The end of 2005 brought continued failure for the U.S. effort in Iraq which the American military was ironically completely unaware of. The commanding General George Casey actually thought his strategy was working and the U.S. could start withdrawing its troops soon. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The country was moving towards civil war as shown by not only violence, but the elections and constitutional drafting process. The U.S. was also ignoring Iran’s interference and England’s failure in Basra. It would take another year for the Americans to realize that things had gone tragically wrong in Iraq.
Throughout 2005 General Casey believed his plans were working out. He thought the three elections that year were moving Iraq towards politics and away from violence. He issued a new campaign plan in October that foresaw a reduction of the American presence so that Iraqis didn’t become dependent. It also called for reconciliation with Sunnis which he believed was happening with the balloting. He also wanted to turn over more responsibilities to Baghdad so that the Americans could withdraw. At this point the U.S. felt that the new Iraqi forces had developed to the point where they could begin to operate independently. As a result, Casey suggested in August that a sizeable American pullout could start which was approved by President Bush in December with two brigades scheduled to be sent home. These ideas were based upon complete misperceptions of the situation. Neither Casey, the military no D.C. really understand what was going on in Iraq which was spiraling downwards.
The U.S. perception of violence for instance, was completely skewed. The Americans only focused upon attacks upon the Coalition and largely ignored Iraqi casualties which constituted the majority of attacks at the time. That meant Casey and others had no idea that the civil war had already started in 2005 and was about to explode the next year. This was one of the great strategic mistakes of the Iraq War which was only made worse by Casey’s emphasis upon withdrawing from Iraqi cities and getting out of the country which meant the Americans had even less knowledge of what was happening on the ground.
The 2005 elections which General Casey touted actually showed how divided Iraq was becoming. First, the January elections led to a constitutional drafting committee that completely shut out Sunni members. The document was approved by the government without a consensus formed amongst the committee. Next, many insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Army of Mohammed, and the Islamic Army believed that Sunnis were a majority and could win the October and December elections. They organized campaigns to get the vote out and oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) who was against anyone casting a ballot. The Army of Mohammed for instance financed anti-Zarqawi sermons in mosques, posted wanted flyers of AQI members and threated its supporters in an attempt to get the vote out. The results however were not what the Americans thought. 70% of Sunnis voted against the new constitution in October. December did see a record Sunni turnout for a permanent government but this was for a sectarian regime with elements actively stoking the civil war. Casey called the voting a strategic victory but it was only sowing the demise of the country.
The Jaafari government put into power after the January balloting was a perfect example. In October the Sunni deputy premier and nine ministers wrote Jaafari demanding that he take action against Shiite militias who were attacking Sunnis and included forces of the Interior Ministry. They were ignored. The next month the U.S. raided a secret prison run by Interior in Baghdad’s Jadriya neighborhood and found 169 prisoners, 166 of which were Sunnis, all who were tortured and abused. The facility was run by the Deputy Director of Intelligence at Interior Nashir Nasir al-Wandi who was also a member of the Badr militia. The Interior Minister Bayan Jabr denied anything was wrong at Jadriya. In fact, Wandi was running a series of secret prisons throughout Baghdad and was conducting illegal arrests, torture and murders of not only Sunnis but former Baathists and officers from the Iran-Iraq War, the latter two on orders from Iran. Iraqi judges who attempted to investigate the prisons had their work blocked, were reassigned and threatened by Wandi and Chief Justice Medhat Mahmoud. This was just one of many examples the Americans were discovering. Officers also realized that this was an effort by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its Badr Brigade to take over the Interior Ministry, steal money and carrying out sectarian attacks upon Sunnis. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush received at least one report about these activities and did nothing.
Speaking of Iran this was another issue the Americans were not dealing with. General Casey was given briefings about Iran’s extensive campaign in Iraq to control the government and subvert the U.S. occupation but he was skeptical and requested more evidence which was provided. Casey eventually asked his staff to come up with a plan to deal with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and whether they could be labeled a hostile force. A legal review found Iran providing aid, training in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, logistics, money and weapons to militias but that the Iranian Guard should not be called a hostile force because that could lead to more violence and intervention by Tehran. One of the special weapons the IRGC provided groups like the Mahdi Army was Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) which could penetrate most American armored vehicles. EFP attacks went from 5 in April to 20 in June to 58 in October. In the end, Casey never approved any plan and the IRGC was largely left to operate freely in Iraq. This would be another issue which wouldn’t be dealt with until 2007 and then never effectively.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was moving ahead with his plans for a sectarian war which was still opposed by Al Qaeda. On September 14 Zarqawi announced his all out war versus Shiites. He told Sunnis to wake up because a war of extermination against them had started and would never end. This was Zarqawi’s plan to stoke fighting between the sects and rally Iraq’s Sunnis behind him as their protector. That same day AQI set off 12 car bombs in Baghdad that killed 167 and wounded almost 600. This was never approved by Al Qaeda central. In December Atiya Abd al-Rahman a top lieutenant to bin Laden wrote Zarqawi telling him to stop his attacks upon Muslims and follow Al Qaeda’s orders which was to focus upon the Americans instead. Rahman warned Zarqawi that the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria lost its popular support by attacks upon civilians and implied the same thing could happen to him. Zarqawi’s former mentor from Jordan Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi also split with him at this time for the same reason. Zarqawi ignored all of them and pushed ahead. Zarqawi was his own man by this time and didn’t care what others had to say. He wanted to establish himself as the pre-eminent jihadist in the world and his civil war idea was a key component of that. He would succeed in starting the conflict but wouldn’t be able to finish it.
Finally, America’s allies the British were failing in Basra as well. They believed that they could work with the different factions in the province rather than confront them such as the militias which was a mistake. They went to Interior Minister Jabr asking him to dismiss police officers for their ties to armed factions but was ignored since Jabr wanted those groups to take over the security forces. The British then came up with a list of 200 most wanted in Basra that included 180 police officers and militiamen such as the Mahdi Army commander for the area Ahmed al-Fartusi. He was off limits however because he was protected by PM Jaafari.
Eventually there was a major confrontation in September when three British soldiers were killed in one week by the Mahdi Army with Iranian supplied EFPs. The general in charge of the 12th Mechanized Brigade decided to arrest Fartusi. He was captured in his home but then the police ambushed a Special Air Services (SAS) unit and jailed them and then turned them over to the Mahdi Army as hostages. The British surrounded the police station and stormed the building after talks that included Minister Jabr and the Basra governor failed and freed their men. Just like the Americans the English believed that they were succeeding in Basra with their non-violent approach. The events in September proved that not only were they working in a hostile environment but the Iraqi police they were supporting were the enemy backed by the Iraqi government. London eventually came up with the same policy solution as General Casey which was to withdraw rather than seriously deal with these forces.
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