The winter of 2005-06 saw Iraq’s civil war come out into the open. That was after the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine. Unsurprisingly the U.S. commander General George Casey still thought his plans were working and pushed for a timely withdrawal. He failed to realize that Sunnis were disenfranchised or that the government was actively taking part in the fighting. That also meant that the Americans continued to miss the splits within the insurgency. This period was a testament to how disconnected the U.S. was from what was going on in the country. Thousands of people were ending up dead and General Casey still claimed everything was going alright.
General Casey called the 2005 elections a strategic victory believing that it was a step towards politics and away from violence. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Many Sunnis voted in the December 2005 balloting for a permanent government believing that they were a majority and would take control of parliament. They found out that was a lie. Instead they discovered that they had no real political power and would never achieve any of their goals. Sunni leaders who pushed participation lost standing. General Casey belatedly realized that there was growing discontentment and attempted to bring Shiite leaders to Sunni communities. In January 2006 for instance Casey had Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari go to Ramadi. He promised $75 million in reconstruction funding which was never delivered. This was just another example of how fundamentally wrong the Americans were about Iraq. General Casey especially kept thinking that things were improving when they were going in the opposite direction. Sunnis were feeling betrayed and the general thought it was okay, he could fix it.
In February 2006 Al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the shrine in Samarra pushing the civil war into overdrive. The Interior Ministry reported that 27 mosques were attacked in Baghdad and several Sunni clerics murdered immediately after the bombing. General Casey and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad asked PM Jaafari to impose a 24 hour curfew but he refused saying that Shiites needed to blow off steam. In this case that meant killing Sunnis, which was happening across the capital. In fact, militias began an organized campaign to cleanse mixed neighborhoods and use them as bases for attacks upon other areas of the city. The conflict had started in 2005 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared war on Iraq’s Shiites and they responded with death squads. Casey was giving briefings on the growing violence but ignored all the signs.
That resulted in the U.S. refusing to acknowledge the extent of what was going on. The day after the Samarra incident a Coalition spokesman told the press that there was no civil war, no bodies in the streets, the Iraqi security forces were calming the situation and the Jaafari government was capable of restoring order. The same day Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was unfair to Iraq to constantly talk about whether it was in a state of civil war or not. That was followed by General Casey claiming only 350 civilians had been killed since Samarra and that the crisis had passed. The Baghdad morgue recorded 1,300 deaths during that period and the Interior Ministry counted 1,077. That was a result of the Americans not collecting data on attacks upon Iraqis. Casey went on to tell Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that civil war was not imminent nor inevitable. This was the ultimate act of denial by Casey. With hundreds of bodies piling up the general still denied the extent of events
The American response predictably failed as a result. In March the U.S. launched Operation Scales of Justice to create new checkpoints in Baghdad and enforce a curfew in coordination with the Iraqi forces. When the U.S. commander in Baghdad complained he didn’t have enough troops to carry out his order General Casey told him he had to do more with less because that was part of his strategy to withdraw. The Americans had to push the Iraqis to the fore the general said. The problem was the Jaafari government never provided the troops it promised, banned army units from going against militias, while the Interior Ministry was supporting militias in their sectarian cleansing of Baghdad. The only thing that came of this was Casey finally acknowledging in April that violence had shifted from fighting the Americans to a sectarian struggle for power. He even realized that the 2005 elections didn’t lead to reconciliation as he originally thought but division. This was a small step in the right direction, but it didn’t help the general with his strategically flawed assessment of Iraq.
That was shown by Casey continuing to push his withdrawal plan. By the end of April he was still talking about turning over security to the Iraqis so that the Americans could leave Iraq. On May 1 he told Secretary Rumsfeld that the formation of the new Maliki government and the development of the Iraqi police and army meant the U.S. was on track to withdraw. Rumsfeld pushed for an even faster timeline. Casey continued to see turning points in the war which were not there. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for instance proved just as sectarian and committed to the civil war as Jaafari. He also believed that the Iraqis were best suited to deal with their own problems rather than the Americans. That meant killing each other in greater numbers.
The gap between Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other insurgent groups was still growing. Zarqawi called for a boycott of the 2005 elections and carried out attacks upon those that wanted to take part. That led the 1920 Revolution Brigade and the Islamic Army to form an alliance against AQI. Zarqawi retaliated by assassinating the leadership of both groups. He also tried to recruit more Iraqis into his organization which led to the January creation of the Mujahadeen Shura Council. AQI started off as a mostly foreign group and this was the start of its becoming more Iraqi. The U.S. was trying to hold talks with those insurgent groups that had come out for the 2005 balloting but it had no idea the gap that was developing between AQI and the others. That would start to change later in the year in Ramadi with the emergence of the Awakening, but overall the Americans were still missing major developments because they were focused upon protecting themselves and pulling out more than what was happening in Iraq.
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