Within months after the fall of Saddam, the US military was engaged in a low-intensity guerrilla conflict throughout the predominantly Sunni Arab towns north and west of Baghdad. At first, the US dismissed the attacks as the work of Baathist “diehards” and “dead-enders,” a minor problem that would swiftly disappear thanks to US military might and the cooperation of an Iraqi public anxious to rebuild. Indeed, in its early stages the guerrilla campaign was little more than amateur harassment. But by the end of 2003 — partly because of the political failures of the Coalition Provisional Authority, but also because of US counterinsurgency tactics — the insurgency had escalated into a force capable of taking entire cities. In the spring and summer of 2004, the US and its allies were also fighting a ragtag militia loyal to the radical Shi‘i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Self-Defeating Battles

Unlike many other guerrilla campaigns fought in the hinterlands, Iraq’s Sunni insurgency has been concentrated in the towns and the relatively heavily populated farmland of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. Insurgents would detonate roadside bombs or launch small-scale ambushes on passing convoys and patrols, and would periodically bombard the local US bases with mortar fire. In return, the units involved vigorously patrolled the towns late at night, when civilians were expected to be inside complying with a curfew and when their sophisticated night vision equipment would give them an advantage. They regularly encountered resistance.

One of the centers of the insurgency is Samarra’, a low-lying city of about 200,000 people on the Tigris some 120 kilometers north of the capital. One night in early August 2003, the armored battalion of the Fourth Infantry Division launched what its men described as a fairly typical patrol aimed at projecting their presence into the city. The patrol, comprising two M1A1 tanks, two Bradley fighting vehicles and an armored command Humvee, was almost aborted within minutes of leaving its base when a blast presumed to be a roadside bomb knocked the track off a Bradley. Despite this setback, the remainder of the patrol continued on its mission. The observation assets at the battalion’s disposal — which included powerful scopes mounted at the base, plus an attached unmanned drone and Apache attack helicopters prowling overhead — soon detected a pair of motorcycles heading toward their location, carrying what they believed to be two-man teams equipped with RPG-7 rocket launchers. Using a data transfer system that allowed him to monitor the movements of friendly forces and presumed enemy contacts in real time, the battalion commander directed his forces to converge on their quarry. US soldiers fired upon and disabled one motorcycle, the riders escaping. Heedless of the danger posed by an RPG team to his lightly armored vehicle at close range, the patrol commander’s Humvee hunted the insurgents among the deserted streets.

In the end, however, the dragnet turned up empty. The infantrymen believed that the RPG team had simply thrown their weapons over the low wall of one of the homes in the area and headed home to fight another day. They were convinced that one pair of men, dressed in shorts and claiming to be out taking the night air, were their quarry. They recognized the two as laborers working in the US base. This, the soldiers surmised, was how the insurgents knew where to plant the bomb to ambush their patrol. However, they could not be sure.

Although such simple guerrilla tactics seemed able to neutralize the Americans’ technological advantage, in August 2003, the soldiers thought they could win a war of attrition against a limited number of insurgents. The unit had suffered 12 severe injuries in their time in the town; in that period, they believed they had taken out of action some 150 guerrillas, either killing them or placing them in detention. Their main weakness, they felt, was that as an armored unit they lacked the infantry to go amid the streets and houses; a battalion of light infantry, one young captain felt, could sweep the place overnight. At least one young scout, however, believed that the battle was self-defeating: “Every time we raid one of their houses, we make a new enemy. Every time we raid a wedding, we make dozens.”

Diverse Ideologies

This dynamic — that US actions to restore its control of the country created enemies — was eventually acknowledged by local commanders across Iraq, who later admitted in conciliatory messages to tribal sheikhs that they had “failed to respect local customs.” Troops stormed into houses across the country — sometimes hunting wanted ex-regime officials, sometimes searching for weapons and sometimes looking for insurgents — hauling off patriarchs in front of their families. While less brutal than Saddam-era repression, it was at times more humiliating. At the same time, the growing insurgency created a vicious cycle in which attacks coarsened troops’ dealings with the population, with nervous soldiers shoving rifles into Iraqis’ chests or pointing tank turrets at motorists who got too close.

The violence escalated. By November 2003, the US and its coalition were suffering up to 40 attacks per day, compared to 10–15 during much of the summer. In the initial stages of the insurgency, the Americans were convinced that their opponents were ex-intelligence and Republican Guard officers plus former members of Saddam’s paramilitary fedayeen fighting to restore the rule of Saddam Hussein. They added that the guerrilla rank and file may have been fleshed out with former soldiers, out of work thanks to the dissolution of the army and fighting for hire — in total, perhaps 5,000 Iraqis, plus a few hundred foreign jihadis associated with al-Qaeda or the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam militant group.

By the autumn, however, insurgents began giving interviews indicating clearly that they were an ideologically diverse movement, with a wide variety of motivations. Some, of course, did declare their loyalty to “President Saddam Hussein,” but others said that they were simply fighting for total US withdrawal from a Muslim nation. When groups like “Muhammad’s Army” and “The Islamic Resistance of Iraq” began sending regular videotaped statements to Arab satellite stations, the Americans began to concede that the insurgency might have a significant Islamist element. Representatives of the Muslim Scholars’ Board, a conservative organization that commands widespread support among Iraqi Sunnis, made statements affirming the legitimacy of such “resistance,” while denying any operational connection to the violence. Still other fighters listed their motives as tribal or personal vengeance for a dead relative, or a destroyed house or poor treatment during a raid. Rather than lose heart at the end-of-the-year capture of Saddam Hussein, as former Baathists fighting to bring back the old order could have been expected to do, some insurgents rejoiced at the removal of a divisive figure who spoiled any chance at an alliance with the Shi‘a.

As US generals realized the extent of the insurgency, they scaled up the firepower available to local commanders. By the autumn of 2003, US commanders would be able to call upon “all the tools in the box,” as they often put it. Mortar barrages were answered with artillery fire. Precision-guided bombs dropped by F-16 fighter-bombers or Gatling gun fire from slow but heavily armed AC-130 aircraft provided what one US colonel said was a “reminder that the weapons that destroyed the Iraqi army in the war are still around.” The insurgents, meanwhile, developed their tactics alongside — employing larger units, “complex” ambushes from multiple directions and more sophisticated weapons including shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.

In August, certain elements of the insurgency introduced a new weapon—vehicle bombs and suicide commandos, striking at Iraqi government targets, foreign embassies and even holy sites of the Shi‘a. Some of the most deadly strikes were targeted at military recruiting centers and police stations, directly undercutting a future Iraqi government’s ability to exert its authority. The US placed responsibility for the majority of the blasts on Jordanian Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed to be running his own al-Qaeda-associated network, and most Iraqis were happy to concur that such barbarity could only be the work of outsiders. Religious figures associated with the resistance, including representatives of the Muslim Scholars’ Board, condemned attacks on fellow Muslims. A few, however, stuck to a harder line, sometimes associated with ultra-radicals such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad: if innocent Iraqis were killed and were good Muslims, then they were martyrs. If they were not, then they deserved what they got.

The suicide attacks undermined what support the US-led coalition had in Iraq. Iraqis became convinced that the coalition could not protect them — or in some cases, was conspiring with outside powers to weaken Iraq. The August 2003 car bombing which killed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and at least 80 others in the city of Najaf, in particular, spurred demands by representatives of Iraq’s Shi‘a majority for a swift transfer of power to an Iraqi government. However, the Coalition Provisional Authority was unable to come up with a formula acceptable to all parties concerned to choose such a government, and the perception grew that the country was involved in an intractable political crisis. Such developments could only have helped persuade nascent Iraqi institutions such as the police, who may otherwise have been persuaded to cooperate with the US for the sake of building Iraq, to stand aside in any confrontation with the insurgents, or in some cases to cooperate against the foreigner.

Siege of Falluja

A full-on showdown between the Americans and the insurgency came in April 2004, when Marines fought their way into the town of Falluja. This Euphrates-side town — both a recruiting ground for Saddam’s special services and a place where the old regime had allowed Salafi puritanism to flourish — had long been a focal point of the insurgency. The Marines had taken over from the Army’s 82nd Airborne, which had concluded that the best way to limit violence was to avoid the towns, leaving day-to-day supervision to the police and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC). The Marines, in contrast, wished to revive a philosophy that the Corps had championed, ultimately unsuccessfully, in Vietnam — to have as much contact as the population as possible, to build up a rapport and separate the guerrillas from the civilian population that gave them cover.

In April, the killing of four US contractors in the middle of town, and the suspension of their bodies from a bridge for up to 12 hours, gave clear indication that the police and ICDC had no willingness to struggle for control over the city with insurgents. The Marines were ordered in. After two weeks of intense fighting, according to embedded reporters, the Marines believed that they could clear the town of armed opposition. This may have been the case. However, the daily broadcasts of dead civilians and battle damage in Falluja were triggering solidarity uprisings across the Sunni areas of western Iraq. Members of the Dulaim, the predominant tribe in Falluja, were spotted in the arms markets of Diyala to the northeast buying up weapons and ammunition to smuggle into the embattled town. Insurgent-manned roadblocks sprung up in the countryside beyond the Marine cordon. Residents of conservative Sunni communities in towns like Taji or Abu Ghraib launched RPG ambushes on passing convoys, littering the highways north and west of Baghdad with burnt-out military vehicles and fuel tankers. Meanwhile, Iraq’s civilian population, Sunnis as well as Shi‘a, mobilized to take in refugees and gather supplies for Falluja. Members of the virulently anti-Saddam Sadrist movement, themselves involved in a simultaneous uprising, declared their solidarity with the besieged town.

The attack was called off. Ultimately, the decision to suspend the Falluja offensive would have been a political one, but at least one well-placed coalition military source has said that the ceasefire was requested by commanders at the brigade and division level — one step removed from the street fighting, and just high enough to realize how the offensive endangered the coalition’s fragile control of the rest of the country. It also confirmed a growing consensus that active US counterinsurgency — by creating casualties and hardships for which the Americans would be blamed — only fed the insurgency. By July, US intelligence analysts who talked to the Associated Press spoke of 20,000 guerrillas running an ideological range from Baathists to Islamists to simple nationalists incensed at foreign occupation, commanded by former regime officers, tribal sheikhs and religious imams. Some, the analysts said, were full-time guerrillas operating in sophisticated networks, while others were amateurs who picked up arms whenever they felt moved to do so.

Since the summer, the coalition had declared its intention to turn the counterinsurgency over to Iraqi forces under US command, to the police and to the paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. With a few exceptions, however, those units performed miserably in the April fighting, standing aside or in some cases going over to the insurgents rather than be labeled traitors. The First Armored Division’s Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters in April that some 40 percent of Iraqi security personnel in areas affected by that month’s uprisings deserted, while another 10 percent actually “worked against” the US. Without “some Iraqi hierarchy in which to place their trust and confidence,” he said, it was very difficult to convince them to take up arms against fellow Muslims.

As part of its withdrawal from Falluja, the US took one more stab at Iraqicization — the Falluja Protection Brigade, a unit recruited from the surrounding area and commanded by a former Republican Guard general, on the assumption that counterinsurgency run by locals would generate less resentment. Rather than fight the insurgents, however, the Falluji recruits joined them. Within a month of the brigade’s formation, its members were seen saluting Republican Guard officers or mingling with bearded men in the short-trimmed dishdasha of Islamist fighters. Significant numbers of Syrians were also spotted, many claiming loyalty to local preachers such as Sheikh Abdallah al-Janabi. Locals welcomed visiting Iraqi journalists to the “Free City of Falluja,” while the insurgency network began to mimic statehood — enforcing strict Islamic law and even establishing a “resistance court” presided over by a Sunni scholar to try Iraqis accused of collaboration with the foreigners.

Classic Dilemma

The Americans faced the classic dilemma of counterinsurgency. Militarily, they had overwhelming firepower and superior training — even in ambushes, the Army and Marine Corps’ superior marksmanship usually meant that they dealt out far more casualties then they received. They were committed: though they might grumble about deployment in Iraq, there is little evidence to suggest that morale problems ever affected the troops’ willingness to make and maintain contact with their adversaries. However, they could not use this force to achieve a political victory. To enter towns provoked fighting that appeared only to increase the insurgents’ support. To pull out, however, was to let them take over.

The Americans had hoped that they would have one advantage that most occupying armies do not have — the support of the populace. Certainly, a significant number of Iraqis were happy with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, anxious for normality and willing to give the Americans a chance. In the summer of 2003, a Baghdadi at least was probably more likely to refer to insurgents as “mukharibin” (saboteurs) or “Baathists” than the “muqawama” (resistance). The Americans hoped that ordinary Iraqis would come forward with precise information on the identity of insurgents, which would have allowed them to detain and interrogate individuals selectively. US spokesmen attributed the dearth of such information to fear, and constantly assured journalists that a turning point in civilians’ consciousness was just around the corner. First they said that the deaths of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay Hussein had prompted an upsurge in information; the capture of Saddam Hussein was supposed to accomplish the same feat.

Those citizens, however, did not come forward in any meaningful way — not only in Sunni cities, but also in mixed areas of Baghdad where a considerable proportion of the inhabitants could be expected to oppose the insurgency. This phenomenon can be partly explained by the national decline in support for or confidence in the CPA, but also by the nature of the US military’s dealings with the Iraqi populace. One young man from a mixed Sunni-Shi‘i neighborhood in Baghdad explains what anyone who wished to provide the US with information about insurgents might go through. First, he would have to stand outside the wire of a US garrison post, enduring heat and possible rude treatment — but more seriously he could be seen by anyone observing the base, identified as a “collaborator” and killed. He would then have to work with the Americans through translators, always harboring doubts that the translators or others in the office might be plants who would reveal him to the insurgents. He would then run the risk that the Americans would not take him seriously, and do nothing. Finally, even if the Americans did do something, most likely it would be to arrest the man denounced, hold him for a few days, then release him for lack of evidence, angry and looking for the informant who denounced him. Given these conditions, few bothered to approach the Americans and insurgents thrived even amid neighbors who detested them, within a short distance of an American garrison that could have snapped them up at will.

The Americans did round up vast numbers of suspected insurgents — according to a July 9 Associated Press report, 22,000 “security detainees” have passed through US-run prisons — but in most cases, they did not seem to know who they had. In one case early in the war, detention centers in southern Iraq were packed with tomato growers who claimed that the Americans had misunderstood their proclamations of merely being “fellahin” (farmers) as being Saddam’s Fedayeen. Released detainees commonly complained that they had been held for months after gunfire (sometimes celebratory) or an attack in their neighborhood, never interrogated and then let go unexpectedly. The need to break detainees who may or may not have known anything, without having much information to start with, undoubtedly contributed to the well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

Iraqi political parties — the Kurdish factions, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraq National Congress and others — always claimed that their militias and intelligence services could do the job better than the Americans. They could find dedicated cadres willing to risk their lives to infiltrate insurgent cells, who knew their fellow Iraqis enough to tell good information from disinformation, and the like. Some groups — the Kurds in particular — claimed that they put their apparatuses at the Americans’ disposal, but that the Americans continued to conduct their operations unilaterally, refusing to share their own intelligence and denying the Kurds access to those detained, preventing them from using one successful detention to roll up an insurgent network. “No Iraqi has been given security clearance by the Americans,” one Governing Council member was quoted by the Guardian as saying. “We want to be treated as partners in this process and not like informers.”

Allawi’s Heavy Hammer

On June 28, the CPA handed limited sovereignty to an interim government headed by Iyad Allawi. The new government exerted little control north and west of the capital. Insurgents held full control over Falluja, and maintained a presence — even in broad daylight — in Samarra’, Ramadi and other towns.

Allawi, whose Iraqi National Accord contains numerous former regime officials, and who had long championed the rebuilding of the army and intelligence services, set the erection of an Iraqi security apparatus as his government’s top priority. A week before he took power, he announced a dramatic restructuring of the forces at his disposal. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps was renamed the National Guard, and placed under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. Answering to an Iraqi chain of command, it was believed, would remove some of the taint of collaboration with the foreigners and give the guardsmen more reason to fight. The Guard’s ranks, meanwhile, were stiffened with veterans of anti-Saddam militias. The Defense Ministry would also command an elite intervention force and other regular army units in the fight against insurgents. Two weeks later, he unveiled a new domestic spy organization, the General Security Directorate, to “annihilate terrorist groups.” Officials said that it had already begun to infiltrate the insurgents and direct raids. At the same time, Allawi boasted that Iraqi intelligence had provided targeting information to the Americans for use in airstrikes on purported terrorist safehouses in Falluja, indicating that he would continue to use the heavy hammer of American firepower, and would spend political capital to justify its use.

Simultaneously, Allawi reached out to those insurgents who were primarily concerned with fighting foreign troops, hoping to separate them from Zarqawi’s network and “other radicals who planted bombs in public squares.” His spokesman George Sada said that the prime minister was considering an amnesty for guerrillas who fought only the “occupation forces.” Allawi, meanwhile, has said that he is communication with tribal and religious leaders involved with the insurgency, and has dangled in front of them the carrot of power sharing. “You are welcome to be part of the political process, provided that you sever your relations to the hard-core criminals and the terrorists,” he said in a July 4 interview with ABC.

As of early August, there is little indication that the new approach has borne fruit. Car bomb attacks on Iraqi civilian targets continue. US forces, attempting to defend their supply lines from ambush, still find themselves drawn into battles in built-up areas. Other times they have been forced to come to the aid of beleaguered Iraqi police. Allawi made a formal offer of amnesty in the form of a law issued in August 2004. However, reportedly due to pressure from the Americans, the offer did not apply to anyone who had actually taken up arms, only to suppliers, arms dealers and others on the fringes of the insurgency. The insurgents do not appear to have responded to the initiative.


On July 8, less than three months after the siege of Falluja was suspended, US and Iraqi interim government forces were driven out of Samarra’—at least temporarily. Aqil Jabbar, a journalist in training with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, witnessed the attack. For some time, residents said, US troops had stopped patrolling the town. Insurgents wearing the dark green uniforms and red boots of the former regime’s Republican Guard manned roadblocks only a few hundred meters from the US base on the outskirts of the city. The attack that day began with a car bomb detonated outside the headquarters of the National Guard, devastating the building, followed by a mortar barrage of the US headquarters. The attackers employed heavy 120mm mortars — hard to move, and thus dangerous to deploy unless the users were free of the fear of a US response. An officer in the uniform of a Republican Guard general corrected their fire over a Motorola walkie-talkie. Teams armed with Strella shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles kept watch at the rooftops. For over an hour, the insurgents fired at leisure. The heavy rounds crushed the headquarters’ main building, killing five US troops and forcing the Americans to evacuate under the cover of rocket fire from Apache helicopters. Afterwards, Jabbar watched from across the Tigris as US fighter-bombers hit what were presumably insurgent positions. Plumes of smoke rose over the town as inhabitants cursed the Americans and their lackey Allawi.

Allawi’s government may yet defeat the geographically limited Sunni insurgency, whose wider nationalist appeal is dented by its association both with a detested former regime and with deadly terror attacks on Iraqi civilians. The interim government can call on the support of Iraqis running from hardened Kurdish peshmerga to former regime military and intelligence professionals anxious for stability, not to mention the 160,000 foreign troops remaining in the country, the country’s oil revenues and external financial aid.

Allawi, however, needs time to build up his military and intelligence services, and time is in short supply. His government is still committed to holding elections in January, without which it will lose what legitimacy it has. No elections can be held, however, if the insurgents are still capable and willing to devastate voter queues with car bombs and murder international monitors as they move about the country.

The interim government also faces a challenge in the form of the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, who control large swaths of Baghdad’s slums in much the same way as the Sunni insurgents control Falluja, and have considerable support in many cities in the south. In mid-August, Sadr’s fighters were engaged in fierce fighting with Marines in the holy city of Najaf, and Republican Guard officers from Falluja had been spotted offering his poorly trained fighters guidance in how to use their weapons. Local officials in several southern governorates, meanwhile, had threatened to break away from Baghdad’s authority if fighting in Najaf continued.

While much divides them ideologically, the Sunni and Shi‘i insurgents do have a shared hostility toward foreign troops in the country, and jointly defy the authority of the interim government. While neither faction may be able to take control of the country, they can defeat Baghdad’s ability to rule it. Given time, Allawi may yet be able to do what the Americans could not, and crush the insurgents using a combination of US-supplied firepower and a rebuilt intelligence network, using officials from the former regime. However, to pursue such a path would be risky, and he may also try to persuade local insurgent commanders that their best chance of remaining politically relevant in a future Iraq is to act as regional leaders within a federal, decentralized system. Absent these or other changes in the strategic picture, Iraq may well become a failed state, with the “free cities” of Falluja and Samarra’, dominated by insurgent commanders and their militias, becoming a model for much of the rest of the country.

How to cite this article:

Steve Negus "The Insurgency Intensifies," Middle East Report 232 (Fall 2004).

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