni. There were also assessments that violence would go down after the Jaafari government was formed but the opposite happened. Not only that but the army was still ignoring Zarqawi’s plan even though they found out about it in 2004. They did recognize that Zarqawi was moving into a leadership position but didn’t catch the change in goals or ideology. One of the reasons why the Americans weren’t picking up what was happening on the ground in Iraq was because of its withdrawal process. The U.S. was closing down bases and pulling out of cities with the belief that things were improving and that it would soon be able to be out of Iraq completely once the Iraqi forces were rebuilt. That deprived the Americans of lots of intelligence. Still, the military ignoring what it knew about Zarqawi was a failure which ranked right up there with the assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. tactics were also not working. In June General Casey was worried that Zarqawi’s car bomb campaign would threaten the Jaafari government and disrupt the October and December elections. He thus set up a campaign to try to control the Syrian border. The problem was there wasn’t enough manpower to hold Anbar and operations ended up being like raids where the U.S. would go through an area and then leave allowing insurgents to move back in afterward. Casey’s plan failed but it did reveal that Al Qaeda in Iraq had re-organized along Iraq’s western region. In late 2004 the U.S. realized it couldn’t even hold individual cities let alone entire regions because of the lack of troops. That didn’t stop with these types of operations however, which proved futile in the end. The major problem remained at the top where Casey and his staff still thought they were on the path to success.
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