Chapter 12 of the U.S. Army history of the Iraq War “Things Fall Apart” covers April 2004. At the start of the new year the U.S. was feeling optimistic about its occupation of Iraq. It believed that it had crossed the turning point with the insurgency and that it would dissipate after the capture of Saddam Hussein. That meant the military was pushing ahead with its withdrawal while the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was working with the United Nations to set up a political transition to return sovereignty. Then the Americans were faced with two uprisings one by the insurgency focused around the 1st Battle of Fallujah and another by Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army in the 1st Battle of Najaf. These undermined all of the U.S.’s plans.
Things started in March 2004 with the murder of a group of Blackwater security contractors in Fallujah. The Marines in Anbar thought this was a tactical issue but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the President both wanted a strong response. That led the U.S. commander in Iraq General Ricardo Sanchez to order Operation Vigilant Resolve on April 3 to clear the city. The insurgents did not confine themselves simply to Fallujah however and seized control of Ramadi, Baquba, and Samarra, and attacked Quisaiba in Anbar along with Muqdadiya and Khalis in Diyala. Reports on Arab satellite channels about mass destruction and civilian casualties in Fallujah led members of the Iraqi Governing Council to resign, which forced the Americans to accept a ceasefire. The militants considered this a victory claiming that they had fought the superpower to a standstill. It highlighted their capabilities throughout central Iraq at a time when the U.S. military considered them a defeated opponent. The Americans could also no longer do as they pleased as it had empowered Iraqi politicians which it was dependent upon to turn over sovereignty so it could withdraw.
At almost the same time the U.S. provoked a confrontation with Moqtada al-Sadr. On March 28 Sadr’s newspaper Hawza was closed and then on April 3 one of his top lieutenants Mustafa al-Yacoubi was arrested. That started the first Sadr uprising which was focused in Najaf, but spread to Sadr City in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. Just like in Fallujah, the Americans were forced to accept a ceasefire under pressure from Iraqi leaders. That left the Mahdi Army to fight another day and raised the standing of Sadr amongst his followers. It also highlighted the lack of strategy and coordination by the Americans. The Coalition Provisional Authority didn’t think its actions would lead to a fight with Sadr and it came exactly as the same time as Fallujah straining the U.S. military. It also split the Coalition. Many of the foreign forces in southern Iraq were there for peacekeeping and reconstruction duties and not combat. When the Mahdi Army rose up many refused to fight. The British also didn’t want conflict with the Sadrists believing that negotiations would work better. These differences were never resolved.
Things fell apart for the Americans in Iraq in April 2004 because it was adrift with no overall strategy for the war. A small incident in Fallujah was blown up by Washington D.C. and then the CPA unexpectedly started an uprising by Sadr because it was reacting to the situation in Iraq instead of shaping it. Then both battles were short circuited before a U.S. victory which embolden two of the biggest opponents to the U.S. occupation. Most importantly how was the Bush administration going to respond to these dual crises? The answer was nothing. It didn’t give direction the military and CPA, it didn’t come up with a plan, it just continued as it was making the situation worse.
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