Sons of Iraq
Unquestioningly, I will say that things improved incrementally the entire time I was there. When I arrived last November, Iraq already was on the road to recovering from punishing ethno-sectarian violence the previous summer. The biggest initial change after my arrival occurred In Anbar province in the west, where Iraqi Sunni insurgents slowly began to reject the austere form of Wahhabist Sunni Islam espoused by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI leadership largely was foreign (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notorious leader of AQI from 2004 to 2006 was from Jordan; other major leadership figures came from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt). These foreigners began to impose a very strict form of Islam on Sunni Iraqis. And when these foreigners attempted to marry into Iraqi families (a technique Al Qaeda successfully employed in Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Iraqi Sunni insurgents that had previously allied with them had had enough.
Under a nascent program begun in mid-2007, these former Iraqi insurgents began receiving modest pay-checks from Coalition Forces (CF) -- in effect switching sides. Initially dubbed “Concerned Local Citizens” these groups of former insurgents set up armed check points in their villages and cities and began providing information to CF where AQI foreign fighters lived and operated from. Additionally, they aggressively took the fight to AQI in a way CF couldn’t; they knew who the enemy were, where they lived, operated from, and what tactics they employed. In many ways, AQI did themselves in when they tried to impose their severe and strict version of Islam on Iraqi Sunnis.
Because the English label, “Concerned Local Citizens” didn’t translate well into Arabic, the CLCs became known as “Sons of Iraq” (from the Arabic, Abna’a al Iraq). Gradually, they became a quasi-political movement known as the “Awakening Groups.” They swelled in number as it became clear that their fortunes would be better off fighting AQI instead of remaining allied with them. As their ranks grew, AQI fighters either died or fled from Anbar Province to northern Iraq.
Muqtada al Sadr and Jaysh al Mahdi (The Mahdi Army)
In Baghdad, the influence of Muqtada al Sadr (MAS) and the Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM) was very prevalent. By the time I arrived in early November, Baghdad had splintered into sectarian division; formerly mixed neighborhoods became either majority Sunni or Shia, the latter sect dominating most of the city. The largest Shia enclave was Sadr City, a poor Shia slum named after MAS’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr in the days after the fall of Saddam’s regime (it had previously been named Saddam City). JAM, the ad hoc Shia militia loyal to MAS, numbered in the many thousands and was well armed with heavy weapons, mortars, and rockets many of which were provided to them by Iran.
At the time of my arrival, JAM was in the middle of a six month cease fire with CF ordered by MAS. It was set to expire in February 2008. MAS was concerned JAM would not stand up in a conventional fight with CF and had ordered JAM to stand down while he concentrated on building a more legitimate religious and political power base. Things were relatively quiet when I arrived, although several “special” groups that had splintered from JAM continued violence against CF using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), some of which were an especially lethal variety that utilized Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs).
MAS renewed the cease-fire in February but the day after his announcement a JAM special group launched a large mortar attack on the International Zone, the first real attack I experienced. These special groups wished to keep fighting CF. MAS, although keeping up his traditionally fiery anti-CF rhetoric, nevertheless wanted to establish himself as a political as well as religious leader. By distancing himself from the special groups, he continued to play both sides of the equation: claiming he wanted peace while still being able to shape, in some measure, the military fight against CF.
At some point during this time frame in early 2008, MAS left Iraq for Qom, Iran, a center of Iranian Shia theology (or Hawza). MAS wanted to become an ayatollah, like his father and grandfather, but to do so, he would need several more years of intensive religious studies. Studying in Qom curried favor with the Iranians, from whom MAS received a large measure of financial support, but doing so alienated him from the Iraqi Shia base in Najaf and Karbala, the traditional Hawza of Shia Islam.
By leaving Iraq, MAS gave up day-to-day control of JAM that by now had a presence in all major urban areas of southern Iraq. In addition to Baghdad, JAM also had a major presence in Basra and Amarah. Originally envisioned as a citizen militia that would protect ordinary Iraqi Shia and provide essential services in the absence of a functioning Iraqi government, JAM ultimately devolved into a criminal organization not unlike the Mafia where local “commanders” or bosses intimidated ordinary Iraqis into paying “protection” money. Some elements of JAM also embraced smuggling commodities such as oil and gasoline and controlled a lucrative black market in a number of other essential goods. And while JAM was the largest religiously oriented militia, there were several others operating in all major Iraqi cities in the south. As time went on, these militias began to battle each other as well as CF.
Battle of Basra (Operation Charge of the Knights)
By late March, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shia, had had enough of JAM’s criminal behavior and wished to reestablish rule of the Government of Iraq (GOI) in major urban areas of Iraq’s south. In a hastily prepared operation dubbed Operation Charge of the Knights, Maliki ordered the fledgling Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to attack JAM strongholds in Basra. The ISF quickly ran into trouble as they did not plan out many key logistical elements of their attack. CF had to come to their aid. It was touch and go for a while but ISF with CF assistance slowly took back portions of Basra from JAM. As the ISF rolled into Basra, they uncovered massive weapons caches of EFPs, mortars, and rockets, most of which were manufactured in Iran. As the tide of battle slowly turned, many JAM leaders fled Basra for either Sadr City or Amarah to the northeast.
When the ISF began their operation, JAM elements in Sadr City began launching attacks against the International Zone in Baghdad, mostly using unguided artillery rockets. The attacks began on Easter Sunday. They continued nearly every day throughout the entire month of April. Personally, this was the time of greatest stress in my tour. Every day that month we endured multiple rocket and mortar attacks in the Green Zone. Despite the heavy barrages only a few people were killed. During April, there were more than several nights where I elected to sleep in the Republican Palace rather than in my unprotected trailer.
Battle of Sadr City (2008)
Nearly concurrent with the Basra operation, ISF units supported by CF began a slow push into the JAM stronghold of Sadr City. The battle lasted through mid-May. With the capture of the southern portions of Sadr City by early May, the rocket attacks on the International Zone tapered off as favorable launching points were no longer available to JAM insurgents. At one point, CF erected a several mile long barricade of 20 foot tall concrete T-Walls, in effect shutting out insurgent forces. By mid-May a cease-fire agreement was reached between the GOI and representatives of MAS that allowed ISF to fully occupy all of Sadr City. A majority of hard-core JAM fighters fled Sadr City for Amarah to the east. Compared to Basra, the operations conducted by ISF in Sadr City were much better coordinated and executed.
Battle of Amarah (Operation Promise of Peace)
As Basra and Sadr City were pacified by ISF and CF, Prime Minister Maliki was intent on taking the fight to Amarah, the last bastion of JAM in Iraq. Planning continued for this operation dubbed by the Iraqis, Promise of Peace. On 18 June, ISF began its push into Amarah but with a catch: as ISF forces massed near the city, Maliki announced an amnesty program for JAM fighters to lay down their weapons and leave. Many JAM fighters who already had endured heavy fighting in Basra and Sadr City agreed and began laying down their weapons and either fleeing or melting back into the population. Many hard-core JAM leaders, seeing the collective will to fight quickly evaporating, chose to flee to Iran. As a result, ISF easily re-took the city by the end of the month. JAM as a political and military force in Iraq largely was splintered and defeated.
Prime Minister Maliki’s actions against JAM earned him great credibility with other Arab governments in the region, many of whom feared he was just an Iranian puppet. His fight against JAM showed he cared deeply about Iraq as a nation, not as a self-interested Shia presumably under the sway of Iran. After Amarah several Arab governments announced they would send ambassadors to Iraq. Additionally, Maliki made a well-publicized trip to Iran where he confronted Iranian leaders with Iraq-gathered evidence that Iran had supplied JAM with lethal aid.
For more on the spring 2008 fighting in Iraq, see this article.
The Fight Against AQI
By the time I arrived in Iraq in early November, 2007, the Sons of Iraq and the growing Awakening Movement had reclaimed Anbar Province, a previous stronghold of AQI. Many AQI foreign fighters and their leadership fled north ultimately making a new base for themselves in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the so-called northern tip of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. Mosul was important to AQI as it sat astride a major supply route from Syria and Turkey and a sectarian fault line between Sunni Arabs and Kurds to the east.
AQI conducted several high-profile attacks and bombings on Iraqi and Coalition Forces in the vicinity of Mosul in early 2008. Throughout this time, CF applied steady pressure to AQI. By spring, ISF was ready to take them on. On 10 May, just days after a cease-fire was finalized in the Sadr City operation, the ISF launched Operation Lion’s Roar in Mosul. On 14 May, Prime Minister Maliki flew to Mosul to personally oversee operations. The operation formerly concluded on 24 May and included the capture of two senior AQI leaders: Abdul Khaleq al Sabaawi, the AQI Emir of Ninawa Province, and Abu Ahmed, the AQI finance Emir for the provinces of Ninawah, Salah ad Din, and Kirkuk.
AQI counter-attacked in late May and throughout the month of June using primarily suicide bombers, a tactic that belied their growing inability to stage large scale military attacks. Despite this desperate strategy, AQI killed hundreds of people in the vicinity of Mosul. By late June, most of the security gains achieved by Lion’s Roar had disintegrated with AQI insurgents making their way back into Mosul.
Then on 27 June, CF announced it had killed Abu Khalaf, the leader of AQI in Mosul, who had been a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. AQI cohesiveness began to evaporate. And on it goes: on 5 October, Abu Qaswarah, a Swedish citizen of Moroccan origin, was killed by CF. An AQI spokesmen identified him on an Internet website as the number two leader of AQI. The loss of these senior leaders continues to deteriorate AQI’s effectiveness.
AQI is by no means finished, but it is severely degraded. AQI’s own harsh tactics against ordinary Iraqis -- murder, hostage taking, espousing of austere Wahabbist practices, banning smoking, singing, dancing and music -- also ultimately helped seal its doom. Slowly, Iraqi insurgents who had been allied with them saw them as a foreign menace and rejected them. That trend continues.
Much has been written that the Al Qaeda concept never will be defeated militarily. Rather, it must be rejected by those it has been (and still is) being sold to as a repressive and empty philosophy. In Iraq, that is happening. Ordinary Sunni Iraqis, many of whom later risked their lives daily as Sons of Iraq, soundly have rejected AQI’s repressive, internecine agenda. The Government of Iraq faces a tough task on how best to integrate the SOI into either the ISF or find a livelihood for them. Like many issues in Iraq this remains on a razor’s edge.
We are in the business now of getting out of Iraq. As I write this the US and Iraqi governments continue to negotiate a Status of Forces (SOFA) agreement which will dictate how US forces continue to operate inside Iraq after the expiration of the current UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) on 31 December. Although not authoritative as yet, it appears 2011 will be the year US forces complete their withdrawal from Iraq.
In the year I was there, the GOI took the first, important steps to take control of the security situation. Now the political and economic process must mature but there will be significant obstacles that only the Iraqis can address. There is still deep distrust between Iraqi Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. The current Iraqi coalition government is made up primarily of Shia political parties. New provincial elections will take place either in December, 2008 or January 2009. The Sunnis, who boycotted the 2005 elections, are expected to make a strong showing. The Kurds, who continue to push for more political, economic, and military autonomy in the north of Iraq continue a war of words with GOI
Iraq is fortunate to have large oil reserves but the GOI must figure out how to equitably distribute its oil income between all three groups and how to use that money to fund reconstruction efforts throughout the country. It also must address widespread corruption and smuggling of essential goods such as fuel. Dismantling JAM was an important first step but smuggling and corruption won’t ever go away completely.
There are both positive and negative indicators that the Iraqi people and its fledgling government are up to this challenge. It is in their hands now. One thing is for sure: all hope the bloodshed is over.
What Did I Learn?
Like many deploying to either Iraq or Afghanistan, I was apprehensive. Would I perform well? Would I be able to deal with the challenges thrown at me? Would I serve honorably under fire? Would I make a difference? Would I be a dumb ass?
I was fortunate that I never once had to fire a weapon in the year I was there. I did come under indirect fire on numerous occasions. It was stressful and I didn’t sleep well. When it was happening, I wondered if I would go to sleep never to wake up if that magic rocket hit my trailer. I was caught several times outdoors when rockets hit and I just got small on the ground and hoped they didn’t land on or near me (only one did -- my only “close call” but thankfully no one was seriously injured in that attack). When it got particularly bad in April, I just slept in the Embassy/Republican Palace which took several rocket hits while I was there and was none the worse for wear. Still I was fortunate; my lot was much better than the thousands of leg infantry grunts who were based out of Joint Security Stations or Forward Operating Bases throughout Iraq.
And while it was my turn to man the wall, I was doubly fortunate that the military actually placed me in a position where I would do the most good: a strategic planner attached to MNF-I. I did not have the benefit of having formal schooling in joint planning before going over but learning on the job has its own advantages.
The Plans staff visualized and wrote strategic level direction for both MNF-I and Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I). While the Iraq campaign was run at the strategic level by General David Petraeus (MNF-I), it was fought on the operational and tactical level by MNC-I and its subordinate Multi-National Divisions (MNDs). For the majority of my time in Iraq, MNF-I was commanded by General Petraeus and MNC-I by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. (When I arrived, MNC-I was commanded by then Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno who later came back to head MNF-I after General Petraeus was nominated to head US Central Command (USCENTCOM). Odierno was replaced early in my tour by Austin.)
To be sure, there were some operational challenges dealing with a command structure that had so many general officers assigned to it. For example, the head MNF-I’s individual directorates (intelligence, operations, plans, sustainment, etc) were either one or two star generals or admirals. Their deputies were always coalition nation one star brigadiers (from either the UK or Australia). MNC-I’s directorates were headed usually by army colonels.
It became a self fulfilling reality that all Army echelons complain about their higher headquarters. For example, the guys assigned to MNDs complained about the guys at MNC-I who complained about the guys at MNF-I who complained about USCENTCOM. I got to spend time (and planning) with representatives from all groups. Once we were in the same room and working together, things always seemed to work out (personability and an open mind went a long way).
As a planner I worked most of the time with representatives from other MNF-I directorates, mostly operations and information operations. Serving on a cross-directorate team was enjoyable and really served to broaden my outlook and understanding of the campaign.
During my year, I put to work nearly the sum total of my undergraduate and postgraduate education in political science, international relations, my military training and experience, and all that I knew of strategic and operational planning. I left feeling that yes, I had made some measure of difference.
Most important: I learned that people matter a lot. Intrinsically, I knew this but it was made evident again and again while I was in Iraq. I wrote earlier that the people I served with made the biggest difference in my experience in Iraq. Without doubt, they were the finest military officers I have ever worked with. And while there was constant rotation, every person that left was replaced by someone of equal or better character and ability. No one could ask for anything better, especially in a combat environment.
When it was my time to leave, inspired by that aged army captain back at Fort Jackson, I recited from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
Farewell! And whether we shall meet again, I know not.
Therefore, our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell!
If we do meet again, then we shall smile;
If not, ‘tis true this parting was well made.
Maybe you learned something too.